Edmund Ironside Revisited

Previously unpublished (2001-2002?); © the estate of eric sams

According to a recent booklet by Professor R. Proudfoot, [1] 'Edmund Ironside, misleadingly promoted by Eric Sams as 'Shakespeare's lost play' (in fact by my publishers, but let that pass) nosedived in 1985 and has been little heard of since'.

     Little heard of? Since 1985? Thus writes the Shakespeare expert who when I first trailed this play rejected it (in September 1982) on grounds which got everything wrong that could be got wrong. He confused the Archbishop of Canterbury with the Bishop of London; he made mistaken claims about the Boswell edition; he said, untruthfully, that the hand of Edmund Ironside showed none of the characteristics found in the signatures or Sir Thomas More; he added, again falsely, that I did not refer to the analyses of Sir E. Maunde Thompson; he said that Canute's laws were hardly the chief contents of the legal text-book Archaionomia, although they are; he asserted that all Ironside's history comes from Holinshed, thus overlooking both Grafton 1569 and his own point that Archaionomia 1568 may also be a source. And so forth. He further failed to answer a direct challenge about his own imaginary dating of Ironside to '1595-99', again without reasoned argument or indeed the least trace of evidence.

     And he's still playing this same strange sad game. He seems to have missed, or preferred to ignore, the following published data, among much else: (a) the 1986 assessment of Anthony Burgess that 'Sams, not being a professional Elizabethan scholar, must be listened to with respect…On the internal evidence of the play itself...I am prepared to accept that Edmund Ironside is by Shakespeare'; (b) my own second edition of Ironside, with a new foreword, in 1986; (c) Prof. Gary Taylor's claim [2] that 'if Ironside could be proven to date from the, say, mid-1580s, I am not dead set against the possibility that it could be an early work by Shakespeare'; (d) the assurances given by the documents expert Charles Hamilton in the same year that the MS of Ironside was 'entirely in Shakespeare's hand' [2] and 'I could tell it was Shakespeare's script almost as soon as I opened the envelope' of photocopied text sent by the British Library; [3] (e) the 1987 statistics of the stylometrist Dr. M. Smith which showed that 'Sams may well be right'; (f) the analogous acquiescence of Prof. Ernst Honigmann [4] that 'I would not lay my hand on the Bible and swear that the author [of Ironside] cannot be Shakespeare' (g) other academic authorities already sitting on the same fence, such as Prof. MacD. Jackson who had also concluded in 1987 that 'Sams may be right'; or (g) the feelings recorded in the 1988 Oxford Shakespeare, p. 138, again by Prof. Gary Taylor, about 'the very real verbal similarities between Ironside and Shakespeare's early work' and the injunction that 'the whole subject merits further investigation' (which so far as I know it has never received); or (h) the first American performances in 1988; or (i) another forty or so misstatements about my edition ofIronside by Prof. Donald Foster in a televised debate and in the Shakespeare Quarterly of the same year - though at least Foster knew that the play was early; or (j) Prof. Peter Levi, who (again in the same year) opined in an article and a book respectively that 'the arguments advanced against Ironside are quite insufficient to topple Eric Sams, whose case for it is powerful...' and that 'I became convinced by the forcible arguments of Eric Sams', though in practice he preferred his own dissenting opinions. Finally (k) the controversy continues to this day; [5] so if the play 'nosedived' in 1985 its black box is still working.

     The chief difficulties seem to be dating and handwriting. As to the former, I'm much helped by the collapse of 'memorial reconstruction', on which some of my critics relied. Thus Jones assured the world in 1986 that this absurd theory was 'true'; I wonder what he thinks now? Such notorious reconstructionists as Proudfoot, Honigmann, Jackson and Taylor have also forfeited their credit; and Honigmann [6] (1982) has wrongly redated several Shakespeare plays.

     Handwriting is more factual; so the assertion of Proudfoot [7] (1982) that the spellings of Sir Thomas More are incompatible with those of Ironside is easily disproved. Honigmann admitted as much in February 1987, when he said that 'More gives some support' to Ironside. So indeed it does, and in far greater measure than he imagined. But he had at least studied Ironside, even if only in its 1929 diplomatic edition. And just as he claimed, if the Ironside MS were holograph, 'one would expect to find some if not all of its unusual spellings in More'. He even instanced a few, thus: 'Ironside tends [8] to double a final consonant'.

     Thus More has plentyfull (its only word ending in modern -ful, a termination regularly spelt full throughout Ironside. Further, More is 'unorthodox' with final c, as in Fraunc, insolence, obedienc and offyc; but so is Ironside, which has onc for once. Again, both scripts spell 'tion' as 'cion', though Ironside usually abbreviates that ending as con, where the bar over the o is an omission sign.

     There are very many other resemblances, all of which have always remained unmentioned by Honigmann or anybody else for the last twenty years. Thus More truncates a final 'ate' in the spelling appropriat, while Ironside has degenerat, incarnat and privat. In More modern nk is spelt nck as in banck, thanck and thinck; similarly in Ironside, which has several such examples including thancke and thincke. Shakespeare in More regularly writes modern an as aun, e.g. in aduauntage, Comaund, Fraunc, graunt, seriaunt (=sergeant); so does the Ironsidewriter, with the same word Comaund in the same spelling (though the sign), used to indicate repetition, is placed over the m whenever the hasty and careless Ironside penman (as badly so as in More) can remember the need for it. Examples of his spellings are Caunterbury, chaunce/Chaunce, comaund, Comaunder, Comaunders, Comaundinge, Comaundement, Countenaunce, daunceinge, graunte, inchauntinge, launce, perchaunce. Such orthography also reflects three unusual features found in More each of which separately would seem to disqualify the scribe from the status of copyist; first the prevalence of capital C, even at the beginning of verbs, as if both penmen formed their small c as a weak or unrecognisable letter, the prevalence of minim errors, and also the surprising degree of variability also found in More, where for example the word sheriff is spelt as shreef, Shreiff, shreeue, Shrieue and Shreue, all within the same few lines. Thus Ironside also has Canterbury/Canterburye, Comand and perchance, while analogous patterns of variation are extensively repeated.

     One difference (though of course not encountered consistently) is the present participle termination in -inge, as above. But there is evidence that this too is Shakespearean; thus such endings are also found in the 1609 Sonnets, in a dotinge, singe (=sing) and smilinge; and that printing is often said to have been undertaken directly from copy in Shakespeare's own hand. Indeed, one of those Sonnet examples is also found in the manuscript of More, namely in the entirely arbitrary separation of the syllable a, which occurs there in a levenpence and is prevalent throughout Ironside, in such spellings as a bout, a bove, a broad, etc.  

     Further, since the date of More is not known, there could be a time difference of several years between the two manuscripts, which would make it even harder to account for the copious correspondences. Thus More's sole apostrophe occurs as a surprising abbreviation for the second syllable of 'ever', while among the few Ironside appearances of that same rare symbol are Cant' (=Canterbury), ou'throw (=overthrow) and So'aigne (=sovereign). Again, both scribes write the initial syllable 'par' as one single letter, quite arbitrarily, even whimsically; thus Ironside spells parte and partners thus, as well as perish, perfect and perceaue, while Moreadopts the same procedure for e.g. parsnips and (again) perceaue. Further, both manuscripts spell majesty as matie, you as you, your as yor and with as wth; both use the same sign to indicate a plural, whether -s or -es; both spell it and if as yt and yf, among many other such instancesof y for modern i; both write devil as deule; conversely, both occasionally use medial v to indicate letter u (Dvng and nvmber in More, accvrst and Cavse inIronside), both have obay(e), theis(e) (=these), weele and youle, and both make much use of y for modern i as shown by fayth, ryse, traytor, voyce in both sources.

     Of course no opponent of Ironside took any notice of what the professional documents expert Charles Hamilton had already asserted in 1985, [3,2,etc.]  namely that its extant manuscript is, beyond a doubt, in Shakespeare's own hand. A year later, he said the same of a letter signed but not written by the Earl of Southampton in 1592, which I had already identified as such; [9] that text contains the spelling frind for friend, which according to Honigmann is a 'characteristic spelling' of the scribe of Ironside, which 'may yet help to identify him'; and so indeed it may. Further, 'the writer of Ironside shows a distinguishing preference for many unusual spellings, particularly the substitution of e for i'. But this also occurs in the hand of More, which is 'the only surviving specimen of handwriting (other than six signatures) generally ascribed to Shakespeare's pen'. So who wrote the word 'sayeng' (=saying) in More? Again, the Ironside penman also switches e to i - just like the penman of More, who writes Ingland; cf. also Inglish in the so-called Bad Quarto of Merry Wives. I wonder who that can be?

     There is also a certain irony in Prof. Honigmann's later [10] claim to have isolated several Shakespeare's spellings, such as that master's unfortunate confusion between e and i, as further evidenced in Comedy of Errors1623 spelling harbenger.

     In 1987 Honigmann also claimed eand (=end), elce for else and smille for smile as other examples of 'unusual' or 'characteristic' spellings found in Ironside. But ea is just Shakespeare's way of spelling short e, just as in More with its geat for get and sealf for self, while elce occurs in the Quarto of Troilus and Cressida and King Leir has smilling, which may also be significant. [11]

     Some of Honigmann's other 'unusual spellings' are just variants; thus Ironside has both serra and sirrah, both Trumpetts and Trumpitts. Other unfamiliar orthography could derive from Shakespearean specialities such as his phonetic spellings of a given period; Ironside's sence or vntell for since and vntill, like More's coold shoold and woold for could should and would, were clearly in need of correction by compositors. Indeed, the certain fact that those More spellings must have been so changed (since they appear in his manuscript, but in no surviving print of any of his plays or poems) means that Honigmann is sadly mistaken in his 1987 assertion that 'we know a good deal about Shakespeare's characteristic spelling from his better Quarto and Folio texts'. We may think we do, but we don't; there is, alas, no certain way of deciding what alterations a compositor or a copyist may have made to a given text, a consideration which militates against much orthodox thinking such as the purported 'Compositor A' and 'Compositor B' whose alleged activities were supposedly discovered by MacD. Jackson [1,2] in theSonnetspace the acceptance of John Kerrigan, [1,3] the enthusiasm of Blakemore Evans [1,4] and the apparent approval of Duncan-Jones. [1,5]

     But orthodoxy will no doubt continue to erect its theories solely on the basis of its own personal opinions, such as Honigmann's main thought about Ironside namely that its 'early date (before 1590) has not been clearly proved'. Other academics (apart from Prof. Donald Foster, who has already denied it in 1988) are likely to adopt that same easy view, regardless of its rejection by real specialists, or my own twenty pages of disproof, or Honigmann's own 1982 misdatings, or the inherent implausibility of the added anti-Ockham requirement of a 'plagiarist' of Shakespeare, who (like the 'reporter' required by Honigmann's other exploded theory of 'memorial reconstruction') has not been observed at work anywhere in any literary field since the world began.

     Let us take a closer look at what exactly this 'imitator' or 'plagiarist' has to be imagined to have imitated or plagiarised. Take for example the few resemblances that impressed Prof. Honigmann himself (though he chose to dismiss or deprecate the hundreds of other examples). He finds some of the verbal affinities arresting, such as 'some never-heard-of torturing pain' in both Ironside (1276) and Titus (II.ii.285), though he is not arrested for long, and offers no explanation. He even concedes that Ironside is admittedly 'close to the master' in its 'particularly strong connections' with Titus Andronicus (published in 1594) and its possible 'anticipation' of the father-son scene (II.ii) in The Merchant of Venice (published in 1600). Thus the author of Ironside now has to have seen or read both those plays, and deliberately invited comparison with them (or more likely invited derision from his own audiences, if any). Similarly the final despairing outcry of the villanous Edricus in the last line ofIronside 'By heaven I'll be revenged on both of you' was astutely diagnosed by Prof. Bradbrook as an anticipation of Malvolio's final line 'I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you' in Twelfth Night (V.i.378), a play unpublished until 1623. The Ironside author was, on this showing, quite a theatre-goer; but what he was hoping to achieve by his ceaseless and obvious quotation from Shakespeare remains quite unclear. The answer to Honigmann's rather desperate rhetorical question 'Do other plays of the period not echo Shakespeare just as persistently?' is in fact 'No', even if that vague 'period' is defined. Further, Honigmann, in his thwarted eagerness to award Ironside a late date, complains that an 'earlier editor' (in fact Richard Proudfoot, recently) had noted the presence in Ironside of the word 'Braggadochio', which according to Proudfoot was first used in Spenser's Faerie Queene 1590. But Honigmann himself had said that that poem had been circulating in manuscript from 1587; and as soon as Proudfoot heard this he retracted that point. Further, it is also vain for Honigmann to protest that the name 'meant nothing to the general public before 1590'; of course its significance would be instantly understood by any audience.

     Again, Louis Marder, editor of the Shakespeare Newsletter, was  rightly impressed by the following curious patriotic parallelisms about England:


Ironside                                               Richard II


this noble isle                                              this sceptered isle

my pleasure's paradise                                 demi-paradise

this land                                                      this land

the fortress of my crown                              this fortress

this solitary isle                                            this precious stone set in the silver sea

this little world                                             this little world

this realm of England                                   this realm, this England

like the chosen Jews, stubborn                     stubborn Jewry

thy right hand shall make thy heart away    hath made a shameful conquest of itself


 Was the author of Ironside, which was never published or performed, really 'plagiarising' yet another Shakespeare play, this time first published in 1597? For the many other correspondences, and plays, see E.B. Everitt [1,6] and my own editions of 1985 and 1986. The truly eerie aspect of all this recalcitrance is that no such difficulty seems to attach to Edward III, which on exactly similar evidence has now been adjudged a genuine Shakespeare play, whether in part [1,7] (Melchiori 1998 and Tobin 1997) or as a whole (as my own edition says, [18] or as Professors Proudfoot and Taylor are disposed to think). What's the difference?



[1] R. Proudfoot, Shakespeare: Text, Stage and Canon, 2001.

[2] D. Corathers, ‘Much Ado’, Dramatic 88, 1986, 15-17.

[3] J. Ezard, ‘Bard’s play theory backed’, Guardian, 4 Sept. 1986

[4] E. Honigmann, ‘Fingerprinting Shakespeare’, NYRB, 12 Feb. 1987

[5] Now, April 29/May 5 1999, 69

[6] E. Honigmann, Shakespeare’s Impact on his Contemporaries, 1982

[7] R. Proudfoot, ‘Edmund Ironside’, TLS, 17 Sept. 1982

[8] sic: in fact Ironside contains some sixty examples.

[9] E. Grice, ‘Take a letter, Shakespeare’, Sunday Times, 9 April 1981.

[10] E. Honigmann, The Texts of Othello and Shakespearian Revision, 1996.

[11] E. Sams, ‘King Leir and Edmund Ironside’, N&Q 246, Sept. 2001, 266-270.

[12] M. Jackson, ‘Punctuation and the Compositors of Shakespeare’s Sonnets’, The Library 30, 1975

[13] J. Kerrigan, ed., The Sonnets and A Lover’s Complaint, 1986.

[14] G. Evans, ed., The Sonnets, 1996 (276-80).

[15] K. Duncan-Jones, ed., Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 1997 (39, 162).

[16] E. Everitt, The Young Shakespeare: Studies in Documentary Evidence, Anglistica II, 1954

[17] G. Melchiori, King Edward III, 1998; J. Tobin, ed., Edward III, Riverside Shakespeare, 2/1997.

[18] E. Sams, Shakespeare’s Edward III, 1996