Shakespeare country, and rain. In deepest Warwickshire, when light goes out of the day at three, there’s nothing to do but bring in the dogs and build a huge fire and try for the nth time to believe that ‘Shall I die?’ might be by the Bard. To get the ambience right, I fill a pewter mug with ale. A taper winks in the timbered hall. Even so, the poem seems very bad. Intoned, it sounds banal; sung, it simply upsets the cat. Something goes wrong in stanza two. Either the piece runs into sand, or the illusion slips, but I can never reach
Suspicious doubt, O keep out,
For thou art my tormentor
without whispering ‘quite!’
When news of this discovery broke, I thought the Oxford Shakespeare’s Associate Editor had flatly blown a gasket. To go public only ten days after finding a poem, and to admit in the same breath that eight years’ work and a million pound investment were at stake in the edition which would include it, seemed, to say the least, unguarded. If textual criticism could include Greg’s Calculus, why not Tebbit’s Axiom? ‘Minor works devolve to major writers as a function of market interest in research.’ Subsequent events have not much changed my mind. Though the Oxford editors are too honourable to notice, a price has now been set on their skills. This price goes up and down with the fate of ‘Shall I die?’ Phoned by the Standard, I say the poem’s a dud and the London market’s that bit more bearish. Guiltily, when La Stampa calls, I become altogether a bull. The situation is absurd, like the trade in Westland shares, but as real as that delusion, and another awkward reminder of the values we’ve elected to live by.
Fortunately, I’m not the only one at fault. Shakespeareans of every kind, including the illiterate, have gleefully played the market. The level of argument has been on the whole abysmal. Not since the heady days of Colin MacCabe has the press displayed its philistinism so frankly. True to its decline, the Times invited a writer from flashpulp to report. His piece was a tissue of ineptitudes. One lecturer informed the Thunderer that, if scholars spent their time thinking about ‘Shall I die?’, arts faculties should look out for cuts. She spends her time writing novels. Elsewhere in Fleet Street, the controversy provoked the familiar reflex that experts and eggheads never know what they’re on about. The assumption seemed to be that the lyric must be a forgery, like the Hitler diaries – as though nothing were recoverable from the 17th century and the past was an enormous confidence trick perpetrated by dons. But precious things turn up all the time. Our country house libraries and provincial record offices are dusty treasuries only half explored. An illustration comes to hand: I’ve just heard that a London dealer has found ‘some sheets of foul papers from an otherwise unknown Webster play’.
With so much hype and anger in the air, it’s easy to forget that a modicum of research lies behind the Oxford claim. Having advanced our knowledge of Shakespeare’s Sonnets by elaborating new work on manuscript miscellanies, Gary Taylor had every reason to think himself on a winning streak when he opened Rawlinson Poet MS 160. The fact that the poem is bad may be an embarrassment. Robin Robbins’s attack on arguments for its authorship based on parallels may be – is – convincing. But no one has positively disproved Shakespeare’s involvement, and given the conventional nature of the lyric it’s hard to see how they could. If Taylor’s claims were premature and clamorous, what he says makes perfect sense. Here is a poem ascribed to Shakespeare early. Its phrasing is compatible with the scribe’s ascription. So the lyric has more authority than others in our Shakespeares, and should appear in any edition with pretentions to completeness.
[*] Alternative Shakespeares, edited by John Drakakis, reviewed in the LRB by David Norbrook, 18 July 1985.
Vol. 8 No. 4 · 6 March 1986
SIR: Gathering material, as it emerges, for his ‘friendly, informal’ column (LRB, 6 February), John Kerrigan rang me up in a friendly, informal way and asked me, among other things, why we should not be including the anonymously published Edward III – for which he displays so touching an affection – in the forthcoming Complete Oxford Shakespeare. My friendly, informal reply may have made him think that the decision is based on the mindless whirrings of a computer, but in fact it depends on the cogitations of a human brain whose thought processes will be concisely revealed when the edition is published.
Vol. 8 No. 5 · 20 March 1986
SIR: John Kerrigan (LRB, 6 February) searches for a stone to throw at a female colleague, and selects the give-away line: ‘she spends her time writing novels.’ I hope I am not alone in finding this an astonishing form of abuse for a university teacher in English at Cambridge to use. If people like this aren’t interested in creativity, why for heaven’s sake are they professing literature to young people? And setting themselves up as experts to the world? What would John Kerrigan have said to Shakespeare, who of course was no authority on anything, and just indulged himself in writing plays? Where would John Kerrigan be getting his salary from if he hadn’t done so?
Harvester Press, Brighton
Vol. 8 No. 9 · 22 May 1986
SIR: May I, from afar, offer three points relevant to the discussion of Eric Sams’s Edmund Ironside? John Kerrigan (LRB, 6 February) says: ‘Everything hangs on an early date.’ I think he is right, and these points may help him. Shakespeare’s poem XVIII from the Passionate Pilgrim (1599) also exists, as known by editors, in MS Folger V.a.89 (old mark: 1.112). It is not exactly the same text as in the printed book, but obviously an early draft. The handwriting as shown in a microfilm in my possession is clearly that of the Ironside MS as shown in facsimile in the books of Boswell (1928) and Everitt (1954). So here is a canonical Shakespeare text in a version probably years before 1599 – and in the handwriting of Ironside. (Besides, the Folger MS contains other poems in this hand, first copies of other authors of the 1580s marked by their names, and then obviously poems of the young scribe himself which I recommend warmly to Gary Taylor for his new edition of the Shakespeare poems. Two other early hands of the MS, including an owner’s inscription, are some decennia later; a third dates from the 19th century.)
The MS drama which stands fifth in the British Library collection Egerton 1994 has two titles: Edmond Ironside and War hath made all friends. The first of these titles, in another hand which has cancelled the second, is awkward and obviously a later addition, for the dominating figure of the play is not Edmond but Canutus. Now a play called hardicute/knewtus/Hardicanewtes (Hardy Canute/Canutus/Hardy Canutus) figures, as known, in Henslowe’s diary, performed twice in October/November 1597 as a revival of an older drama. It is unnecessary and excessive to posit another lost play on Canutus here: of course in this entry we have our drama. From October 1597 back to February 1592 (the beginning of Henslowe’s records) there is no first night of this Canutus in the diary. Therefore it seems reasonable to me to put the first appearance of the play, like many others in Henslowe, before February 1592, and so before Titus Andronicus (January 1594). This, I think, deals conclusively with the objection to Sams’s date raised by Kerrigan.
Obviously War hath made all friends is the title given to the play by the author. Which war of his own time is he alluding to? A post-Armada play is likely to present an outward foe as an image of the Spaniards, and this may have contributed to the interest of the subject: but the reconciliation at the end of the play is inappropriate to this scheme of interpretation. Therefore I see here the allegory of another war, and it is one between literary figures – a not uncommon phenomenon in Elizabethan literature. Sams, in the footsteps of Everitt, has offered good reasons for placing the play between 1588 and 1590. But his best argument, the Privy Council letter of November 1589 (pages 21-25 of his book), makes it highly probable that the play can be dated more exactly: autumn 1589. The literary scene in this year could be depicted as follows: Marlowe had had his first successes; Shakespeare must likewise have had some triumphs, for he has been envied soon after; Peele was the pioneering, soaring ‘father king’ of the dramatists, but now a little fading; Greene was already nourishing the grudge against the players which was to persist till his death in 1592; and Nashe had made his first appearance in the pricking (‘stitching’) preface to Greene’s Menaphon. The author of War hath made all friends deals in a very special way with the names of his sources: he latinises Cnute to Canutus and Edric or Edrike to Edricus; he changes Edmund to Edmond and Ethelred or Egelred (father of Edmund) to Egleredus; and he creates some minor figures. Now it is known that Peele was red-haired, and the father-figure mentioned, Egleredus, sounds like eagle red is. The grudge-bearing Edricus sounds like a dree kiss, and he engages, like Greene in 1589 in the case of Nashe, a young servant named Stitch. Last but not least, the two young rival kings of 1589, allegorising Marlowe and Shakespeare, of course, have the names Canutus, sounding like ken new ’tis (i.e. this figure represents, despite a certain brutality, a new mental horizon for our anonymous dramatist), and Edmond Ironside, sounding like add mon I inside (i.e. this figure is a portrait of the dramatist himself); and the two opponents finally fraternise. In short, there are clear connections between the changed or introduced names of the play and the literary situation of 1589.
Münster, West Germany
SIR: In his Diary in February John Kerrigan rightly drew attention to an aspect of Bodleian MS Rawlinson poet. 160 that was strangely neglected in recent discussions of the lyric beginning ‘Shall I die?’ This was the attribution there to Shakespeare of the six-line epitaph on Elias James. As it happens, however, he was mistaken in calling the latter a poem ‘surviving only from manuscript’: a further text deserves notice. The 1633 edition of John Stow’s Survey of London, prepared for the press by Anthony Munday and others, concludes with a lengthy supplement containing monumental inscriptions that had escaped inclusion in the main body of the work. Here the meagre crop of epitaphs gathered from the Church of St Andrew by the Wardrobe earlier in the volume is augmented, on page 825, by a transcript of the James epitaph as it stood In the South Ile, at the lower end of the Church. It runs as follows:
When God was pleas’d
(the world unwilling yet)
Helias James, to Nature
paid his debt,
And here reposes:
As he liv’d, he died,
The saying strongly
in him verified,
Such life, such death:
then a knowne truth to tell,
He liv’d a godly life,
and died as well.
The accuracy of this text, which seems to belong in its transcription to the very year of publication and thus is roughly coeval with the compilation of the manuscript, cannot be verified. Whether or not the ‘few Monuments’ that, as Stow tells us, the church could boast survived the Great Fire, none seems to have had a place in Wren’s plans for the rebuilding of 1685-93, and not a single one survives today. Certainly the half-lines, reproduced above, in which the epitaph is arranged in the Survey, together with the italics used for the subject’s name, are traceable to the double-column format and style of emphasis adopted by the printer throughout the work. Nevertheless there remain differences of punctuation and other interesting variants from the Rawlinson manuscript, of which five may be mentioned here: 1.1 ‘God’ for ‘god’ in the MS; 1.2 ‘Helias’ for ‘Elias’; 1.3 ‘reposes’ for ‘reposeth’; 1.4 ‘strong in him’ for ‘in him strongly’; and 1.5 ‘a knowne’ for ‘the known’. None of these readings is obviously false, or even suspect; and since the Stow text was transcribed from the actual monument they may with some plausibility be claimed as representing the author’s final intentions.
Leslie Hotson’s proposed identification of the subject of these verses, advanced in Shakespeare’s Sonnets Dated (1949), seems not to have gained general acceptance. Briefly, Hotson pointed to the existence of an Elias James, a brewer of Dutch descent, who plied his trade not far from St Andrews, at the foot of Puddle Dock Hill. Between 1600 and 1610 he was owner-occupier of the ‘great Brew-house’ (Stow) by the Thames, at the eastern boundary of the dissolved Blackfriars Monastery and hence close to the theatre of which Shakespeare’s company assumed the lease in August 1608. In addition, Elias’s younger brother, and successor in the business, Jacob James, who died in 1613, left a widow Jane who thereafter married a John Jackson – apparently the same man who in 1613 had joined with Shakespeare in purchasing the Monastery gatehouse that stood at the north end of Puddle Dock Hill. Despite the strong circumstantial evidence for this identification Hotson felt obliged to observe that ‘there is no proof as yet that the Elias James of the epitaph and … the brewer … are one and the same …’ In fact the registers of St Andrew’s confirm at once the identity of the person commemorated and the godly manner of his death. For they record the burial on 24 September 1610 of ‘Elias James Brewer who gave 10 pounds to the poore of this parishe’.
In so far as these new details clinch Hotson’s theory they do seem to increase the possibility that the attribution recorded in the Rawlinson manuscript is an accurate one. Of course, merely because circumstances make Shakespeare a plausible candidate does not necessarily mean that he wrote the verses. There is, perhaps, little hope at this interval of time of putting more flesh on the bare bones. We might be on firmer ground, for instance, if we knew whether this wealthy bachelor brewer, then in his early thirties, was a regular playgoer. On the other hand, given a seemingly mutual point of contact in John Jackson, there is no need to postulate a close personal relationship. These rather undistinguished verses, thrown off it may be in a matter of moments, might have fulfilled a commission by some such interested party.