Ron Rosenbaum: A Visit with an Avenging Angel

 In The Shakespeare Wars, New York, Random House, 2008, pp. 66-75


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One begins to feel the fear and loathing Eric Sams inspired in his academic foes long before one meets him. The much feared name came up in a discussion I had with Harold Jenkins about his stance on the "ur-Hamlet," the legendary lost "original" Hamlet, the Hamlet referred to, mocked by, a rival playwright as early as 1589, at least ten years before theHamlet we now know was first staged at the Globe. Who wrote this lost first Hamlet? Until Sams began his assault, centuries of argument over the question had evolved into fairly stable consensus that the original Hamlet must have been written by some older, lesser revenge tragedian, most likely Thomas Kyd, author of The Spanish Tragedy, which bears some resemblances to Hamlet (feigned mad­ness, for example)—and that Shakespeare took Kyd's melodramatic plot and transformed it with his genius.

   This was Jenkins's view, and "This is what initiated my correspondence with the notorious Eric Sams," Jenkins told me, practically wincing at the memory. Sams (who died in 2004) was one of the rare "independent scholars" whose work changes the academic consensus from outside. Sams told me he'd been a World War II cryptologist stationed at the legendary Bletchley Park code-breaking station, home of the Enigma machine, where he said he worked with the team that cracked the Japanese code called MAGIC. In the early eighties, after establishing a formidable reputation as editor, trans­lator and commentator on German music (Penguin published his translations of the songs of Schumann), Sams turned his attention to Shakespeare scholarship—to decrypting the enigma of Shakespeare's MAGIC, one might say—where he soon became the scourge of consensus wisdom, aca­demic reputations and long-established assumptions about Shakespeare's career. Finding a forum for his views in the TLS and in a 1995 Yale University Press polemical work called The Real Shakespeare, Sams became known for his fierce limpet-like correspondence with his academic opponents and the lack of customary academic decorum in the characterization of their views, often using invective of the "fools and idiots" variety.

   In a note to me, for instance, after pointing out that Harold Bloom had recently come around to Sams's position on the ur-Hamlet—that it was Shakespeare and not someone else who wrote the lost early version of the play by that name—Sams couldn't resist characterizing another eminent Shakespearean (who shall remain nameless here) as "suffering from senile dementia" for failing to see the light on some point of textual dispute. Here's a sampling from his polemics in the TLSHamlet Studies (edited in New Delhi, until it shut its doors in 2002, it was then the only peer-reviewed scholarly publication in the world devoted to a single work of art) and The Real Shakespeare.

   The legendary Dover Wilson, mentor of Harold Jenkins, "initiated a bait-century of corruption in Hamlet scholarship"; the field suffers from "catastrophic confusion," "baseless invention," "asinine hypotheses," "shameless nonsense," "spuriously presented arguments" that are "corrupt and venal." In sum, "the whole tragical history of twentieth century Hamlet criticism will have to be re-written" when Sams's views demolish the conven­tional wisdom. My favorite is his relatively subdued but eloquently Latinate aside after one assertion: "pace, the entire profession."

   One of the chief objects of Sams's wrathful polemics has been Harold Jenkins and Jenkins's conclusions about the ur-Hamlet and the Bad Quarto in Jenkins's Arden edition. Sams is particularly exercised over Jenkins's adoption of the theory of "memorial reconstruction" (that the Bad Quarto was produced from the bad memories of bit players trying to reconstruct, without the text before them, a performance of a Hamlet they'd played in). Sams believes that the Bad Quarto could well have been written by Shakespeare himself, an earlier draft of the play we now know; that the Bad Quarto might even be a version of the legendary lost ur-Hamlet itself, hiding in plain sight.

   It is part of Sams's radical challenge to consensus notions of Shake­speare's entire career as a dramatist. A challenge that has become con­ventional wisdom to some like biographer Peter Ackroyd. Sams believes Shakespeare was not the "late starter" who only began writing for the Lon­don stage in the 1590s, but rather someone who, as eighteenth-century tra­dition has it, came to London as early as 1582, and after serving as horse handler and actor at the theater, began writing the early drafts of some of his famous plays. Early drafts that are preserved in the much despised Bad Quartos, early drafts that include the ur-Hamlet, a play Sams insists Shakespeare didn't just rewrite from another's play but composed himself (from prose sources). Sams's quarrel with Jenkins about the ur-Hamlet is then a quarrel about the entire trajectory of Shakespeare's dramatic career, and the nature of the imagination that created Hamlet.

   "Sams insists the ur-Hamlet was originally by Shakespeare," Jenkins told me, speaking of his attempts to disentangle himself from continuing a con­tentious correspondence with Sams on the question. "He's the sort of per­son who always has the last word so you might as well let him have it at the beginning as well as the end. I don't write to him anymore. But, of course, he will attack me in his next book. He told me that I escaped fairly well in the first one. He has, of course, in his bibliography, a star against the people whom he disagrees with. Some of us were kind of amused to share in the stars."

   This donnish chuckle is not quite sufficient, though, to dismiss Sams from his mind.

   "Eric Sams?" says Jenkins, speaking the name as if he were holding up its possessor like a specimen in a pair of tweezers. "Well, I disbelieve most of what he says. What he wrote in the TLS [about Jenkins's view of "memorial reconstruction"] was a complete travesty of anything I've thought and said, and so I had to write and say, 'No, not at all.' And this reopened the correspondence," he says with a sigh as if discussing the attentions of a stalker.

   "He's an avenging-angel type?" I asked Jenkins.

   "When he's in his own family, I have no idea what he's like, but he's rather nasty in controversy and he likes to ..." Jenkins rubs his hands to­gether in an imitation of nasty glee. "Heh, heh, heh.' There's a certain spitefulness about it."

   Who was this man so many in the Shakespeare scholar establishment feared and loathed?

"I'm a civil servant," Eric Sams likes to say by way of introducing him­self And he was a civil servant in the most literal sense of the word, a civil servant in the Department of Employment for many years, he explained over lunch at our first meeting at his club, the dignified if not posh Civil Service Club in London.

   But he's not merely a civil servant, he's a certain kind of civil servant, the implacable inspector-general, relentless investigator kind. The hound-of-hell kind.

   And, he adds, he's a civil servant who believes in Ockham's razor, the famous injunction by William of Ockham, the medieval logician, that "en-ones should not be multiplied beyond necessity" That is, one shouldn't invent complex explanations (like "memorial reconstruction") without due cause or evidence.

   He was a civil servant who applied his inspector-general zeal to the Shakespeare scholar bureaucracy, one who wielded Ockham's razor like a slasher. He was in the midst of a war over the Bad Quarto when I visited him in his home in Surrey.

  Surrey, Sams reminds me, when we'd settled into his spare living room, Was the home county of the village of Ockham, home to William of Ockam, clearly Sams's intellectual hero.

   "I think there's a kind of advantage to being a latecomer to Shakespeare studies," Sams tells me. Sams was a vigorous seventy-three when I saw him, a compact figure whose most distinctive features were bristling dark gray eyebrows which seemed to reflect and express his fierce views on the state of Shakespearean scholarship and Hamlet editors in particular. "What I noticed immediately when I took it up was that people were just making things up! Absolutely nonstop! Beginning with Harold Jenkins! And what you use in bibliography as in science is the notion that you mustn't make things up. Ockham's razor."

   To Sams, "memorial reconstruction" multiplies entities way beyond necessity, when it requires adherents to conjure up a company of travel­ing players, including former bit players at the Globe, botching together a maimed version of Hamlet, the Bad Quarto, while on tour in the provinces. There is no surviving record or testimony to the existence of such an entity. In fact, Sams believes the number of entities required to explain the Bad Quarto is just one: William Shakespeare. Sams believes the Bad Quarto was not memorially reconstructed but was one of Shakespeare's early drafts of Hamlet; perhaps, in fact, a version of the legendary long-lost ur-Hamlet.

   The ur-Hamlet: it's the specter that haunts and stalks Hamlet editors the way the ghost of Hamlet's father haunts Hamlet. Sams is its most powerful contemporary champion, virtually its editor in absentia. It's a powerful and disturbing invisible presence despite the fact that all we have to attest to its existence are ghostly echoes. And echoes of ridicule at that.

   In 1589 when Shakespeare is but twenty-five, Thomas Nashe, one of the "university wits" who sneered at the more plebeian playwrights in London, is making fun in a pamphlet of a rival he derides as "English Seneca" for al­legedly lifting his style from the Roman playwright's tragic dramas. Of "En­glish Seneca" Nashe says, "If you entreat him faire on a frostie morning he will afford whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls, of tragic speeches." This is ten years at least before most scholars believe Shakespeare wrote the Hamlet we have. So what Hamlet is Nashe referring to in the labored Hamlets/handfuls wordplay? There is a record of a play by that name being per­formed in 1594. Is it the same Hamlet alluded to in 1596, when another university wit, Thomas Lodge, ridicules a Hamlet by referring to some "poor devil looking as pale as the vizard of the ghost which cries so miserably like an oyster wife at the theatre, 'Hamlet, revenge!'"

   Most agree Lodge is probably ridiculing the same work of "English Seneca" playing in 1589, a play that by 1596 seems to have become a cliché of hammy melodrama, and not Shakespeare's Hamlet, in any case not the version we know.

   For one thing, the phrase "Hamlet, revenge!" just doesn't appear in any of the threeHamlet texts that have survived. And the consensus has it that the ur-Hamlet of "Hamlet, revenge!" could not have been written by Shakespeare but rather by some older, cruder playwright, whom the consensus, pitomized by Harold Jenkins, supposes to be Thomas Kyd.

   But Eric Sams will not have it. Whacking away with Ockham's razor, Sams asks, "Why invent another playwright to have written the ur-Hamlet?" Why not suppose it was Shakespeare's own early draft, one he later re­vised? Why not suppose it might not be lost at all but rather preserved in some form in the Bad Quarto?

   But the most fascinating aspect of Sams's case for Shakespeare as the early starter and author of the ur-Hamlet is the way he puts the case in the context of what he calls "the war against Shakespeare," the little-noted, barely remembered campaign against the fledgling Bard by his early rivals, the university wits, a group of Oxford- and Cambridge-educated poets and dramatists including Christopher Marlowe, Robert Greene, Thomas Lodge, Thomas Nashe and George Peele. The university wits sneered at Shakespeare as "an upstart crowe plumed in our feathers" (as Greene put it), late-arriving plagiarist who cribbed his style and plots from his university-educated betters.

   The university wits of today, Sams believes, the elite academics, are denigrating Shakespeare in essentially the same way: by saying Shakespeare didn't conceive the character of Hamlet, he only punched up someone else ' s old play. The same with LearHenry VPericles: all old plays he punched op. The history plays, give or take a Falstaff—all old chronicles or old chronicle plays he punched up. The attitude, taken to the extreme, is at the Dean of the so-called anti-Stratfordian theories of Shakespeare: no middle­ciass glover's boy from Stratford without a university education could have dreamt up any of Shakespeare's plays on his own. It had to be an aristocrat, a university wit like the Earl of Oxford, Bacon or Marlowe.

   It occurred to me to ask Sams whether his own war against the academic Shakespeare establishment—the university wits of today—recapitulates the ear between Shakespeare and the university wits of his day.

   "Well, it is true," Sams tells me, "that I did quite well at Cambridge [in modern languages] and I was disappointed I was not asked to stay on.

   "To teach?"

   "Yes, well, and so I became a civil servant, and I think my later work benefited. Civil servants think differently from [academic] dons in that they realize what you think about, what you decide, actually matters. As a don, nobody gets richer or poorer, sicker or better, depending on your opinion. Nobody's life changes. In addition, while civil servants hate to be wrong, unlike dons they are able to admit they've made mistakes."

   In point of fact, I never heard Sams admit to making a mistake about Shakespeare. But he'd probably have said that it's not from any unwilling­ness to do so—it's just that it hadn't happened yet. But he does admit there are instances of dons who can admit mistakes. In fact, he tells me, one rea­son he admired Ann Thompson, the editor of the Arden 3 Hamlet, is that after he wrote a scathing review of a paper she'd written about The Taming of the Shrew, she wrote a note to Sams admitting he was right on some point—at least that's how he tells it. So clearly, Sams does appreciate a don who can admit error; he just rarely succumbs to it himself.

   Sams can be charmingly self-aware of his own obsessiveness. He goes off into a digression on a recent vindication he received in a decades-old controversy in German musicology, a field he'd left in the early eighties to take up Shakespeare controversies. He'd long contended, Sams tells me, from examination of Schubert's scores and fragmentary biographical evi­dence, that the great German composer was syphilitic. "And only recently records have been found in a German archive of Schubert's stay in a sani­tarium that show diagnosis and treatment of him as 'syphilitische.' And now everyone acknowledges it. My fate is for half my life to be called an idiot, and then when everyone agrees, to be called unoriginal."

   He runs through a litany of recent vindications or claimed vindications in Shakespearean controversies.

   "It's now at least become acceptable to mention the name Eric Sams in scholarly publications," he says. He cites the new Arden edition of Pericles which gives Sams—and others—credit for being among the first to argue that Shakespeare wrote an early draft of Pericles—long considered a 1609 "Late Romance"—some twenty years earlier, as one of his earliest works. It's something the poet Dryden had first suggested in the seventeenth cen­tury, though, pace Sams, it is still not widely accepted.

   He cites the remarkable tide of opinion among North American schol­ars (as opposed to "the entrenched English establishment") that has come to question the evidence (or actually, the lack of it) for the "memorial recon­struction" hypothesis. And he calls attention to the work of the gifted dra­maturgical scholar Steven Urkowitz of New York's City College, who has made a persistent case for the esthetic and dramatic merit of the long‑disparaged Bad Quarto of Hamlet. Urkowitz—who was a principal ally in Gary Taylor's war to split Lear into original and revised versions—argues that one can see a consistent three-stage pattern of Shakespearean revision in the progression from the 1603 Bad Quarto to the 1604 Good Quarto to the 1623 Folio version of Hamlet.

   And Sams is particularly pleased that he "won" a debate with Donald Foster, the "Funeral Elegy" promoter.

   Sams debated Foster at the University of Virginia over the question of Edmund Ironside, an item of Shakespearean apocrypha that Sams believes is a genuine early play of Shakespeare, one which Foster and his computer data­base reject.

   When Sams says he "won," he means he won the vote of the audience that day: the academic consensus has so far resisted Sams's hammering on :he Ironside question. Although he is now getting credit for his obsessive championing of another play in the Shakespearean apocrypha, Edward III, -.vhich is now included in respected Complete Works editions such as The Riverside Shakespeare as having "at least some" scenes written by Shakespeare.

   It occurred to me that what Sams's various crusades have in common is the impulse to restore to Shakespeare's credit works that academics believe are "beneath" the Bard such as the ur-Hamlet, the Bad Quarto Hamlet, the Bad Quartos of his history plays and less artful apocryphal works such as Edward III and Edmund Ironside. The academic/university wits' version of Shakespeare tends to see him as at once more sophisticated and less original. More sophisticated in the sense that he cannot be associated with the clum­siness of the Bad Quartos; his talent scarcely seemed to evolve from such Crude origins, but rather burst full blown upon the scene. On the other band, less original because his sophistication depends on the artful transformation of other playwrights' earlier versions of Hamlet, the history plays, Pericles, etc. They—other playwrights—wrote his first drafts, so to speak.

   I thought of Sams's remark about himself: half his life called an idiot, and then unoriginal. The university wits similarly disparaged Shakespeare 1'r his lack of originality.

   In one of our last conversations, I'd asked Sams whether there was something more to the relationship between the "war over Shakespeare" in 1590s and his own battle with the university wits in the 1990s. It's easy to see he identifies his own enemies in academia with the university wits who looked down their noses at Shakespeare as an outsider, a mere actor who became a playwright by punching up others' old plots. But did Sams also feel a kind of emotional identification with Shakespeare beyond their common enemies?

   "I hadn't thought of it that way," he says, "until now I won't deny it's possible. The difference may be that his opponents back then, the university wits, were undeniably intelligent in their own right." Always with the barb.

   Originality, of course, is not, in itself, an unequivocal virtue, and is often an overrated one. Does it make a difference to our notion of Shakespeare as an artist if he did or didn't write the ur-Hamlet? It doesn't necessarily make him a better artist if he did, but the question is not academic, so to speak; at the very least, it would be an indication that he was a different kind of artist, and we might divine something of the fathomless mysteries of Hamlet by examining the changes if it was Shakespeare rewriting his own work.

   I am unpersuaded by Sams's belief that the Bad Quarto is an early Shakespearean draft. Yes, there is little evidence for the memorial recon­struction hypothesis, but reading the Bad Quarto, the early-draft hypothe­sis feels wrong. And Ockham's razor doesn't (as many mistake it to do) always mandate the simplest solution. When it says "entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity," that doesn't identify necessity as simplicity; there are times when necessity (the way things happen to be) requires com­plexity. But Sams's case for Shakespeare as author of the ur-Hamlet seems stronger than his Bad Quarto arguments and has begun to gain support even within the academy he loathes.

   Two days after my visit to Sams in Ockham's Surrey, I was surprised to find Ann Thompson, coeditor of the new Arden Hamlet, a scholar firmly ensconced in the mainstream of Shakespeare studies, make a remarkable ac­knowledgment of the force of Sams's case.

   "I can't figure out quite why people are so determined to say it's by someone else," Professor Thompson says of the ur-Hamlet in her office at King's College, London, a stone's throw away from the Thames, "or why it can't be by Shakespeare as Eric Sams says in his book with that modest title, The Real Shakespeare," she says with an indulgent chuckle over Sams's immodest title claim.

   "But nobody else is saying that. At the moment I don't see why Shake­speare couldn't have authored a version of Hamlet earlier than in 1599 and I don't see why everyone is determined to say it's impossible."

   She doesn't go as far as Sams to say that the Bad Quarto is therefore nec­essarily a version of the ur-Hamlet, but her willingness to entertain a case Sams has been pressing virtually alone for so long is an indication of the un­usual equanimity Ms. Thompson displays in navigating the entrenchments of the Hamlet battlefield: a lack of investment in excluding dissent, a lack of determination to be seen as always having the right answer at all times in matters where the evidence may be insufficient for the typically masculine need to assert possession of correct answers.

   It raises a question about Hamlet editors that struck me in the aftermath of my encounters with Ann Thompson, whose Arden edition might be called the Hamlet of the near future, and with Bernice Kliman, editor in chief of the Modern Language Association's new Variorum Hamlet, which might be called the Hamlet of the distant future. In many ways the future shape of Hamlet is in the hands of these two women, and in certain ways the play and the prince might be the better for it.