Eric Sams and the Real Shakespeare

© F. J. Sypher, 2009 (also a pamphlet edition, New York 2009)

Eric Sams attempted to spark a revolution in Shakespeare studies. In his view prevailing opinions on Shakespeare scholarship emanated from an academic establishment that for decades had strayed from the historical data, and had refused to acknowledge opposing viewpoints. Sams often expressed his challenges in a polemical tone, filled with mockery and caustic irony (and witty puns). Among his recurrent themes are evidence of documents and "common sense," versus authority and consensus. Principal matters disputed by him concern Shakespeare's family background and early years in Stratford, and his first years in London.

            It is often assumed that very little is known about Shakespeare's life. Certainly we lack for him the kinds of biographical materials that we have, for example, on Sir Walter Scott, for whom copious letters, journals, memoirs, and reams of other papers provide intimate details on virtually every aspect of his life and work. But in terms of the kinds of materials that are generally available for people who lived in the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, there is actually a considerable amount of documentary information on record about Shakespeare.

            Sams's view, based on extensive examination of the surviving documentary evidence, which he concisely sets forth in The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years, 1564–1594 (1995), is that Shakespeare grew up as a farm boy in a country town—Stratford—where by virtue of his situation and the relatively limited opportunities available, he spent much of his time helping his father work the family farm and manage related businesses, such as wool-dealing. Apart from some presumed attendance at the local grammar school, where Shakespeare would have learned penmanship, basic Latin, and arithmetic, he had relatively little formal education, especially by comparison to contemporary dramatists who completed school and university courses. For Sams, this background infuses Shakespeare's plays, filled as they are with references to the kinds of rural occupations and scenes that would have been observed by a country boy, who had also been exposed to the theatre via dramatic companies performing in the neighborhood of Stratford.

            Sams finds many indications that Shakespeare's family were Catholics. In the plays he sees "extensive evidence" of a "powerful and detectable influence" of Roman Catholicism (The Real Shakespeare, p. 14). In this as in other respects, Shakespeare would have regarded contemporary politics from the point of view of an outsider, for whom caution in expressing political and religious views was a necessary habit, since Catholics were an oppressed minority, subject to more or less severe persecution on many grounds.

            Shakespeare also, in Sams's view—following the great 18th-century Shakespeare scholar (and lawyer) Edmond Malone—must at some point have worked in a Stratford law office as a scrivener (legal copyist), or (as the term was) noverint, alluding to the Latin phrase commonly used at the beginning of certain legal documents: Noverint universi per praesentes . . . ("Know all men by these presents . . . "). Such employment would have been comparable in today's terms to word-processing and legal proofreading. For this he would have needed some knowledge of Latin, and proficiency at legal penmanship. Through such experience Shakespeare would have gained practical acquaintance with the law, which would have been reinforced by his father's involvement in legal matters.

            Sams points out that one of many indications that Shakespeare had legal training is his legal-style handwriting, as seen in his signatures. Sams argues further that Shakespeare appears to have written out his own will. However, and this is one of the few points on which Sams and I differed, I did not go along with his view that the words "By me" before the signature were to be interpreted as a direct statement that the entire document had been written out by Shakespeare (The Real Shakespeare, p. 193). I have often seen the same phrase accompanying signatures subscribed to 17th- and 18th-century wills that were obviously not written out by the signatories, and the words usually (as I understand them) are a conventional formula that refers specifically to the signature rather than to the document as a whole, and mean "[signed] by me [personally]." Thus these words do not necessarily tell anything about who wrote out the ms. But this difference of interpretation does not affect Sams's general argument.

            Sams and I had specifically corresponded about Shakespeare's legal experience, since it had always seemed to me self-evident from Shakespeare's pervasive use of legal language and imagery (as e.g. in the sonnets) that he must have worked in the law, and in fact I was not even aware that there had been any doubt about this aspect of Shakespeare's history. I remember being especially interested when Sams mentioned the existence of a legal text with Shakespeare's signature in it, and a later notation that "Mr Wm Shakespeare Lived at No. 1 Little Crown St. Westminster NB near Dorset Steps St. James's Park," near the courts of law (The Real Shakespeare, p. 41, 72; also The Real Shakespeare II, appendix 3). The book is a copy of William Lambarde's Archaionomia: sive de priscis anglorum legibus libri . . . (1568), now in the collection of the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C. The first word of the title (actually printed in Greek characters, here transliterated) means "ancient laws," and the volume contains "books on early laws of the English" in Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) with Latin translations.

            I had always wondered whether any books contained evidence of Shakespeare's ownership, and here was one significant both for its subject matter and for its ms. annotations and underlinings. However, the volume, generally recognized since 1942, has long been dismissed out of hand by expert opinion as an "odd choice" or a "strange volume indeed" for Shakespeare's "library." Sams suggests rather "bookshelf" (pp. 41–42) because "library" reflects a somewhat grandiose view of Shakespeare, as opposed to the more realistic idea that he would have had a only modest number of books at a time when he was making his way in London, perhaps doing some legal office work while pursuing his interest in the theatre (a combination not unknown in present-day New York). On such arbitrary grounds this copy of Archaionomia has been left out of consideration in many biographical accounts. And yet the book seems entirely appropriate for someone with the legal knowledge that appears throughout Shakespeare's works (see "The Hand of a lawyer's Clerk," TLS, December 24, 1993).

            The dismissal of this evidence is characteristic of the selective documentation that Sams deplores. Such practices result, in Sams's view, from the bias of scholars who analyze Shakespeare's biography in mainly literary terms, and overlook the non-literary experience that makes Shakespeare's writing vivid with allusions to everyday life.

            Also, the received view presupposes a generally elevated image of Shakespeare. Thus for many biographers it is unthinkable that the great dramatist could have worked as a butcher-boy (pp. 28–31), or gotten in trouble for poaching deer (pp. 44–48). But Sams finds these points acceptable in light of Shakespeare's circumstances growing up in Stratford, and insists that in historical research the available data (and not preconceptions) should determine the results.

            Another point insisted upon by Sams is that there is substantial evidence of Shakespeare's activity as a beginning dramatist during the so-called "lost" years from around 1585 to 1592. Sams argues that there exist texts of plays that Shakespeare wrote at this time, as well as a number of other texts, of so-far unknown attribution, that may well have been written by him. Sams in his editions of Edmund Ironside, and Edward IIIpresents each of these two plays as written by Shakespeare at an early stage in the career that led to the well-known later plays.

            In the first of these editions, Edmund Ironside (1985; 2nd edition, 1986), Sams bases his argument partly on the handwriting of the manuscript, which he judges to have been written out by Shakespeare; and partly on verbal and stylistic parallels to plays of uncontested Shakespearean authorship. His attribution met with initial approval from certain commentators, such as Anthony Burgess (The Observer, February 2, 1986). And the play was produced on stage in London at the Bridge Lane Theatre, April 8–May 3, 1986, as "William Shakespeare's Lost Play, Edmund Ironside." However, the established Shakespeare authorities have remained unconvinced, even though Sams's later attribution of Edward III(1996), using similar methods and obtaining similar results, appears to have gained a degree of general acceptance.

            Sams contends that other plays of this early period were later revised by Shakespeare into the versions that we know from the folio edition of 1623. Such plays include, for example: The Taming of a Shrew (written circa 1588; published 1594); The Troublesome Reign of King John (written circa 1588; published 1591); The first part of the Contention betwixt the two famous houses of Yorke and Lancaster, . . . (published 1594); and The True Tragedie of Richard, Duke of Yorke . . . (published 1595).

            The most notable work on Sams's list of early plays that Shakespeare later revised, and the one that Sams has written most extensively about, is Hamlet. He argues that Shakespeare's Hamlet, in its earliest form, was the revenge tragedy alluded to in 1589 (often called the Ur-Hamlet), and traditionally attributed to his contemporary Kyd, or to an otherwise unknown or unidentified author. But according to Sams's detailed arguments, theHamlet mentioned in 1589 must have been Shakespeare's early version of the play that developed into the published quarto Hamlet of 1603—which was then republished in a further revised quarto version in 1604 or 1605—and finally, in yet another revision, included in the collected plays of 1623 (see "Taboo or Not Taboo? The Text, Dating and Authorship ofHamlet, 1589–1623," Hamlet Studies, 1986).

            In connection with Hamlet, one of the most striking of Sams's many discoveries is his identification of the drawing [see left] copied (by Aernout van Buchell) from an original by Johannes de Witt, a Dutch visitor to London, of a play being performed at the Swan theatre in 1596. I recall that when Sams first brought up this topic in our correspondence, he asked me, without at first mentioning his own argument, what I thought of the picture. I was familiar with it as a document for the design of the Elizabethan stage, but I had always been puzzled by the often-stated view that the dramatic scene was from Twelfth Night, with Olivia, Maria, and Malvolio. It seemed to me that a visitor sketching a souvenir scene would have recorded something more memorable and dramatic—a key moment from a popular play. But I had no specific suggestion to offer as to what scene might have been shown.

            When Sams presented his case, the drawing turned out to be nothing less than an action snapshot of Shakespeare himself on stage in his most famous role (as an actor) in perhaps his most famous play—the Ghost in Hamlet. He enters armed with a spear, which he may literally be shaking—truly a signature gesture for the actor/playwright Shakespeare. It is the bedroom scene, where Hamlet is talking to his mother; the Ghost, entering the chamber, is visible to Hamlet alone. Hamlet (standing) holds his arms apart as if astonished at sight of the Ghost, and Gertrude (seated) is presumably showing her puzzlement over Hamlet's behavior. This may well be the very point when the Ghost cries "Hamlet, revenge"—the most memorable words in the original play, as recalled by people who saw it performed. Thus de Witt would have been recording an archetypal Shakespearean moment of the London stage of 1596.

            There is no need here to go into details of Sams's argument, since they can easily be read in the article itself ("'My name's Hamlet, revenge,'" TLS, September 22, 1995). The instant Sams presented his case, I was struck as if to say "Of course! That's absolutely perfect!" When his discussion was published with an illustration of the drawing, I expected that Sams's brilliant discovery would be appreciated as a great coup for Shakespeare studies—and everyone would wonder, as Sams says in the article, why this had gone unnoticed since the 1880s when the drawing first came to light.

            But I was disappointed when his interpretation was questioned, doubted, and relatively quietly passed over, as if it were a minor curiosity instead of a major discovery. This reaction was and is symptomatic of the whole state of Shakespeare studies that Sams was determined to challenge, and perhaps to revolutionize. Without receiving theimprimatur of established authorities the striking identification would be accorded little credit, no matter how reasonable it seemed on evidence.

            One explanation for the general reluctance to accept Sams's revelation on this point is that he was not writing from within academia. But more importantly, his view on Hamletcalled in question a widely-accepted edifice of theory and hypothesis about the chronology. According to orthodox opinion, Shakespeare's Hamlet could not have been produced by 1596, in spite of the known early references to a revenge play about Hamlet. The revenge play of that time, it is asserted, must have been a different work by another, unknown dramatist, whose play on the subject has not survived independently (even though Shakespeare is the only dramatist of his period specifically known to have written about Hamlet). Furthermore, the first quarto publication of Shakespeare's Hamlet—which Sams identified as derived from Shakespeare's early revenge tragedy—had been rejected during most of the twentieth century as a "bad" text, with little validity for the genuine text of Shakespeare's Hamlet.

            One of the idées reçues that Sams attacked most forcefully, even relentlessly, is the view that the first quarto Hamlet, and a number of other published quartos of Shakespeare plays were "memorial reconstructions." In "Shakespeare, or Bottom? The Myth of 'Memorial Reconstruction,'" Encounter (January 1989), Sams traces the background of this theory, which was evidently unknown until around the 1920s, when certain quarto plays were first tainted with the epithet "bad," and dismissed for the most part from editorial consideration, as garbled, misremembered versions pieced together from actors' memories or non-memories of the lines, for unauthorized, piratical publication. Sams points out that editors of the standard editions of Shakespeare's text have not only proceeded as if this were an accepted truth rather than a questionable hypothesis, but have also left unmentioned and unanswered numerous detailed counter-arguments presented over many years.

            For Sams the so-called "bad" quartos of several well-known Shakespeare plays were in fact Shakespeare's own early versions, which he later revised. This circumstance, in Sams's view, adds to the evidence that Shakespeare did not suddenly burst upon the London scene in the 1590s as a fully developed dramatist. For Sams, the widely-held notions of Shakespeare's "late start" and "lost years" should be set aside in favor of the entirely reasonable view that he went through levels of apprenticeship as he learned the trade of a dramatist after his arrival in London in the 1580s.

            One wonders what the long-term effect of Sams's campaign will be. So far the results seem mixed. Certainly Eric Sams's persuasive case for his views is prominently on record for all to see: in his three impressive books on Shakespeare: Edmund Ironside (1985; 2nd edition, 1986); The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years, 1564–1594 (1995); and Edward III (1996); in his numerous articles and letters to the editor in TLS, Encounter, Hamlet Studies, and other journals; and in his substantial unpublished writings on Shakespeare, including an unfinished biographical sequel: The Real Shakespeare II: Retrieving the Later Years, 1594–1616 (edited by Richard Sams, with assistance from Andrew Lamb). In a chapter of the sequel titled "The Personal Shakespeare" (pp. 26–60) Sams gives fascinating indications that Shakespeare's personal interests are everywhere perceptible in the plays, by way of metaphor, illustration, and source material.

            Sams also wrote extensively and authoritatively in other fields: including cryptography (and 17th-century shorthand systems); and especially music, with important books on Lieder by Wolf, Schumann, and Brahms. These and many more works by Sams are readily available to read, to print, or to download, on the magnificent website overseen by Erik Battaglia, and prepared with help from Richard Sams, Andrew Lamb, and others (

            My impression is that Sams's publications on Shakespeare do not seem to have been as widely discussed and as seriously debated as they deserve, although Ron Rosenbaum inThe Shakespeare Wars (2006) discusses at some length the impact of Sams's views upon the Shakespeare establishment. Also, skepticism about "memorial reconstruction" has now been voiced by other scholars, such as Paul Werstine, in an article in Shakespeare Quarterly(1999), and Lukas Erne in Shakespeare as a Literary Dramatist (2003). Thus Sams's view on that question seems to be making headway, as he stated in the foreword to his sequel,The Real Shakespeare II.

            However, the case of the de Witt drawing shows that if established voices choose to pass over or pay slight attention to a comment, it remains marginal as far as the main scholarly and editorial tradition is concerned. On the other hand, if established voices take up a new point on Shakespeare, then the topic is likely to enjoy prominent publicity, and a climate of acceptance, regardless of the complexities of the arguments and evidence involved, as with the recent discussion of the "Cobbe portrait" (see e.g. The New York Times,March 10, and 15, 2009; also TLS, March 20, 27, and April 17, 2009).

            Over the years there has been an enormous amount written about Shakespeare, including a great deal of utter nonsense, as about his not having written even the plays attributed to him in the folio edition of 1623. The essence of Sams's whole position is that the major question for Shakespeare studies (or indeed for any literary or historical studies) is ultimately not about which views are successfully promoted and widely accepted, but rather about which views are best supported by reasoned argument and historical evidence.


New York, N.Y.

August 18, 2009