An Illuminating Shaw-Shakespeare Parallel
with Ben Jonson
Copyright 1943 by Charles Wisner Barrell
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship News-Letter, June 1943.
Regarding the true creative chronology of the Shakespeare plays—many of which were not publicly produced on a commercial basis until ten or fifteen years after they were written by the Earl of Oxford—we have an interesting parallel situation in the modern career of George Bernard Shaw.
Both Shaw and the eccentric nobleman who used the pen-name of “William Shakespeare” were advanced realists as compared to their contemporaries; experimenters in dramatic forms; explorers whose findings were at first considered caviare to the general.
Oxford’s early plays were produced at Court and for the restricted audiences of the little private theatre in Blackfriars during the 1570’s and 1580’s.
Shaw says he found an outlet for his first dramatic work in various “absurd hole and corner” places where his Socialist confreres foregathered; supplemented with brief and financially unprofitable productions for the Independent Theatre. And many years had passed before either the Elizabethan or the Victorian trail-blazer was widely known to or accepted by the great public at large. Let us particularize.
At the end of the year 1896, Shaw had passed his fortieth birthday and had written six full-length plays and a couple of curtain-raisers or “interludes.”
Some of these had been conceived in the 1880’s and completed in 1892-3. But only two—Widowers’ Houses and Arms and the Man—had been accorded adequate presentation. In 1896, so far as the general playgoing public was concerned, such works as The Philanderer (now acknowledged to be an autobiographical comedy), Mrs. Warren’s Profession, You Never Can Tell and Candida were unknown. In fact, it was not until the new century was well under weigh that adventurous stars such as Arnold Daly, Mary Shaw, Robert Lorraine and their novelty-seeking backers had succeeded in giving the world anything approaching a fair idea of Shaw’s real genius.
And when New York audiences, for instance, found themselves during such years as 1904-06 gasping and gurgling over the “new” playwright’s “advanced” conceits and cutting “contemporary” allusions, nobody seems to have realized that many of his up-to-the-minute effects had really been written anywhere from eight to fourteen years previously.
In other words, if a chronological “expert” of the type that has arbitrarily fixed the dates of composition of the Shakespearean works had been called upon to decide the nativity of the Irish dramatist’s brain-children according to the same laws of evidence that have been applied to the Bard’s, it is obvious that such decisions would have been wide of the mark. Only a miracle of lucky guesswork could prevent the misdating of Shaw’s early plays by the application of approved Stratfordian methods. Without the author’s own testimony as a guide or an accurate set of his working schedules derived from close associates, it is a foregone conclusion that the first fifteen years of the Shavian creative chronology would be quite as blind a mystery as the Bard’s has been—up to the time that the Earl of Oxford was discovered as the real personality behind the Elizabethan masterpieces.
Students of the Oxford evidence should keep this telling Shaw parallel in mind whenever Stratfordian “experts” announce with authoritative finality that Hamlet was written as late as 1602; that Othello cannot be dated earlier than 1604; that Macbeth was composed in 1606 or 1607; and that the “internal evidence” of such plays as Antony and Cleopatra, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale show they were written between 1608 and 1611.
The tragedy of “The Moor of Venice” provides a striking example of the confusion that besets orthodox biographers of the Bard. Knight dates its composition in 1602; Lee assigns it to 1604; Harrison to 1605; Malone to 1611 and Chalmers to 1614. Prof. Dowden admits he does not know when Othello was written, but states that the earliest allusion to the play was in 1610. Such wild conjectures are little short of astounding when there has been in existence for over three hundred years a perfectly reliable contemporary reference to Othello by Ben Jonson which dates from 1600-1601. This occurs in Jonson’s esoteric comedy of The Poetaster, presented by the boy actors of the Queen’s Chapel in 1601. To carry any point at all, such satirical comments must presuppose that the object of satire is thoroughly familiar to the audience addressed. Therefore, we may assume that the characterization of Shakespeare’s jealous Moor was already considered a stock piece in which every well-trained tragedian had tested his mettle when Jonson brought him into this sophisticated comedy. It is still impossible for me to believe that so direct a reference has been entirely overlooked by the high-powered authorities who have handed down their decisions on the Shakespearean chronology. But as such indeed seems to be the case, the evidence will bear reproduction here.
Act Three of The Poetaster finds the swashbuckling critic, Captain Tucca, (1) on the “Via Sacra” (or, as we would say, the Rialto) of the Southwark theatrical district, in contact with one Histrio, a stalking tragedian, evidently made up to caricature Ned Alleyn, stentorian favorite of the Elizabethan groundlings.” Tucca proceeds to upbraid Histrio as a “stinkard,” and a “two-penny tear-mouth” who has grown so “rich” and “proud” through having “FORTUNE” and “the good year” on his side that he can no longer remember his former friends. Alleyn is known to have been one of the proprietors of the Fortune Theatre at this time, on terms of acquaintance with such members of the aristocracy as Sir Henry Goodyere (Drayton’s patron), and was also rapidly accumulating wealth. So there can be no doubt that Jonson is aiming at him directly in this characterization of Histrio. By the same token this gives us a key to the timely realism of the satire as a whole.
In an effort to divert Tucca’s anger from Histrio, some other players in the group offer the bellicose Captain various samples of “the quality” that Histrio professes. These consist of a farrago of burlesqued lines and catch-phrases from Marlowe, The Spanish Tragedy, Titus Andronicus, Hamlet and other well-worn favorites. Finally, one of the imitators announces:
“Now you shall see me do the Moor: master, lend me your scarf a little.”
“Here, ’tis at thy service, boy.” And Tucca hands over his neckcloth.
But then Histrio himself engages Tucca in conversation, and as they walk aside, the imitator cries:
“Stay, thou shalt see me do the Moor ere thou goest—”
These references to the “the Moor” and the “scarf” recall Othello just as clearly as the allusions to “The Ghost” and the cries of “Vindicta” (Revenge) and the womanly screams of “Murder!” in the same burlesque vein recall Hamlet.
The fact that Jonson considered these tragedies to be good subject matter for laughter by the cognoscenti in the years 1600-1601, should long since have made it plain to every alert reader of The Poetaster that the orthodox method of dating the Shakespeare plays to conform to the lifespan of Shakspere of Stratford is quite untrustworthy.
Moreover, where a single allusion within the texture of a Shakespeare play may indicate to an assured Stratfordian some date of composition such as 1607, say, the Oxford investigator can usually turn up a dozen more realistic allusions in the same work to indicate that it was composed or presented a decade or two earlier.
Finally, it is equally patent that many of the 1570-1580 Shakespeare productions known chiefly to the restricted audiences of the Court and the private theatre of Blackfriars were “new” when. revived for the general audiences at the Globe during the last years of Elizabeth and the first decade of James I. That is to say, they were “new” in exactly the same sense that a whole list of Shaw’s plays were “new” to popular audiences in London and New York long years after their author had first committed them to manuscript.
Charles Wisner Barrell
1. It seems to me that the characterization of Captain Tucca can be associated with the personality of Jonson himself who was vain of his military exploits in the Lowlands and frequently lashed his contemporaries with the same unsparing tongue that he gives Tucca. C.W.B.