Viewpoint: Shakespeare's text and common sense

Times Literary Supplement2 Sept. 1983 © the estate of eric sams




In a Times interview earlier this year, A. L. Rowse distinguished between two worlds, action and imagination, and located Shakespeare in the latter. But I want the Bard back where he also belongs, among us groundlings; and I appeal for help from the Shakespearean in the street, as opposed to the stratosphere. Imagination is (or imagines it is) all very fine and large. But in reality it just creates controversy and confusion; how could facts lead to factions if not via fictions? The world of academic imagination, seen from the outside, looks self-divisively self-defeating. It deprives Shakespeare students of their essential ABC, an agreed basic consensus on attribution, biography and chronology. Action must be a better bet, especially for a rescue bid. So it seems only sensible to apply the pragmatic methods of day-to-day decision-making, as in (say) Whitehall rather than Oxbridge. No doubt this approach too has its own built-in bias. But why not just try it and see how it works?


Begin with the previous papers but without preconceptions or personal opinions. Take the key document. Greene’s 1592 attack on a “Shake-scene… with his tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide”. This pinpoints the perpetrator of the phrase thus parodied, which (with “woman” for “player”) occurs in 3 Henry VI. So that play, though unpublished until the First Folio of 1623, must have been performed in Greene’s lifetime, ie, before September 1592. So its quite different Quarto version, The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York, 1595, was not the source play as all scholars used to believe, but a later theatrical “piracy” or “memorial re­construction” compiled by mercenary actors. This was demonstrated to Peter Alexander in 1929. So at least we are always assured by the authorities, for example S. Schoenbaum in his admired Shakespeare: A Documentary Life.


No groundling need believe a word of it. We can all read in the latest edition of 3 Henry VI that some scholars remain unconvinced; and we know from experience that in our world (reality, as we like to call it) an unbelieved proof is just an unproved belief. That view is supported by the “demonstration” itself. Even its sponsor Alfred Pollard introduced Alexander's book as just a theory. Pragmatists will find its main contention flagrantly question-begging: what independent grounds are there for antedating the 1623 Folio text by over thirty years? It sounds implausible, too: what mnemonic process could conceivably have created the hundreds of lines and phrases found only in the Quarto? It is over-imaginative, in conjuring up a whole cast-list of actors, pirates and reporters, some with total recall and others with total amnesia, diversified by original creative powers, handi­capped by lost parts and missing prompt-books yet assisted by fragmentary transcripts, detached scrolls and shorthand system; are not all these just so many baseless inventions? It is unverifiable; what objective tests rule out the self-evident if unfashionable explanation of authorial revision from Quarto to Folio, in rational date order? It is finally, and fatally, unsupported by any known documented precedent or even casual allusion from the whole massive and well-researched archive of Elizabethan or Jacobean literature or history.


Fact and inference tell a less tall tale. True Tragedy Q 1595 contains the line parodied by Greene in 1592. Those dates actually fit, without any fudging or fantasizing; so that was the play Greene had seen. Further, he identified its author as “Shake-scene”. So True Tragedy was an early play by the young Shakespeare. And - since we are working without preconceptions - why not? Then its predecessor The First Part of the Contention… Q 1594 (the variant counterpart of 2 Henry VI, also unknown until 1623) is the still earlier work of a Shake-scene – literally, perhaps, since both Quartos call for on-stage cannon-fire. In the total absence of documentary evidence, Alexander's “demonstration” looks more like the imaginary result of ima­ginary actors disguised as imaginary pirates performing imaginary ope­rations for imaginary reasons on imaginary plays.


Common sense says that history plays published in 1594-5 with texts revised and reissued in 1600 and again in 1619 are rather likely to be just history plays, not a prolonged parade of public piracy. Similarly, their 650 lines of otherwise unknown dramatic poetry are rather likely to be the work of a dramatic poet; and who should that be but young Shakespeare, author of True Tragedy? Only in some remote text-book dream-world can he even be imagined as a late developer who wrote nothing until 1590, his twenty-seventh year. In the real world, he was a born writer; and we have Greene’s judgment on his salad days. Of course there were other apprentice works: but which? The pragmatic approach proceeds via precedents and parallels. Those history Quartos appeared in 1594, with Folio counterparts un­published until 1623. Mighty they be analogous to another Quarto which first appeared in 1594, also with a Folio counterpart unpublished until 1623? The Taming of A Shrew has 1500 lines, almost all otherwise unknown, and startlingly different from the Folio play. How do its fingerprints compare with those found only in the Quarto histories?


This crux stands at the very first step along the proposed new approach. Rather worryingly no one seems to have reached it for the last seventy years. One reason may be the magnetic force of modern imagination now poles apart from any pragmatic position. Even the two basic languages are foreign to each other. What the Arden Shrew calls “evidence” for example (in its Appendix so styled) is what I call blatant sophistry. We are already worlds apart. For convenience. I label them A and B, academic and bureaucratic; and I invoke the latter because it is so unimaginative. Personally I admire both viewpoints; the empirical cannot but look up to the empyrean. But groundlings are by definition down to earth.


There, among the facts, we find that a Shrew play was performed in association with Shakespeare’s own company in June 1594. So, the new Oxford edition commonsensibly infers, it was his own play. So A Shrew Q 1594 represents the work of the young Shakespeare? In world B this follows. So it would in world A unless evaded by zigzagging. Editors bent on “memorial reconstruction” risk editing the facts. They imagine that when Henslowe wrote “The Taming of A Shrew” in his 1594 diary he “really” meant not the play which had just been registered for publication under that title, and which would shortly be published with that title, and whose text twice cites that title, and which became famous by that title, but a quite different play which editors four centuries later would choose to imagine as then known by that title. They imagine this despite the absolute absence of any evidence that Shake­speare or Henslowe or anyone else in 1594 had ever heard of any such play as The Taming of The Shrew, or any such title, or indeed that either ever existed for fully another fifteen years. When is A Shrew not A Shrew? When it's in Oxford 1982, or New (Sic) Cambridge 1928, or under that influence in between. Everyone for whom fact comes first, with scholarly speculation a straggling also-ran, will, I hope, be horrified.


The main handicap is again Alexander, this time in a 1926 article in the TLS which still holds the field. As before, his “memorial reconstruction” theory begins by serenely setting aside common sense and the consensus of centuries. Then we have to imagine, solely for the sake of the theory, that the 2,500-line Shrew text first published in 1623 had already existed in some safe hiding-place for thirty-four years. Then we hand-pick a group of people to reconstruct that non­existent play from memory, c 1594, trading on its supposed popularity. We select, for this whimsical purpose, exclusively those who are ludicrously incompetent at reconstructing plays from memory. These uniquely hopeless people are, as it happens, among the very few in the world who made their living by their memory, namely as actors. Further, they are the only people who had ever learned by heart the memorable lines they cannot now recollect. They had learned those lines from written parts which they had all carelessly lost, or improvidently failed to copy, or perhaps just petu­lantly thrown away. In the result they can hardly recall between them, such is their stupefaction, one single line of the 2,500 they are supposed to be “memorially reconstructing”, that is to say, forgetting - surely the weirdest misnomer ever devised. These memorial reconstructor cannot get the plots straight, or remember how the induction device works, or place the location correctly, or recall the names of the characters, or identify the act-divisions.


Don’t be too hard on them, though; give them due credit. As the Arden editor gravely observes, “they remembered the title of the play almost accurately”. No fools, these actors. And at this stage they do at last strike since spark of sense. They just give up the whole preposterous project and call in (of all people) a playwright. He, given a marvellous model by actors who can hardly recall the first thing about it, goes away and writes something very different and only half as long Then this intuitive précis-cum­piracy of an unknown masterpiece (another novel notion) makes a hit and runs through three editions in a decade, leaving its brilliant and pop­ular exemplar unpublished, unperformed, unmentioned and unknown for all the world as though it did not exist. Indeed, in world B it obviously did not. There, the likeliest cause of a play was always a real playwright, not imaginary pirates; and there too the following facts would have come first, in every sense.


A Shrew, first published in 1594, was twice further documented in that same year and reissued with corrections in 1598 and again in 1607 (as before, these pirates are fully as civilized and conscientious as their hardly more Gilbertian counterparts). Thereafter, that play remained unrecorded for over a century. As for The Shrew, nobody has found even a hint of it until 1609, and it was not published until 1623. So common sense already tells us which is the earlier, and also their approximate dates. Further, there is hard evidence for the later date of the latter. Its clearly identifiable and presumably topical sequel, Woman’s Prize by John Fletcher (1579-1625), cannot be much earlier than 1600. The Shrew F 1623 famously refers to the actor Sinklo (whose only dated references are 1600 and 1604) and his portrayal of the character “Soto”, a “farmer’s eldest son”, who “wooed the gentlewoman” in a play. To the B brain, this manifestly means the actor Sinklo c 1600-4 and his portrayal of the character Soto, a farmer’s eldest son. who wooed the gentlewoman in a play, namely Women Pleased, again by John Fletcher. But this self-evident inference fails to conform with fashionable fantasy. So some unknown anony­mous early play has to be invented, and Fletcher is feigned to have plagiarized it. Alternatively Fletcher’s own known play is meant, but is imagined as much later than Shakespeare’s, whose apparent reference to it must therefore be a later insertion by an unknown hand. Such senseless shifts enable us to misdate the Folio play by fifteen years or more, and obscure its author’s interactions with Fletcher. Such baseless conjectures can blot out 1,500 likely Shakespeare lines and confidently attribute them to amnesiac actors abetted by a plagiarizing playwright. But in the real world, where actors have good memories, even a “memorial reconstruction” would make a good Quarto, not a Bad one. So even if A Shrew 1594 were derived via actors’ memories from an early Shakespeare play c 1589 it would therefore, for that very reason, in effect be an early Shakespeare play.


Like all the main inferences drawn in this essay, the attribution of A Shrew to Shakespeare himself c 1589 has always had its abler A advocates. The late Geoffrey Bullough’s standard work on the sources reprints the Quarto text with that suggestion. My own proposed test was its comparison with the lines peculiar to the history Quartos. All three plays were no doubt garbled in transmission. But there had to be something to garble. Each of those 1,500 lines of comedy and 650 of history must have been set down by some hand or other, perhaps one with still recognizable fingerprints. At least the two sets are worth comparing.


I for one see startling similarities straight away. They both insistently repeat proper names, whether as direct vocatives or indirect references, presumably to remind audiences about who is being addressed or mentioned. They both repeat phrases, words, syllables or initial consonants for equally deliberate effects of rhetoric word-play, pun or alliteration. They both contain irregular inflections of verbs, compound adjectives, ribald jokes, legal allusions, country and sporting references, sea imagery, proverbs or aphorisms, Latin tags and apparent quotations from the Bible, classical literature and the plays of Marlowe. Despite the wide difference of genre, I can detect no definable disparities of style. Further, the parallels are often particular as well as general. Thus comedy and histories share word-play on “love” (with “leave” or “lavish”), compounds in “thrice-“ (“-valiant” or “-renowned”), the same aggressive alliteration (“thickest throngs” in both), the same ribald joke (about taking up a gown) and the same theme of extended metaphor (a sea-crossing) together with allusions to the same Latin source (Ovid, Metamorphoses, books IV or V), the same book of the Bible (Genesis, chapters 16 or 30) and the same scene of the same Marlowe play (2 Tamburlaine III, ii).


In world A, I know, dozens of imaginary dramatists were writing exactly thus throughout the Tudor period; and anyhow such a style is just the entirely predictable by-product of piratical actors’ abortive attempts at the memorial reconstruction of something quite different. World B, I hope, will wonder where else any such comparable characteristics ever occurred in such close combination. One factual answer is “in Shakespeare apocrypha”. Then why not try matching those Quarto prints against his own undisputed later hand.  Take two Latin tags: “ecce signum” occurs in A Shrew, while True Tragedy has “et tu, Brute”. The OED lists the former as first used in I Henry IV, while the latter was supposedly coined for Julius Caesar. Just “stage commonplaces of the period”, editors explain; or imagine. Again, in A Shrew the hearers of Orpheus hang their heads as in Henry VIII;  Promethean fire sparkles from women’s eyes, as in  Love's Labours Lost; tigers outrun and exhaust their prey, as in Coriolanus; and one short scene shares with a quite different one in The Merry Wives of Windsor such motifs as “boy”, “hanged”, “married”, “pie”, “sirrah”, “shillings”, “venison pasty” and “I gat a broken shin the other day” or “I bruised my shin the other day”. Stage commonplaces of the period, no doubt, or just Shakespeare re-appropriating his own pirated property; anything but what the real poet in the real world repeatedly and demonstrably did, namely restate and reshape his own ideas.


In that world too he appeared as an actor, and in his own plays. His own company, as we have seen, took part in a 1594 performance of A Shrew, written c 1589. That same season also saw his Titus Andronicus, begun c 1589, and an anonymous play called Hamlet, already performed by 1589. Even the archetypal authority Alex­ander always asserted the common­sense conclusion. Many other specialists, and some first-rate minds, over the centuries, have also daringly attributed Hamlet to Shakespeare. In the 1982 Arden edition this polished parade is dismissed uninspected in a footnote with the curt comment “no grounds whatever”. But in reality it is the non-Shakespearean Hamlet that has no grounds whatever. Again, a look at a few facts affords an eye-opener.


In the plays sources its hero is called “Amlethus” or “Amleth”. So its author anglicized and aspirated him into Hamlet, a name otherwise hardly known. It was however well known in (of all places) Stratford-upon-Avon. There it was the surname of a drowned Katherine whose 1580 inquest verdict “per infortunium” permitted Christian burial. It was also the Christian name given in 1585 to (of all people) Shakespeare’s only son, after his Stratford friend Hamlet (sic, in documents 1595-1616) Sadler. By 1589 Nashe had seen Hamlet. By 1596 Lodge had seen it too at the Theatre - the main playhouse of the company Shakespeare had acted in since 1592 or earlier. By tradition he played the Ghost, which in the Hamlet Lodge saw cried “Revenge!”. Nashe said it derived from Seneca, whose Thyestes begins with a vengeful ghost. Shakespeare knew his Thyestes: in 1598 Meres compared him to Seneca for tragedy. Of the three plays mentioned as staged by his company in 1594, HamletTitus and A Shrew, the last two were published in that same year. Only one copy of each survives. No 1594 Hamlet survives - except apparently in a marginal note by Harvey 1598 about Shakespeare’s “tragedie of Hamlet, prince of Denmarke”. This surely means a printed book, not a per­formance. Harvey contrasts it with two other Shakespeare books also published by 1594, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Laucrece. “The tragedie of Hamlet prince of Denmarke” is the running title throughout the earliest known text, the 1603 Quarto, which also names Shakespeare as its author. The play had already been registered in 1602 as “lately acted by the Lord Chamberlain’s servants”, that is, yet again Shakespeare’s own company.


To all this the Arden editor inexplicably prefers Kyd’s Hamlet, which sounds like the mare’s nest it is. In Arden, this conjectural interpretation of Nashe’s phrase “the Kidde in Aesop”, some fifty words later than his comment on Hamlet, seems “highly probable”: outside, in the light of the facts, it looks wholly obscurantist. An even higher flight of Arden imagination is its claim that Hamlet Q1 1603 was “conclusively demonstrated” by Duthie in 1941 (a long time to wait) to be just a “reconstruction” of the very different and far more famous second Quarto of 1604, apparently with some help from the 1623 Folio text which is imagined, as usual, to have been already in existence and available for the purpose. But again Duthie’s book is just as avowedly speculative as Alexander’s, with its own cast of curiously composite characters such as a “pirate-actor”, an “actor-reporter” and a “reporter-versifier”. Groundlings will see these too as needless entities, like the theory itself. The Arden editor sportingly points to one, if only one, of its gaping flaws. If  Q2 was really reconstructed into Q1, then the reconstructors freakishly reconstructed Polonius into Corambis and his servant Reynaldo into Montano. In Arden, “no satisfactory solution has ever been suggested”. Outside, anybody can suggest one straight away, namely that this whole reconstruction theory is gratuitous nonsense. In the real world, an inferior text dated 1603 will probably precede, not follow, a better one dated 1604 or 1623: and of course it was the author who changed the names of his characters. Why?


Even Duthie cites the “not un­reasonable conjecture” that Corambis was too recognizably a caricature of Sir William Cecil. If so, perhaps there was a Latin pun on “coram-bis” and “caecelia” (from “caecus”)? Then Montano would be an even more obvious allusion to Cecil’s secretary Michael (Hicks), who is addressed as “Myhill” in a 1592 letter from the Earl of Southampton’s secretary. We can all too easily make a Montano out of a Myhill. I add such comparatively petty points to concede that embroidery may be permissible if duly distinguished from what is material. Only its incorporation weakens the fabric of argument.


There are some 400 lines peculiar to Hamlet Q1. That gives a total 2,550 anonymous lines in four Quarto texts, each closely related to a Shakespeare play. A: those lines were produced by poetical pirates in the process of memorial reconstruction. B: they were written by a playwright in the process of writing a play. Take away imagination, and that leaves B. For A purposes, we have further to imagine four different acts of piracy, on four different bases, with four different results, at four different times between 1590 and 1603, by a dozen different procedures and agents, all equally unknown to any contemporary record. The B proposal points to one poet at one period, with documented testimony to his identity from Greene, who knew him and his work well. In world A actors produce Bad Quartos from their bad memories and bad behaviour; in B, tolerable texts from professional memories and civilized behaviour. In both worlds, one of these actors was Shakespeare himself. In both worlds, each of those 2.550 lines - enough for a whole new play - must have been written by a writer and conveyed to a compositor. In both worlds, one writer keeps on showing the same hand.


A Shrew is notorious for its repetitiveness and its allusions to Marlowe. Alexander identified stylistic fingerprints in the lines peculiar to Contention and True Tragedy - repetitiveness, and allusions to Marlowe. Those lines also echo Greene. Dover Wilson identified stylistic fingerprints in Andronicus - repetitiveness, the influence of Marlowe and Greene, and the presence of Peele. But this repetitive writer who echoed Marlowe and Greene and Peele was in fact the young Shakespeare - the same Shakespeare who at the same period was publicly pilloried as a plagiarist from Marlowe, and Greene, and Peele. And this same Shakespeare strongly resembles the pirate-poet apprehended by Duthie in Hamlet Q1 behaving very suspiciously, for example by plundering (of all sources) the 1589 text. This suspect too has obligingly left his fingerprints, and Duthie has duly identified them. “One of his marked characteristics is a tendency to repeat phrases.” Further, he is familiar (as Duthie also shows) with Shakespeare’s style of punctuation, with the unpublished text of Twelfth Night, and with other Folio plays, in minute detail. As anyone can check, he also exhibits the characteristics of the history and comedy Quartos as defined above. Who can he possibly have been? His identikit picture is worth a closer look. In three different, scholarly hypotheses, advanced by three independent theorists whose views are all in violent disagreement, these strikingly similar features are being discerned and described. They belong to a poet or poets who (like Shakespeare, as it happens) drew vivid pen-pictures of faces and their literal or figurative expressions; and these in turn may offer further clues to identification.


“Proud Protector, envy in thy eyes I see/The big-swoln venom of thy hateful heart” (Contention); “What fatal star malignant frowns from heaven?” (True Tragedy); “And golden summer sleeps upon thy cheeks” (A Shrew), “With a face like Vulcan/A look fit for a murder and a rape/A dull-dead hanging look and a hell-bred eye/To affright children and amaze the world” (Hamlet Q1). Who penned those stage commonplaces of the period? Poetic apprentices inadvertently indentured to various pirate bands every other leap year, in accordance with a widespread and protracted practice that no one ever heard of. Or, less imaginatively, William Shakespeare.