John Kerrigan

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.

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[*] Alternative Shakespeares, edited by John Drakakis, reviewed in the LRB by David Norbrook, 18 July 1985.