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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. What, then, points to Shakespeare? Mr. Sams lists “verbal affinities,” a few of which are certainly arresting: “some…never-heard-of torturing pain” (Ironside, 1276), “Some never-heard-of torturing pain” (Titus Andronicus, II.iii.285); “lopped and bereft of those two ornaments [i.e., hands]” (Ironside, 599), “lopped…those sweet ornaments [i.e., hands]” (Titus, II.iv.17–18). The small number of probably significant “affinities,” however, is almost lost in a multitude of phrases that are only vaguely similar or are clichés of the period: “We are as forward and as fit as he,” “I am as able and as fit as thou”; “Let all quarrels end,” “This day all quarrels die”; or “mild and tractable,” “true nobility,” “a deed of policy,” tags found in both Ironside and Titus. The best that can be said for such evidence is that it may be significant that there are so many identical clichés or loosely similar phrases in Shakespeare’s early plays and an anonymous text of limited length (Ironside has 2061 lines)—but why not call it imitation? Do other plays of the period not echo Shakespeare just as persistently?

So an early date, prior to Shakespeare’s acknowledged plays, is important for Mr. Sams. Others have dated Ironside circa 1590, or 1590–1600, but he places it even earlier and asserts that “no evidence is ever given for any date later than 1590 because none exists.” An earlier editor, however, had noted that the word ‘Braggadochio” (“but all my Danes are Braggadochios,” Ironside, 1070) is first found in Spenser’s Faerie Queene of 1590. Mr. Sams cites the present writer to the effect that The Faerie Queene was “circulating in manuscript” from 1587, but that scarcely serves his turn: the fact that a few literary insiders knew Spenser’s poem before 1590 does not explain why, in a play intended for public performance, Shakespeare or anyone else would refer to Braggadochios, a name that meant nothing to the general public before 1590.

The positive evidence for an early date leaves me unconvinced. “In the Oxford English Dictionary the researcher has a unique and powerful instrument for the dating of vocabulary and its usage and hence in principle for the dating of any text.” About thirty words in Ironside are not found in the OED, and another 260, says Mr. Sams, are first cited in the OED from texts dating from the late 1580s.

They all exemplify the massively inventive enrichment of the language in that sudden surge of “unsurpassed vitality and richness” which flooded into literature and the drama from 1587 to 1612…. Quite apart from this evidence of verbal and linguistic genius, they provide a strong if not cast-iron case for a dating ,in the late 1580s.

(Yet even if they were new words in the 1580s, why could they not be used in the 1590s?) Ironside itself was not available to the compilers of the OED: if it had been, it could have yielded three hundred words “entirely new to the written language,” and about 260 of them “are attributed by the OED (rightly or wrongly) to the inventive powers of Shakespeare.” This might yet prove to be significant; the OED, however, is often up to fifty years too late with its first citations (as is shown by asterisked words in the index of each volume of The Revels Plays, a series approaching its first half hundred), and the OED also had a clear bias toward Shakespeare as compared with his contemporaries in citing first usages 1—so its support for Shakespeare’s hand in Ironside must be treated with caution.

Not one of the arguments for a date before 1590 seems at all compelling. Let us return to the play’s authorship. “Who is this reader and quoter of Ovid, Plutarch and the Bible,” asks Mr. Sams,

this student, adapter and versifier of Holinshed and Grafton, this…inventor of new vocabulary…poet and punster (in Latin too), ardent alliterator, lover of classical and legal allusion, bawdy humorist…? Each one of those features, all plainly observable in Ironside, has been declared significantly Shakespearean. Their simultaneous presence is strongly evidential….How many dramatists studied and versified the chronicles? Of that number, how many were addicted to word-play of all kinds? Of those now remaining, how many habitually drew on detailed knowledge of the gospels?

This is what Mr. Sams calls the identity parade, from which he proceeds to “the fingerprint”—the “whorls and cusps” of the style of Shakespeare’s early plays. In his commentary, about one half of the book, he compares verbal combinations in Ironside and the canonical plays and poems “in all their sheer massive profusion,” and here we reach the heart of his argument.

To take one of many examples, a feigned reconciliation in Ironside, 2010 ff., and Titus Andronicus, I.i.456 ff., has a similar mix of ingredients:

First, as part of the softening-up process, an enemy is called “sweet” (1). Then that sweetness is translated into physical metaphor and considered as conveying refreshment (2). There are physical metaphors of war and peace (3), and foes are metamorphosed into friends (4); further, the enemy’s friends now become one’s own (5), and things are done for their sake (6). The new alliances are sealed by a symbolic act (7) and a symbolic feast (8) in token of love (9); yet the real truth is also disclosed on stage (10).

The numbering, above, follows the sequence in Titus; in Ironside the sequence is different:

(2) How pleasant are these speeches to my ears Aeolian music to my dancing heart Ambrosian dainties to my starvéd maw sweet-passing Nectar to my thirsty throat…
(1) and, sweet Egina, for thy hus- band’s sake in sign of love this kiss from Ed- mund take.
(3) to see sweet concord spring from discord’s womb…
(4) to see two mortal foes prove faithful friends…
(5) my friends your friends, thy foe my enemy…

and so on. Such “combinations” are not unlike image clusters, unconsciously associated words that reappear in different works by the same author. Perhaps the most famous Shakespearean cluster, the “dog, licking, candy, melting” images used for false friends and flatterers, could be called a fingerprint, and something quite like it is found in Ironside.

No, let the candied tongue lick ab- surd pomp,
And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee
Where thrift may follow fawning.
(Hamlet, III.ii.57–59)
   The hearts
That spanieled me at heels, to whom I gave
Their wishes, do discandy, melt their
On blossoming Caesar.
(Antony and Cleopatra, IV.xii.20–23)
…sugar’d lines and phrases past compare.
Had I been now in favour with the king
and had endeavouréd to flatter him
my pen would have distilléd golden
and varied terms enchanting Cerberus.
(Ironside, 1185–1189)

In Shakespeare, however, the melting candy is usually nauseating (i.e., dog slobber), whereas the “golden drops” of Ironside are not. Such private image clusters often include elements that are common property (e.g., fawning dogs as flatterers), and that must also be true of “combinations”—therefore we need to know much more about the literary models for feigned reconciliations, etc., before we can evaluate this part of Mr. Sams’s argument.

Anyone who believes that an early date (before 1590) has not been clearly proved will prefer to see Ironside as the work of an author steeped in Shakespeare—like Tourneur, Webster, and many others. Mr. Sams shows, usefully, that Ironside has particularly strong connections with Shakespeare’s earlier plays, notably Titus Andronicus. Canutus revenges himself on two deserters by mutilating their sons, his hostages (he has their hands and noses cut off, and threatens to shorten their tongues); in addition there are those “verbal affinities,” and similar episodes—so many that “Titus is perhaps, in some sense, a rewriting of Ironside.” Some of the comic scenes are equally close to the master—for example, the arrival of Edrick, a poor man, disowned by his son Edricus who has become Duke of Mercia:

EDRICK: Oh let me go to him first. God save ye, son.
EDRICUS: A pox upon him, ‘tis the knave my father. Good fellow, hast thou any suit to us? Deliver up thy supplica- tion.
EDRICK: Oh sir ye know me well enough, I am goodman Edrick your father.
EDRICUS: My father, grouthead? Sir knave, I say you lie, you whoreson cuckold, you base vagabond…

Is this an anticipation of Launcelot Gobbo and his father (Merchant of Venice, II.ii) or an echo? A question that cannot be answered on its own, for it ties in, as does everything else in Ironside, with the issue of authorship.

Since Mr. Sams believes that Ironside is, “by powerful arguments,” a holograph, it is surprising that he fails to apply another kind of fingerprint test that could, if pursued, prove decisive one way or the other. The writer of Ironside shows a distinguishing preference for many unusual spellings, particularly substituting “e” for “i,” as in “sence,” “tell” and “untell,” “ser” and “serra,” “pollecy,” words that are all used many times; he also switches “e” to “i,” though not so frequently (“lynitie,” “flixable,” “irrivocable,” “trumpittes,” etc.). He doubles consonants (“mann,” “cann,” “rann”; “writte,” “smille,” “saffest”). These, and the large number of his other characteristic spellings, may yet help to identify him: “frind,” “decept,” “eand,” “contimulious,” “ells” and “elce,” to name just a few.

If the manuscript of Ironside were a holograph one would expect to find some if not all of its unusual spellings in the three pages of Sir Thomas More, the only surviving specimen of handwriting (other than six signatures) generally ascribed to Shakespeare’s pen. Mr. Sams will be pleased to hear that, while many of the most characteristic Ironside spellings are not repeated, More does give him some support. It is a peculiarity of Ironside that the “-tion” ending is almost invariably “-con” (More has “-cion” three times, e.g., “infeccion”). Like Ironside, More tends to double a final consonant (“gott,” “chidd,” “sinn”) and, again like Ironside (onc), More is unorthodox with final “c” (“obedyenc,” “insolenc,” “offyc”).

Of course, I do not suggest that all of the above spellings are very unusual (most of them can be found in other Elizabethan texts). Taken together, however, these and several dozen other offbeat spellings in Ironside fingerprint the play’s scribe and/or its author more effectively than any number of dubious verbal affinities, which could turn out to be echoes. As Mr. Sams’s chief aim is to demonstrate who wrote the play, it is regrettable that his edition’s modernized spelling eliminates the evidence that may crucially support or refute his theory.

The unusual spellings persuade me that, if young Shakespeare really wrote so poor a play as Ironside, someone else must have copied out the only surviving manuscript. We know a good deal about Shakespeare’s characteristic spelling from his better quarto and Folio texts, quite apart from the three pages of Sir Thomas More: it might make sense to argue that some “Shakespearean” spellings still show through in a scribal copy that metamorphosed spelling generally, but not that so many of the deeply rooted spellings of a holograph Ironside disappear from the dramatist’s later texts. The appealing notion that Ironside is a holograph, and therefore of all manuscripts “the most valuable in the world” is, moreover, far from irresistible when one compares the writing with the Shakespearean pages of More (see the reproductions on this page); it was first proposed by E.B. Everitt, who also believed that the same hand wrote the Stratford tithes indenture of 1605, a draft of the same, Shakespeare’s will, a letter to Edward Alleyn, and the manuscript of The Second Maiden’s Tragedy. Mr. Sams wisely passes over these other claims, but hangs on to the equally fanciful one about Ironside.

In Eleanore Boswell’s careful edition of Ironside (Malone Society, 1928) we read that “the manuscript is not an autograph but a scribe’s copy, as is shown by the nature of numerous minor errors and corrections, and is also suggested by the character of the writing.” The case for Shakespeare’s authorship of Ironside would not be damaged if Everitt’s “holograph” idea were quietly dropped down a deep hole—and, once it is agreed that we have to do with a dramatist and a scribe, we could then make progress in proving or disproving Shakespeare’s connection with the play. If possible we want to locate other manuscripts in the same scribe’s hand; failing that, printed play texts that appear to have been copied by him, on the evidence of his unusual spellings and stage directions.

Mr. Sams observes that the direction “enter…making a noise” occurs in Ironside and Titus Andronicus. Playhouse scribes and prompters sometimes added stage directions to play texts, including Shakespeare’s; we need to know whether or not any of the more unusual ones in Ironside are found elsewhere. If “enter…making a noise” occurs in no other text (I doubt it, but don’t know), that could be important. Other stage directions that ought to be followed up include (in modern spelling) “they sit about a table,” “he beats them about the stage,” “he writeth and blotteth,” “the armies make towards one another,” “the armies do compass the two kings in the midst,” “They fight. Canutus gives, et exeunt.” Is there an “et exeunt” in the whole of Shakespeare? This formula occurs twice in Ironside: how common was it? As Sir Walter Greg2 has amply demonstrated, stage directions can unlock the secrets of a text’s provenance and transmission.

Some years ago Samuel Schoenbaum warned that “it is not enough to say that combinations in Edmund Ironside have occurred in plays by Shakespeare; you also have to show they have not occurred in works by others.” Mr. Sams retorts that

this is either a point-blank rejection, or a blank miscomprehension [sic], of the Chambers probability method. What you first have to consider is the odds against which the combinations occur in conjunction with the other evidence; it may then prove unnecessary to fingerprint the entire population.

He adds that he has “read as widely, and checked as carefully, as I can manage,” and seeks to escape further drudgery by insisting that his “parallels and affinities” are “authentically if not always exclusively Shakespearean.” Most readers will still want to ask how close to “exclusively,” at least where the more striking parallels, combinations, spellings, and stage directions are concerned. Mr. Sams must know that two of the decisive reasons for accepting the three pages of Sir Thomas More as Shakespeare’s were (1) that “argo” (for ergo) is found in More, in 2 Henry VI, in Hamlet (argal), in a similar low-comedy context, and in no other play text between 1580 and 1610; and (2) that the spelling “scilens” (for silence) is found in More, eighteen times in 2 Henry IV, and in no other Elizabethan text. R.W. Chambers and his colleagues did fingerprint “the entire population” (actually, one other example of “argo” has been found in the last fifty years, in Middleton’s The Phoenix): if Mr. Sams could offer similar assurances that would give his argument a tremendous lift.

What of the dramatic quality of Ironside? As Mr. Sams observes, “The villain Edricus is the central and pivotal figure who has most engaged his creator’s imagination.” Edricus is a double agent—or rather, a general betrayer—who moves between the camps of the rival claimants to the crown, Edmund and Canutus, pretending to serve both, with all the subtlety of a ten-year-old.

In the meantime I’ll go write to Iron-
craving forgiveness, and insinuate
his yielding favour. He is pitiful
and I am rare in moving passion.
I know the prince will quickly credit me
and put affiance in my smooth pretence
but whatsoe’er he doth or minds to do
you shall be sure to have intelligence…

Mr. Sams admires this style, the “fluid and slippery element of verbal fluency,” as befitting a friend of the Father of Lies. I think it awful stuff, but have to add that there are many pedestrian lines in Shakespeare’s earliest plays. As worrying as the verse is the monotonous ding-dong of plot and counterplot, the shallow thinking of all the characters, so different from the instinctive political and psychological insight of Henry VI. Could the same mind have changed so much, in just a year or two? I doubt it. Mr. Sams, on the other hand, marvels at “the play-wright’s intellectual powers” and finds “the aesthetic achievement” impressive. More than that, “Ironside is the very first chronicle history and hence in its own right a work of seminal significance in the history of English and world drama.” A typical overstatement: Mr. Sams’s own dating, circa 1588, by no means proves that Ironside preceded The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, a play in which Richard Tarlton doubled two parts. Tarlton died in 1588.

Although this edition has many new things to say, it is unlikely to persuade the “Shakespeare establishment.” Mr. Sams’s hectoring style is counterproductive; even the most sympathetic reader must feel that he is being got at, that Mr. Sams will tolerate only one author for the play. By choosing to write as an advocate he forces the reader into a similar role—a strategic error. For even if the likelihood remains that the Ironside author was an imitator steeped in Shakespeare, I would not lay my hand on the Bible and swear that the author cannot be Shakespeare. Many a reader, I imagine, will react more boisterously.

What, finally, are the odds for and against? It is interesting to compare another “Shakespearean” text that has recently caused a stir, the poem “Shall I die?”

   Shall I die? Shall I fly Lovers’ baits and deceits, sorrow breeding? Shall I tend? Shall I send? Shall I sue, and not rue my proceeding? In all duty her beauty
Binds me her servant for ever. If she scorn, I mourn,
I retire to despair, joining never.

Two things can be said in favor of this nine-stanza poem as being by Shakespeare—that a near-contemporary manuscript ascribed it to “William Shakespeare,” and that it exhibits some signs of metrical cleverness. Despite these two pluses, few have been eager to welcome “Shall I die?” into the Shakespeare canon. Ironside, like the poem, is said to be early Shakespeare, yet Mr. Sams endorses the view that the play is “metrically flat,” and no one connected it with Shakespeare until the 1950s. Gary Taylor, who argued for the poem, has repudiated Mr. Sams’s thesis. The general reaction is bound to be negative—especially now, when a newly discovered dramatic fragment from Melbourne Hall, which was confidently assigned to John Webster, has just been attributed to James Shirley, which makes its reserve price of £200,000 look a little inflated. If an author can only be identified by internal evidence, the “most valuable manuscript in the world” may turn out to be a dodgy investment.


Edmund Ironside’ May 7, 1987

  1. 1

    See also Jürgen Schäfer, Documentation in the OED: Shakespeare and Nashe as Test Cases (Oxford University Press, 1980).

  2. 2

    The Editorial Problem in Shakespeare, The Shakespeare First Folio (Oxford University Press, 1942, 1955).

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