Chronology in the Melting Pot
Copyright 1955 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship News-Letter (English), Autumn 1955.
The report of the Advisory Committee to the Shakespeare Group of the Modem Languages Association of America, reprinted above, is fraught with significance for Oxfordians. To begin with it admits that Shakespeare was widely read and even that he “examined many documents in the composition of his plays”—
“The ancient and long-lived theory of Shakespeare as an untutored genius is dead or nearly so.”
Let us beware, then, of flogging a dead horse and take due note of the altered position of Shakespearean scholarship—the term Stratfordian would be out of place here, for though the scholars concerned have by no means abandoned the Stratfordian faith, the new theories arise from the scientific textual examination of the “Shakespeare” plays in relation to Elizabethan drama, literature and bibliography in general. It follows that the evidence for Shakespeare’s reading applies to the author as such, and only by inference to the player from Stratford.
One of the most revolutionary changes lies in the gradual elimination, or rather, metamorphosis of source plays. The theory that certain extant plays of an inferior order were used by Shakespeare as sources is so very nearly dead that Professor C. T. Prouty, among others, has recently been at some pains to revive it. In The Contention and Shakespeare’s Henry VI, published last year by Yale University, he attacks the “new orthodoxy”, as he calls it:
“first stated by Peter Alexander in 1924, confirmed, at least in part, by Madeleine Doran in 1928, and endorsed successively by Sir Edmund Chambers in 1930, Sir Walter Greg in 1939, Alfred Hart in 1942, F.P. Wilson in 1945, and Dover Wilson in 1952”.
It is a formidable list.
This New Orthodoxy is the belief that The First Part of the Contention Bewixt the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster (1594) and the second part, or True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York (1595) are not, as had been held since the time of Malone, the sources of 2 and 3 Henry VI, but reconstructions of those plays, put together from memory by travelling actors.
It remains to be seen whether Professor Prouty will win many converts to his reactionary views, but the revolution started by Professor Alexander (to go no further back), is still in progress and has already had far-reaching effects upon the traditional notions of Shakespeare chronology.
The reversal of precedence with regard to the Henry VI and Contention plays made no difference itself, since 3 Henry VI had already been assigned on external evidence to 1592 at the latest. Nor was it very disconcerting when Alexander suggested that the anonymous Taming of A Shrew, also published in 1594, was later than Shakespeare’s Taming of The Shrew, but the tangible evidence that Shakespeare began by revising other men’s plays was fast disappearing and a general principle had been undermined.
The trouble began when in Shakespeare’s Life and Art (1938), Alexander threw out a hint that the two-part play, The Troublesome Reign of King John, might also be later than Shakespeare’s version. In this he received less support for the simple reason that Troublesome Reign was printed in 1591, which was very troublesome indeed. Faith in the pre-Shakespearean “chronicle play” had, however, been badly shaken, and in Marlowe and the Early Shakespeare (1953), Professor F. P. Wilson asked:
“Was it Shakespeare and Marlowe who first gave dignity and coherence to the historical play and raised it above the level of a chronicle? So we have always been taught to believe; but when we look for these early chronicle plays written before the Armada, where are they? . . . Admittedly few of the plays acted in the fifteen-eighties have survived. So serious are the losses that the historian of the Elizabethan drama—especially of this period, before the practice of printing plays to be read became popular—often feels himself to be in the position of a man fitting together a jig-saw, most of the pieces of which are missing. Some sort of picture emerges, but is it the true picture? Nevertheless, many play-titles have survived, and a few plays, and if we go by these we are forced into this surprising conclusion: that there is no certain evidence that any popular dramatist before Shakespeare wrote a play based on English history. So far as I know, the only play of this kind for which there is some external evidence that it was written before 1588 is The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, a play of incredible meanness in the form in which it has come down to us.”
On the relationship between King John and Troublesome Reign Wilson refused to commit himself, “but”, he says:
“if we have to believe that our King John was written by 1590, then we shall have completely to revise our ideas about Shakespeare’s relationship to Marlowe and to other contemporaries, and we shall have to reconcile, if we can, the maturity of so much in King John with the immaturity of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece of 1592-4″.
And now comes the challenge. In the New Arden edition of King John (1954), the editor, E. A. J. Honigman, definitely adopts the view that Shakespeare’s play preceded The Troublesome Reign. I cannot here enter into his arguments, but the book is quite accessible. It is, of course, open to anyone to say that he is wrong, but if he is right, the consequences must be faced. “If”, says Mr. Honigman:
“the majority opinion which assigns John to the years 1595-6 be unassailable, little will be gained from a discussion that ignores chronology, since the T.R. was printed in 1591. But that part of Shakespeare chronology which supports this majority opinion has been under fire of late from a number of competent authorities. Newly discovered facts, moreover, suggest that, quite apart from the T.R., John must probably be dated back to the winter of 1590/1…. We ask for disregard of the traditional ‘Shakespeare Chronology’ since the relationship of the two John plays is part of the evidence.” (Italics mine).
The case of King John, however, cannot be considered in isolation and, in an article entitled Shakespeare’s Lost Source Plays, published in Modern Languages Review, Vol. XLIX, number 3 (July, 1954), Honigman raises wider issues:
“The growing reaction against the orthodox Shakespeare chronology calls for a re-dating of Richard 3, as well as other plays. Professor R. Taylor . . . first showed that The Troublesome Raigne of John, 1591, is a network of stolen lines—Marlowe, Shakespeare and lesser dramatists were plundered to pad out verse. Malone had indicated that there was contact one way or the other between Richard 3 and Troublesome Raigne, and Prof. Taylor’s work makes it fairly certain that Troublesome Raigne was the debtor. Richard 3 then would have to be dated 1591 or earlier.”
There seem to be no end to the process: yet, as fast as the old extant “source-plays” are exposed as piracies or derivative versions, Professor Dover Wilson postulates more and more lost source-plays. Honigman comments:
“Although many pre-Shakespearean plays are undoubtedly lost, and although Shakespeare’s use of extant source-plays cannot be denied, I feel that the wide-spread belief in his lost source-plays has little basis when studied in the light of the most important examples.”
Honigman does not accept the once lost source-play for which there is, or one seemed to be, some evidence, the old Hamlet referred to by Nashe in 1589. This, he believes, in common with Alexander and others, may have been an early version by Shakespeare himself. Nor does he think it likely that Shakespeare made much use in Merchant of Venice of the old lost play called The Jew, described by Steven Gosson in 1579 as “representing the greedinesse of worldly chusers, and the bloody mindes of usurers”, but he does concede to Dover Wilson the possibility of two lost plays compressed into one in the bad quarto known as The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, 1598″, but:
“If he Shakespeare knew the lost Henry V at all he will hardly have followed it more slavishly, than King Leir for King Lear. For, if The Contention, 1594, The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of York, 1595, Troublesome Raigne, A Shrew and The True Tragedie of Richard 3 are no longer held to be pre-Shakespearean, King Leir represents the typical source-play.”
But what if King Leir, too, should turn out to be post-Shakespearean, as A. S. Cairncross suggested in The Problem of Hamlet as long ago as 1936, when he grouped it with Troublesome Raigne and Famous Victories as a “loose piracy”? Honigman does not envisage such a possibility for, although Leir was not published till 1605, about the time that Shakespeare’s version is supposed to have been written, there was a play on the subject as early as 1594, and this would be very difficult to explain—unless we are to postulate yet another lost source-play. In making an exception of Leir, Honigman shows that he is not, himself, entirely free from certain chronological preconceptions arising from the belief that “Shakespeare” was born in 1564 and died in 1616. Oxfordians, however, are entitled to ask for disregard of the traditional authorship in assessing the dates of the plays, for, where the authorship is in question, chronology itself becomes part of the evidence. When J. T. Looney propounded the Oxfordian case in 1920, he did so in spite of the fact that Edward de Vere was born in 1550 and died in 1604, but it is beginning to look as though this apparent disqualification might become the deciding factor in his favour.