Reply to Foster

© Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 40, n. 2, Summer 1989



   On the published testimony of two highly skilled professionals, each a practised graphologist, a palaeographer and specialist in Shakespeare studies, the British Library Ironside MS is a Shakespeare autograph.  This conclusion was reached by the Renaissance scholar E. B. Everitt in 1954 and by the documents expert Charles Hamilton (who was unaware of Everitt’s work, or mine) in 1986. I would expect such questions to interest my reviewers.  Donald W. Foster, in his review of my Shakespeare’s Lost Play: Edmund Ironside (SQ 39, 1), has “no opinion on the handwriting,” except that it may indeed be Shakespeare’s own, but plenty of opinion, typically stated as fact, about everything else. Ironside itself is dismissed as a “grab-bag … ineptly ransacked to help out with Titus Andonicus1 – 3 Henry VI and other Folio plays.  Foster thus accepts Ironside as an early chronicle history which Shakespeare may well have penned in his own hand, and certainly thought worth recycling in his own earliest known works, including his chronicle histories.

   Yet Foster rejects the simple and obvious explanation of these points in favour of the stupefying fantasy that Shakespeare not only stole words, diction, phrasing, imagery and stage actions from someone else’s “wooden” play but also spent many hours diligently fair-copying its 2,060 lines in a form ready for performance and publication.  These wild conjectures entail a still earlier Ironside MS available for copying, together with a whole scenario of unevidenced and implausible procedures.  Did Shakespeare steal that playscript, as well as its ideas?  What were his motives?  Where was the author of Ironside at the time, and what were his reactions?  All these riddles arise because Foster would far rather indict Shakespeare on trumped-up charges of dishonest and freakish behaviour than admit the wooden Ironside into the citadel, even as an early apprentice work.

   Such manifest prejudice motivates and vitiates the entire review, which consists of similar inventions, errors and confusions far too numerous to refute in this forum. Foster and I debated about Ironside during the 1988 Virginia Beach Shakespeare-By-The-Sea Festival, where I disproved for example his crucial but utterly false claim that Shakespeare’s self-borrowings are not extensive; there are in fact hundreds of examples, as Kenneth Muir pointed out in 1960 (Shakespeare as Collaborator, p. 28).  What actually is unknown, conversely, as Muir pointed out (ibid., p. 29) is any such recycling of any such source-play as Foster’s fantasy requires.

   On behalf of all “well-meaning but unskilled amateurs” I crave permission to address a question to the “professional scholars” with whom Foster so complacently compares us.  In the real world, whose plays would Shakespeare copy, in either sense, but his own?  Whatever our status or qualifications, we all have a duty to get our basic facts right, and refrain from irresponsible inventions such as degrading Shakespeare into a shameless plagiarist, and laborious transcriber, of worthless trash.  Foster, on his own showing, has unwittingly authenticated Edmund Ironside by his own reduction ad absurdum.

   He makes one valid point; I am sorry about the misprint of “a” for “an” in line fourteen (not ten, as he states).





   I am sorry that Mark Dominik and Eric Sams are unhappy with my reviews of their respective books on The Birth of Merlin and Edmund Ironside (unfavourable reviews, after all, can prove a headache for the reviewer as well as for those reviewed) – and I do wish that I could have been more congratulatory, since there will always be room in Shakespeare studies for canonical scholarship that is thoughtful, objective, and well-informed.  But these two books are none of the above.  Indeed, having investigated the complaints of Sams and Dominik, I stand by what I have written, in every particular.




   Turning then to my remarks on Dr. Sams’s book, I find an idiosyncratic spelling, idiosyncracy(p. 121 of my review), that was my own doing (no slur was intended on Dr. Sams’s spelling skills); and “Latin” (p. 121) should read “Latinate.”  Otherwise, I find my remarks perfectly accurate (including even such minutia as the line of Ironside in which Sams makes his first textual error).  I wish, however, to clarify a few points that are muddled in Dr. Sams’s letter.  Nowhere in my review do I propose that Ironside is a play that Shakespeare himself “penned,” or even that Shakespeare “spent many hours diligently fair-copying its 2,060 lines….”  My point, which will be clear to all careful readers, is that the identity of the Ironside playwright must be considered separately from the identity of the scribe who is responsible for the surviving manuscript – which Sams (like some of his critics) has failed to do.  I have since concluded to my own satisfaction that the scribal hand (like the text itself) cannot be Shakespeare’s.  Other scholars may disagree.  (Sams’s above-named ally Charles Hamilton, for one, has boasted that he knew in just “five seconds” that Ironside is “a drama entirely in Shakespeare’s hand … the most important literary discovery of the century.”)

   Every reader of Shakespeare knows that the poet’s “self-borrowings” are frequent, nor does my review suggest otherwise.  But the pattern of borrowing in this case indicates quite clearly that Ironside was a direct source for Titus Andronicus (even as Holinshed’s Chronicles is a direct source for Ironside).  Is Shakespeare, then, a wicked man, in having borrowed from someone else’s play?  Sams, like Everitt before him, presents us with an ultimatum.  Either Shakespeare wrote Ironside, writes Sams, or else Shakespeare is a “shameless plagiarist.”  This, finally, is Sams’s problem in a nutshell; he simply misunderstands Renaissance notions of originality and imitation.  The usual starting point here is Harold Ogden White’s Plagiarism and Imitation during the English Renaissance (1935).  One only wishes that Dr. Sams had read that landmark study before writing Shakespeare’s Lost Play.

   Let me close by expressing my goodwill towards Mr. Dominik and Dr. Sams.  I wish to see both gentlemen treated fairly.  But, after perusing their letters to the editor, it appears to me that my SQ review, if it has erred, has erred principally on the side of mercy.