Edmund Ironside: a Reappraisal

Times Literary Supplement, 13 Aug. 1982 © The Estate of Eric Sams



The BBC has recently assured us that William Shakespeare (1564­-1616) was “a late starter whose first plays were written in his late twenties”. This modish orthodoxy not only lacks evidence but affronts the common reader’s common sense. Even the earliest plays (eg Henry VI and Titus Andronicus, c 1591) show the skills of served apprenticeship. Further, viable playscripts were valuable property. A sensible question is, what became of the missing plays from the earlier years, c 1584-1590?

    This article reopens the case for Edmund Ironside. Its 2,000 lines of anonymous undated manuscript (BL: Egerton 1994) were first edited in a modern text by the American scholar E. B. Everitt (Anglistica, xiv, 1965). He had already argued for its Shakespearean attribution, together with that of other apocrypha, in his The Young Shakespeare (ibid,. I,. 1954). The pundits panned it. “Stylistically impossible”, intoned Irvine Ribner in 1957; “most unlikely”, echoed Samuel Schoenbaum in 1960. The tone thus set is still being taken. “With friends like Everitt”, I was recently told, “Ironside needs no enemies.” From another authoritative source: “Those who treat Everitt respectfully in print are liable to rule themselves out of court.” I had been warned. Still, Everitt (my indebtedness to whom will be apparent) had at least advanced some arguments, whereas his detractors offer only opinions. His book is admittedly diffuse and difficult; my present purpose is to extract its Ironside essence, to add new evidence and ideas and to resubmit the result for objective assay.

    I started afresh from the primary source. I found present-day palaeography powerless to date MSS or identify handwriting by any verifiable method. Literary editors are better equipped with the objective criteria, which (eg, the absence of act and scene divisions) identify Ironside as probably an early MS, c 1590. As Everitt says, its farcical portrayal of an Archbishop of Canterbury could hardly have expected the necessary licence after 1589, when that very Archbishop was charged with stage censorship duties. Indeed, all anti­clerical satire would have been taboo during the Marprelate controversy. So Ironside may well have been laid aside for a long cooling-off period; although it was performed in the provinces during the 1630s there is no evidence that it had ever appeared earlier anywhere. In the meantime, as F. S. Boas also found (Shakespeare and the Universities, 1923), the MS seems to have belonged to the Cartwright family, who bequeathed it to Dulwich College. Thus its provenance looks reputable enough for the elder Cartwright had acted with Edward Alleyn, founder of Dulwich, who not only owned playscripts but also staged Shakespeare (Titus Andronicus, 1594).

    Now, Titus and Ironside display several striking similarities, both general (each begins with a clash between inherited crown and popular choice) and specific (the phrase, “never-heard-of torturing pain” occurs in both). Dozens of equally distinct parallels with the First Folio are described in detail by Everitt, op cit, I, and no doubt other readers, can add many more. Equally factual, given its early date, are Ironside's uniqueness and originality in both subject-matter and genre. It seems to be the first real chronicle-history drama ever written. Its treatment of the power-struggle between English Edmund and Danish Canute is beyond dispute, intelligently struc­tured from its Holinshed source; and it makes a serious attempt to portray and develop character. Its author is notable for his weather and nature imagery, animal lore, comic relief, bawdry, obsessive word-play, patriotism, concern for social status and familiarity with country pursuits, Bible texts, legal technicality and the Metamorphosesof Ovid. Everitt adds, again as a matter of verifiable fact, that Ironside is verbally outstanding in both usage and coinage. Thus he identifies sixty-five expressions which in the 1580s would have been new to the language, including many (eg, “untutored”) now credited to Shakespeare, and others (eg “ex-tribute”) still not found in any dictionary. If all this does not shout aloud “Shakespeare!” then at least there are some stage whispers. Altogether Ironside sounds well worth an audition.

    In fact it has hardly had a hearing; and there are still no agreed methods for settling Shakespeare problems, whether of dating, attribution or anything else. The only consensus I can elicit is that echoes, however exact, are not evidence. The main axiom is that parallels never meet with approval. This clumsy rule of thumb serves only to depress scholarship; of course clear parallels, properly analysed, can provide strong evidence. The only fair-minded assessment of Everitt that I can trace (M. M. Reese, RES, 1955) found his case for Ironside“an impressive statement of Shakespeare’s authorship” precisely because of the cumulative force of different data drawn from resemblances in “diction, vocabulary, imag­ery, ethical and political thought, similar treatment of similar situations, and so forth”. Here is at least a notional methodology, based on probability theory. Indeed, Reese quoted one famous fingerprint that could carry conviction on its own, namely Shakespeare’s curious “flattery” image-cluster of sugar, melting and dog. This was first defined and explained by Caroline Spurgeon (Shakespeare's Imagery, 1935); she and others have stressed its strength as evidence of his hand. Reese puts the point thus: if we were to find it in an anonymous manuscript of (say) 1588 should we not strongly suspect Shakespeare? So today's verdict might have keen very different if Reese or Everitt had testified that Ironside actually is such a manuscript. Here, with my italics are its lines 1186-90, from a speech about flattery:


sugared lines and phrases past compare;

Had I been now in favour with the king

And had endeavoured to flatter him

My pen would have distilled golden drops

And varied terms enchanting Cerberus


    Another Shakespearian association-chain, the so-called “blot” cluster, occurs in four of his early works and also, link by link, in Ironside. The copious and often surprising details have been well documented by MacD. P. Jackson (Notes and Queries, 1963). The Ironside passage shares not only its idiosyncratic imagery but its action and development with Richard II; this is just one among Everitt’s many similar comparisons. Both those plays also betray some odd obsessions about Judas (on which see P. Armstrong, Shakespeare's Imagination, 1946). Thus the young Shakespeare was convinced, eg in Henry VI and Love's Labour Lost as well as Richard II, that Judas betrayed Christ with a cry of “All hail!”. This is not merely a mistake bur a serious solecism. Those words are spoken by the risen Christ in Matthew 28:9 and occur nowhere else in the gospels. The same mistake is found inIronside, such congruence of error must already offer fair odds against chance. Again, Shakespeare also had in his head a motion picture of Hecuba running amok in Troy. She is “madded” among the Greeks in Cymbeline; she runs “barefoot up and down” in Hamlet; in Titus “Hecuba of Troy… ran mad for sorrow”. In Ironside too “the woeful queen of Troy ran mad for sorrow”. But the classical Hecuba, despite much provocation, seems to have stayed sedentary and sane in Troy. Similarly Titus talks of “big-boned men framed of the Cyclops' size” who could “solicit heaven and move the gods”, while Ironside’s Danes are “giants of the Cyclops’ size” who are also “big-boned” and might well “scale the cope of heaven and, like the giants grapple with the gods”. There seems to be an overlap of legends here as well as of language.

   Against what odds would two different minds share such special trains of thought? In quest of quantifiability I consulted Eliot Slater, whose statistical studies of rare-word vocabulary (eg in his recent thesis on Edward III) have been well received. With his guidance I made a count of those words found in Ironside and also in only four or fewer of the canonical works. There are over two hundred such words. Their concordance-occurrences totalled some six hundred. Of these, fully a third are in Titus and Henry VI; this is over three times the chance expectation. Further, Ironside contains over one hundred and fifty words in senses identified by the OED as Shakespeare coinages. Again, fully a third of these are in Titus and Henry VI; again this is over three times the chance expectation. On all these grounds there must, clearly, have been some close connection betweenIronside and the young Shakespeare. I consulted three authorities. The first assured me that Ironside had borrowed from Shakespeare; the second that Shakespeare had borrowed from Ironside; the third, that both playwrights had drawn on the common word-stock of the London stage.

    Given the current choice between caution or contention in Shakespeare studies, this tripartite response was neither unexpected nor discouraging. Indeed, it suggested a possibly helpful analogy -  the problem of why Dr Jekyll wore the same suits as Mr Hyde. They borrowed each other’s, perhaps, or shared the same tailor. But the “same tailor” theory is just coincidence dressed up. It involves unevidenced suppositions. It is implausible; how could there be a common stock of rare words, private associations, personal feelings and textual errors? Besides, it would only permit, not entail, the observed affinities. It is no explanation. That leaves Shakespeare, despite well-known advice, as either a borrower or a lender. But not the latter; the dates fail to fit. So perhaps he had read Ironside in manuscript, or else acted in it, as a prelude to his plagiarisms? Again, such notions are baseless. There is no evidence that Shakespeare was an actor before 1592, or that Ironside was played or known anywhere in his lifetime. Further, as Kenneth Muir has said (Survey 6, 1953), there is no known instance of Shakespeare's having so used any play by another dramatist, whereas his own self-revisions and self-borrowings are well attested. Here are some suggested examples of each, on the theme of England and the English:




this noble isle

my pleasure's paradise

this land

the fortress of my crown

this solitary isle

this little world

this realm of England

like the chosen Jews, stubborn

thy right hand shall make thy heart away


Richard II


this sceptred isle


this land

this fortress built by nature

this precious stone set in the silver sea

this little world

this realm, this England

stubborn Jewry

hath made a shameful conquest of itself


   Those refined phrases from Richard II all glitter in Gaunt’s few famous lines (II.i 40-66), while the rougher Ironside ore lies in scattered lumps throughout that play. As Kenneth Muir also says (loc cit) Shakespeare often repeated or refined his earlier ideas. “Hundreds of examples could be given… and in nearly every case the second version is more pregnant and impressive than the first.” The relation between Ironside and the First Folio could hardly be better defined.

   Supporting evidence arrives from a quite different and unexpected quarter. The Ironside MS, in both text and penmanship, testifies to legal knowledge and experience (cf E. Boswell, Malone Society edition, 1929; W. Greg, Dramatic Documents from the Elisabethan Playhouses, 1931). Only one other anonymous Elizabethan playscript has ever been authoritatively linked with the formal style of the trained scrivener; and that is the only other manuscript ever claimed as a Shakespeare holograph, namely the insurrection scene in Sir Thomas More. This impression (Sir E. Thompson, Shakespeare's Handwriting, 1916) is “enforced by the employment of certain formal contractions and abbreviations… in use among lawyers and trained scriveners”. Everitt, who spent years analysing the More and Ironside MSS, had no doubt that they were in the same hand, though written in different years, styles, moods and speeds. Many other commentators, for centuries, have inferred legal experience from Shakespeare’s works. In 1589, Nashe complained (preface to Greene'sMenaphon) that upstart law-clerks were presuming to write plays, including one calledHamlet. Many critics have reasoned that this was Shakespeare's own first version. If so, Nashe plainly testifies that Shakespeare was a law-clerk. That would certainly explain his detailed knowledge of A Briefe Treatise of Testament and Last Willes (Swinburn, 1590); Kenneth Muir has re­cently rediscovered the textual evidence showing that this legal text­book was a well-assimilated source of the Hamlet we know. So was the obscure law-suit Hales v. Pettitt of 1560.

    Further, the Folger Library copy of another legal textbook, Archaionomia (Lambard, 1568) bears the signature “Wm. Shakspere”. Experts including Samuel Schoenbaum have supported its strong claims to authenticity. One might think that this clinches the legal links. In ordinary life, after all, peo­ple who write their names in legal textbooks are rather likely to be studying law. In the scholarly world, things are different. Thus for Professor Schoenbaum the theory that Shakespeare worked as a lawyer's scrivener is “old and generally discredited” (sic). So a law book “seems an odd choice for Shakespeare’s library”. The evidence is rebuked for supporting the wrong theory. It is more rational to look for other connections with the law. We soon find that in 1589 Shakespeare as son and heir was a party to family litigation about the loss of lands that his feckless father John had mortgaged to his unscrupulous uncle Edmund. As W. Nicholas Knight has pointed out (Shakespeare’s Hidden Life, 1973) this is a theme of the possibly contemporary Hamlet “lands so by his father lost”. It is also a theme of Edmund Ironside: “Thy father’s land I seize upon”.

    Ironside in its turn has close and clangorous links, again of a different and unexpected kind, with the legal textbook Archaionomia. This is a collection of ancient statutes in Anglo-Saxon, with Latin translation and commentary. Its chief contents are the laws of “Canutus”, who in that same Latinized form dominates Ironside. It tells us that among his prescribed punishments was mutilation. In Ironside (just as in Titus) victims are “lopped” of their “ornaments” on stage. In response to a loyal demand for the supposedly sterner death penalty. Canute bleakly explains that mutilation is worse. “To be marked… robs them of their honours…even as a brand is to descry a thief… prepare your visages to bear the tokens of eternity”. Compare the pitiless tones of his own law in Latin: “dedecus atque insignem omni in posterum aetate infamiam subito”, let them bear a dishonour and a badge of infamy for all time to come. In the Folger copy, signed “Wm. Shakespere”, a phrase about mutilation is underlined and the passage is marked with a marginal bracket.

    There are other interesting annotations which have apparently never been studied in detail – perhaps on the ground that as Shakespeare had no business to own such a book he was even less entitled to scribble on it. In the ordinary world, though, people often sign and annotate their textbooks. One footnote in particular stands out. It is in Latin and it refers to a mention of the old English word ore, metal. The annotator aptly quotes a phrase ending “quod Rustici orum dicebant” from “Wottonus in libro suo de differentiis animalium”. Edward Wotton’s Latin tome of that title, 1581, is not among Shakespeare’s known sources. But it is a massive compendium of the animal lore he so often invoked as imagery and allusion. The Hyrcanian tiger, the stinging lizard, the multi-coloured chameleon, the starved snake, the all-envenoming basilisk, the mother-killing viper and the plume-shedding peacock are all among the fauna found in Wotton as well as in, eg. Henry VI. Further, those last three examples also occur in Ironside; and the last two, according to the OED, were first mentioned in written English by William Shakespeare.

    Even more striking is the annotator’s Italic hand. It suggests a beginner; it is more disjoined than cursive; it is clearly modelled on Archaionomia’s  type-founts. It looks very like the interspersed Italic of Ironside. Disappointed with palaeographic impotence, I consulted a forensic scientist. I learned that these two hands, as compared in good photographs, exhibit no consistent differences. Of course they may match merely through some freak of chance, or because both writers were self-taught from the same type-founts. All the same, the inference of identity again seems the simplest solution. In other words, a legal-style manuscript which on good evidence was written by Shakespeare, and a legal textbook which on good evidence was owned by Shakespeare, share writings which on good evidence can be ascribed to the same hand; and the evidence is of different and unexpected kinds in each case. It is copious, too, and increasing; there is space here for only a fraction of the relevant data.

    Perhaps then Ironside is, just as it sounds, an integral part of the canon? If so, the reverberations are far-reaching.