Shakespeare's 'Lost Years'

Letter to the Editor

Times Literary Supplement, 17 May 1985



Sir, – Why is Anthony Powell (Letters, May 3) helping to perpetuate the weird academic fantasy about Shakespeare the Mummer Boy? To believe that, we first have to dismiss or distort the plain sense of what John Aubrey wrote: “when he killed a calf”. Then we must suppose that Aubrey, even though he “always has his reasons”, as Mr Powell himself insists, had no reasons for saying that Shakespeare’s father was a butcher. Next, poor Aubrey must be further feigned to have misunderstood what his informants were telling him, allegedly about the “traditional mumming performance” of Killing the Calf. Alternatively, it was those informants themselves, namely some of the Shakespeares’ neighbours in Stratford-upon-Avon, who got the story all wrong; unlike most English countrymen of any period, they could not tell killing from mumming. Either way, our next step is to bypass the evidence that (as Powell also explains) Shakespeare’s father “had interests as a grazier (therefore butch­er)”. Then we must similarly discard the equal­ly valid syllogisms that he was also a glover (therefore butcher), a dealer in wool (therefore butcher), a whittawerie, a dresser of hides and skins (therefore butcher), an agricola (therefore butcher) and a yeoman (therefore butcher). In this interest we may safely reject the testimony of a Stratford parish clerk that the young Shakespeare was apprenticed, in his own home town, to (of all people) a butcher. Never mind, either, the further local informa­tion that he was prematurely withdrawn from school to help with the family business. Now at last we are ready to interpret not only Aubrey's but also Hamlet's reference to killing a calf (III, ii, 104-5) as meaning anything but actual­ly killing a calf. We are required, finally, to believe what HeroldJenkins tells us in the 1982 Arden Hamlet.

     All this is needed solely in order to justify a hypothesis which is entirely unsupported by any vestige of evidence, or even elementary plausibility. Where, in the real world, are the rational grounds for supposing that Shakespeare ever in his life saw or heard of, let alone took part in, any such “traditional mumming performance” of Killing the Calf?


Eric Sams

32 Arundel AvenueSandersteadSurrey