By Peter Alexander. (Home University Library. Oxford, 1964.)
Copyright 1965 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in Shakespearean Authorship Review (English), Spring 1965.
This modest little book, modestly priced, has passed almost unnoticed in the Quatercentenary deluge. Yet it is an important book. In 256 small pages, it comprises: two chapters on the life of Shakespeare (in Stratford and in London); separate chapters on the Comedies, Histories and Tragedies; an Epilogue dealing with the Stratford Memorial and the First Folio; and a useful guide to “Further Reading”. There is nothing very original about the general plan, and from the point of view of the scholars, there is nothing very new in what Professor Alexander has to say. He has, himself, said much of it before, and in greater detail, elsewhere, and he has incorporated much that has been said in recent years by others. Nevertheless, there is matter here which will be both new and surprising to many. What makes the book so important is that it summarizes and co-ordinates the findings of modem bibliographical criticism and (up to a point) faces their biographical implications. Not that Professor Alexander begins with the bibliographical critics; from his own point of view, he begins at the beginning—that is to say, at Stratford. He rejects most of the legends preserved by Shakespeare’s first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, but is inclined to accept Aubrey’s statement (on the authority of the actor, William Beeston) that Shakespeare was for a time a schoolmaster in the country. He does not believe in an uneducated Shakespeare, and he holds Rowe responsible for that belief:
“Rowe did not engage in any historical research that would have enabled him to put his Account of Shakespeare’s life on a sound basis. He contented himself with what Betterton picked up at Stratford, and recorded what stories circulated in his own day in London about the dramatist, binding all together by what his reading of the plays suggested to him.”
The age in which he lived was obsessed with Aristotle’s theories of dramatic unity, which Shakespeare notoriously did not observe, and thus his reading of the plays suggested to him that the author was an uneducated man, ignorant of the classics:
“Rowe’s interpretation of the evidence afforded by the plays allows him to represent Shakespeare as lacking a regular education and goes half-way to the extreme view that Shakespeare was a vulgar or unlettered man, who could not therefore have written the works attributed to him by his colleagues and contemporaries.”
It is an ironical conclusion.
Professor Alexander then proceeds to put the circle into reverse. The plays are obviously not the works of an unlettered man; therefore Shakespeare (the author) was not an unlettered man; and therefore there is no reason why he (the supposed author) should not have written the plays. Yet he does not suggest that Rowe invented the legends. He simply found them, congenial to his way of thinking, and recorded them. The truth is that the critics have changed their minds about the mental equipment of the author, and are, therefore, obliged to change their minds about the mental equipment of the player from Stratford, or cease to be Stratfordians. We are given, of course, the usual unenlightening information about the Stratford records; and so to London, where Shakespeare was already well-established as a dramatist by 1592, when the dying Robert Greene wrote his famous letter (published posthumously in Greenes Groatsworth of Wit) To those Gentlemen his Quondam Acquaintance, that spend their wits in the making of plaies, warning them about a certain upstart Crow, “beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a country.”
It is a pity that, in passing on to what has come to be known as “Chettle’s Apology,” Professor Alexander, who has disposed of many assumptions, makes the usual tacit assumption that Chettle, the publisher of the Groatsworih of Wit, was apologizing to Shakespeare. This is to wrest his words from their obvious meaning. What he actually wrote was:
“About three moneths since died M. Robert Greene, leaving many papers in sundry Booke sellers hands, among other his Groatsworth of wit, in which a letter written to divers playmakers, is offensively by one or two of them taken (my italics). . . . With neither of them that take offence was I acquainted, and with one of them (Marlowe) I care not if I never be: The other, whome at that time I did not so much spare, as since I wish I had . . . that I did not, I am as sory as if the originall fault had beene my fault, because my selfe have seene his demeanor no lesse civill than he exelent in the qualitie he professes: Besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writting, that aprooves his Art.”
The upstart Crow might well have been offended, but surely it is obvious that Shakespeare cannot have been both the upstart Crow and one of the “divers play-makers” to whom Greene’s letter was addressed, warning them, as it does, against the activities of the said upstart Crow.
The discussion of the Groatsworth of Wit leads inevitably to the question of the relationship between Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Parts 2 and 3, and the two plays published anonymously in 1594 and 1595 as The First Part of the Contention betwixt the two famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster and The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of Yorke. The relationship is very close indeed, and Greene parodies a line which is common to 3 Henry VI and The True Tragedie:
O Tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide.
From the time of Malone (late eighteenth century) till 1924 (when Professor Alexander made his first contribution to the subject in The Times Literary Supplement), it was generally believed that these two plays were Shakespeare’s sources; that they were the original work of Greene, Marlowe and/or Peele; and that Greene, with some justification, was accusing Shakespeare of plagiarism. Since 1924, however, it has come to be generally accepted that Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays were the originals that the Contention and True Tragedie were memory versions, put together by a company of actors on tour, who had parted with their prompt-books; and that Greene was not accusing Shakespeare of plagiarism, but was merely jealous.
We know from the title-page that the True Tragedie was performed by Pembroke’s men, and it is a fair inference that they also owned the Contention. Other plays in their repertory were Titus Andronicus, published in a good version in 1594, The Taming of A Shrew and Marlowe’s Edward II, both published in 1594. As a result of confused memories, many lines from Edward II have found their way into the Contention and True Tragedie. Shakespeare, it seems, was a member of Pembroke’s before joining the Chamberlain’s men in 1594.
The Taming of A Shrew was formerly regarded as Shakespeare’s source for Taming of The Shrew, but here again, the position has been reversed, and it follows that “there is now no agreement among scholars that Shakespeare had to begin by rewriting the plays of better educated dramatists.” As for Marlowe:
“The notion that Marlowe was the originator of the English history play, and that Shakespeare was, in Mr. Bakeless’ words, beginning slowly and clumsily to follow in the way Marlowe had marked out for him, is an assumption that rests upon the assumption that Shakespeare could not yet write for himself and completely misrepresents the relationship between Edward II and 2 and 3 Henry VI . . . Edward II itself was no doubt in Shakespeare’s mind as he wrote Richard II. In Edward II, however, Marlowe was learning from Shakespeare how to put together a plot.”
Pembroke’s men, first heard of in 1592, went into the country to play in 1593, but soon returned as they could not “save their charges with their travel”. They were obliged to pawn their apparel and evidently also to sell their prompt-books. They had a brief revival in 1597 at Francis Langley’s playhouse, the Swan in Paris Garden, on the Bankside; got into trouble over a play called the Isle of Dogs; and then disappeared once more. At about this time a play on Hamlet was performed in Paris Garden.
Professor Alexander believes that the “lost” play on Hamlet, first referred to by Nashe in 1589, was an early version by Shakespeare himself, and it is significant that Shakespeare had moved from the Parish of St. Helen’s, Bishopsgate, to the Bankside in 1596, when his name was associated in a law-suit with that of Francis Langley. It does not seem to occur to Professor Alexander that Shakespeare might temporarily have rejoined Pembroke’s, and so, following Dr. Leslie Hotson, he brings the entire Chamberlain’s company from Shoreditch to the Bankside for a short season at the Swan before Pembroke’s signed an agreement with Langley in February, 1597.
Professor Alexander believes that the anonymous Troublesome Raigne of King John, published in 1591, reflects an early version of King John, by Shakespeare, instead of being his source, and suspects that the anonymous King Leir, published in 1605, may be derived in the same way from Shakespeare. In this case, however, the question is complicated by the fact that, in April 1594, a play called King Leare was performed at Henslowe’s Rose, and in the following month a play with the spelling Leire was entered in the Stationers’ Register, though not published at the time:
“It is generally taken for granted that the Leir of the 1605 quarto is substantially the same as the piece mentioned some ten years earlier in Henslowe’s Diary, and that this Leir is the chief source of Shakespeare’s Lear, entered in S.R. on 26 November 1607 . . . As long as the notion that Shakespeare was in the habit of rewriting the plays of other dramatists was generally accepted no difficulty seemed to be raised by regarding Lear as Shakespeare’s revision of Leir. The assumption, however, was based on evidence that is no longer acceptable, and the relationship of the Leir of 1605 and Shakespeare’s Lear still requires detailed study.”
One more anonymous play on a subject dealt with by Shakespeare remains to be considered. The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth was not published till 1598, but it has been associated with a story told of Tarlton, the comedian of the Queen’s men, who died ten years earlier. Of this play, Professor Alexander writes:
“It treats in most uncouth form events that are also found in Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V, and is generally considered a debased version of pieces that may go back to Tarlton’s day. . . . The relationship between The Famous Victories and Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V, though The Famous Victories is generally regarded as one of Shakespeare’s sources, remains a puzzling one.”
Though Professor Alexander seems to experience no difficulty in reconciling the bibliographical evidence for earlier dating of the plays with the few known facts of the life of William Shakespeare of Stratford, that difficulty persists for many of his fellow Stratfordians. For those of us, however, who believe that the real author of the plays was Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), a difficulty has been removed. For us, Hamlet—1589, and King Lear—1594, for instance, are reasonable limits for the dates of the plays as we have them, and there is no need to postulate early lost versions, by Shakespeare or anyone else. That is a rather dubious way out for the Stratfordians, and most of the Anti-Stratfordians too. For us, it is an unnecessary complication. The fact is that, where chronology is concerned, the Oxfordians and the bibliographical critics, including such eminent scholars as Professor Alexander, supplement and corroborate each other. There is no longer any excuse for saying that Oxford’s authorship is ruled out by the dates of the plays; and the time may have come to reconsider, once again, the meaning of Greene’s allegations against the upstart Crow, “beautified with our feathers.” After all, the evidence of plagiarism, or revision, or reconstruction, as the case may be, has not disappeared, though the order of the good and bad texts has been reversed. It now seems that the players were responsible for the bad versions, which accords very well with what Greene has to say about them, in general.
G. M. B.