The 'Lost' Shakespeare

The Sunday Times2 Feb. 1986 © The Estate of Eric Sams




Literary editors can no longer be left to determine what Shakespeare wrote and when. The real experts in such matters are logicians and historians. But I believe that many puzzles can be resolved by the common sense of the common reader. I am not a trained Shakespearian and that is an advantage which I share with most of the outside world. It frees us from any need to accept such academic absurdities as the bizarre notion that Shakespeare wrote no surviving play until about 1590, his 27th year.

    The historical evidence is far more reliable than the opinions of modern commentators. John Aubrey, in his Brief Lives, tells us that Shakespeare went to London at about 18 (that is, about 1582) and “began early to make essays at dramatic poetry, which at that time was very low, and his plays look well”. Such plays would probably have been preserved and printed, because popularity meant profit. Even at the relaxed rate of two per annum during the so-called lost years, that makes 20 or so plays. The question is, which are they?      

   Anyone prepared to trust named printers will nominate the first versions of Henry VI parts 2 and 3, published as The Whole Contention, “written by William Shakespeare, Gent.”, in 1619, only three years after his death. Another clear candidate is The Troublesome Reign of King John, published as the work of Shakespeare in 1611. A fourth is Edward III, attributed to Shakespeare in a catalogue of 1656 and by a variety of scholars ever since.

    All those plays, and others of the same vintage, share their stylistic savour with Edmund Ironside, as sampling will show. They also have clangorous links with the Shakespearean canon. Each one has been supported, for decades, by much better evidence than that produced in favour of the 10-day wonder “Shall I die?”. With only a little help they could all now be boarding their own band-wagons.

    But there are three great obstacles to their progress. The first and worst is ingrained prejudice: we all know that these apocrypha are not authentic, because if they were we would have been told. The second obstacle is the failure to acknowledge that we should be actively looking for lost or mislaid plays. Thirdly, all such candidates have to be carefully compared with early Shakespeare, notably Titus Andronicus and Henry VI – but these are still unfamiliar, even alien, because of their transitional style.

    We must not measure early Shakespeare by the standards of King Lear. His style changed markedly. Like other geniuses, he developed from very small and indeed humble beginnings. If we believe the earliest instead of the latest biographers, he was taken away from school as a child to help his father on the farm. If so, he would now rate as socially and intellectually disadvantaged. Of course the first plays would be popular in every sense, like the five candidates I have proposed. Yet they should also show features worth studying for their own sake, as well as providing proof of parentage. This is the twofold task I have undertaken in a 400-page book which took three years to research and write. I now offer a small sample of the case for Edmund Ironside.

    First fix its date, which is now agreed (even in Oxford) as earlier than any acknowledged Shakespeare play. From that baseline, draw its thousand of close parallels with the known canon, which far exceed any conceivable coincidence.

    The instant acceptance of “Shall I die?” was based on tests revealing 15 unusual words, seven unique words two words apparently earlier than their first recorded use, 60 proposed parallels with Shakespeare’s known plays – and on an undatable attribution by an anonymous mid-17th-century copyist. The corresponding figures on Ironside are 635 rare words, 79 unique words, 405 words earlier than first recorded use and about 2,000 parallels with the known plays.

   The play has passed the Slater rare-word test and an accepted computer analysis. Nobody disputes its manifest affinities with early Shakespeare, to whom it was ascribed by a professional scholar 30 years ago. There are only two explanations: either Shakespeare wrote Ironside or he plagiarized it subconsciously all his life.

    The authorship alternative is much more rational. On grounds of economy alone. The plagiarism hypothesis must postulate an otherwise unknown playwright who either shared or inspired hundreds of the associations, inventions, idiosyncracies and errors that later came to be considered as characteris­tic of Shakespeare.

    Examples are: an obses­sive hatred of flattery, linked with ideas of sugar, melting and dogs and also with kings, blots, faces and the sun; persistent wordplay, especially puns and antitheses; quirky grammar and scansion; some 260 words and usages first recorded in Shakespeare by the Ox­ford English Dictionary, including several said to be typically or solely Shakespearean; some 70 unusual or mistaken ideas, such as attributing the salutation “All hail” to Judas instead of Jesus or imagining Hecuba running round Troy dry-eyed and mad; a dozen parallel scenes — wooing, quarrelling or besieging in which the same detailed ideas occur.

     It has already been suggested that such twists and motifs are commonplace in Elizabethan and Jacobean plays, but the question is not one of separate points in other plays, rather of their combination in another playwright. In the real world it is reasonable to argue from features to recognition and from fingerprint to hand.

    Modern literary specialists may take an elevated view, at the furthest re­move from the Tudor groundlings, but, as A.L. Rowse has pointed out, it rarely occurs to editors that plays are designed as entertainments. Ironside is crudely spectacular; it drips and clangs with blood and battle. Its theme is the cruel conflict between the vicious Vi­king chieftain Canute and the tall and heroic English King Edmund.

    Along the play's unrolling tapestry of chronicle action, including a siege of London and a seaborne invasion, the author interweaves anachronistic Tu­dor references to foreign powers, civil strife, the peculation of soldiers’ pay and equipment, a fifth column, the menace of Spain, a hostile navy within the straits of England and so on. Ironside's verse, style and influence also conform with the Armada era of the late 1580s.

   The play's blasphemy and bawdy, even without its traitorous Archbishop of Canterbury (whose Tu­dor successor happened to be the London stage censor in 1589) must have sufficed to ensure its suppression by the authorities. Its popularity among the masses, how­ever, was no doubt enhanced by its stage battles and manoeuvres, the brutal mutilation of hostages, the cruel beating of comical countryfolk, a duel of kings for the crown, a disgraceful brawl between church dignitaries, a royal wooing and wedding and a mother’s tempestuous grief at parting from her young son.

   On a more reflective level, there is ceaseless contrast of character and action. for example between parents and children, monarchs and subjects, the English and the Danes. The two warring nations are linked by the double-agent Edricus, traitor to both; he, too, is both historical personage and invented character.

    The whole play is elaborated from Shakespeare's favourite sources, notably Hollinshed. Grafton, Ovid, Plutarch and the Bible. The lasting im­pressions are sheer cleverness of craftsmanship and liveliness of language at the dawn of the modern drama. There is even a gleam of poetry — peace after war is "Aeolian music to my dancing heart".

     But let an extract from the play speak for itself. It is taken from Act III Scene 5: King Canute has been devastatingly defeated in battle. His henchman Edricus soothes him with false flatteries and a plan to hoodwink honest King Edmund by means of a lying letter to be delivered by a spy — Edricus himself disguised as his rustic servant Stitch. As soon as Edricus speaks we hear the young Shakespeare's voice.         


edricus:          Give not such scope to humorous discontent

we are all partners of your private griefs

kings are the heads, and if the head but ache

the little finger is distempered

we grieve to see you grieved, which hurteth us

and yet avails not to assuage your grief.

You are the sun, my lord, we marigolds

whenas you shine we spread ourselves abroad

and take our glory from your influence

but when you hide your face or darken it

with th’least encounter of a cloudy look

we close our eyes as partners of your woes

drooping our heads as grass down-weighed with dew.

Then clear ye up, my lord, and cheer up us

for now our valours are extinguished

and all our force lies drowned in brinish tears

as jewels in the bottom of the sea.

I do beseech your grace to hear me speak.

                                   Edricus talks to him

south:             I do not like this humour in my son

'twill quite discourage all his followers.

uska:                He stops his ears to all persuasions

his council cannot be admitted speech

his father Sveyn was much more patient

and could as well brook loss as victory

canutus:         These words proceed not from a shallow brain.

edricus:          Praise the event, my lord, the end is all.

In the meantime I'll go write to Ironside

craving forgiveness, and insinuate

his yeilding favour. He is pitiful

and I am rare in moving passion.

I know the prince will quickly credit me

and put affiance in my smooth pretence

but whatsoe'er he doth or minds to do

you shall be sure to have intelligence

but, good my lord, leave me a little while

to private contemplation, for my head

swims full of plots and other stratagems

of great avail, and I must empty it.

canutus:         God prosper what thou dost intend.

edricus:          Pray to the devil. God is not my friend.

Exeunt, manet Edricus

Stitch, what, Stitch, call in Stitch!

Enter Stitch

stitch:            Here’s a stitching indeed, you have made Stitch have a

stitch in his side with coming so hastily after dinner.

edricus:          Why, villain. dar'st thou eat meat in these

troublesome times?

stitch:            Dare I eat meat? Ay, and eat Time be he never so

troublesome. My lord, were Mars himself

made of beef and brewis I durst in

this choleric stomach devour him quick.

edricus:          Sure, y'are a tall man.

stitch:            Ay, sir, at the end of a fray and beginning of a feast.

edricus:          Well, fetch me paper and a cornegraph.

stitch:            A horn-grafter? What's thatsir?

edricus:          Sirrah, I mean an inkhorn.

stitch:            You mean well, sir. A blackhorn, you have dipped your

pen in many a man’s inkhorn besides your own.

Exit Stitch

edricus:          My state may be compared unto his
that ventures all his credit and his wealth

upon the fickle hazard of a die.

The crown I level at, I venture life

the dearest jewel and of greatest price

that any mortal hath possession of.

My life is sweet, yet will I venture it

at all or nothing. Trust a mother-wit.

Enter Stitch with paper and an inkhorn

stitch:            Here, sir. I would never have men that are unmarried

so unprovided as they should be

compelled to borrow horns of young men,

nor would I have young men to borrow inkhorns of

married men. Oh, it is perilous when their foreheads

proves blushing papers to bewray young buds.

edricus:          Sirrah, be gone, but be not far from hence.

I presently shall have occasion

to employ you in some serious business.

stitch:            I will be absent when you call. I warrant you.



The specialist will instantly recognize the typical early-style incantations, with the same favourite repetitions (“grief” ... “grieve”) as in Henry VI and Titus. Other cadences and collocations soon evoke more familiar pre-echoes, some still far in the future: “private grief” (Julius Caesar), “when your head did but ache” (King John), “spread … marigold … sun’s eye … frown … glory” (Sonnet 25), “clear up … cloudy countenance … discontent” (Titus), “partner of your weal and woe” (1 Henry VI), “jewels … in the bottom of the sea” … “I beseech your grace” … “hear me speak” (Richard III).

    In these post-1590 Shakespearean contexts, just as among blandishments for a peevish monarch, the woe-sharing and head-hanging are induced by defeat in battle, the seabed jewels lie with an imaginary host of drowned soldiers. Further, two of Shakespeare’s main king-symbols, head and sun, stand together here in the same few Ironside lines, each with its recognisable entourage of attendance imagery. The king is the head of the body politic: so its humblest member may be seen as a little finger, or (as in Coriolanus) a big toe. The king is the sun, a bright crowned face in heaven, so his frown (as in Sonnet 25) is a dark cloud.

    At this stage it is no surprise to learn that "humorous" in this Ironside sense of “moody” or “peevish”, and “encounter” meaning a style or manner of address, are both first recorded from Shakespeare, with the plain inference that he coined them. The Oxford Shakespeare Glossary describes those two usages as “not before Shakespeare” and “only Shakespeare” respec­tively. All this, and much more, clamours for serious attention in the first few lines of the extract. These and many other kinds of evidence can be multiplied a thousandfold from the com­plete play. Even in three years and 400 pages, I have only begun to tap this richly Shakespearean vein. All such fields remain freely available for open-cast mining by those with an open cast of mind.