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.
What surprised me about Taylor’s Brag was its making so little of the other ascribed poem in Rawlinson 160: the Epitaph on Elias James. As Leslie Hotson showed some years ago, Shakespeare had links with a brewer of that name during his sojourn near St Andrew by the Wardrobe. Doubtless the Oxford editors felt that a single unfamiliar poem was as much as the public would swallow at once, but sagacious readers will instantly agree that the proximity of another plausibly Shakespearean poem surviving only from manuscript makes the ‘Shall I die?’ claim stronger than could a familiar text, copyable from a printed book:
When God was pleased (the world unwilling yet),
Elias James to Nature paid his debt,
And here reposeth. As he lived he died,
The saying in him strongly verified,
Such life, such death. Then, the known truth to tell,
He lived a godly life, and died as well.
If this is undistinctive, it is so with good cause. ‘The first requisite,’ writes Wordsworth, ‘in an Epitaph is, that it should speak, in a tone which shall sink into the heart, the general language of humanity as connected with the subject ... of death, and of life.’ Imagine the lines appended to The Tempest, or written by Prospero in Milan, and they make emotional sense. If it weren’t for Dr Robbins, I’d follow Hotson in quoting ‘lives and dies in single blessedness’ (for Elias James died a bachelor), and echo ‘a known truth to pass a thousand nothings’ from the second act of All’s well. Does so modest a poem’s being gathered by a Caroline or later scribe not favour an inherited ascription? And would Shakespeare’s connection with James have been long known, without that early ascription, after the minor figure’s death in 1610? Paradoxically, in so far as the epitaph strikes one as more Shakespearean than the lyric, that adds to the latter’s authority.
But the mug of ale is quaffed by now, and the brief candle out in the draughty hall. ‘I tell you,’tis incredible to believe.’ Even the RSC directors, it’s said, voted ‘Shall I die?’ unauthorial at a meeting to plan their season. Some might think that no test, given the company’s recent showing with Shakespeare, but Nunn, Hands and the rest of the team would swop even Nickleby for a new work by the Bard. Every year the cry goes up, must Hamlet or the Dream come round again? If our poet had written even one more play, the Stratford whirligig would be less giddy, and the company less dependent on coachloads of US tourists. Hence the frisson created here by Shakespeare’s Lost Play: ‘Edmund Ironside’. But by the time a copy of Eric Sams’s edition reaches me through theatrical hands, it’s been marked up and rejected.
Understandably, because the play is dull and its attribution groundless. The verse is wooden and inert, yet the author’s verbal competence outstrips his dramatic skill. Flat, self-explicating characterisation of the kind Shakespeare nowhere commits, except for particular, framed effects, is standard. Though a few exchanges are terse and stichomythic, most drag painfully, while the villain’s soliloquies are soporific. As for the dénouement, it cobbles together a reconciliation between the rival princes Canutus and Ironside in order to prime audiences for a sequel. The play is a frost, and only the pleasure of reading Dr Sams’s notes, which are graceful and clever and dotty, keeps one at the book.
The idea that Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus because an Ironside by him had been censored simply won’t stand up. Granted, the plays overlap. Phrases like ‘hammering in my head/brain’ and ‘lopped of those [two] ornaments’ (in both cases, hands) don’t recur with such density by chance. But Dr Robbins’s caveat applies: ‘striking words and phrases are the most likely to be adopted by imitators. That a Jacobean play echoes Othello’s “toads to knot and gender” with “gendering of toads” does not show that Shakespeare wrote Webster.’ Everything hangs on an early date, and that is just not proved. Sams’s evidence for placing Ironside cl588, as against 1595-1600, is feebly circumstantial or, not to palter, pseudo-scholarly. Yet one has to admire his thoroughness. In the search for gendering toads Sams leaves no stone unturned, and he’s only shallow when it suits him. What he says of other Shakespeareans, in drumming decasyllabons, seems apt:
The doubts do not derive from any dearth
Of data, which are dauntingly copious.
What is missing is a methodology.
And Tebbit’s Axiom underwrites the enterprise. Especially now that an auction is on, ‘lost’ works by major writers sell. With Fourth Estate’s deft handling of the media, Ironside should do nicely. Penguin Books, I’m told, will paperback Sams. Yet the legality of it all intrigues me. Is the editor’s title actionable? Can one libel the dead, when they’re as thoroughly alive as Shakespeare?
In case you still think it’s the day we began with, I’d better admit it’s not. It takes me ages to write friendly, informal stuff like this, what with the dogs and the cat interrupting. Also, I have to take them out for walks, and, always a wet, come back soaked. ‘Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain’: if anything, I’d say, Thomas understates. The nine men’s morris would be fill’d with mud, if the local farmer had left it. But he’s an improver who roots up hedgerows and demolishes old cottages. Not long ago, he gassed his badgers and bulldozed their set. They used to bring up Roman coins. Even Wat the Hare has been poisoned by his pesticide. As I cross the fields, wishing I’d brought a noddy-suit, I wonder what Shakespeare would make of it all. Surely he’d grieve to find a Warwickshire so bleak. Yet, ah, such pastoral broodings, never far from chthonic nationalism, are unprogressive. As Professor Terence ‘Piss off’ Hawkes has shown,to identify Shakespeare with an essential England can lead to crude imperialism. Let me recommend his essay, though I note with concern its recurrent urino-genital images.
By now it’s really peeing down. I call the dogs out of the Avon, where they’re sheltering from the rain, and am suddenly bitten by inwit. Eric Sams’s books on Schumann and Hugo Wolf are patently distinguished, and, to judge from the bibliography in his edition, only Anonymous has contributed more to the TLS. Perhaps I should have left those hounds in mid-stream; they dry themselves so wetly. But then I remember his point about the leaves ‘ruled on one side by an impressed style’. Since the dogs have heard this already, I’ll keep it short. According to Greg, the method ‘seems to have gone out of use in literary manuscripts in about the 12th century, but it survived in legal use until quite a late date.’ The Inns of Court might seem to loom, but Sams is not abashed. ‘Ironside is after all a literary manuscript,’ he says, ‘and the survival of a 12th-century practice might suggest earlier rather than later Tudor times.’ In this way cl588 eclipses 1595-1600, and the dogs are ready for home.
Next day the weather improves, and there’s a chance to play my horn al fresco. This is the world premiere of Robin Holloway’s Second Partita for Solo Horn, addressed to a field of cows. Fit audience though few, no irony intended. I know these beasts and trust their judgment. Mozart is best. When I play his concerti, they sway and maunder up the meadow to listen. Hindemith always sends them back to the river, where they skulk among the reeds. It’s an anxious moment, since the piece is untypical Holloway in its spare, inventive line, but they greet the opening bars with an approving moo. Better than that Radio 2 rubbish they get piped into the milking parlour. If I had an orchestra here, I’d ask for Robin’s Viola Concerto, which I heard at the Proms last year. Beautiful music, with swirling austere passages for strings and celeste, and just the thing to boost a cream yield.
In the afternoon, an adventure. I go into Stratford to look at the Swan, the new RSC auditorium. Its architect, Michael Reardon, has done a stunning job – almost literally, since the steep concentrated space feels physically violent. People talk about Blackfriars as its model, but Reardon says that when invited to fit a structure inside the old rehearsal rooms, he thought of baroque Catholic churches in the Low Countries, covertly built inside inns and tenements to avoid persecution. Certainly the Swan is fraught and analytic, with a temper that’s late Jacobean. It’ll be perfect, say, for Ford, but, given its verticality, a challenge to any actor fond of working down-stage. Since it’s due for ‘topping out’, the place swarms with builders, many with names that reach back to the Shakespeare records. Quineys, Halls and Shakeshafts are commonplace round here. As I watch the men in their hard hats, busy making cups of tea, the Irish navvy’s blood stirs in me and I long to seize a pneumatic drill. But I’ve arranged to collect a book from the Stage Door: the only borrowable Edward III in Stratford.
It’s a rainbow copy of The Shakespeare Apocrypha, scribbled over by John Barton when he was at King’s, with blacklead for Shakespeare, green for Greene and, jokily, orange for Peele. This is the good thing about ‘Shall I die?’, that it drives you back to the ‘margins’ of the oeuvre. And what a play you find there! Reading the Countess of Salisbury scenes for the first time since last, I’m overwhelmed by the quality of the writing. Every word doth almost tell his name, and if this isn’t early Shakespeare, I’ll eat my mortarboard:
What can one drop of poison harm the sea,
Whose hugy vastures can digest the ill
And make it lose his operation?
The king’s great name will temper thy misdeeds,
And give the bitter potion of reproach
A sugared, sweet and most delicious taste.
Besides, it is no harm to do the thing
Which without shame could not be left undone.
Warwick, under duress, is tempting his daughter. This trial of the Countess’s chastity, close at points to Measure and ‘Lucrece’, dominates Act II.
Elsewhere, the text is less Shakespearean, but Henry V keeps coming to mind: in the opening argument about Edward’s rights in France, the patriotic roll-call of foreign dead, and elaborate, descriptive accounts of war. Published in 1596, and completed one supposes not long before, it’s a central if collaborative document. Indeed Edward’s scene with Lodowick, in which verses are composed, tells us at least as much about Shakespeare’s Early Poetic as ‘The fire i’th’flint’ illuminates his Jacobean views.
Thus burning with enthusiasm, I ring the Oxford Shakespeare. But no, their edition won’t include Act II, because the computer doesn’t approve. I imagine something like a fruit machine, whirring mindlessly in the OUP cellars. Such tests are worse than unreliable, because inveigling. A rival analysis recently judged the entire play Shakespearean, despite the unauthorial way with ‘but’ visible to the naked ear in Act IV. The truth is, computers can’t yet gauge the richness of image clusters, or the pacing of ideas. Even my dogs have a better sense of tone, though semantic problems arise if I say ‘work’, not ‘walk’. Similarly unsure myself, I potter discontentedly round the garden, till the arrival of a samizdat typescript takes me back to my desk. Here is the eminent re-editor of the Oxford Apocrypha, Richard Proudfoot, arguing that Edward III’s Shakespearean. Oh best and wisest OUP editors, who think even Timon collaborative, reconsider this play, and do not leave it outside the canon, doomed to be read only by dons.
Finally, delay is impossible and I return to Cambridge. Driving across England into the fens, the day grows chill as the sun hits its zenith. My first night back is terrible. I dream the LRB arrives, and, shucking off its plastic husk, find – worse than a Diary of Shakespeare footnotes – that it consists entirely of letters on Geoffrey Hill, each giving rank and serial number and ancestral details to the third generation. Berk’s Peerage, or the Variorum Donsiad. On page 3 lolls Tom Paulin, clad in nothing but the Report of the New Ireland Forum. I wake in a lather, and have to shave. Cold and obsessive city. This morning, as I made for the station, they passed me on every side, the earnest, furrow-browed young, muttering ‘twilight, twilight’ with varied emphasis.