Shakespeare Nods

Letter to the Editor

London Review of Books, 6 March 1986

Sir: Just my luck to have Ironside reviewed by Andrew Gurr (LRB, 6 February), who can't even see that the More Hand D scene is by Shakespeare. John Kerrigan admits that my 70 parallels with Titus Andronicus prove either the same author or plagiarism. But he begins by ruling out the former. So, since Titus was written by 1594, and Shakespeare cannot be the plagiarist, Ironside may safely be labelled '1595-1600' and replaced, none too gently, on the shelf. To other academics, this will seem reasonable, even self-evident. To at least one layman it represents a depressingly typical blend of complacent assumption and reckless invention, whereby historical fact is conveniently inferred from literary opinion.

    If Kerrigan truly believed that 'everything hangs on the date,' he would have begun with that question, not ended with it; and in the spirit of science, not omniscience. Then he might have asked himself whether his imaginary '1595-1600' really outweighs my 14 pages of evidence and argument in favour of 1588. He might also have wondered whether it is really scholarly, or even rational, to postulate a dull and inept Tudor playright whose sole discernible skill consisted in stealing occasional ideas from an early anonymous play. This puzzling practice was so unobtrusive that it remained unrecorded for 360 years. Yet it was so comprehensive as to include not only the 50 Titus parallels noticed by Kerrigan but 150 from the Henry VI trilogy (first published 1632), 80 from the Richard plays, and hundreds more from the canon at large. Sadly, I had no space to tabulate all of them: so it is only theTitus sample spread at pages 34-37 that catches the eye. But readers, if not reviewers, will readily find the rest; and not everyone will feel free to invent unverifiable entities and corollaries just in order to explain away those appearances as non-Shakespearean.

    In case I am accused of unfairness to academics in calling Kerrigan typical, I should add that Richard Proudfoot, Stanley Wells, John Wilders and John Jones, so far, have all approached Ironside from exactly the same angle. They too know a priori that it is not by Shakespeare. Yet they cannot deny the close and copious affinities. So they select among whatever they happen to notice, and then proceed to shield Shakespeare from any suspicion of complicity. For them, too, this entails inventing otherwise unknown playrights who write like Shakespeare, and adjusting history accordingly. Of course the resulting dates and details differ widely, but no one troubles over such trifles. It will not be mere coincidence that precisely these same procedures, complete with built-in contradictions, are habitually used to supply Bad Quarto mythology with its sole support. First assume that the early Ironside-like versions of e.g. 2 and 3 Henry VI are not by Shakespeare. Then conjure up a whole troupe of strolling plagiarists who hide Shakespearean gems among their own crude paste so cunningly that only a specially-trained expert can tell the difference. These hypotheses in turn enable the 1623 Folio texts to be imaginatively redated c. 1590. Again history obliges with a properly deferential reaction to one's own opinions.

    It is now time to challenge those opinions. As the entire world has recently had cause to notice, the trained Shakespeareans cannot agree about what he actually wrote, let alone when. Kerrigan and Gurr further illustrate this for me by their various views on 'Shall I die?',Edward III and Sir Thomas More as well as Ironside. Such questions should now be handed over to trained logicians and historians. Meanwhile the layman can make a contribution just by keeping an open mind. So far, I have seen only one lay review of my Ironside edition, by Anthony Burgess in the Observer. So far, he alone feels no compulsion to invent any date for that play, or to deny that it could be by Shakespeare. Could it be that his literary perceptions are even keener than Kerrigan's? 

Eric Sams

Sanderstead, Surrey