Reply to Wells

(Letter to the Editor of the Oxford Magazine)


[for Stanley Wells' letter see here]


28 November 1987; Previously unpublished  © the estate of eric sams 





Dr. Wells will surely come to regret, and wish to withdraw, his emotive and baseless allegations of malice and breach of confidence. My question remains; why is he staking his reputation, and Oxford's, on beliefs held by earlier editors? Later editors have held them too; that is his only answer. He adds that 'a General Editor is likely to select editors whom he believes to be in general sympathy with his views'. Just so; on thus could certain views ever have survived.

My main example was 'memorial reconstruction', with its ceaseless invention, its defiance of dates and documents, and its feigned insights into the workings of hypothetical Tudor minds. In support of this crucial belief, we are offered just four words. The First Folio editors 'must have meant something' by the reference to stole and surreptitious copies. But Dr. Wells has omitted vital words. What Heminges and Condell actually told their readers in 1623 was that 'before, you were abused with' such copies. They could hardly have meant books openly registered and published three decades earlier, when many of the readers they were addressing had not even been born, let alone abused with illicit editions. Of course the reference is actual and topical, to some more recent event. There are no rational grounds whatever for imagining that Shakespeare's earliest editors, in 1623, were referring to beliefs that would be held by his latest editors, in 1987.

     I specified some thirty objections to such beliefs, for which, as I said, no hard (i.e. factual) evidence has ever existed. Dr. Wells offers no word of either controversion or evidence, thus permitting if not admitting the inference that these beliefs are mere fantasies. Nor should he seek asylum among alleged authorities, such as G. I. Duthie. Whether they were 'all there', as he puts it, is a point that needs to be argued, not just assumed. As I said, they remain unknown to lay Shakespeareans (i.e. those who study tester not text-books) and indeed to many experts; thus both Germaine Greer and Jean Jofen have recently treated the early Quartos of 2-3 Henry VIas Shakespeare plays, not 'memorial reconstructions'. Dr. Wells should at least recognise that his orthodoxy is narrowly sectarian.

    I must now correct his errors. I was not mistaken in saying that his present Hamlet beliefs were first formulated by G. I. Duthie. Far more seriously, the claim that current Hamlet editions agree on 'memorial reconstruction', if nothing else, is utterly false. Attentive reading soon shows for example that the New Penguin account is explicitly rejected by the Arden editor, while the New Cambridge account entails a disastrously careless scribe, after 1606, who is identified by the Oxford editor as Shakespeare, before 1606. So far from being 'adequate evidence of an orthodoxy' these editions are, as I said, conclusive evidence of its inadequacy and indeed its non-existence.

    Further, Dr. Wells's present beliefs are not compatible with either the New Penguin Hamlet or the OxfordTaming of the Shrew. The former treats certain lines unique to the 1603 Quarto ac authentic Shakespeare; the latter announces that the 1594 Quarto is a 'memorial reconstruction'. The first belief is found in a typescript edited and seen through the press, on behalf of the general series editor, by Dr. Wells, in a volume which has advertised his name on three pages for eight years. The second occurs under his own general editorship in an Oxford volume which has advertised his name on two pages for six years. He now disclaims responsibility for both, but claims the privilege of writing private letters on the firm's paper. Let the public, and his publishers, judge. I can testify that I have received no such letter as the one he memorially reconstructs; I have inferred his views from his published pronouncements, which reveal a general editor openly at odds with his particular editor. Dr. Wells knows that the 1594 Shrew Quarto is in fact just a play, not a memorial reconstruction at all. 'This viewpoint is not essentially different', my eye. A dozen pages of admitted nonsense have been distributed world-wide under the Oxford imprint, and duly bought and taught on that authority, for six years so far. That is exactly how such absurd beliefs acquire their so-called orthodoxy.

    They have been publicly reinforced, in the Oxford Complete Works, by powerful personal feelings. Not one line of Edward III can be accepted as authentic, because “we cannot feel confident”. A whole act of 1 Henry VI must be expelled from the canon, because “we feel confident”. Yet these are the very questions of attribution about which Oxford's own advisory editor S. Schoenbaum laid down this rule twenty years ego: 'Intuitions, convictions and subjective judgements generally carry no weight as evidence - this no matter how learned, respected or confident the authority'. The same must apply to 'memorial reconstruction' lore, which is also a question of authorship. In his peroration, Dr. Wells solicits tributes to his policy of translating past textual scholarship into present editorial practice. But this is precisely what his critics are complaining about. Authorship cannot possibly be determined by the 'textual soholarship' of beliefs, views, opinions, hypotheses and feelings. Such a methodology is calamitously misconceived. Readers want the complete works of Shakespeare, not the complete convictions of his present editors, and still less the previous convictions of their past mentors. As Dr. Wells himself concedes, 'perhaps they are all wrong'.


Yours faithfully


Dr. Eric Sams