The Case for Shakespeare’s Authorship
of “The Famous Victories”
By Seymour M. Pitcher (Alvin Redman, 1962.)
Copyright 1963 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in Shakespearean Authorship Review (English), Autumn 1963.
The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth is an anonymous play, which was entered in the Stationers’ Register on 14th May 1594, and published in 1598—”as it was plaide by the Queenes Majesties Players.” It is an unusually short play, but nevertheless contrives to cover roughly the same ground as both parts of Shakespeare’s Henry IV as well as Henry V. This is, in itself, remarkable achievement, but Famous Victories is not a very remarkable play. Dr. Pitcher, however, thinks it has been given less credit than it deserves and attributes it to the youthful Shakespeare. He reprints the whole of the text, with explanatory notes, a commentary and three appendices: (a) The Sources; (b) The Marginal Annotations in a Copy of Hall; (c) Books and Articles Used.
In assigning the play to Shakespeare, Dr. Pitcher unwittingly lends his support to the late B. M. Ward, who, of course, assigned it to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Review of English Studies, 1928), which for him, amounted to the same thing—but then, according to Dr. Pitcher, Ward was not an “Oxfordian”! This will come as a surprise to members of our Society, but the fact is that, though Ward certainly was an Oxfordian (with Groupist leanings), he did not actually say so in either his biography of Edward de Vere or his article on Famous Victories, but he did leave the question open (Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, p. 327-28) and the categorical statement that he was not an Oxfordian is quite unfounded.
Dr. Pitcher, then, follows Ward in his belief that Famous Victories was by the same author as 1 and 2 Henry IV and Henry V, and in this he deviates from the conclusions of his fellow-Stratfordians, most of whom believe that it was a “Bad Quarto,” or “Memorial Reconstruction” (memory version), put together by a touring troupe of actors—not of the Shakespeare trilogy itself (dates seem to rule this out), but of an old “lost” play or series of plays on the same subject, which, for certain reasons, must have existed at least as early as 1588, and was also the source of the trilogy.
Dr. Pitcher will have none of this. For him, Famous Victories is not a Bad Quarto at all, but a reasonably good text of Shakespeare’s own first attempt at dramatising the life of Henry V. His main argument consists of a comparative study of the two extant versions, by which he seeks to establish common authorship, but the argument would be just as convincing (or unconvincing) if “Shakespeare” was a pseudonym.
Dr. Pitcher cannot, of course, accept Ward’s date of 1574—when Will was ten years old. He dates the play 1586, but his “proofs” involve a reference to Ward and to the career of the Earl of Oxford.
He concedes to Ward the point that the part played (historically) by the 11th Earl at the battle of Agincourt was elaborated by the author—”as complimentary to the Elizabethan Earl” (I quote from Pitcher, not Ward), and it is amusing to reflect that, from his point of view, the “compliment” emanated from William of Stratford.
He draws an interesting comparison between the list of noblemen selected by King Henry V for special duties at Agincourt—according to Hall’s chronicle, oil the one hand, and the author of Famous Victories on the other:
“The dramatist’s alterations are explicit and numerous. We can only suppose that his purpose was definite.
First off, the new dispositions of the sons of Henry IV show an almost pedantic concern for dramatic effect. . . . As in Hall, York, the King’s cousin holds the van, where he will gallantly die. Exeter, the King’s uncle, introduced earlier in the play as a courtier, is dropped, together with all mention of the rear.
Further modifications were designed to focus attention upon certain Elizabethan noblemen. To this end, the author omitted (besides Exeter) Beaumont, Fanhope, and Suffolk; all four names were extinct in the contemporary peerage. He retained from Hall (apart from royalty) only Oxford and Willoughby; great Lords lived who bore these names. He added Derby, Kent, Nottingham, Huntingdon, and Northumberland, quite unhistorical at Agincourt but immediately recognizable as Elizabethan personages. . . . Oxford alone is a member of the dramatis personae.”
Lord Howard of Effingham (as Dr. Pitcher admits) was not created Earl of Nottingham till 1596, but the necessary alteration could have been made before publication. He then points out that Oxford, Derby, Kent and “Nottingham” were associated in 1586-87 as members of the Commission for the trial of Mary Queen of Scots, and that Oxford was appointed to a Committee of the House of Lords to address the Queen on the sentence. Dr. Pitcher suggests that these noblemen, having found Mary guilty, were out of favour: “They may well have wished to vindicate themselves as patriots both in public and at Court” and “may have asked the assistance of the actors.” Ward had suggested that Oxford wrote Famous Victories, or a court mask on which it was based, as a peace-offering to the Queen when he was temporarily out of favour in 1574, and Dr. Pitcher, adapting this theory for his own use, suggests that he commissioned Shakespeare to write it, or insert some appropriate allusions, for the same reason, in 1586-87. He is obviously impressed by Ward’s conjecture that Oxford’s pension of £l,000 a year, granted by the Queen in June 1586, was “to assist him as theatrical entrepreneur for the Court,” adding that “others have gone beyond Ward to suggest, with some plausibility, that the funds were intended for organized propaganda”—in which case, “The Famous Victories may have been one of the first plays—perhaps the very first—commissioned for the Queen’s men under this policy.”
The recorded Gadshill episode of 1573, so vital to Ward’s case, is dealt with—at some length it is true—in one of the explanatory notes on the text (p. 73).
Ward had pointed out that in Famous Victories, Prince Hal’s escapade on Gadshill is precisely dated as having taken place on 20th May in the fourteenth year of Henry IV—a non-existent date because the King had died too soon! The Earl of Oxford’s men, however, were accused of an armed assault on travellers on the road from Gravesend to Rochester (which crosses Gadshill) on a Wednesday in May 1573—when Queen Elizabeth had been on the throne for fourteen years. The 20th May, 1573, was in fact a Wednesday.
To this analogy, Dr. Pitcher raises four objections. In the first place, he argues that, though Oxford’s men were involved, there is no evidence that he was one of the company—which is true; but he omits to mention the fact that the victims, Faunt and Wotton, whose letter to Lord Treasurer Burghley is the only known source of evidence, referred to Oxford as “our late noble Lord and master, who with pardon be it spoken, is to be thought as the procurer of that which is done.” Secondly, Dr. Pitcher maintains that the Gadshill affair occurred on the 21st May, not the 20th but the only evidence for this appears to be that Faunt and Wotton (writing on the Thursday) also refer to a previous attack at their lodgings in London yesterday (without stating the time of day) and do not happen to mention when the second attack took place. All we are told is that they left the city and chose the country for their safeguard, but were followed and attacked, for the second time, when “riding peaceably by the highway from Gravesend to Rochester. By the time the letter was written “this present Thursday,” they were back at Gravesend, having presumably spent the night at Rochester. The letter is endorsed by Burghley “May 1573,” and if there is a weak spot in this part of Ward’s case, it is not that the incident occurred on the 21st instead of the 20th, but that we do not know for certain, as he admits, that “this present Thursday” in May was the 21st. Other things being equal the odds, would be 3 to 1 against, but other things are not equal.
Dr. Pitcher’s third objection is that Ward overlooks “the egregious reputation of Gadshill.” It is true that highway robbery and acts of violence were common enough on Gadshill, as they were in other lonely places, but this was an uncommon act of violence, involving as it did the servants of a great nobleman and in some measure, it seems, the nobleman himself. Fourthly, and lastly, Ward “brushes aside A. W. Pollard’s comment to him that The Famous Victories must have been written somewhat later, since its author employs Stow’s Chronicles (1580),” and with this I am inclined to agree—though Oxford would almost certainly have known Stow personally and might even have seen the manuscript. The story of Prince Hal robbing his own (not his father’s) Receivers, and rewarding them afterwards if they put up a good fight, comes from Stow; but neither Stow, nor any of the chroniclers, gives the Gadshill setting.
Having disposed of the real-life episode on Gadshill as irrelevant, Dr. Pitcher—admitting that “a writer’s early work often reflects his personal experience”—substitutes for it the poaching incident at Charlecote! “It seems to me (he says) quite probable that Shakespeare’s exoneration of Hal as never having been actually contaminated by the selfishness of greed and thieving, notwithstanding appearances, may have had its model in his mental struggle to exculpate himself in his own eyes.” With the exception of this one reference to legendary biographical material, and as far as the main part of his book is concerned, Dr. Pitcher’s case for Shakespeare’s authorship of Famous Victories is based entirely on internal evidence for common authorship of Famous Victories and the trilogy, and in this he and Ward are on the same side, though they differ as to who that author was. Appendix B, however, is a different matter, for the evidence given here is personal and directly related to William Shakespeare of Stratford as author of Famous Victories.
The copy of Hall’s Chronicle discovered some years ago by Alan Keen contains marginal annotations which, it has been claimed, are in William Shakespeare’s hand; the same hand as the only surviving specimens—his six signatures. Dr. Pitcher accepts this claim and prints a number of parallel passages from Hall (with the annotations), Famous Victories and the trilogy, designed to show that the annotator’s selections and comments are closer to Famous Victories than to the trilogy. He believes that he has caught Shakespeare at work collecting and sifting material, not as yet for 1 and 2 Henry IV and Henry V, but for his earlier play. Theory is thus reinforced by documentary evidence, the evidence of the alleged handwriting of the (alleged) author of “The Works of Shakespeare.”
It is open to us to reject the claim that this is, in fact, Shakespeare’s (i.e. Shaksper’s) handwriting—as many authorities do, and as it seems we must if we are to insist on Oxford’s authorship of Famous Victories, but then Ward never suggested that Oxford wrote the play just as we have it, and Dr. Pitcher has not finally settled the question of whether it is an early and immature original, or a “memorial reconstruction” of Someone Else’s play. As for the date, the one outstanding piece of evidence is that Tarlton, the famous comedian of the Queen’s men, who died in 1588, was reputed to have taken part in “a play of Henry the Fifth” which included a scene in which Henry (as Prince Hal) gave a judge (the Lord Chief Justice?) a box on the ear. This scene survives in Famous Victories, but not in 1 Henry IV, where in point of time it belongs, though there are allusions to the incident in 2 Henry IV, and the audience are evidently expected to know all about it.
Dr. Pitcher ignores A. S. Cairncross, who boldly suggested (Problem of Hamlet, 1936) that the Shakespeare trilogy itself, much as we have it today but with some lost material, preceded Famous Victories; that 1 Henry IV was written as early as 1587-88, and that Tarlton acted in it. Yet this theory would explain all the “facts,” handwriting apart, save one—how the player from Stratford could possibly have written these masterpieces at the very outset of his career! But what if he did not write them?
Can it be that Mr. Keen and Dr. Pitcher between them have caught player Shaksper in the act of preparing a “memorial reconstruction,” possibly long after 1586, with the aid of Hall’s chronicle? A question not to be asked, and it is certainly not my business to answer it here. As a reviewer, however, I have still to correct one error, which may be a misprint: in Appendix C, under Ward, the Earl of Oxford’s dates are given as 1550-1642 they were, of course 1550-1604.
G. M. B.