Shakespeare’s Early Style
Copyright 1958 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship News-Letter (English), Autumn 1958.
Shakespeare and his Betters, by R. C. Churchill, the first attempt to summarize and answer the whole case against William Shakespeare of Stratford, is reviewed by Mr. Kent on page 9, but one of Mr. Churchill’s arguments calls for a more detailed reply than is possible in a review. Referring to the cross-examination by Mr. Humphreys of a panel of Oxfordians, which took place at a meeting of the Fellowship on 8th November, 1955, Mr. Churchill comments that he read the account in the Shakespeare Fellowship News-Letter, “hoping to be informed how the Oxfordians get around the embarrassing fact that Edward de Vere died in 1604, before some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays were written”. (p. 196). “But,” he adds, “Mr. Humphreys did not ask this question, and so no answer was forthcoming”.
So Mr. Churchill had to look farther afield for his answer. After devoting several pages to refuting J. T. Looney’s explanation—that The Tempest was wholly, and some of the other late plays partly, “unShakespearean”—he says:
“The other argument, made by more recent Oxfordians, seems on the surface to have much more to commend it. It does not involve any drastic curtailment of Shakespeare’s stylistic development, or any putting of a late play like Antony before a middle play like Hamlet, since it recommends a bodily removal of the entire development to an earlier period: the same plays, even The Tempest, with the same slow development of style . . . but simply transferred in a body to about twelve years earlier. It is an attractive theory; can it therefore be accepted?” (p. 203).
Mr. Churchill, of course, gives a negative answer, but for one reason only: that you cannot treat Shakespeare’s plays in isolation.
“The Oxfordian date for Hamlet is now 1588, Oxford-Shakespeare’s first plays having been written around 1580. The accepted date of the first part of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine is about 1587; the accepted date for The Spanish Tragedy about 1588-9. This means that when Oxford-Shakespeare had completed his middle period, and had progressed far beyond the sentry-go style of his first plays, Marlowe and Kyd were still on sentry-go. The accepted chronology, which dates Tamburlaine, The Spanish Tragedy, Titus Andronicus, and Henry the Sixth within a few years of each other, is surely more reasonable.”
If we accept the premisses, we must, I think, admit that it is, but Mr. Churchill is wrong in supposing that any Oxfordian has ever recommended a bodily removal of the entire development, though I plead guilty, myself, to the guarded statement that the order of composition “might even be retained intact at an earlier period”. (Shakespeare’s Farewell, p. 4). If the order was fixed and immutable there could of course be no exceptions to the general rule, but no-one pretends that it is. There is really no such thing as the orthodox chronology or, for that matter, the Oxfordian chronology. Mr. Churchill has, however, called attention to the important fact that style may be an indication of date, provided we have some fixed standard of comparison. What, then, was Shakespeare’s early style?
We have been brought up to think of it as the “sentry-go” style of the plays on Henry VI and Richard III—collectively known as the First Tetralogy—with Titus Andronicus thrown in. It is from these five plays alone that our notions of Shakespeare’s earliest style are derived and if we say that they were his first plays because they are in his earliest style we are simply arguing in a circle. Are they believed to be the first because, as Shakespeare’s plays go, they are bad? A writer does not necessarily progress in a straight line from “bad” to “good”, he has his ups and downs. He may reach something very near perfection in one genre before going back to the beginning in another, or he may persevere in the same genre after his inspiration has flickered out, and this means inevitable retrogression. Besides, the authenticity of each of these five plays (as a whole or in part) is open to question and you cannot judge a man’s style by verse he did not write!
The fact is that the Henry VI plays are among the very few which have been dated (rightly or wrongly) by external evidence. They are “early” because they are known to have been on the stage by 1592 and, for the orthodox, they form the starting-point to which everything else must be related. If 1592 is not so early after all, this line of reasoning is invalid and the only evidence that Shakespeare began his career with these plays ceases to exist. In any case, people are apt to overlook Shakespeare’s early Comedies. Marlowe’s sudden death occurred in June 1593, and, to quote Professor F. P. Wilson [Marlowe and The Early Shakespeare]:
“Before Marlowe’s death Shakespeare had certainly written Henry VI, Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, and had probably written The Two Gentlemen of Verona, if not Titus Andronicus. A rapid glance over the shoulder at The Comedy of Errors may, perhaps, be allowed for the purpose of reminding ourselves that already in his youth Shakespeare moved in a world which Marlowe was not at home and showed no signs of ever wishing to be at home.”
To Wilson’s list may be added The Taming of The Shrew, on the assumption that Shakespeare’s version—as many orthodox scholars now believe—was earlier than the supposed source-play, The Taming of A Shrew, which was published anonymously in 1594, and performed in the same year.
Chambers puts Comedy of Errors between the First Tetralogy and Titus Andronicus. Next on his list come Taming of The Shrew and Two Gentlemen of Verona, followed by another comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and then one tragedy, Romeo and Juliet, after which Shakespeare is supposed to have reverted to the subject of English history, going back to the reign of Richard II. He had now embarked upon the Second Tetralogy and, apart from a momentary flash-back to the time of King John, continued to write Histories in a forward direction, interspersed with Comedies, till with Henry V (1599), he had joined up his great sequence in the middle. By this time (according to Chambers), he had added to the Comedies: A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Merchant of Venice; and Much Ado About Nothing.
Now, there is a considerable difference in style as well as subject-matter between the Histories and the Comedies. This would be natural enough on any hypothesis, but the point is that in the first decade of his supposed career, Shakespeare’s development did not apparently proceed along one line, but two parallel lines, one for History and the other for Comedy. To this we must add that, judged by external standards, the style of the Comedies appears to belong to an earlier period than that of the Histories. How do the orthodox get around this embarrassing fact?
“It is reasonable to suppose,” says Chambers, “that at some date Shakespeare decided to make a deliberate experiment in lyrical drama . . . The actual percentage of rhyme in the plays affected by such an experiment is of no importance. There seems to have been a notion that rhyme was a characteristic of the pre-Shakespearean drama, which Shakespeare gradually discarded. It is true that mid-Elizabethan popular plays were written in various forms of doggerel. These, and not heroic couplets were the ‘jygging vaines of riming mother wits’, which Marlowe repudiated. There is little use of the heroic metre in the plays of Shakespeare’s immediate predecessors . . . Substantially, the medium of Shakespeare’s models was blank verse. The rhyme of the lyric plays represents a fresh start and not a looking backwards. And it seems to bear some relation to his use of double endings. The growth of these does not follow a very smooth curve at any point, but it is particularly noticeable that, while he begins with a fairly high proportion [in the First Tetralogy] there is a marked drop, not only for the lyric plays, but for King John and 1Henry IV, which must follow them pretty closely”. (William Shakespeare, Part I, p. 267. Italics mine.),
The general tendency right through Shakespeare’s career is for double endings to increase and it is odd that the First Tetralogy should have so many. Chambers is, in fact, hard put to it to explain certain deviations in Shakespeare’s development which would not be deviations at all if the lyric plays were written before the First Tetralogy and before the time of Marlowe. I must refrain from following up the implications with regard to the order of the History Plays themselves, and turn to Shakespeare’s first Comedies.
How many people, familiar with such plays as Twelfth Night, Midsummer Night’s Dream and Merchant of Venice, have not experienced some kind of shock on seeing or reading, for the first time, Comedy of Errors or The Shrew? If they usually enjoy Shakespeare, they will probably be disappointed; if, on the other hand, they “did” him unwillingly at school and left it at that, they may be relieved to find him writing farce and, what is more, in simple, straightforward language that anybody could understand. They may have been under the impression that Shakespeare was “difficult” because his language was archaic, but if they went back a quarter of a century or more they would find a few surviving examples of plays which are quite easy to understand, but intolerably dull, stemming from the first regular English Comedy, Ralph Roister Doister, by Nicholas Udall (c. 1550) and the first regular English Tragedy, Gorboduc, by Norton and Sackville (performed before the Queen in 1562). Ralph Roister Doister is written in rhymed doggerel and Gorboduc in blank verse, but both are distinguished by a simplicity of vocabulary and syntax which is quite foreign to the great age of Elizabethan Drama. Most of the plays of the seventies have disappeared, but it is this inherited simplicity of style, as well as an inherited vogue for farce, which differentiates Comedy of Errors and The Shrew from the other plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
In these two early comedies Shakespeare’s blank verse is not yet fully developed. On the other hand, there is plenty of rhyme and a good deal of doggerel. In the case of Comedy of Errors, some critics have tried to explain this by suggesting that Shakespeare was revising an old lost play and retained some of it unaltered. Chambers does not agree with them, but says:
“I will present the advocates of the retention theory with the fact that the word ‘mome’ (iii.I.32), not used elsewhere in Shakespeare, is a common vituperative term of the drama of Udall’s time, and add that it seems to me just as easy to suppose that here and in Taming of the Shrew and Love’s Labour’s Lost, where there is a substantial use of doggerel, Shakespeare was consciously experimenting with an archaistic form for comic effect.” However, once the time-barrier is broken, it is easier still to suppose that Shakespeare was writing in an “archaistic form” because he was only just emerging from archaism. The blank verse in the serious parts of Comedy of Errors is closer to Gorboduc than Tamburlaine.
If Marlowe and Kyd were Shakespeare’s models for Tragedy and History (and the influence may well have been the other way round), who are supposed to have been his models in English Comedy? For these we must go back behind Marlowe and Kyd to George Gascoigne, whose one comedy, Supposes (1566), provided the sub-plot for The Shrew; George Whetstone, whose one play, Promos and Cassandra (1578) is believed to be the main source for Measure for Measure; and, of course, John Lyly, the fashionable dramatist of the eighties.
The far-reaching influence on Shakespeare of Lyly’s novel, Euphues, as well as his plays, is a commonplace of criticism, yet in his chapter on Comedy of Errors in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (1957), Professor Geoffrey Bullough says:
“Euphuistic wit is noticeably absent from this plain-styled comedy.”
It is also absent from The Shrew, but present in a highly developed form in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Merchant of Venice. Why this sudden change? The orthodox cannot produce an answer to that question, but perhaps the Oxfordians can.
Euphues the Anatomy of Wit was published in 1578 and euphuism immediately became the fashionable language of the Court, from whence it spread to all grades of society. On 1st January, 1577—over a year before the publication of Euphues—a play was performed at Court under the title “A Historie of Error”. There is, of course, no proof that this was the same play as Comedy of Errors, but if it was, as Mr. Percy Allen and the late Mrs. Eva Turner Clark have suggested, the absence of euphuism from the Comedy is just what we should expect. In 1579—the year after the publication of Euphues—Stephen Gosson, in the School of Abuse, condemned stage plays as immoral but mentioned four exceptions, among them The Jew, “showne at the Bull in Bishopsgate representing the greedinesse of worldly chusers, and the bloody minds of usurers”. This would certainly have been hailed by the orthodox as an allusion to Merchant of Venice, were it not for the “impossibility” of the date. In 1580, Lyly dedicated his second book, Euphues His England, to his “very good Lord and Master Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxenford”; and from that time on, the Earl of Oxford was the acknowledged patron of the “euphuists”, with John Lyly as his secretary and supervisor of his Boy Players. The Oxfordian theory of Shakespearean authorship raises the question of how much Lyly influenced “Shakespeare” and how much “Shakespeare”‘ influenced Lyly. But if William Shakespeare (Shaksper) of Stratford suddenly took up euphuism in the middle nineties, having managed without it for Comedy of Errors and The Shrew, he was more than twelve years behind the times.
Euphuism became a habit with “Shakespeare”, but there is no doubt that it is most marked in the Comedies—excluding Comedy of Errors and The Shrew. I suggest, then, in accordance with Mr. Churchill’s principle of the mutual influence of contemporary writers, that the two main lines of Shakespeare’s early development were not parallel after all, but consecutive, and that the Comedies came first. The “sentry-go” style of the Histories, though tedious when carried to excess, was in its day a great achievement, and it had a purpose. Mr. Churchill has named it well, for it is martial music and ebbs and flows with the tide of war. It was in the process of writing the Histories that Shakespeare learnt to handle tragic situations, not without making some mistakes. Incidentally, the play which is supposed to have been most influenced by Kyd—whether or not he wrote an earlier “lost” play on the same subject—is Hamlet. As Mr. Churchill, himself, reminds us, the accepted date for The Spanish Tragedy is about 1588-9 (which coincides with the Oxfordian date for Hamlet). The accepted date for Hamlet is about 1600-1. How does Mr. Churchill get around this time-lag of twelve years?