Exploding the Ancient Play Cobbler Fallacy
Contemporary Evidence Proving Shakespeare
Himself Chief Victim of Play Pirates
Copyright 1946 by Charles Wisner Barrell
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly, January 1946.
What error drives our eyes and ears amiss?
Until I know this sure uncertainty,
I’ll entertain this offer’d fallacy.
The Comedy of Errors, 11.2.
THE STRATFORD SCHOOL of critics and biographers continues to teach trustful students that Shakespeare was so inexperienced and unsure of his own ability when he took up playwriting that he had to serve an apprenticeship as a cobbler of “old plays” (dubiously acquired from various conjected sources) before he could enter the field of independent creation.
This ridiculous theory has finally been demolished during the present era by the scientific investigations of such experts as Dr. W. W. Greg, Prof. Peter Alexander, Prof. H. Dugdale Sykes, Prof. Alfred Hart of Melbourne University and Dr. A. S. Cairncross. By patiently studying the internal evidence of all the questionable early quartos bearing titles or containing subject matter analogous to the Shakespeare works, or otherwise associated with them in plot, characterization. &c., the new school of investigators has amply proved that these so-called “old plays” the Bard is alleged to have revamped are nothing more nor less than clumsy, pirated versions of the real Shakespeare plays, which thus unquestionably antedate the counterfeit presentments—just as proponents of Lord Oxford have long claimed.
The creative calendar that was standardized to fit the suppositious playwriting career of William of Stratford has, therefore, gone a-glimmering. But if any of the old-line, well-established professors of the Stratford persuasion—other than those mentioned above—have accepted this proof that heralds a complete revolution in the dating of the Shakespeare plays, we have failed to note their conversion by any outward or visible signs. They still continue to teach the ancient conjectures and to publish volumes of commentary and criticism based on the obviously wrong system of dating the most important works, including Hamlet and King Lear.
This seems inexcusable. And particularly so when we find that the actual facts behind the so-called “old plays,” which Shakespeare is supposed to have cobbled into masterpieces, were plainly referred to more than three hundred years ago—in the introduction to the First Folio of 1623.
This illuminating preface, written by Ben Jonson, but signed by the actors, John Heminge and Henrie Condell, informs the Great Variety of Readers that the public has previously been “abus’d with divers stolen, and surreptitious copies, maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealths of injurious imposters.” In other words, the authentic plays, as they appear in the Folio, had been the prey of rapacious pirates who had originally printed them in garbled paraphrases that crave no fair idea of their worth.
Sometimes a popular title, together with the key characters and the main thread of plot was appropriated, to be worked up into a barely recognizable approximation of the original by some penny-a-liner dramaturge. The Chronicle History of Leire, Kinge of England and his Three Daughters, is an example of this kind of piracy. It was entered for publication in May 1594, but apparently not printed until ten years later when the author of the real Lear was dead.
In the general System of literary thievery directed against Shakespeare it can now be shown that unscrupulous actors and stealthy shorthand writers were usually responsible for botching together the pilferings that were disposed of to the printing-house pirates. Instead of Shakespeare being a participant in this nefarious trade (as many of his best known Stratfordian biographers have long had it), he was really the chief victim of such practices. The detective work of the new school of investigators headed by Dr. Greg of Cambridge makes the whole situation understandable at last. At the same time, we are given a realistic and absorbing view of the technical operations of the “injurious imposters” that Jonson excoriates in the First Folio.
All of this information having been available for some years, it is certainly high time that the drowsy, medieval-minded pundits who write and “officially recommend” the Shakespeare text-books used in our schools and colleges were aroused from their torpor and obliged to change the misleading statements in their text-books regarding the creative chronology of the plays to conform to the new scientifically based facts. Authority founded on truth and progress commands respect. But authority founded on mere inertia breeds contempt.
The Stratford creative canon has always been conjectural. Bound by the exigencies of with Shakspere’s known life-span, the writing of the various plays has been arbitrarily assigned to dates that conform to his alleged entry upon the literary scene in 1593. But we now have the evidence that many of the best-known plays were in existence and were being produced, referred to, quoted from, and paraphrased by the pirates years before that date. Hamlet is described by Tom Nash as a popular tragedy, familiar to the undergraduates of both Oxford and Cambridge, as early as 1589. To talk of a so-called Ur-Hamlet to cover the situation is merely to dodge the issue with the ever-ready academic supposition. Such a play never existed—except in the mind of a confused English professor.
Altogether, some twenty genuine Shakespeare plays were brazenly appropriated by unauthorized publishers for their own profit.
In those days any member of the Stationers’ Company who secured possession of a manuscript could copyright it under his personal license—no matter how faulty the copy or by what means it was acquired—unless the real owner was willing to disclose his identity by making a direct appeal to the wardens of the company, or by personally enlisting authoritative pressure to prevent publication. As the late Prof. A. W. Pollard has pointed out in his Shakespeare’s Fight With the Pirates (1920), professional writers who depended upon their pens for livelihood were not seriously molested by unscrupulous publishers. Literary piracy was primarily concerned “with the works of dead authors, or of men whose rank would have forbidden them to receive payment for their books.” (My italics)
Shakespeare was unquestionably the outstanding and most frequent victim of this pernicious system of thievery. Yet the proponents of William of Stratford insist that he was a professional writer, while the actual records of his life show him to have been not only alive while this wholesale larceny was carried out, but at the same time extremely vigilant in protecting all other property rights down to the very last odd penny. As the son of a known butcher and wool dealer, and himself a runaway Stratford apprentice, it would be a bit incongruous, on the other hand, to claim that he was one of those aristocratic easy marks “whose rank would have forbidden them to receive payment for their books.”
Obviously, the writer of the plays and the young apprentice were two entirely separate and distinct personalities, occupying different stations in life.
Of the plays filched from the real Shakespeare because of his disinclination to disclose his identity to prevent their unauthorized publication, eight or nine are now classed by the textual experts who have studied them as complete or partial “memory” versions, apparently built up from one or two acting parts by needy players during periods when the theatres were closed by plague epidemics. Incidentally, every one of the genuine plays that was counterfeited (and there are eleven of these, as will be seen) can be taken to have been in existence some years before it was stolen. In listing them, the authentic 1623 Folio title is in each instance given first:
The Taming of the Shrew—printed anonymously from an imperfectly remembered, ungrammatical text as The Taming of a Shrew, 1594.
2 Henry the Sixth—printed anonymously from a poorly remembered stage version as The First Part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster, 1594.
3 Henry the Sixth—printed anonymously as The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of Yorke, 1595. An actor’s recreation of an abridged stage version, of the same crude quality as The Contention.
1 Henry the Fourth; 2 Henry the Fourth; The Life of Henry the Fifth. All three of these historical masterpieces were telescoped into a single rapidly-moving scenario featuring the comic elements, an arrangement in which ad libbing was patently given free scope. The compilation was printed anonymously in 1594 under the title of The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. According to the title-page, this piece was from the repertory of the Queen’s Players, who were in their heyday in the 1580’s. Moreover, we learn from the contemporary accounts of the stage career of Dick Tarleton that this famous clown had played in a show corresponding to The Famous Victories prior to his death in 1588. From what we know of Tarleton’s method of stage composition, it appears very likely that it was he who worked up this scenario with its clownish, vulgarized dialogue and slapstick humor from Shakespeare’s original—the outlines of which it follows in the main. The realistic weight of such evidence, carrying, as it does, the primal creation of three of the most popular Shakespearean plays back into the middle of Tarleton’s reign as first comic of the realm is another devastating blow to Stratfordian claims.
The Life of Henry the Fifth—printed anonymously in a separate quarto, abridged and garbled by mistranscription, 1600.
The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet—printed anonymously in a misspelled, wretchedly garbled version under the title of An Excellent conceited Tragedie of Romeo and Juliet, 1597.
The Merry Wives of Windsor—printed 1602 from a crude, chopped-up “memory” compilation as “By William Shakespeare,” under the title of A Most pleasaunt and excellent conceited Comedie, of Syr John Falstaffe, and the merrie Wives of Windsor.
The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark—printed 1603 as The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke “By William Shake-Speare.” Perhaps the most curious and illuminating of all the actors’ “memory” versions, Dr. A. S. Cairncross in The Problem of Hamlet: A Solution, gives a fascinating account of the way this historic exhibit of dramatic pilfering was assembled by the actor who had played Marcellus and other minor roles. Cairncross demonstrates how this thespian pirate padded out his compilation with tags and snatches from such stage successes of the 1580’s as The Spanish Tragedy in which he had undoubtedly appeared. In general the Cairncross evidence leaves little room for doubt that the genuine Hamlet dates from about the time of the Spanish Armada (or earlier) just as Nash so clearly states in his introduction to Greene’s Menaphon, 1589.
Two other famous Shakespeare plays were also stolen at the beginning of the 1590’s by the “injurious impostors” that Jonson describes. Neither is exactly the same type of garbled abridgement or “memory” version listed above.
One is the very loose and shoddy paraphrase of The Tragedie of King Lear, first entered for publication in the spring of 1594, as previously noted, under the title of The Chronicle History of Leire, Kinge of England &c. The other is an unusually competent paraphrase of The Life and Death of King John, issued in 1591 by a London bookseller named Sampson Clarke as The Troublesome Raigne of King John of England . . . As it was (sundry times) publikely acted by the Queenes Maiesties Player, in the honourable Citie of London.
Significantly enough, Clarke put his counterfeit King John into circulation without blessing of legal copyright. Also, in common with the other early Shakespearean piracies (including the unauthorized but textually sound Titus Andronicus printed in 1594) The Troublesome Raigne bore no ascription of authorship.
These facts, especially the 1591 date of publication, are worthy of careful note. For The Troublesome Raigne is the earliest of the stolen Shakespeare plays yet discovered—and one whose original had sufficienty outworn its novelty as a stage vehicle to be considered an easier prize by the buccaneering Clarke than works such as The Taming of the Shrew and Titus Andronicus, both of which are universally classed as among the very first of the Bard’s creations.
Not only on this score but by virtue of its own internal evidence, in comparison with the original King John, The Troublesome Raigne takes us back again into the fertile Shakespearean decade of the 1580’s. Sir E. K. Chambers, the eminent Stratfordian, says of The Troublesome Raigne that “the tone is that of the Armada (1587-8) period.” He has also drawn attention to the fact that the prologue to Clarke’s edition features the stage presentation of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine which was the great hit of 1586-7. It is obvious, by the way, that the same pre-Armada martial spirit animates the genuine King John.
Moreover, Shakespeare’s play and its Troublesome paraphrase are identical in covering exactly the same segment of English-French history. . . with the same cast of leading characters reacting to the same general terms of motivation. . . in the same principal locations (alternating between England and France). . . while some thirty sets of speech patterns that distinguish King John are reproduced (with occasional telling lapses in verbal elegance) in the pirated quarto of 1591.
Considering all the parallels in full detail, evidence of the priority of Shakespeare’s work is unmistakable. As modern law relating to plagiarism is now understood, it is safe to say that no jury of unprejudiced persons to whom the case for such Shakespearean priority was properly presented would hesitate long in giving the Bard the verdict. The only reason why the orthodox authorities do not admit the priority of King John to The Troublesome Raigne freely and frankly is because they realize that such an admission tends to disqualify their candidate out of hand. For the Warwickshire claimant could hardly have written King John while he is still envisioned as a butcher’s apprentice in his native borough.
Another circumstance which undoubtedly has misled some of the earlier students of the relationship between King John and The Troublesome Raigne is the fact that the counterfeit here represents the best quality of workmanship that the Shakespearean pickbrains ever achieved. In appropriating King John, Sampson Clarke did so with the assistance of a far abler writer than any of the semi-literate actors who botched up such base coinage as A Shrew, The Contention, The Famous Victories and the 1603 Hamlet.
As we have already stated, all of the basic facts—scientifically arrived at—concerning the organized thievery to which the greatest of English writers was subjected throughout his creative career have now been available for some time. Perhaps they are not better known to teachers of English because the original documentation and the conclusions of the experts who have studied it intensively have not yet been correlated and pointed up in one simple, comprehensive statement. This must be done, and the results must be more widely publicized. For the fact is undeniable that all the ancient myths and conjectures conceived out of whole cloth which characterize the peerless Bard as a furtive play cobbler (actually a sort of old clothes man of the Elizabethan drama) are still being broadcast. High school, college and university teachers throughout the English-speaking world repeat them year after year with glib irresponsibility. Dramatic reviewers and numerous “distinguished” literary critics also go on echoing the same senseless clichés.
“Shakespeare,” declared Edmund Wilson in reviewing John Dover Wilson’s Fortunes of Falstaff for the New Yorker some months ago, “was not a scholar, or self-consciously a spokesman for his age as Dante and Goethe were; he was not even an ‘intellectual.’ He began by feeding the market with potboilers and patching up other people’s plays, and he returned to these trades at the end.”
When such statements as this are challenged by anyone who has taken the trouble to examine the first-hand evidence proving the falsity of every one of Edmund Wilson’s assertions, he is usually told that the matter is of no importance anyway. Who really cares how, when and by whom the Shakespearean works were actually written? We have them—and that’s all that need concern us.
Yes? but is it, though?
If the accurate facts regarding any personal achievement in this life are worth knowing (and the thousands of volumes of biography and autobiography published each year indicate that the public is eager for such facts): then the truth about “Shakespeare” can be said to be of outstanding importance. For it is universally admitted that the personality behind that name was responsible for the greatest individual achievement in all literary history.
“After God,” exclaimed Alexandre Dumas the Elder, “Shakespeare created most!”
Dumas’ tribute aside, to deny so self-evident a proposition as the importance of the real Shakespeare’s identity and his activities as a man among men is in the same breath to deny the whole raison d’ être of human biography as a prized branch of human knowledge. In other words, if Shakespeare isn’t worth knowing for exactly who and what he was, then no human being that has ever lived is worth knowing in the same way!
Purveyors of the orthodox fables and misconceptions regarding the Shakespearean creative calendar can no longer evade this issue. A guess is still a guess, no matter how boldly and persistently stated. Moreover, the colossal inertia of Stratfordian—and the vested interests which it fosters—has proved vulnerable enough to the scientifically based tests of modern scholarship. We can be sure that the great mass of factual evidence now available to explain with logical clarity the reason why the genuine living personality behind the name “Shakespeare” was a helpless victim of the most rapacious band of creative leeches that ever battened on authentic genius, will arouse public interest. Effectually correlated and digested in simple language, the documentary facts are bound to clear the atmosphere of much of the conjectural murk in which “authoritative” opinion has so long obscured and misrepresented the greatest Elizabethan. An unscholarly, intellectually anaesthetic peddler of potboilers, “patching up other people’s plays”—what arrant nonsense!
It is to be hoped that such a digest of corrective fact in this classic case of mistaken identity as we have suggested will soon be made available. Perhaps, it may open the eyes and stir the logical faculties even of the famed literary critic of the New Yorker.
Be that as it may, such documentation of the pre-Stratfordian creation and wholesale counterfeiting of the genuine Shakespeare works evokes a far different picture of the real life dramatist than is to be found in any of the standardized biographies.
No longer can he be seen as the rustic runaway apprentice from the Avonside, cadgering for pence as a horse-holder by day, and toiling the nights away in some ill-lighted garret as he painfully revises into masterpieces the garbled, semi-literate hackworks of conjectured “predecessors.”
Instead—the mature Master himself, now joyfully embracing, again cursing the fateful genius that in giving him the immortal power of self-expression has also made him “the prey of every vulgar thief” who has designs upon his creative output. Nor can he put a stop to this outrageous system of robbery, as professional writers of the day can do—without divulging his own name and station. And to do that—to openly admit himself a public playwright—would precipitate unbearable social scandal. Already he has put too much of himself, too many autobiographical incidents, too many biting characterizations of the people he has come to know best through intimate contact, into his writings. Many are beginning to talk: Spenser and Gabriel Harvey hint openly; Nash is irrepressibl—that “Gentle Master William” dedication to Strange News must be suppressed. . . . He must not only adopt a complete nom de plume, but must take one that has a living counterpart . . . someone who, for a consideration, will mask him effectually. . . . He suddenly thinks of a name he’s heard around the Rose Theatre lately . . . that young countryman who holds horses and runs errands . . . “Will Shakspere” . . . that’s it . . . “Shakspere” . . . probably “Shakespeare” originally . . . just the thing . . . his own nickname, “Will,” and . . . what did Harvey say about him in that oration years ago “thy countenance shakes a speare.” . . . Why, that would be a fitting mask-name, indeed . . . “Master William Shakespeare” . . . he’ll arrange to see that young rustic tomorrow, and if the plan is feasible, he’ll have Kemp or Heminge find some better work for him to do with the Lord Chamberlain’s Company . . . as himself Lord Chamberlain of England and general supervisor of theatrical entertainment under the Queen’s authority, Edward de Vere anticipates no serious difficulty in coming to terms with his contemplated namesake.