Letters on Eric Sams's Edmund Ironside article

Times Literary Supplement3 Sept. 1982

Sir, - Eric Sams's acceptance of Shakespeare's signature and hand in the Archaionomia is based on uncri­tical consideration of scholarly de­murrers. Although I would not con­sider Nicholas Knight's book on the subject, to which he refers, as an inflated exercise, it indeed has been challenged; it is one thing, for exam­ple, to say that the signature is not a forgery and quite another to say that it was the dramatist’s. There was more than one William Shakespeare. The inscription in the volume indi­cates that the book initially was meant to be kept by Lambarde him­self: “This is to be kept for ye Im­pression is [out] not like to be re­new'd.” Other playwrights had far more legal vocabulary than Shakespeare did. To maintain that the dramatist was a law scrivener is to challenge the tradition that he was a schoolmaster, though he might have been first the latter and then the former. Further, the comparison with the More fragment needs to take into account recent scholarship in English Literary Renaissance arguing that that play was written by Webster. Samuel Schoenbaum took notice of it in his last book.

     On the positive side, Sams's argu­ment that Ironside follows Shakespeare’s usage elsewhere in confusing Christ's words with Judas's has same curious support in the fact that Nicholas Knight and I have de­tected some fifty parallels between the Christ story and Julius Caesar: these correlations would appear to support a dictator-hero theory in the Caesar-Christus conflation and would certainly not he acceptable in our day and age. Indeed, were there not so many parallels, they might appear to be largely ironically intended, and they can be exaggerated, especially pedagogically. But their odd inversion of orthodox values plays along with the additional con­fusion of Christ's and Judas's words pointed out by Sams - though the confusion is historically traceable to the medieval mystery plays (as Schoenbaum has pointed out).

     The sugared/flatter/distilled/golden drops/Cerberus image-cluster is excel­lent evidence of Shakespeare's idiosyncratic hand in Ironside, especially since traditionally sops were thrown the mythical dog to pass by him. It might be added that distilled ties in with the concept ofmelted (as in other examples of the cluster) since what melts was then often thought of as turning into a distilled liquid. The most obvious example of this is in the famous “sullied flesh” crux in Hamlet, whereby the Prince wishes for his flesh to disintegrate, dissolve and melt into dew, which of course is technically distilled water. Further proof that Shakespeare associated the process of distilling with natural moisture is clear from Venus and Adonis, I,66 (“Her cheeks dew'd with such distilling show­ers”) and Sonnet No 5 (“summer's distillation”). Moreover, the 1611 Bible contains the line, “My speech shall distill as the draw” (Deut. xxxii.2). In 1558, Warde published a work whose title, as the OED indi­cates, contained the collocation “distillations, … fusions and mel­tinges”.

     Sams makes light of the criticism of Everitt’s book by citing, for exam­ple, the criticism a friend of mine advanced to him: “With friends like Everitt … Ironside needs no ene­mies.” But the problem with Everitt is that he goes much too far, claim­ing for example that in tracing “the activities of a noverint-writer who apparently wrote the letter to Ed­ward Alleyn, and the plays of King LeirIronsideTroublesome Reign, and Edward III, we encountered Shakespearian connections again”. It appears entirely unlikely that Shakespeare wrote the early Leir, and I should add the Troublesome Reign (which contains anti-Catholicism which was muted in Shakespeare’s King John). The ex­tent to which Shakespeare could have been involved in Edward III is still unsettled. Everitt also finds the Second Maiden 's Tragedy in the same handwriting as Ironside. Where do we draw the line? I am not the only critic who believes that he has mixed together hail good and indifferent arguments regarding authorship.

     Sams alludes to Nestle's preface in Greene’s Menaphon, which argued that “upstart law-clerks were presum­ing to write plays, including one called Hamlet.” He adds, “Many critics have reasoned that this was Shakespeare’s own first version.” I should like to know who these critics have been. After all, the preface was printed in 1589, and Shakespeare’s version of Hamlet, appeared after the turn of the century. Is it common sense (to useSams’s term at the start of his article) to believe that the dramatist’s style was mature enough before such plays as The Comedy of Errors and Titus Andronicus to write a version of the Danish tragedy? I think not.

    Because of some anomalous argu­ments which have worked their way into Sams’s paper, his position can hardly he accepted in toto; however, I still feel that his main contributions - including evidence of rare words in Ironside (first found in Shakespeare according to the OED), unusual im­age-clusters and even the tie-in with the Archaionomia volume - are of fundamental importance. We next ought to examine, with much cau­tion, evidence of Shakespeare's apprentice work in other plays (re­vealing genius but, as yet, a lack of really mature workmanship). Foremost among these I should put Arden of Feversham, though there a mixture of styles suggests multiple authorship.


ROBERT F. FLEISSNER, Aurora-on-CayugaNew York.


Sir, - In his article on Edmund Ironside, Eric Sams appears to he surprised by descriptions of the mad Hecuba in plays known to be by Shakespeare as well as in Edmund Ironside. He goes on to state that “the classical Hecuba, despite much provocation. seems to have stayed sedentary and sane in Troy."

     Mr Sams seems to he ignorant of a play Shakespeare and all reasonably well-educated people of his time almost certainly knew in the original Latin or in Heywood’s translation. Seneca's Troades, in which Hecuba, the main character, does a considerable amount of running “barefoot up and down” (Hamlet) in a frenzy caused by the deaths of Hector andPriam and the horrors she fears are imminent. She whips up the chorus into a similar state by inciting them to strip and lament madly. “cingat tunicas palla solutes,/ vacet ad crebriverbera planctusfuribundas manus…iterum luctus redeant veters,/ solitum ferit tibisanguinea, / tibi mostra caput dextera pulsat,/ tibi maternis ubera palmislaniata vacant”, all of these words being presumably accompanied by appropriate actions. Mr Sams’sadjectives “sedentary” and “sane” are hardly applicable to this Hecuba.


PAUL XUEREB, University of Malta Library.


Times Literary Supplement17 Sept. 1982


Sir, - Eric Sams (August 13) bases his claim for Shakespearean auth­orship of Edmund Ironside on three main contentions: that the manu­script in which the play survives is authorial and in Shakespeare's hand; that the play strikingly anticipates phrases from several of Shakespeare's earlier plays; and that the date of composition must be before 1589 (so that the Shakespearean parallels cannot he interpreted as echoes). He would appear to be mis­taken on all counts.

Eleanor Boswell, who edited the play for the Malone Society in 1927, showed in her introduction that the manuscript must be a scribal copy. The hand shows none of the charac­teristics of the authentic signatures of Shakespeare or of the celebrated "Hand D" pages in The Book of Sir Thomas More (nor does Sams even refer to the exhaustive descriptive analyses of that hand by Sir E. Maunde Thompson, which were in print in time to have enabled Eleanor Boswell to identify the hand of Ironside as Shakespeare’s had she found grounds for so doing).

     The use of parallel passages in authorship investigations has always had one crippling drawback: unless the date of both texts is certain, either could be the borrower. When Sams points out phrases from a single memorable speech in Richard II scattered throughout Ironside, it is hard to resist the thought that Ironside may be the debtor. The date of Edmund Ironside is not certain: the paper and the hand combine to sug­gest merely that, in Eleanor Bos­well's words, “it might have been written at any time within a genera­tion or so before or after 1600”. The Bishop of London did not, pace Mr Sams, become licenser of plays in 1589: he had already been responsible for the licensing of printed plays since 1586, if not 1585. and the licensing of scripts for performance was the business of the Master of the Revels from at least 1579.

     The attempt to present William Lambard’s Archaeonomia (1568) as a source for Ironsideinvolves inaccu­racy as well as implausibility. Canute's laws, which occupy sixty of the book's 284 pages, are hardly its “chief contents”. Nor did Canute's laws impose mutilation as a source of infamy. In context, the words of Lambard's Latin quoted by Sams read: "Uxor simarito superstite cum alio quocunque corpus miscuisse con­uincaturdedecus atqueinsignem omni in posterum aetate infamiam subitomaritus res eius omnes habe­tomulierivero tum nasustum

auriculae praeciduntor.” Shame to all posterity was one penalty for an adulterous wife, mutilation another. Holinshed's Chronicle of England (1587), book 7, chapters 1-11, sup­plies all the history to be found in the play, including the mutilation of “pledges” or hostages. Canute “commanded that such pledges as had beene delivered to his father by certeinenoble men of this realme, for assurance of their fidelities, should have their noses slit, andther eares stuffed, or (as some say) their hands and noses cut off”.

     Edmund Ironside is a play of real interest – Its leading character, Earl Edrike, is a double-dyed traitor in the tradition of Shakespeare's Richard of Gloucester in the third part of Henry VI and Richard III. Like 3 Henry VIIronside ends with a hollow truce and promises a sequel. This would no doubt have in­cluded the death of Edmund, though whether or not “as he sat on a priuie to doo the necessaries of nature” (as some of Holinshed's sources assert) we shall never know. Other predict­able events for the next play would be the death of the treach­erous Edike and the politically advan­tageous marriage of Canute to Emma, widow of King Ethelred. In style, manner and energy, espe­cially with its comic characters, Ironsiderecalls not so much Shakespeare as another history play of unknown authorship and dispute date, Thomas of Woodstock or The First Part of King Richard II. The two plays have survived in the same collection of manuscripts; both seem to echo Shakespeare's Richard II; and both show ins of having been revived in the second or third decade of the seventeenth century. Mr Sams is surely right in supposing that Iron­side belongs to the late years of the sixteenth century, but 1595-99 might seem likelier limits for its composi­tion than before 1589. It is a pity that he pushes his other claims for the play so far.



Department of English. King's College, LondonStrandLondon WC2



Times Literary Supplement8 Oct. 1982


Sir. - No one knows who wrote Edmund Ironside. Eric Sams is per­suaded that it is an early work of Shakespeare. I am not - yet. My previous letter (September 17), however, was not prompted by any wish to refute but by dissatisfaction with the case presented in his article.

    I look forward to considering, when he publishes it, his evidence for regarding the manuscript as authorial and the hand as Shakespeare's. I confess to having misapprehended, and consequently confused, his point about the Archbishop of Canterbury, which in­deed affords strong evidence against a date of composition in the months, or even perhaps years, immediately following November 1589.

    Eric Sams (Letters, September 24) chooses to allude to the fact that I supervised the work of Eliot Slater for his excellent University of Lon­don thesis on the vocabulary of The Reign of King Edward III, often attributed to Shakespeare since Edward Capell first modestly offered the suggestion in 1760. I count it my privilege to have done so. But neith­er I, nor I believe Dr Slater, would claim that his thorough statistical analysis of the rarer vocabulary of Edward III and of its relation to Shakespeare's vocabulary presents more than one side of the question. He has shown, in detail and much more clearly than earlier investiga­tors, that the vocabulary of the whole of Edward III stands in so close a relation to the plays within the Shakespeare canon as to be quite compatible with common authorship. He has not attempted the far larger task of demonstrating that the rarer vocabulary of Edward III is incompatible with authorship by any other known dramatist of the period (ex­cept Marlowe, whose plays, having been adequately concorded, were available for his investigation). Eliot Slater's method has real positive value as corroborative evidence for the attribution of Edward III to Shakespeare, but it stops far short of conclusive demonstration, and must continue to do so until more sys­tematic study of the vocabulary of the other playwrights has been com­pleted. Nor do Slater's conclusions, however encouraging they may be to those of us who believe that common authorship affords the best explana­tion of the many and various links between Edward III and Shakespeare's plays, remove all diffi­culties from the attribution, among them the decision of Heminge and Condell to exclude it from the Folio of 1623.



Department of English, King's College, London, Strand, London WC 2.



Times Literary Supplement19 Nov. 1982



Sir, -- In his otherwise impressive article on the hand of Shakespeare in Edmund Ironside (August 13), Eric Sams perpetuates two injustices to William himself and to his father John.

    With regard to the former, he finds in Shakespeare's attribution of the form "All hail!" to Judas "not merely a mistake hut a serious sol­ecism". In the Gospels, he asserts, these words only occur in the mouth of the risen Christ, in Matthew 28:9 (as a translation of the plural form xaiptrt ). What Judas says to Christ in Matthew 26:49, according to most Tudor translations, is simply "Hail!" (corresponding to the singular form χαιρέ). This point Sams evidently derives from Richmond Noble, who gives this as an instance of misquota­tion in his standard work on Shakespeare's Biblical Knowledge.


    On this point, however, both Noble and Sams are deceived. The use of "All hail!" by Shakespeare in this passage (from Richard II) is neither a misquotation from the Bible, nor is it a solecism against English gram­mar. In referring to the story of the Passion, Shakespeare was under no obligation to quote from any Tudor translation of the Bible at all: he had other sources at hand. What was there to prevent him from giving his own rendering of the Latin Vulgate, if he chose? In any case, we have only to consult extant versions of the mystery cycles, such as the Chester Plays, which were still being pre­sented in Shakespeare's younger days, to find this very greeting of "All hail!" in the mouth of Judas. Evidently, it is a biblical phrase that has come to Shakespeare not so much from the Bible itself as from the biblical drama of the Middle Ages.


    As for the expression being a solecism, on the grounds that a plu­ral greeting is used for a singular person, it depends on the precise, grammatical function of "hail". It may be interpreted not only as a plural imperative, with "all" as voca­tive, but also as an abstract noun. meaning "health" with "all" as adjective. It is this latter function which seems to be in Shakespeare's mind in Henry VI, Part 3, where Judas' words "All hail!" are con­trasted with their real meaning of "All harm".


With regard to Shakespeare's father, Sams accuses him of having been "feckless" in the "loss of lands". Such an accusation can only be maintained by one who has con­siderably more knowledge of John Shakespeare's financial situation than is available to modern scholarship. We do know that John was in finan­cial difficulties in his later years, and he had to mortgage much of his property. But does this alone consti­tute fecklessness? May there not have been other reasons besides fecklessness leading him into this plight? There is, for instance, some positive evidence - regarded as high­ly probable by Oscar Campbell in The Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare, though less so by Samuel Schoenbaum - that John Shakespeare was suffering under the financial burdens of Catholic re­cusancy. If this was so, and it is at least possible, he can hardly be called feckless for following his con­science. Even if it was not so. not everyone who falls into financial dif­ficulties is to be criticized as feckless. It is rather the critic who is to be criticized for his presumption in going beyond the evidence.




Renaissance Institute, Sophia Uni­versity, 7-1 Kioi-cho Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo.