Review of Schoenbaum

William ShakespeareRecords and Images, Scolar Press

Sunday Times, 10 May 1981

Of all branches of the Shakespeare industry, Samuel Schoenbaum's  is the most flourishing. A decade ago, he was denouncing cash-conscious Bardography. Now Scolar Press are asking £38 for William Shakespeare: Records and Images (pp 293), a compendium of heavyweight documentation and lightweight commentary. Old feuds are refuelled, and popularisers are again derided – in journalese. Shakespeare is “an English writer who, in Dr Rowse's handicapping, is the all-time winner in the sexiness sweepstakes.” Among the few errors (too many for the money) is “Roswe.” Well, it might have been Worse.

     So might this book, of course. The Stationers’ Register entries, the Forman journal references, and the Mountjoy depositions are among the documents reproduced in extenso, together with much detailed iconography. The format is commensurately large and handsome. But too much material is repeated or rehashed from earlier books, and some of it is dubiously relevant or even literally unreadable.

     Shakespeare’s handwriting deserves better treatment, especially as the only really new topic in the book; but that chapter seems to me inexpert and inadequate. Take for example the so-called “seventh signature” on the title-page of Archaionomia, a 1568 compilation of ecclesiastical laws in Anglo-Saxon and Latin. Professor Schoenbaum has examined the faded inscription, apparently “Wm Shakspere,” with the aid of a magnifying glass and ultra­violet light;  he ventures a cautious endorsement of the tentative authentication offered by a qualified investigator some forty years ago. But he still feels that such a book “seems an odd choice for Shakespeare's library.”  

     In other words, Shakespeare has no business to be found owning or studying a legal text-book, in defiance of orthodox academic opinion. Nor is the detailed documentation,passim, without drawbacks of its own. Scholars may well find it familiar, and laymen incomprehensible. So where is the purchasing public for an expensive tome which is neither citable at the high table nor profitable on the coffee-table?