Reassessing the good and the bard

The Real Shakespeare
June 23, 1995

Starting from the premise that "thousands of Shakespeare's lines have been misdated or lost, together with at least a decade of his career", Eric Sams sets out to "give him his life and works back", taking to task in the process "the entire scholarly community, past and present" who have conspired to suppress the truth and disseminate "irresponsible nonsense" in its place.

He fully expects his book to be dismissed as "undiscriminating and old-fashioned", so I hope he will forgive me if I spoil the fun by saying that there is much here that deserves serious scholarly attention.

I and other scholars (most of us castigated and some of us misrepresented here) would agree that we need to look again at the early or "lost" years of Shakespeare's career without necessarily trusting all the extant legends as Sams seems inclined to do. (One scholar whose work in this area is still surprisingly underrated is Ernst Honigmann; although Sams mentions Honigmann as a rare example of someone who agrees with him, he does not give Honigmann full credit for his long devotion to this cause.) Deterred no doubt by the excesses of earlier generations of find-the-dark-lady biographical approaches, we have been very reluctant to consider the possible effect on Shakespeare's work of significant events in his life such as the death of his only son. Sams is right to redirect our attention to these matters.

And it is true that as an editorial community we have taken an overly narrow view of the texts we have dismissed as inauthentic or "bad"; Sams is shrewd in observing that "this happens partly because text-editors, in an age of specialisation, are likely to be closely concerned only with one or two 'Bad Quartos' and 'Memorial Reconstructions by Actors', and thus will never have occasion to consider the anomalies and absurdities inherent in the general theory".

His survey of those anomalies and absurdities is instructive, and I would fully support his view that what we now need is new editions of each of the "Bad Quartos" identifying and analysing their early Shakespearean features.

Unfortunately, Sams does not do justice to his own agenda by the intemperate and pugilistic manner of his presentation. He relentlessly rehearses the case he made in his 1985 book for Shakespeare's authorship of Edmund Ironside with 24 footnotes on this topic in the first 30 pages. He does not stop with ascribing all the "Bad Quartos" to Shakespeare, but adds the Ur-Hamlet, King Leir, Faire Em and Locrine.

Even the bibliography is presented with a polemical coding system: "Items prefixed + rebut, while those prefixed * exemplify, the attitudes against which this book is directed." There are far more stars than crosses though something is done to redress the balance by Sams' citation of no fewer than 60 of his own publications since 1980.

Scornful as he is of hypothetical statements in the work of other people, one of Sams' favourite words is "colourably", as when he describes the character Studioso in the Parnassus plays as "colourably identified with Shakespeare", or when he refers to Richard Tarleton as one who "is colourably claimed to have contributed to Hamlet's recollections of Yorick".

He may not have taken sufficient notice of the fact that the Oxford English Dictionary lists the meanings "speciously" and "feignedly" as well as "plausibly"; I am afraid many readers of this book will find what is plausible outweighed by what is specious.

Ann Thompson is professor of English, Roehampton Institute.

The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years, 1564-1594

Author - Eric Sams
ISBN - 0 300 06129 3
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £19.95
Pages - 256

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