The Troublesome Wrangle Over King John

(Typed from the original manuscript by Richard Sams; pre-print version, with several variants, of the Notes and Queries essay, ccxxxiiii, 1988, 41-4; © THE ESTATE OF ERIC SAMS) 


The layman can only marvel at modern Shakespeare methodology, which is devoted to deducing historical fact from literary opinion. I propose the opposite approach. Take the crucial problem of counterpart plays. Given two texts so tightly intertwined that one must be a reworking of the other, who wrote what and when? With King John for example, confusion has reigned for the last fifty years. Two typical antagonists are Ernst Honigmann of Newcastle University and Robert Smallwood of the Birmingham Shakespeare Institute. They have clashed in head-on contradiction for over a decade. One of them must be hopelessly wrong. I shall seek to show that they both are, because even their common ground is baseless. The first step, which no party to this dispute has ever yet taken, is to set out the documentary facts in date order without imposing any a priori preconception.

     In 1591 appeared the first edition, in two parts, of the 3000-line play now known as The Troublesome Reign (TR for short). Its Part One title-page reads: “The Troublesome Raigne of John King of England, with the discoverie of King Richard Cordelions Base sonne (vulgarly named, the Bastard Fawconbridge): also the death of King John at Swinstead Abbey. As it was (sundry times) publikely acted by the Queenes Majesties Players, in the honourable Citie of London. Imprinted at London for Sampson Clarke, and are to be sold at his shop on the backe-side of the Royall Exhange”. The sequel is “The Second part of the troublesome Raigne of King John, containing the death of Arthur Plantaginet, the landing of Lewes, and the poysning of King John at Swinstead Abbey. As it was ...”, etc., unchanged. In 1598 the title “King John” was included by Francis Meres, among the tragedies in the first Shakespeare work-list. In 1611 the two parts of TR were combined in a second edition called “The First and Second Part ...” etc., “As they were (sundry times) lately acted by the Queenes Majesties Players. Written by W. Sh. Imprinted at London by Valentine Simmes for John Helme, and are to be sold at his shop in Saint Dunstons Churchyard in Fleetestreet”. In 1622 a third edition was published, with the title-page variants “As they were (sundry times) lately acted. Written by W. Shakespeare. Printed by Aug. Mathewes for Thomas Dewe, and are to be sold at” the same address.

     This play is not found in the 1623 First Folio, where the histories begin with an entirely different yet integrally related 2700-line text called The Life and Death of King John (KJ for short), of which no previous printing or performance has ever been recorded. Exceptionally, its Folio publication was not entered in the Stationers' Register. This KJ text reappeared in the second and subsequent Folios from 1632 on. Nothing more was heard of TR until 1656, when “John King of England, both parts” was attributed to Shakespeare in “an exact and perfect Catalogue of all the Plaies that were ever printed” appended to Edward Archer’s edition of The Old Law by Massinger and others. TR was again attributed to Shakespeare in Francis Kirkman’s analogous but independent catalogues of 1661 and 1671, Gerard Langbaine’s catalogue of 1691, its continuation by Charles Gildon in 1699, the W. Mears catalogues of 1713, 1719 and 1726, and an edition of 1764 published by Robert Horsefield.

     All this evidence insists that TR, like it or not, is an early Shakespeare play. Yet academic methodology begins by assuming and asserting the contrary, on no evidence at all. Our academic establishment knows that TR cannot possibly be by Shakespeare. It follows, with typical Mad Hatter’s logic, that all the tradesmen who printed and sold it as such must have been liars and cheats who naively announced their names and addresses in accordance with the quaint customs of Tudor times. It further follows that their intended customers, notably the paying public of the greatest age in theatre history, must have been dullards and dupes incapable of telling the two disparate playwrights apart. It follows above all that what Francis Meres meant in 1598 by Shakespeare’s tragedy King John” cannot possibly have been the actual extant performed and published tragedy TR 1591, bearing the words “King John” on every page, specifically attributed to Shakespeare by four different in two separate editions including six years of his lifetime, and still cited as his in at least eight catalogues and another title-page up to two hundred years later, without any trace of protest from any quarter. Never mind all that; what Meres must have meant in 1598, depend upon it, is a Folio history which for all anyone knows was then still unwritten.

     These baseless assumptions are solemnly presented as well-known fact in all standard editions and works of reference. The actual facts tell a different story. On the authority of the earliest biographers, writing in good faith after due inquiry, Shakespeare was taken away from school prematurely to work for his father in Stratford. He came to London at about eighteen, in the early 1580s, and soon began to write popular plays. TR c.1588 is among the very earliest of popular plays, and it is based on Holinshed's Chronicles. Shakespeare was the pioneer of popular plays from that source. On good evidence, he was associated with the Queen's Men in the later 1580s; TR belonged to that company in that period. All the other Shakespeare “tragedies” listed in 1598 were first published anonymously. He was widely known, on copious title-page and textual evidence, as a reviser of his own work. Of course only his final versions would be retained in his 1623 Folio. He remembered his Folio editors in his will; he knew they would remember him. KJ was printed from authorial copy of unknown date. There are no grounds whatever for supposing  that it even existed in 1598, let alone for asserting that was the King John play then mentioned by Meres. Its only objective terminus is Shakespeare's own, April 1616. Of course his early popular plays, though left uncollected, would already have been performed and published, presumably with profit to their well-known author; Shakespeare died rich. All this would easily explain the otherwise mystifying fact that KJ was not separately registered for Folio publication. It would be treated as identical with TR for copyright purposes because that was the sensible rule governing two versions of the same play by the same playwright, not because the stationers’ registrars were crooks conniving at chicanery or simpletons who could not tell one play from another. The final puzzle solved is how Shakespeare could have felt justified in converting an earlier play piecemeal into a new work intended to enhance his own profit and prestige.

     On any analysis, that conversion process is crucial. One of these John plays was systematically modelled on the other. According to Honigmann, TR 1591 was imitated by the unknown plagiarist X from performances of Shakespeare's supposedly pre-existing KJ 1623. According to Smallwood, Shakespeare's pre-1598 KJ was his adaptation of the printed TR 1591, written by the unknown playwright X. The first two hypotheses are wholly unevidenced; they are recklessly uneconomical in their invention of unnecessary unknowns; they are totally incompatible in every particular; each is separately open to serious objection. Smallwood and Honigmann have already annihilated each other's theories without any help from me, which leaves the third. Smallwood unanswerably objects to the gratuitous invention of the unique plagiarist X; Honigmann to the gratuitous invention of the unique plagiarist Shakespeare. Honigmann requires many other unevidenced assumptions; a holograph text transported backwards in time some twenty-five years, a theatre company to perform it and six other supposedly extant plays, a keen playgoer or perhaps an actor to attend all those imaginary performances, his metamorphosis into an independent playwright whose only known work consists solely of dependent plagiarism, and so forth. These implausible speculations inadvertently prove what they suppose impossible. Honigmann insists that the author of TR used a locution actually coined by Shakespeare (“divine instinct”), together with more than twenty other Shakespearean phrases and ideas, at a time when there is no evidence that any of the passages allegedly plagiarized had in fact been written. These passages are then defined as “undistinguished verse that no normal imitator would have picked out”. Honigmann thus calmly postulates an abnormal imitator specializing in the plagiarism of undistinguished verse from Shakespeare’s plays that first have to be conjured into existence in order to be stolen from and then devalued in order to provide the particular quality of dullness that this abnormal imitator so curiously craves. Among other eccentricities, this imitator contrives to borrow many more phrases from other Shakespeare plays he is supposed to have seen than from the one he is supposed to be plagiarizing. Any rational alternative must be preferable, and these equations have a much simpler solution: X was just a playwright writing a play, which strikingly anticipates Shakespeare’s early style for rather obvious reasons.

     Smallwood's opposite track also leads ineluctably back to the same conclusion. He calmly postulates Shakespeare the unprecedented pirate, shamelessly plundering a fellow-playwright's characters, including the unhistorical Bastard (vaunted on the TR title-page as a novel invention), as well as scenes and ideas passim, down to such details as compressing two of Richard's enemies into one small role, and misdescribing the papal legate Pandulph as the Cardinal of Milan. Shakespeare, on this theory, not only treated TR exactly as if it was his own property to exploit as he pleased, but also shared identical idiosyncratic features with its author. Here too the obvious explanation is surely preferable.

     Yet no party to this dispute has ever given more than a passing glance to the solution that stares us all in the face. Honigmann so defines the problem as to exclude its simplest answer. He allows only two possibilities, the “anonymous” TR and Shakespeare's KJ, thus silently eliminating Shakespeare's anything but anonymous TR. Smallwood brushes all such evidence aside with one sweeping statement: “No one nowadays takes the idea of Shakespeare's authorship [of TR] seriously”.  So much for any rational interpretation of Meres 1598. So much for Sims, Helme, Matthews, Dew, Archer, Kirkman, Langbaine, Gildon, Mears, Horsefield, Pope, Theobald, Warburton, Capell, Steevens, Coleridge, Tieck, Schlegel, Ulrici, Courthope, Tillyard, Everitt, and many others over the last four centuries. All knaves and fools; we modern academics know best.

     But that argument sits more comfortably, as well as more modestly, the other way round. No doubt our elders knew best. If we are appealing to authority, theirs is far greater. At least we need a firmer basis than mere bias from which to attack their probity or their acumen. They stand much closer to the evidence; they and that evidence have every right to be respected. Literary opinion must depend on historical fact, not vice versa. At present even the opinion polls are rigged. Interested readers are in no position to judge TR for themselves; there is no current edition. It lies in limbo with other lost plays, under a smothering smokescreen of confused fantasies about pirates, plagiarists, dishonest publishers, corrupt actors, “derived plays” and “memorial reconstructions”. These 1920s fashions are still paraded as facts, although not one of them offers even the flimsiest fibre of material evidence; they are all just transparent fabrications, which everyone will see through who can bother to look. Here too TR provides a turning-point. The theory of its supposed plagiarism c.1590 from Shakespeare’s allegedly pre-existing KJ 1623 is so unpalatable that not even a credulous establishment has ever been able to swallow it. Every amateur and many a professional can draw the inference that all such notions are as misconceived as they are mischievous. Those Tudor printers, publishers, booksellers, and actors were not scoundrels; those Tudor playgoers, readers, editors and administrators were not idiots. Earlier plays are earlier, not later, than later plays. Better texts are the end-products of a proven process of deliberate improvement, not the raw material for an imaginary process of haphazard corruption. Historical evidence coupled with economy of hypothesis must eventually prevail. The problem of counterpart plays is confined to Shakespeare. So, therefore, should its answer be. The simple unitary solution of one actor-playwright writing and rewriting plays must surely be preferred to endless troupes of strolling hypotheses that left no trace of their passing and were never even dreamed of until centuries later. Nobody plagiarized Shakespeare; Shakespeare plagiarized nobody. All the Hamlet, Henry V, Henry VI, Lear, Shrew, and other variant texts, just like the two King John plays, represent his own writing at different stages of development. The earliest versions are correctly described as lost plays. They are not only lost to, but have been lost by, a modern academic methodology of opinion, assumption, and invention.