Bard-mouthing the Scots

August 30, 1996

Jennifer Wallace reports on the 'new' Shakespeare play. They were all distinctly underwhelmed at the International Shakespeare conference at Stratford. Radio 4's Today programme ran a story on the middle Thursday of the conference last week announcing that Eric Sams, a retired civil servant, had discovered a new Shakespeare play. He had "proved" that Edward III, a play which dramatises the English king's conquest of the brutish Scots, was definitely and entirely by the great bard. The radio presenter talked excitedly of the possibility of Edward III being on the new school "curriculae" (sic).

But nobody at the conference, preparing for the afternoon's visit to the RSC's Comedy of Errors, could generate much interest. For one reason the play, published anonymously in 1595, was first attributed to Shakespeare in the mid-17th century. And since the beginning of this century arguments have been put forward that parts of the play, particularly those involving the Countess of Auvergne, written in "beautiful lyrical language", are by Shakespeare. In the past 20 years others have argued that the entire play is by Shakespeare. With his Shakespeare's Edward III: An Early Play Restored to the Canon, published last week by Yale, Eric Sams, it was felt by conference delegates, had merely added another book to the list.

Perhaps some of the lack of interest in the latest book was due to Sams's amateur status. "Over the years Sams has espoused a lot of positions to do with Shakespeare which would not have been espoused by traditional Shakespeare scholarship," said a rather exasperated Stanley Wells, director of the Shakespeare Institute, organiser of the conference and editor of the new Oxford edition of Shakespeare's works. "He spends his time mostly trying to prove things most other people do not believe." Wells considered including Edward III in his edition but decided the play was "so very different from the structure of any of Shakespeare's other history plays."

Gary Taylor, joint editor with Wells of the Oxford edition, admitted in his controversial book Reinventing Shakespeare, that the "global power and prestige of Oxford University Press" gave the Wells edition authority and international recognition. As a result, Wells and his team of four full-time scholars, two full-time production assistants and half a dozen part-time assistants could effectively decide upon the Shakespeare corpus to be read across the world in the future. Guarding his position, Wells admitted at the conference that if somebody could prove definitively that Edward III was by Shakespeare then "it would be another work that we would have to add to the canon, that we could then start talking about". Until then, there is little Sams can do, except keep provoking the professional bastions with his wild claims.

But partly because Sams is outside the charmed circle - and can appeal to media still stuck in the old-fashioned romanticising of bardic genius - he shows little evidence of understanding that for professional Shakespearians the debate has moved on and that critics can be far more provocative in other ways besides ascribing anonymous texts to Shakespeare. "Even if it is by Shakespeare, does that make it a better play?" one don remarked. "Who really cares who it is by?" Certainly that seems to be the policy at Stanley Wells's Shakespeare Institute, part of Birmingham University. A Japanese student wrote an MA thesis on Edward III only last year, but did not worry about the question of authorship. "She was more concerned with its dramatic and linguistic qualities," Wells remembered. Similarly Terence Hawkes, erstwhile enfant terrible of the Shakespearean world, who argues that Shakespeare is a "black hole" sucking up the numerous meanings ascribed to him/it (her?) over the centuries, relished only the media's excitement over Sams. "I think it is a sign of how central Shakespeare is to our ideology that people scurry around trying to find new things he has written, whether they are of interest or not. Shakespeare isn't a real person. He is an ideological element."

Rather than a dubious new addition to the corpus, conference delegates were far more interested in the opening of the Globe Theatre in Southwark and its implications. The theatre offers the illusion of historical authenticity, it was felt, "while draining the history away". Some were anxious about getting the historical details right. "Will the audience be able to crack hazelnuts?" a woman pondered gleefully. "They do terrible damage to your teeth," came the postmodern reply.

Jennifer Wallace is director of English studies, Peterhouse College, Cambridge.

The evidence: * Sams has analysed resemblances between the play's style and that of established Shakespearean texts, classifying similarities under 30 headings.

* Other Shakespearean scholars, including John Kerrigan from Cambridge, believe Edward III was partly written by Shakespeare. Kerrigan says he will eat his mortar board if the following lines, from Act II, are not by the bard: "What can one drop of poison harm the sea Whose hugey vastures can digest the ill And make it lose his operation The King's great name will temper thy misdeeds And give thee bitter portion of reproach A sugar'd sweet and most delicious taste."

* The play contains numerous rude remarks about Scotland and Scottish people, which is why Sams thinks Shakespeare never owned up to writing it. He was not to know in his youth that James I of Scotland was to become James VI of England. Almost as soon as he came to the throne King James imprisoned people who were rude about the Scots, says Sams. Wisely, Shakespeare kept mum.

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