139. 17 November 2000 [ES] (Shakespeare as a child of his time; Hamlet Q1; 'Negative Capability'; Shakespeare's spelling)

previously unpublished; © the estate of eric sams and beatrice cazac (Mrs. Mathew’s letters)

Dear Hayat,

   Thanks for yours. I quite agree that the winged chariot has had a rebore, and now goes even faster (but alas not farther) than ever. Time also, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away, including dear Alan Tyson – and other sons she brings to birth, but not my friend again. Further, some powerful force (perhaps that same bore) has increased the pace of the current. Real rivers are in spate too; we've had lots of floods lately; and Italy, I'm told, knows not only flood but mud. Which reminds me of Shakespeare's 'the nine men's morris (what was that?) is filled up with mud', which allegedly happened in Athens, though it sounds to me much more like a description of bad weather in England. Perhaps they had global warming then. That may also have been foreseen, by Lewis Carroll (as an explanation of 'why the sea is boiling hot'). Such topics are much on my mind at the moment; I'm planning to start my new book with some account of those passages which show Shakespeare as a child of his time, which I see as a necessary preliminary to being for all time. He often seems to derive his power from plugging in to the here and now, i.e. Tudor times.

   That might account for his anti-Catholicism in Troublesome Reign; how could any patriotic English person fail to be anti-Catholic in view (not literally: God blew just in time) of the Armada? As Elizabeth said at Tilbury, I think foul scorn that any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm.


   Now for Hamlet Q1. Personally, I'm disposed to blame the misprints on Shakespeare himself. e.g. because of his notoriously difficult and often impenetrably illegible handwriting (cf. Schumann, Ich weiss, ich habe eine gottlose Handschrift aber ich kann sie nicht verbessern). That way, don't (as some ungracious commentators do) blunt the sharp edge of Ockham's Razor, which tells us that if one hand suffices then one hand it is. And, after all,someone must have written 'invulnerable' so that it looked like 'invelmorable'; and so forth. I entirely agree with you, of course, that 'Plato' for 'Plautus' is rather more difficult to explain on such a supposition; but then, what hypothesis would make it easier? Not, I think, 'memorial reconstruction', for which, so far as my own researches take me, no trace of evidence has ever existed, and which doesn't really explain anything anyhow. Perhaps such cases call for a stiff dose of what that great Shakespearean Keats called 'Negative Capability', that is, capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason' - with the proviso that those avenues of approach have to be explored first. Too many people, it seems to me, place them second, or third, or nowhere.

   I'm also into Shakespeare's spelling, which (as we can see from the insurrection scene in Sir Thomas More) was highly individual, and must surely, as in the case of the modal auxiliaries 'coold' and 'woold', which I've never found anywhere else in twenty years of quite serious study and reading, have been altered or indeed corrected by compositors. But the whole subject is a tricky one, in which almost no progress has been made. The latest contributor is Ernst Honigmann on what he sees as the personal and peculiar spellings in Othello Q1 1622 – well worth reading, though when I wrote to him to point out that by the same test the disputed apocrypha such asEdward III and Ironside, as well as the so-called 'Bad Quartos', were all genuinely authentic, he replied by return of post to say (a) that although now Emeritus he really couldn't afford the postage required by replying to such importunate missives and (b) anyhow that no doubt not all his supposed spellings were peculiar to Shakespeare, though he couldn't say which were right and which wrong. I fear he's gone even more gaga than I have.

   You, on the other hand, sound very sprightly; it was good to hear from you. Now I must get back to The Real Shakespeare Part Two. What are you working on, now that you've saved our Bacon? Do you agree, incidentally, with A.L. Rowse (whom Samuel Schoenbaum or his compositor spelt Roswe, though as I pointed out in my review it might have been Worse) that the lines 'The great man down, you mark his favourite flies' (Player King inHamlet III.ii) is about Bacon?

   All best, as ever; take care,

   Yours Eric