"...The Shaming of the True would be a justifiable title..." - To Glenn Black

Editor of Notes and Queries

 previously unpublished; © the estate of eric sams

13 April 1992 


Dear Dr. Black,


Thank you for your letter of 8 April. I’ll think again about Ironside; perhaps I’ll find an outlet for those vocabulary data in the context of Edward III.

     I’m glad that you found something of interest in my 6 March TLS piece. You were good enough to enquire which particular plays I’d like to discuss in (more) detail.

     First, the canon, which I’ll take in Oxford order. Page references are to the Complete Works (W) and the Textual Companion C); but something of the sort could be said about all modern editions, especially Arden, (New) Cambridge, (New) Penguin and Signet.


1.      The Two Gentlemen of Verona (F1623)

This play, dated both “probably the late 1580s” (W1) and “1590-1” (C109) was not even mentioned as an extant title until 1598, and remained unrecorded in text or performance until 1623. The Oxford dating aberrations appear to arise mainly from Stanley Wells’s personal conviction that “in terms of basic dramatic technique the play is more naïve than anything else in the canon”. At least that belief can be accurately dated, to about thirty years ago (an essay of 1963). But Wells himself seems to have abandoned or forgotten it; neither it nor its printed source is thought worth a mention in his own introduction (C166). Honigmann conjectures 1587, again on no stated or rational grounds. He cogently argues for an early start, but then antedates the canon to fill the gap, regardless of evidence. The historian Rowse is far more factual and rational in his case for dating the TGVplot and some of the text c. 1592. These very different approaches and their results need closer objective analysis.


2. The Taming of the Shrew (Q1594, F1623)

You’ve already kindly printed my refutation of Q as “memorial reconstruction” (March 85, June 86). The offending editions will of course continue to be sold unchanged, despite their obvious and indefensible errors of fact and reasoning and the entire absence of any rational rejoinder from anyone concerned. Oxford manage to compound their confusion with various added contradictions of their own; thus Q cannot (C85) and can (C129) have been written by Shakespeare. If the latter, Q is evidently far earlier than F, yet it is treated as the laterpassim. Further, this latter foundation-stone of wrong dating is both rejected and treated as the head of the corner. Q is supposed to be an “imitation” of or “a derivative play influenced by” F, though these notions are fully as unfounded and unargued as “memorial reconstruction”. That latter doctrine, in relation to Q/F Shrew, was abandoned by Stanley Wells in about 1983, after I had paid a special visit to him in Oxford to explain why it could not possibly be true. Yet the separate Oxford edition (with Wells’s name on it as general editor), announcing Q as just such a “reconstruction” of F, is also still on sale. Further, F must be later than 1600 on Wells’s own announced criterion of dating by last addition; yet it is allocated to 1590-1 for no reason at all, while the post-1600 Fletcher references are desperately explained away as a possible “late interpolation”. Finally, the Works text adds passages from Q (W60) which “may echo passages from Shakespeare”; in other words, the “derivative play” explanation can be infinitely modified as required to account ad hoc for any apparent anomaly. The original “memorial reconstruction” mischief derived directly from Peter Alexander, whose equally grotesque notions about 2-3 Henry VI are still preached as gospel (see items 3-4).

All this urgently needs definitive and vigorous exposé.

The Shaming of the True would be a justifiable title.


3, 4. 2-3 Henry VI (QQ 1594-5, F1623)

You’ve kindly said that I may review the Hattaway New Cambridge 1-2 for you; but I shan’t have anything like space for all that needs to be said. Firstly, the Oxford practice of attaching the Q titles to the F texts is all too typical of their fatal confusions. Thus 2 is dated both “probably 1590-1” (W63) and certainly “1591” (C112). Then they believe that Alexander’s absurd 1929 arguments in favour of QQ as “memorial reconstruction” of FF “have never been plausibly refuted” (C175, 197). This may mean that they have no idea what constitutes a refutation, or merely that they are unfamiliar with Greg’s annihilating refutations of 1933. I published my own refutations in Encounter (Jan. 1989); the Oxford editors stayed silent. Nor have they ever replied to their colleague Urkowitz’s more recent refutations. Yet their total submission to the Alexandrian conquest seems remarkably recent; the Works volume is innocent of any such notions (W63, 103). Even more curiously, that volume adds Quarto passages as if they were authentically Shakespearean, which cannot possibly be the case if those texts are in fact mere “memorial reconstructions”. These points are especially crucial because all orthodox Shakespeare dating derives solely from the acceptance of Alexander by all concerned, including biographers like Schoenbaum, as “plausible”; as if plausibility somehow ruled out charlatanry. Further, Alexander’s theory of “memorial reconstruction” is not only preposterous per se but is actually rejected by the Oxford editors (C175). Their so-called “slight qualification”, in respect of both plays, actually entails the rejection of Alexander’s theory (as to which see also item 15) in favour of the equally baseless notions of one Madeleine Doran (1928) diversified with a few extra fantasies of their own.

     Thus Shakespeare’s own first versions, QQ, accepted as such for generations, are denied him, and their misclassification as “memorial reconstructions” is triumphantly asserted as evidence for the primacy of FF and their dating as early plays. But what would any rational person rejoin if asked to infer the dates of composition solely from the actual known facts that QQ were first published in 1594-5 while FF remained unknown and unmentioned in print or performance until 1623? Again, this unhealthy morass lies in urgent need of drainage and reclamation.


5. 1 Henry VI (F1623)

The Oxford editors announce as an absolute fact their own theory, for which no trace of factual evidence is offered (or has ever existed), that this play was written by Shakespeare “and others”. The supposed others were at least two. One was allegedly perhaps (W173) or certainly (C112) Thomas Nashe. Another may also have written Locrine (a play attributed to W.S. on its title-page). The collaborators may also, according to Gary Taylor in the TLS, include the author of Edmund Ironside. The facts, taken together with a modicum of common sense and the principle of economy, indicate that here is exactly such a play of varying styles as one would expect to find among the posthumous papers of an author famed (even in the Oxford editions) for his habitual practice of radical revision. This play should certainly be restored to Shakespeare and the canon.


6. Titus Andronicus (Q 1594, F 1623)

Again the evidence of revision is plain; III.ii. appears only in F, and may be dated c. 1608. Revision also explains why Oxford (C115) wish to attribute I.i. to “Peele or an imitator of Peele”, i.e. one of the playwrights whom Shakespeare was accused of plagiarising (Greene 1592).


7. Richard III (Q 1597, F 1623)

Q is a “memorial reconstruction” made collectively by an entire imaginary theatre company on a hypothetical tour. This extraordinary theory, first advanced by one Patrick in 1936, has been elaborated and inadvertently refuted by Gary Taylor (“the text is so well reported that its memorial origins have sometimes been doubted” [!]), who typically announces it as fact (C231) although no such claim is advanced or even hinted at in the Works (207). Urkowitz’s recent refutations of all this nonsense remain uncountered, as usual. A factual synopsis and exposé are urgently needed.


8. Romeo and Juliet (Q 1597, F 1623)

Here the theory of “memorial reconstruction” by “actors” is diversified by further theories of “disaffection” and “piracy”. As usual, all this is freely offered as fact without any argument except a genuflection in the general direction of some supposed authority, this time one Hoppe in 1948. “Hoppe convincingly showed”; well, at least that’s a change from “Alexander has not been plausibly refuted”. And this time, again for a change, W377 agrees with C288f. But as before there has been no sign of response to the specific refutations from Bains, Urkowitz and others. A general statement of the facts and arguments exposing the utter flimsiness of this case is also long overdue.


9. King John (Troublesome Reign Q 1591, F 1623)

F is dated “probably in 1595 or 1596” (W447) or certainly “1596”, on the usual absence of evidence. You kindly published my piece seeking to show that Q was Shakespeare’s own first shot at a John play (March 1988). Again, silence reigns, presumably because that is less troublesome for all concerned. Not even Professor Smallwood or Professor Honigmann, both of whose incompatible theories I claim to have refuted, has shown his hand or raised his voice.


10, 11, 12. 1-2 Henry IVHenry V (respectively Q/F 1598/1623, c. 1600/1623, c. 1601/1623)

I have already submitted a proposed refutation of the extraordinary theory, again advanced as an absolute fact on the basis of now evidence at all, that Falstaff was called “Oldcastle” in an early version of 1 Henry IV, allegedly written and performed c. 1597. It seems extraordinary to me that an edition which says and shows, over and over again, that Shakespeare was a lifelong and habitual reviser, should fail to see that this, and not “memorial reconstruction”, is the self-evident explanation of all the many two- or three-version plays on the same theme, and also of the otherwise inexplicable fact that only Shakespeare, among known Tudor and Stuart dramatists, exhibits any such phenomena. In particular, of course Henry V Q1600 is not a memorial reconstruction, and Gary Taylor’s separate Oxford edition is demonstrably mistaken on that point as on so many others. It too, in the established tradition, asserts its theories as facts and inadvertently refutes its own main hypothesis, by saying straight out that Q is “a historical document of far more authority than the hypotheses of any twentieth century scholar” (of course including Taylor himself, though he has not noticed this inevitable inference). This topic too urgently needs objective analysis.


13. The Merry Wives of Windsor (Q 1602, F 1623)

You have kindly published my review of the separate Oxford volume (June 1991), in which I point out that everything T.W. Craik takes on trust (from earlier authorities so supposedly powerful that he feels there is no need to discuss or even state what they actually say), such as Q’s being a “memorial reconstruction”, is entirely unevidenced and irrational. I said much the same in a letter to LRB. There has been no word of response from Prof. Craik. The main Oxford editors maintain their silence on these as on all other critical points. Their account of the MWW problems (C340f) omits to mention that the 1602 title-page of the text they attribute to piratical actors says “by William Shakespeare”. Such levels of argument and exegesis deserve detailed denunciation. Again there has been no response to Prof. Bains’s demonstration that Q is a play, not a “memorial reconstruction”; nor will there be.


14. Hamlet (Ur-Hamlet by 1589, Q1 1602, Q2 1604, F 1623)

Much the same applies as to MWW above. Again there is no mention of the name “William Shakespeare” on the Q1 title-page; again the only arguments for the theories of “memorial reconstruction” and “piracy” are that other authorities agree. Again we are told that there is no need to consider the evidence; the case has been decided by the self-appointed judges in camera. The only mention of the dissent of Prof. Urkowitz is that his argument “hinges upon a wholesale rejection of memorially reconstructed texts”, which is presented as a sufficient and indeed the only counter-argument. It is however a falsehood, as I pointed out in the Hamlet piece you kindly published (March 1991). Not even that blunt accusation elicited any response. Nor has my polemic in Hamlet Studies (1988); nor have the various articles of Urkowitz or Bains. The rest (on the laurels) is silence.


15. King Lear (Q 1608, F 1623)

As in 13 and 14, the name “William Shakespeare” on the 1608 title-page remains unmentioned. This suppression was not even necessary, since not even the Oxford editors now believe that Q was “a memorial reconstruction made by the entire company”. Yet they say (C509) that this bizarre belief was once endemic among editors, including (though they refrain from pointing this out) themselves. They were weaned from that childish fantasy by the same Stephen Urkowitz whose exactly parallel views on exactly parallel cases they now treat with contempt, and also with what might charitably be described as inaccuracy. The “memorial reconstruction” theory is retained for many other plays; the “entire company” theory is retained for Richard III(7 above). The inventor of these tales about Lear, though again the fact remains unmentioned, later withdrew his theories when he was eventually persuaded to realize their manifest absurdity. This is the same George Duthie whose parallel follies about Hamlet are first swallowed hook line and sinker and then regurgitated as unassailable fact about which “all authorities agree”. It is also the same George Duthie for whom A Shrew was a “memorial reconstruction” of The Shrew, made by professional actors who had completely all 3,000 lines of the play they had just performed, together with its title, location, plot and characters. The admired authority Alexander thought the same. Neither they nor anyone else bothered to check their theories against the facts. Alexander also maintained a lofty silence about ceaseless criticisms, all his long life.


16. Pericles (Q 1609, F 1623)

You kindly published (also March 1991) my comments on the “Wilkins” hallucination. Again, there have been no counter-arguments or answers of any kind. The next topic to tackle is the myth of Q as “memorial reconstruction”. Again, the treatment is entirely typical; the theory is asserted as an incontrovertible fact, on no evidence of any kind, and the massive counter-evidence (such as the usual “William Shakespeare” on the title-page) is simply suppressed. This example of the theory is even wilder and woollier than the rest; “memorial reconstruction” is inferred from a total absence of any text that Q could have been reconstructed from. This surely deserves some kind of special award for perversity and folly.

     The absurdity of the “stylistic” or “statistical” or “stylometric” arguments about authorship, i.e. using mathematics to arrive at the number of conclusions one first thought of, is long overdue for radical rebuttal. It’s not only the mythical “Wilkins” in Pericles that needs to be debunked but the equally chimerical “Middleton” inMacbeth and Timon, “Fletcher” in Henry VIII, “X”, “Y”, and “Z” in 1 Henry VI and so forth.

     Again: one author with a freely admitted passion for revision, often after long intervals, is the obvious as it is economical and the evidenced solution to all such so-called problems of style, meaning an incurable distaste for anything thought unworthy of Shakespeare. It is noteworthy that Taylor’s Oxford statistical tables and “function word” tests have all been annihilated by the professional statistician Wilf Smith, also in your pages. But Smith’s own methods, despite his rash claims of “proof” are also readily rebutted. The short point is that there is no rational inference, whether inductive or deductive, from statistical computation to real life in a real world. That has been demonstrated (if it needs demonstrating) by the truly great mathematician J.E. Littlewood in a seminal essay. Everyone really know this; the amateur expresses its undeniable truth by some such phrase as “you can’t quantify style”. The basic assumption that certain select souls can do exactly that is always made, usually tacitly, but never argued or justified; because it can’t be. Sceptics might now point to the political polls with alleged and accepted errors of + or – 3% which turned out to have errors approximating rather more closely to infinity. It’s interesting that the very same people (such as Jackson, Lake, Merriam, Morton, Slater, Smith, Taylor and Ule) all begin with the same unprovable and unmentioned assumption (that numbers can reveal authors, who are helpless instruments of their style) and proceed to squabble and argue endlessly among themselves, so that no two of them ever agree about anything (the sure sign of baseless assumption). They even reject themselves as well as each other; thus Merriam’s 1986 odds of 890,000,000,000,000,000,000 for Greene as against Shakespeare as the author of Ironside have now been reduced, on recalculation, by a factor of some trillions. There is surely scope here for a further refutation of these baseless theories, pending the formulation of universally-agreed axioms, methods and results of “stylometry”. An essay on that subject is long overdue.

     No doubt all this is more than enough. So I’ll omit all detailed reference to non-canonical works. It’s sad enough to say that all avenues of approach to them are at present firmly sealed off by “memorial reconstruction”, which attributes early Shakespeare plays (such as QQ 2-3 Henry VI) to “actors”, thus forbidding even the publication, let alone the study, of all such texts, and their comparison with other candidates such asEdward III (as to which the Oxford editors now at last agree with what I told them ten years ago) and Edmund Ironside (which is obviously written by the author of Edward III). There is some slight movement on this front; thus Hamlet Q1 has just been published, as Shakespeare’s, by a Pennsylvania press. Perhaps you’d like a review of it? I was sent a copy as the 1985 TLS reviewer quoted (anonymously, such is fame) on the dust jacket as speaking up for a Shakespeare Q1.

     I had a few other encouraging letters following my latest TLS piece. I haven’t heard of any rejoinders from those whose reasoning and behavior it criticizes; and I do not expect to. Not one of any of my c. 100 letters and articles in your columns (thanks again) and elsewhere (LRBConnotationsEncounter, etc., as well as the TLS) has ever attracted the least syllable of rational rejoinder, over the last ten years. Alas, silence has replaced honesty as the best policy.



     I hope this (very restricted and selective) account goes some way to meet your request for further information about topics that might now be tackled. I have some spare time at the moment, while I’m awaiting a contract for a Shakespeare book with the positive remit of setting out the facts, i.e. saying what’s right instead of what’s wrong. But there will always be a case, I believe, for throwing out the dirty water before taking in the clean; and the Niagara of nonsense that has drowned Shakespeare studies for most of this century (ever since Courthope, I’d say) is now about the size of an ocean. Just call me Partington.1 But I’m more than ready to submit further material on any aspect you may think worth further consideration.


Best wishes




Eric Sams




1Mrs Partington, who "lived upon the beach [and] was seen at the door of her house with mop and pattens, trundling her mop, squeezing out the sea-water, and vigorously pushing away the Atlantic Ocean" (attrib. Sydney Smith, 1831).

[For this footnote thanks to Dr Andrew Lamb, ED]