The Lost Years

A Paper Given at the Shakespeare Institute, 4 November 1982


Previously unpublished; © the estate of eric sams, 2008



I really do seem to be addressing the Shakespeare Institute. And really no one could be more surprised at that than I am – except you, that is. But may I remind you of how C.S. Lewis once began a paper? He said: “A critic who makes no claim to be a true Shakespeare scholar and who has been honoured by an invitation to speak about Shakespeare to such an audience as this feels rather like a child brought in at dessert to speak his piece before the grown-ups”. Don’t worry; I’m sure he didn’t mean that last bit, either. His child was soon disclosed as an enfant terrible, a small figure of speech stationed outside the Shakespeare scene and viewing it with the awful candour of an infant seeing through the emperor’s clothes – with much surprise, and some distaste.

     I shall spare you the child. But I’m already in need of a dummy – through which to ventriloquise, that is. A lay figure is the obvious choice; and I appear before you as a layman. I became one a few years ago, by retiring. Perhaps I might just mention my previous qualifications for being here. It won’t take long. And I’ve made a note to avoid such phrases as “I give you my unqualified assurance”. But I was once invited, as visiting professor, to lecture on Shakespeare in Stratford-on-Avon. I should add that my subject was music, and the place was Stratford, Ontario.

     I was also a civil servant then, and a critic. It was very confusing. Any topic I tackled could be taken under three heads, a, b and c, as it happened – academic, bureaucratic and critical. The heads often took different views – always interesting and stimulating, I thought, even though logically incompatible. The parallels with present Shakespeare scholarship will not escape you. In the outside world, however, contradictions are not fruitful, ironic or the like, but just plain tiresome and silly. If two laymen hold incompatible views, at least one of them is wrong. Again one can see Shakespeare parallels. In the lay world, you have to make up your mind and choose. Such pragmatism is deep-rooted in everyday language. In common parlance “academic” has a clear meaning. It means “useless”; and any further discussion would be merely academic. “Bureaucrat” is worse; it means “obstructionist”. “Critic” is worst of all; it means both useless and obstructionist – knowing what’s to be done and yet refusing to help. People say “why don’t you stop criticising and lend a hand?” All three usages share the same instinctive assumption; the goal of life and thought is action. No wonder men and women of action grow impatient with our slow theoretical philosophising. Sorry, I should of course have said your philosophising. I keep on forgetting that I’ve now retired, into the world of activity. And here with me this afternoon is Shakespeare, who as spokesman for Everyman also inhabits the world of motion and decision, in our day just as in his own. It’s what I shall provocatively call the real world. But the world of Shakespeare scholarship, as I shall show, is worlds apart; and only the superhuman can inhabit both at once.

     Two worlds, then, call them what you will, contemplation or action. Plato or Aristotle, reine or praktische Vernunft, In a Monastery Garden or In a Persian Market. And how can an insider ever see the outside world but inside-out?

      Well, you may feel that I’m deliberately trying to elongate and sharpen the horns of that dilemma. Quite right; that’s to show how real and painful it is. Take an actual example – the insider’s judgement of people, say, or books: “Some very good points but far outweighed by bad ones, so on balance unacceptable”. How well we know the candidate who offers a few brilliant insights but shows desperately bad judgement; unacceptable in both senses, you may feel. Again, take a chess-player who has some marvelous ideas but often blunders in won positions; he’ll never make the gradings, will he? Inside the closed world of openings and positions, boards and men, such verdicts may sound reasonable enough. Outside, though, they sound more like helpless idiocy. If a few missiles strike you amidships while others miss by miles, you don’t in practice spend too much time deploring the enemy gunnery, or adjudging it a failure on balance. In real life, it’s the hits that count. In the Persian Market, we take the cash in hand and waive the rest. Even in a Monastery Garden we are enjoined to prove all things and hold fast that which is good. Sound advice. No one ought ever to believe that good qualities are outweighed by bad; they’re not on the same scale; it’s just a category mistake.

     So my proposed test was actually this. If at my first mention of bad outweighing good you were instantly and indignantly disposed to shout out “nonsense!” and “shame!” then thank you for refraining. But I quite agree with you; you’re really on my side, namely the outside. Here are some more inside comments that you’ll surely object to, just as I do. “I’ve decided to sit on the fence” … “I have a skeptical cast of mind” … “we shall never know the truth” … “Wasn’t that the book that got the bad reviews?” … “Nobody seriously thinks that Shakespeare wrote that” and so forth. I’m sure no one here says or thinks such things.

      Even without them, it gets harder for me from now on; it’s now my turn to have my views judged. But I wanted first to suggest that the outside view per se is perhaps worth a closer look. First, that’s where Shakespeare, his art and his public are still in fact to be found. Secondly, in so far (namely all the way) as Shakespeare studies remain problematical, they call for the puzzle-solving, risk-taking, pragmatic, flexible, analytical approach of the outside world; for example those of the entrepreneur, the manager, the detective, the field commander. And they’re taking over, these people. By far the liveliest books on the sonnets, say, are those written by just such Shakespearean amateurs – financiers, publishers, doctors, even (dare one say?) historians. So the inside specialists should be looking out in more ways than one. Meanwhile I’m trying to extend the base-line of observation at least as far as it will go, in the interests of wider perspective and closer parallax. Besides, unfamiliar notions might prove interesting, stimulating and even fun. I hope so.

     That muffled drum-roll introduces my next trick. I shall take current Shakespearean orthodoxy, biographical, historical, chronological, and editorial, at the highest level I can find; and shall try to bring it down to earth.

     Let’s begin with some background data. Shakespeare’s father was variously a glover, a tanner, a dealer in wool, and so forth, who fell on hard times. The boy left school early, some say, to help with the business. He’s supposed to have written a single about a glove, and killed a deer as a poacher, and also made a speech about killing a calf, as an apprentice slaughterman. There’s a later glimpse of a groom or ostler holding horses’ heads in London theatreland. Meanwhile there’s the tale of the country schoolmaster, and some talk of the law.

     A typical scholarly mind proceeds thus. Well, we have to be skeptical. So what can we discount? Take that law story, for a start. Legal references in the works aren’t evident; only amateurs argue from art to life. Besides, we don’t find Shakespeare’s signature as a witness to documents. But the schoolmaster story, now, that comes from a very respectable source, the son of an actor who once belonged to Shakespeare’s company; so that earns extra credence.

     Here the outsider can’t help breaking in. We must never be skeptical; it’s so unscholarly. Doubting without denying just combines prejudice with pusillanimity. The right approach is agnosticism, even tinged with a little commonsense faith; not all those tales will be lies. But there is a field, uncultivated by biographers, where we do well to move with caution – namely the biographers’ own competence. They won’t be doing much more, after all, than transferring facts and ideas from other people’s books into their own. And they may well have gone astray even in that restricted field, or forgotten to be skeptical – about their own notions, for example. Aesthetics: of course lives are linked with works, especially during apprenticehips. Logic: that argument about signatures is a grotesque non sequitur. Finally, favouring the schoolmaster story is just favouritism; all hearsay is only hearsay, and none is more equal than others.

      But much of the rest fits like a glove, or a game of hide and skin. All those tales depend on animals, handled or manhandled, slaughtered and processed, just as in the early works (and hence probably the life). In Tudor reality, glovers were butchers; kids still don’t turn into kid gloves by any kid-glove methods. Even that poor deer looks ear-marked for doe-skin, the calf for calf-skin. This exploitation of beasts, and birds, extends to their posthumous provision of parchment and quills, respectively. Thus the tools of the second trade inhere in the first, in father’s footsteps from farm to forum; wasn’t John himself a legal official and litigant, as well as a livestock dealer?
     Then the son in his turn, already a father at nineteen, would need to earn a good living. He was an assiduous provider, and keenly status-conscious (another inference from the early days). There were no grants then for writing, creative or other; but those were certainly the skills at which I as a Department of Employment officer would have advised the lad to try his hand. Until there’s a demand for your plays and poems, which means into the London market with high-quality merchandise, earn a good living as a secretary or clerk with copy-typing or the equivalent scrivener skills. Go on writing in your spare time, by all means, but get the steady job first – thus speaks the boring Polonius-voice of elder-statesman experience, then as now, and it speaks true. In Tudor times, we’re told, law and litigation were the sinews of government and society. The one obvious outlet for a young writer passionately concerned with such topics (as we may also infer from the early plays) was a lawyer’s office. Can it really be just coincidence that the only known records of Shakespeare’s name in the lost years are as the owner of a legal text-book, and as a party to a London lawsuit – with a Westminster address actually written on the document in each case?

     In any event, employment as a law-clerk is not only the likeliest but the only one for which there is plain practical evidence, and in profusion. How in any world has this come to be rejected, except by a priori prejudice?

     I’d like to return to that field a little later, after a detour via one or two Hamlets. First though here is Exhibit A on microfilm – the Folger copy of Archaionomia by William Lambarde, published in 1568. It’s signed “Wm. Shakspere”, and by general consensus that’s authentic. Even the skeptical Samuel Schoenbaum thinks so, on balance; so the evidence must be very strong. That volume is a compendium of ancient statutes in the original Anglo-Saxon, with Latin translation and notes – a legal text – and reference-book. It divides us into two classes. For most of us, people who write their names in legal text-books may well be studying law. In Shakespeare-land, things are different. Giles E. Dawson concluded in 1942, after careful examination and presumably thought, as follows: “William Shakespeare wrote his signature on the title-page, perhaps because he owned the book – a strange volume indeed for his library”. That dictum has been quoted with approval by Schoenbaum and others equally blind to its absurdity. The outsider wants to ask – what could be a less strange criterion for a library than the books it actually contains? But the unspoken thought is this: “Of course we experts know what books are best suited to Shakespeare’s shelves, and we can assure you that he had no business with this one.” Doesn’t it make you too gasp and cry out with exasperation? If I came across a text-book on logic signed “Giles E. Dawson”, perhaps because he owned it, I wouldn’t say (though I’d be sorely tempted) “Well, that’s a strange volume indeed for Dawson’s library”. The prejudice would be so naked that I might even notice it myself.

     No; if Archaionomia, the book of old laws, tells us anything at all it is, point-blank, that its owner was concerned with laws. It offers a bonus, too; a later hand has added “Mr. William Shakespeare lived at No. 1 Little Crown Street, Westminster, N.B. near Dorset Steps.” I can tell you, after some research, where that was; not far from Downing Street, in fact – a good address for our national poet. People then lived by their work; the actors in Southward, the lawyers in Westminster, and so on. There too we find Shakespeare again in 1589 as a named party in a family lawsuit in the Court of Queen’s Bench, Westminster; “coram domina regina apud Westmonasterium venit Johannes Shackspere … simulcum Willielmo Shackspere filio suo”.

    I wonder who Shakespeare’s employer was at that time? Someone perhaps who owned a private library? The young provincial must have had close and continued access to the bulky and expensive tomes of Holinshed, Hall, Grafton, Froissart, Fabian, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Stowe, Foxe, More and all the other English, French and Latin works he is known to have studied – each one identifiable, incidentally, by direct and valid inference from art to life. It’s surely worth looking a little closer at the link with William Lambarde, lawyer, historian, archivist and linguist, to whom Queen Elizabeth would later say, rather sharply, “I am Richard the Second, know ye not that”, with reference to Shakespeare’s play, as if Lambarde had good reason to know. His other books, The Duties of Constables for example, or The Perambulation of Kent, also look to me like Shakespeare sources, and largely untapped ones at that (e.g. for Much Ado and Lear). His Eirenarchia (1581) is an acknowledged source, for The Taming of the Shrew, a play that seems to have originated in the lost years. The Kent book (1576) antedates and anticipates Holinshed, e.g. in the story of how Birnam wood came to Dunsinane. It too would have been required reading for any playwright researching Canute, Ironside, and Danish invasions, as the author ofEdmund Ironside demonstrably did. I’ve already published a précis of reasons for ascribing that play to Shakespeare, c. 1587-8; and I’m working on a new edition of it, for which any comments would be welcome. In those years there would be very few other sources, apart from Archaionomia and the Perambulation, to consult on Canute and Anglo-Danish history. One was of course Holinshed, another was Grafton; and the author ofIronside had certainly read them both, very carefully. Another was the Historiae Danicae of Saxo Grammaticus – which also contains the tragical history of one Amlethus, alias Hamlet, who like Canute was a prince of Denmark.

      Now, what if Shakespeare wrote a version of that play also in the lost years? His family lawsuit was about lands his father had lost by forfeiture: c.f. Hamlet “lands so by his father lost” i.e. by forfeit, and Ironside “Even so thy father’s land I seize upon” … “fallen to me … by forfeiture”. Don’t let’s dismiss such possible allusions too peremptorily. Everyone knows, in other contexts, that Shakespeare is crammed with personal and topical references, and it won’t do just to accept those we’ve been told about and are used to.

    But you’re right to prefer factual documentation. So here’s some more of that. In 1580, a woman was found drowned in the Avon, near Stratford; per infortunium, the local inquest concluded, which qualified her, unlike Ophelia, for Christian burial. Her name was Katherine Hamlett. So there’s a local precedent for the name of Shakespeare’s Stratford friend Hamlet or Hamnet Sadler. Those are just optional spellings, of course; it’s the same name; it’s also spelt with an “l” in Shakespeare’s will. So “Hamlet was one well-accredited form of the name he gave his only son, born in 1585. Four years later we first hear of a stage play called Hamlet. Thomas Nashe tells us about it in his preface to his crony Robert Greene’s novel Menaphon. Nashe mentions a frosty morning, as if to set the scene. He suggests indebtedness to Seneca, meaning perhaps Thyestes, whose ghost also comes from a prison cell where it fasts in fires. Another Senecan play of the period is Titus Andronicus. Later on, Francis Meres would compare Shakespeare to Seneca for tragedy.

     Now, whoever wrote that early Hamlet must have deliberately altered that name from Amlethus or Amleth, as it appears in all the known sources, to Hamlet, which was not only a Stratford family and Christian name, but one form of the name bestowed by Shakespeare on his own first-born and only son. I wonder who that rebaptising author might have been, and what his motive was in thus aspirating Amlet? Five years later, in June 1594, the Lord Chamberlain’s men took part in a brief season at Newington Butts which included theTaming of A ShrewTitus Andronicus and (need I say) Hamlet. Everyone now knows that the first two were versions of Shakespeare plays; why not the third? It was after all played by his own company. And won’t that also be the work mentioned in 1596 by Thomas Lodge, with a ghost that cried “Hamlet, revenge!”? And wasn’t that in turn the play named by Gabriel Harvey in his marginal note c. 1599 that “the younger sort take much delight in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, but his Lucrece and his tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark have it in them to please the wiser sort”? As the Arden editor says, this appears to refer to a book that could be read. The first two books that Harvey mentions were published as Shakespeare’s in 1593 and 1594; why not the third? The other two plays performed in the Newington Butts season given by Shakespeare’s company were also published in 1594; again, why not the third? True, no copies survive; but the figure of nil seems entirely comparable with the only extant examples of Titus and A Shrew from 1594, namely one each. Doesn’t it look rather look as if an early version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet was also published in 1594, and that Harvey owned a copy, just as the Arden edition suggests, and indeed was quoting from its title page? Would he have referred to astage performance as “the tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”?

      It was not until 1602, too late for Harvey’s note, that the Stationers’ Register announced such a book – “as it was lately acted by the Lord Chamberlain his servants”; again, the name of Shakespeare’s own company. The first quarto, with Shakespeare named as author, appeared in 1603; it looks to me, and indeed to many insiders, much more like a genuine early version than a so-called Bad Quarto. In 1604 or 1605 came the second quarto, which is recognizably the play the world knows.

      Now, even setting all argument and inference aside, and just relying solely on the documented facts deployed in date order – where, save in a world not just closed but hermetically sealed, could anyone rationally infer two different plays both called Hamlet and sharing several other close resemblances? Anyone even tempted to so do should soon be deterred by a brisk flourish of Ockham’s razor. If one entity suffices, then one entity it is, as a matter of ordinary intellectual probity. Let’s not despise common sense, either. Isn’t it really rather eccentric to believe in a world masterpiece patched together from some nameless rag-bag of adventitious anonymity, as if Schubert’s Winterreise, for example, were just a pot-pourri of themes filched from an itinerant organ-grinder? And how is it conceivable, in a real world, that a well-loved and much-quoted old play had simply vanished, like the ghost, to be mysteriously replaced by a quite different but even better-known masterpiece, without anyone ever mentioning this amazing metamorphosis? The onus of proof here surely lies – crushingly and cripplingly, I would say – upon its proponent. The plain man wants to ask a plain question – what and where is the actual evidence that any non-Shakespearean Hamlet ever existed? And the plain answer is that there is no such evidence, and never has been; and propositions for which there is no evidence are not responsibly advanced or believed.

     Yes, I know it’s possible for editors to kid themselves, to put it bluntly, about a so-called Ur-Hamlet. Even that title blows its own cover. Who wrote the Ur-Faust but the author of Faust? And at best Kyd’s Hamlet was never more than a mere hypothetical possibility, which is quite valueless in comparison with documented facts and direct inference. Kyd’s Hamlet is well named; it’s a mare’s next. There is just one Hamlet; and it’s Shakespeare’s; and it dates from the lost years.

      There are some vital corollaries. Nashe is often obscure; but he describes the author of Hamlet, clearly enough, as a noverint, that is to say a scrivener or lawyer’s copy-clerk. It follows, since Shakespeare was that author, that Shakespeare was a lawyer’s copy-clerk – just as commentators have been claiming for centuries, on quite different grounds. Q.E.D.; and current biographical neglect or dismissal of that conclusion seems to me overly scandalous. For Nashe was Shakespeare’s first biographer. He describes the daily lives of at least two law-clerks, apparently close associates or colleagues. No doubt Kyd, a known noverint, was the other. Nashe knows this legal duo personally and well; he has walked and talked with them, visited them in their lodgings after their day’s work, knows their plans and pursuits, literary and amatory. His preface to the 1589 Menaphon tells us all this, and more. Further, his shafts are visibly directed at the same butts, and often barbed with the same wounding phrases, as Greene’s far more famous shots at the upstart crow in 1592, who by that time was a well known player as a well as a playwright. In both years there is the clearest collusion between Greene and Nashe, close friends since their Cambridge days. It’s the University wits versus the grammar school hacks. Can you believe that the Cambridge team had evolved some sophisticated system of man-for-man marking, Nashe tackling only Kyd in 1589, and Green charging only Shakespeare in 1592? Remember that Greene specifies more than one opponent (“these buckram gentlemen”) while Nashe uses the plural passim. Of course Shakespeare was a marked man in 1589 just as in 1592.

     You may think this is just an outsider’s demonstration unsupported within the citadel. But watch out; there’s a whole wooden horseful of champions who have for centuries been proposing Shakespeare as one of Nashe’s noverints. Perhaps I might drop a few names? – Malone, Brown, Knight, Teichmann, Foard, Churton Collins, Cairncross, Peter Alexander, J.A.K. Thomson, Everitt, Hibbard, Duthie, Nicholas Knight, Nigel Alexander among others, including first-rate minds as well as eminent Shakespeareans. This polished parade of thought and argument is dismissed uninspected in the new Arden Hamlet with the curt phrase “no grounds whatever”, in the fourth footnote on its 84th page. But I fear it is, on the contrary, the orthodox construction of the facts that has no grounds whatever; so it is not only overdue for demolition but already close to collapse of its own accord, regardless of any wind of change from within or helping hand from without.

     That collapse will uncover whole new areas for research. Perhaps I may just offer a sketch-map or two. Let’s return to Shakespeare, author of Hamlet, known as a noverint or law-clerk in 1589. That can be inferred from what Nashe says. It can also be inferred separately, from Shakespeare’s signature on a law text-book. It can also be inferred separately, from his documented familiarity with another legal text-book, Swinburne’sTestaments and Last Wills; the evidence is in Hamlet. It can also be inferred separately, from his documented familiarity with an obscure black-letter trial record from the Canterbury archives; again the evidence is in Hamlet. Not everyone had access to the Kent archives; how about the Kent archivist William Lambarde? In his stimulating and original book Shakespeare’s Hidden Life (1973) W. Nicholas Knight has suggested several other such links, only to be dismissed as inflation, fantasy and so forth by the skeptical Schoenbaum. Fresh air outside feels like chill draughts inside; the doors of perception soon slam shut.

     Similar prejudice still bars and shutters the adjacent study of handwriting, where much vital evidence is still locked away from any but the so-called expert eye, which permits only one view. Interested laymen will have to leave it at that or look for themselves. Why not try the latter? You’d soon master the basics of Elizabethan handwriting, and start framing some relevant questions.

      What would a law-clerk have to do? For a start, what you’d have just done, namely learn a variety of hands, such as Secretary and Italic. Is there any evidence that Shakespeare had done that? I think there is. If you have no a priori blockage about drawing inferences from the plays, you’ll recall for example those comments about having had the ability to write fair, devise a commission and so on; Hamlet again of course, and perhaps rather unexpected skills for a prince of Denmark. But again I quite agree that documentary evidence is much better. Take the six accredited signatures, plus the words “By me”. They need only 15 different characters; but they use 43. It’s clear that Shakespeare held in his hand a variety of type-founts, so to speak; even in that tiny sample, even in just signing his name, each character had on average three different equivalents, including Italic and two sorts of Secretary. Isn’t the a fortiori inference both obvious and strong?

     So Protean a style is of course rare in any context. In a noverint it would be entirely exceptional. Copying needs copperplate, or at least a basic regularity. An unpredictable law-clerk hand penning a playscript must therefore be rarer still. Now, I know of two and only two Tudor playscripts which have been duly certified as written in a legal style. Both are very variable in their letter-forms; indeed each suggests at least two different hands, though common sense tells us this is not so. One of those manuscripts is Edmund Ironside; the other is Addition D to Sir Thomas More. Further, those are the only two manuscripts ever to be attributed to Shakespeare. They may be many years apart; much of the More MS is illegible; direct comparison is hard. But E.B. Everitt studied those texts for years and never wavered in his conclusion that they were from the same hand. Examine them yourself, and you’ll soon see what he means. But he is still being derided within a closed world whose closed minds are merely amused by a Shakespeare well versed in different styles of penmanship. Outside, we are all free to look for ourselves and see that it is visibly so.

     The documents have three separate homes in London alone, as well as in Oxford, Stratford and Washington. Their custodians can’t be everywhere, and they have other more pressing duties. There is therefore room for serious study by unprejudiced (i.e. preferably young) researchers into such material as: the Archaionomia signature; its marginalia, so far inexplicably ignored; the Bodleian copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; the Edmund Ironside MS, c. 1588; a calligraphic letter to Edmund Alleyn from the same period; A Presentment of the Boundaries of Stratford, 1591; a letter to Michael Hicks of June 1592 signed but not written by the Earl of Southampton; Additions D and E to Sir Thomas More ?c. 1600; the Dering signature c. 1603; the Hubbard tithes conveyance, 1605; Shakespeare’s will, 1616. Some of those writings look remarkably and significantly similar to me, and also to others better versed in such studies. I think there are important discoveries waiting to be made. It is doubly unfortunate, given so much material of so much interest and value, that the necessary objectivity and the historical expertise seem to be divided among scientists and paleographers respectively. Even the outsider may have a question or two to raise. For example: it’s clear that Shakespeare’s will is a draft. Who, in the real world, is the person most likely to draft an ex-lawclerk’s will? I know all the biographers say it was Francis Collins. But then all the biographers say that Schubert died of typhoid fever. Falsehood too is infectious, and careful analysis can trace its carriers. When I ask how we know it was Francis Collins, no one can tell me.

     Two inferences, then; Shakespeare in the lost years was (a) a clerk and (b) a penman. The upstart crow was already known by his quill. That would have to work overtime to support a wife and young family, and perhaps parents as well; to sustain a long and fruitless family lawsuit; to defray the expenses of journeys to and from Stratford; to maintain lodgings in London; to pay for book-buying and theatre-going. Imagine Shakespeare’s annual tax accounts, 1585-91. There’s no evidence of possible income from play-revising, or acting. But there are still those seven years to account for, not just in money but in time. Now, scripts and texts might well provide his livelihood, but plays and poems would be his life.

     Shakespeare studies have floated so far away from everyday reality that this is now an unfamiliar, not to say a fanciful, idea. Can you believe it? Shakespeare a writerall his lifefrom his earliest years??? Utterly incredible, isn’t it, – the wildest of amateurish fantasies? An instant injection of sedating skepticism is clearly called for. But even as I’m being taken away for treatment I shall still be heard shouting “of course he was!”. Seen from outside, it’s just the commonsense viewpoint. There’s testimony too; Nashe in 1589 for example. And given a Shakespeare recognizably active as a writer on the London literary scene in 1589, how about these lines from Spencer about a writer on the London literary scene in 1589:


And there, though last not least, is Aetion,

A gentler shepherd may nowhere be found,

Whose muse, full of high thoughts’ invention,

Doth like himself heroically sound.


Aetion, the painter of scenes of action; the gentle poet, with the lofty style and martial name; and (last not least) “last not least”; doesn’t that sound like Shakespeare to you? Who else could it possibly be?

     For good measure, I shall add some argument from analogy, which despite all its possible pitfalls might yet help to bridge a gap in the records. I’ve already enlisted the help of Schubert, whose creative genius is exceptionally well documented and in my view wholly comparable; indeed I personally would rate him by far the more finished artist, year by year, for most of his short life. By inference, he had a head start in education and training. Shakespeare must somehow have been held back, even harmed by adversity. Some of the lost years were surely just lost. Then there had to be what is sometimes called an apprenticeship, usually dated 1590-1 with such plays as Titus and Henry VI. But real apprenticeships last seven years, not two, and longer still for difficult disciplines, and longest of all for the self-taught. Simple extrapolating from undisputed facts leads straight back to the inevitable existence of juvenilia as inferior to Titus as that was to the later work.

     Now, suppose the earliest surviving Schubert work date from his 27th year. Would anyone, let alone everyone, say it was an Op. 1? I think not. In such studies, common sense would prevail; commentators would say, as I say of Shakespeare, well of course he was a born writer. Nor, I believe, would anyone rationally seek to fill the observed time-gap by back-spacing the known oeuvre. We need that room in the jigsaw to accommodate the missing pieces. The real question would be – where are they? In the known and documented world, Schubert’s would have been preserved, for pleasure or for profit. Similarly, given the same human motives, Shakespeare’s should still exist somewhere. Why not, greatly daring, take a look around?

     There’s no shortage of candidates; and the spread of votes is rather interesting. Many people have supported Edward III; some, The Taming of A Shrew; far fewer, Edmund Ironside. The Famous Victories of Henry V has long lost its deposit. The reasons are clear enough; their styles are retrogressively less like the Shakespeare we know. But so they would be, ex hypothesi. So far from being a logical objection, that’s not merely conformable with but clearly inferable from the basic premise. To argue from the style we know to the style we don’t is manifest folly. A style unlike the Shakespeare we know is what we’re actually looking for. The main evidence will be anything but stylistic.

     To pursue my analogy; even if there were no Schubert manuscripts dated before 1825, almost everyone would see that (say) Die schöne Müllerin, if that cycle survived, was also authentic. But very few would nominateHagars Klage. Schubert at 14 was not yet “Schubert”. He was his master Salieri; he was his mentor Zumsteeg. Similarly there should be juvenilia in which Shakespeare is not “Shakespeare” (how could he be?) but Marlowe or Peele. Then we could spot the upstart crow more by his purloined plumes than by his own quill. How about the plainly Peelian first act of Titus, or the manifestly Marlovian pastiche and parody in The Taming of A Shrew?

      The vexed question of self-revision may also be eased by analogy. Why, the experts enquire, should Shakespeare have spent a single second revising his own plays when he could write new ones? This manages to overlook the copious evidence of what he actually did. Anyone can see that Hamlet and Titus for example have been revised, presumably by their author. In the More fragment the hand can be seen revising as it goes. Other plays show sure signs of alteration in the printer’s copy. Then there’s the plain evidence of the title-pages;Richard IIILove’s Labour’s Lost, Romeo and Juliet are all newly corrected or augmented, Hamlet was “enlarged to almost as much again as what it was”. Setting aside dubious and unprovable preconceptions about piracy, whey should not those words mean what they say? And these and many other examples of evidence left lying loose on the surface. We can reasonably infer extensive diggings and workings. Further, fossils serve to identify some of the strata. Given time, I’d undertake to show that the German versions of Hamlet and Titus do indeed, exactly as various unheeded heterodoxies have always insisted, contain material earlier than any known English text. Again, it will hardly be coincidence that the signs of revision cluster so closely among the earliest plays, with which their author would be least satisfied. Anyhow, what else would a conscientious and developing genius be expected to do if not rewrite and revise, tirelessly and devotedly?

      Schubert too was a fluent artist, always able to set some other poem if a song dissatisfied him. In fact, of his 600 songs, 40 were second or even third entirely different settings of the same poem, while no fewer than 120 were revised and rewritten up to six times, often with substantial amendments. Several songs even fell into both categories; the poem was re-set and then that re-setting was itself revised, two and three times. Schubert died so young that all his work was early; revision was his habitual practice, and not only in songs.

     Now, if Shakespeare revised his known early plays, because they dissatisfied him or his audience, in much better versions, what could be more likely a fortiori than that he revised his unknown juvenilia into early plays? In such operations a style might easily have its features so lifted as to become unrecognisable. Might this not, after all, be the simple truth about True Tragedy, say, or A Shrew? Earlier this century these and others were, by universal scholarly consensus, and beyond all possible doubt, other people’s plays mended by Shakespeare’s splendid skills. Almost overnight in the 1920s they became, with equal certainty and unanimity, Shakespeare’s own plays ruined by actors’ terrible memories. Daft though it sounds, that’s what they still are. Nothing has happened in the meantime but the tick of the clock and the swing of the pendulum. No new facts have come to light, no new evidence; just new theories. And now they in their turn are visibly aging and deteriorating.

      Take the two new Shrews, Arden and Oxford. Each retails the same old articles, now getting on for sixty years old, and reaching that retirement age after a career of total impenetrability to the lay reader from their very first appearance in the Journal of English and German Philology or the like. Might it not, incidentally, be salutary for Shakespeare studies if the bibliography were limited to what editors would pay to print and the public would pay to read? As I’ve already suggested, it’s markets that sharpen the wits, not ritual observances. Meanwhile, the new Shrews are, exactly like their background reading, detailed, technical, obscure, inconclusive and often incompatible. But at least the new editions agree on priorities. Scholarly theories occupy dozens of pages; the historical facts get a few sentences. Worse still, the facts sometimes seem to be inferred from the hypotheses. Thus both editors believe (I find this incredible, but assure you it is true) that the 1594 performance recorded by Henslowe as the “tamynge of a shrewe” was not the play announced and published with that same title in that same year, but the quite different Taming of the Shrew that first appeared in the First Folio nearly thirty years later and is nowhere recorded as promised, published or performed before that date. When is A Shrew not A Shrew? When it’s expedient. The Oxford editor is at least candid. He explains that “the 1594 performance would have been of the genuine Shakespeare play, since Shakespeare’s known company is involved”; a strong point, surely, and one that goes far to justify the late Geoffrey Bullough’s view that A Shrewwas, exactly as it will look to the ordinary reader, Shakespeare’s own first draft. But we can’t have that; so Henslowe must have got it wrong. The man on the spot at the time knows less about it than the editor in his study four centuries later; distance lends authority to the view.

     And this extraordinary contortion is performed for the sake of an even stranger aberration called “memorial reconstruction”, a technical term for forgetting. Just accept that theory, says the Arden editor repeatedly, and all the difficulties will disappear. Much the same might be said of swallowing a camel. Accepting itis the difficulty; and it won’t disappear.

     Let’s be as clear as we can about what this theory entails. First we have to conjure into existence a whole 2500-line Shakespeare play, years and years before there’s the least evidence for it. Then we handpick a group of people to reconstruct that non-existent play from memory, trading on its imagined popularity. We single out for this 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 actually made their livings from their memory, namely as actors. Further, they were the only people in the world who had ever learned by heart the lines they were unable to remember. They had learned those lines from written parts which they had, to a man, carelessly lost, or improvidently failed to copy, or petulantly thrown away. In the result they cannot even remember one single line out of the 2500-line play they are “memorially reconstructing” (surely one of the weirdest misnomers ever devised). They cannot get the plots straight; they cannot recall the location of the play, or its act and scene divisions. They can hardly remember any of the names of the characters. Don’t be too hard on them, though; give them due credit. As the Arden editor gravely observes, “they remember the title of the play almost accurately”. No fools, these actors. And they certainly begin to show a little sense at this stage; they give up and call in a writer (or compiler, or editor). This new recruit just makes up a new short play of 1500 lines on somewhat the same themes. Given that 1000 lines have simply been omitted, that leaves the actors’ total contribution as approximately nil. Their chosen writer (compiler, editor) however has a much better memory – not for the plays of Shakespeare, but for those of Marlowe. Some thirty lines of A Shrew are his, sometimes verbatim. Three or four mysteriously derive from the French of DuBartas. The actors’ writer (etc) is exceptionally well-read and well-educated; he even resembles Shakespeare in being familiar with and exploiting Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Gascoigne’s Supposes. However, he chooses different passages to quote and adapt, presumably to emphasise his own independence from a play he does not know. Yet he manages to anticipate the mature Shakespeare in several scenes (e.g. the arrival of a troupe of touring players) and ideas (e.g. the relation of dream to reality) and images (e.g. Promethean fire sparkling in women’s eyes). He even rivals the young Shakespeare in lyric grace (“golden summer sleeps upon her cheeks”). But all in all his 1592 play is just a futile failure at the supposed task of reconstructing Shakespeare’s The Shrew. However, it is not that masterpiece but its botched plagiarism that holds the stage. It is A Shrew, if we are to believe (or just refrain from tampering with) contemporary records, that was played in 1594 by Pembroke’s company, which also performed Titus Andronicus at the same time. Then too it is A Shrew that is announced and published by reputable tradesmen also associated with genuine Shakespeare plays; and indeed reprinted in 1596, and quoted by a leading literary light in 1598, and reprinted in 1607. And all this time the popular and brilliant play that A Shrew absurdly sought to emulate just quietly somewhere, unseen and unknown, until 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death.

     There must be some less demented explanation of the facts; and that explanation will surely be quite obvious to the outside observer. It takes a truly cloistered theorist to see nothing odd about inventing a whole 2500-line play, which is then transported bodily backwards two or three decades in time to be wholly forgotten by a group of dim-witted actors who are so hopeless at reconstructing it that they have to call in a writer to make up a much shorter and more primitive and quite different play, which then proved infinitely more famous and popular than its supposed exemplar, which not only disappeared but had never even appeared beforehand. The facts themselves, considered objectively, say that there was first just one Shakespeare play, which was shortened into A Shrew. If that process was assisted by actors, why must they suffer from amnesia? That seems to have been an occupational hazard, according to the so-called Bad Quarto theory (or in A Shrew, an Even Worse Quarto). Thus in Hamlet Q1, for example, the actors are supposed to have forgotten the name of Polonius and madly call him Corambis, while Reynaldo is misremembered as Montano. The Arden Shrew editor is unperturbed; faced with an almost complete change of nomenclature, he explains that this can readily be accounted for “if we assume that it was for some reason a deliberate act”. It’s like the Boy’s Own Paper serial; with one bound, Jack was free. The Arden Hamlet at least concedes that even two wrong names must involve very great difficulties for the “memorial reconstruction” theory; and he sportingly adds that no satisfactory solution has ever been suggested. I should now like to suggest one, which seems perfectly satisfactory to me; namely that the Hamlet theory is false, and the Shrew theory is ludicrously false. These quartos, and others, are early first drafts, no doubt abridged and even garbled here and there but otherwise just as genuine as the third Shakespeare play to be performed in the 1594 Newington Butts season, namely Titus Andronicus. As the Oxford editor compellingly says, it is indeed likely that Shakespeare’s own company would on that occasion be performing Shakespeare’s own plays.

     Further, as another recent Oxford editor (Henry V) has robustly observed, the commonsense assumption is that plays reconstructed by actors, e.g. for provincial tours, would be good texts, not bad ones, which must take precedence over all 20th century hypotheses. If one believes that, the so-called Bad Quartos crumble into dust, together with the bad theories that promulgated them. The question arises; how did anyone ever come to believe them? With the help of my Schubert analogy I could seek to show by similar methods that the first version of any song he later happened to re-set or revise was really a memorial reconstruction of the second version, made by a forgetful singer or pianist who could hardly recall a single note of the work they had themselves prepared and premiered, and so hired a composer to write them a new one on the same theme. But everyone would see that was silly straightaway, whereas in Shakespeare studies equally crackpot notions have become unassailable gospel. That has happened solely because (as in the new Shrews) no two proponents of this theory have ever entirely agreed, in general or in a particular case, about what exactly the hypothesised procedure involves, entails or consists in. The emperor’s clothes would long ago have been seen through without the protective blanket of fog.

     Even that has been periodically penetrated by sharp-eyed Shakespeareans; Hardin Craig, for example, or Charles Prouty. And any fair-minded observer from either camp must concede that instead of consensus there is in fact confusion about the relation of “source-play” to “Shakespeare”. The dilemma is neatly if inadvertently summed up by the recent New Penguin edition of 2 and 3 Henry VI, which comments that what some scholars have proved, others fail to believe. I can explain this apparent paradox; the belief is unprovable, so naturally the proof is unbelievable.

      Isn’t it time to attack this Gordian knot with Ockham’s razor? Once the consensus was: Shakespeare improved other people. Now we have: other people ruined Shakespeare. Why not eliminate unnecessary middlemen and just have Shakespeare writing and re-writing, shaping and re-shaping? That could cover not onlyHamletShrew and Titus, but also The Whole Contention and Troublesome Reign, perhaps even the True Tragedy of Richard IIIKing Leir and Famous Victories. In all such cases, use the razor; if one hand explains and suffices, then one hand it is.

     As a bonus, that would solve other current puzzles. Thus the fact that only one single copyright covered both A Shrew and The Shrew, both King John and Troublesome Reign, could then be ascribed, not to enigmatic Elizabethan eccentricity but to the simple sensible rule that treatments of the same theme from the same hand counted as the same play for licensing and other practical purposes. Similarly it might be more rational as well as more charitable to suppose that when Troublesome Reign was ascribed to “W.SH.” and The Whole Contention to “William Shakespeare” the publishers were implying or telling not a dastardly lie but the honest truth. Further, the persistent source-play links with the Queen’s and Pembroke’s men may have much to tell us, objectively interpreted, about Shakespeare’s early career.

     Please don’t worry, incidentally, about how he found time, in the lost years, for all those plays and revisions while earning his main living in other fields. Again Schubert would offer a practical verifiable parallel; Shakespeare’s work-rate was lotus-eating idleness in comparison, on any hypothesis; there’s no real problem. But partial re-writing admittedly involves perplexities. Naturally the hand of genius will grow greatly in grasp, span and sweep, even to the point of massive disparity. One would expect late part-revision to look exactly like dual authorship, as for example perhaps in PericlesHenry VIII, and even Edward III. Here the Schubert analogy is harder to exemplify, because he did not live long enough to collaborate with his younger self. But there are other plain parallels. The second version of the Brahms piano trio Opus 8, for example, is a collaboration between two different composers, one 20 years old, the other 56. But both were Brahms. The differences would of course be far from obvious to the creator-reviser himself, who was conscious of having remained one and the same person. Why should this not be so with Shakespeare, in Pericles for example?

    Here’s a possible cross-check. Are there parts of canonical and other works which share an identifiable early style? I think that further investigation would confirm the striking resemblances between Act I of Titus, Acts I and II of Pericles, all of A Shrew, most of Edward III, parts of Contention and True Tragedy, even parts ofHamlet Q1 – both among themselves and to Edmund Ironside. Let me offer a few such sample links as Shakespeare emerges from the lost years, in 1592, and in some enforced leisure during theatre-closure joins in the sonnet-vogue of the period. Some of the Passionate Pilgrim poems (17, 18) recall Ironside, while others (4, 6, 9) look forward to the sonnets. By that time Shakespeare had certainly met the young Earl of Southampton, who to the ordinary sonnet-fancier is of course the friend as well as the patron, on abundant evidence which seems not to have filtered through to the inner sanctum as yet.

     I wonder where that young law student might have met the older law-clerk? Gray’s Inn, perhaps, if not the theatre. Edmund Ironside happens to contain a wholly unhistorical and fictitious Earl of Southampton. That would at least have made a good talking-point. “Oh, by the way, your lordship, I’ve put an ancestor of yours into a play of mine”. “Have you, by Jove”. That master-servant relationship was manifestly formative for Shakespeare, who surely intended some public acknowledgement to his tawny-headed lord as the “flavus Apollo” of the Venus and Adonis dedication, the god who pours out the “pocula Castalia”, that is to say fills the chosen vessel with those spring-waters of Parnassus that traditionally infused their imbibers with true poetic inspiration. On a more mundane level, conformably with my initial thesis, a poet who had left school at the normal age of fifteen or even earlier might not be wholly impersonal in his reference to a “rude ignorance” or “heavy ignorance” polished or alleviated by noble and cultured patronage. As I think Eliot Slater has recently shown, Edward IIIpassim reads like the young Shakespeare of the later lost years. Already we discern that lovingly yet ironically observed patron-and-poet master-and-clerk mise-en-scène in and between the lines where the scribe Lodowick strives unsuccessfully to record his master’s voice. That play famously shares phrases with the sonnets: “the basset weed,” “the eye of heaven”, “scarlet ornaments”, “lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds”. Here’s another boundary line dividing the in-groups from the rest of us. Scholars have long debated about who borrowed what, when and how, with many a learned comment about the evidence for manuscript circulation and erudite allusion to what Francis Meres said about Shakespeare’s sugared sonnets among his private friends. But to the outsider, as so often, this sort of talk just seems willfully to neglect the hard factual evidence before one’s eyes in favour of idle and baseless speculation. Could there conceivably, in the real world, ever have been two rival writers peeping round each other’s ruffs for a glimpse of manuscript, or on any pretext so pointedly popping each other’s phrases, whether proffered or pilfered, into serious art-works so wholly disparate in scale and genre? As soon as we just stop clouding such issues, they start to shine plain. In the name of Ockham and common sense, the first hypothesis for test, to put the probability no higher, must surely be that those words proceed from the same pen in the same period.

     Finally, while we’re about it, let’s try out the same pragmatic approach on the sonnets themselves. Who was the Rival Poet, for example? First, just collect and analyze the data, without preconception. Commentators agree, on good textual evidence, that the Rival was someone who had offered a dedication to Southampton and praised the beauty of his face and eyes. The Marlovians ask – let’s see, where in the works of Marlowe (for it was he) do we find the nearest approach to that? The Chapmanites claim that the dedication in question must now be lost, since no such work by Chapman (who is obviously meant) still survives. But suppose that without assuming an Identikit Marlowe or anyone else one just says – who matches this description? If there was such a poet, then he, like him or not, is the wanted man, or rather the unwanted man, a real rival in a real world. And indeed, on the documentary dated evidence of a printed book, there was such a poet. And it wasn’t Marlowe; and it wasn’t Chapman. It was …

      But I see I’ve overrun my time by some minutes already. Let me briefly sum up, before I try to deal with any questions. I felt I had to dramatise my topic, for obvious reasons; and in doing so I may have overstretched its confrontational aspects. I’ve sought only to show that there is more than one way of looking at Shakespeare. I’ve just spent a year or so studying the inside story; I thought you, conversely, might care to spend an hour or so with the outsider’s view. Anyhow, thank you for inviting me in and for hearing me out.