Fingerprinting Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s Lost Play: ‘Edmund Ironside’

edited by Eric Sams
St. Martin’s Press, 383 pp., $37.50

This manuscript,” Eric Sams writes, “may yet come to be acknowledged as in every sense the most valuable in the world, as being not only [by] Shakespeare but, by powerful arguments, holograph.”The anonymous Edmund Ironside is one of a collection of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century manuscript plays now known as MS. Egerton 1994 in the British Library. In his avowedly polemical edition Mr. Sams is not backward in praising his own goods, even though he is aware that E.B. Everitt, who argued for Shakespeare’s authorship in 1954, “was pilloried for his pains by pundits far his inferior in learning and insight.” It is not easy to give a fair hearing to an over-aggressive advocate who seems convinced that the Shakespeare establishment, mulish and blinkered, will inevitably kick him down, but it can be said immediately that Mr. Sams advances new evidence and deserves to be heard.

The theory that Shakespeare could have written apprentice plays that were not identified as his in his later years is not intrinsically improbable. In the Elizabethan age plays of the public theater were often published without an author’s name, and more often were not published at all. Not one of Marlowe’s plays appeared under his name in his lifetime; Shakespeare’s colleagues, collecting his plays for the First Folio of 1623, may never have heard of his earliest work, which could have been sold to other actors before they, his later partners, teamed up with him. In 1598, when Francis Meres first drew attention to a Shakespeare canon by naming twelve plays as his, this well-informed literary gossip seems not to have been aware of The Taming of the Shrew and the three parts of Henry VI, which are usually dated early in the dramatist’s career; Mr. Sams wants to date Ironside even earlier, so the theory that this play, if Shakespeare’s, could have been “lost” from the canon is one that can be readily accepted.

Mr. Sams wants an early date for this “lost play,” and indeed can hardly manage without it. The mediocrity of its dialogue and psychology and overall conception can only be explained, if assigned to so illustrious a pen, on the assumption that the hand holding the pen was a fairly raw beginner’s. Two rivals for the English crown, Ironside and Canutus (prince of Denmark), try to rally support, are betrayed by some of their followers, besiege their enemies, fight—the usual set pieces of the chronicle play; there is a scolding match between the archbishops of Canterbury and York, a villain (Edricus) who pretends to support both sides, a knavish clown called Stitch. At the end the rivals meet in single combat, “Edmund drives Canutus back about the stage,” Canutus yields, offers his friendship, and “they go hand in hand out of the stage” (presumably because the author wished to write a sequel, where the same rigmarole could start all over again).

It looks like a familiar bag of secondhand tricks …

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Letters

Edmund Ironside’ May 7, 1987