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William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems [2 vols.] (1930)

von E. K. Chambers

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E. K. Chambers

William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems

Clarendon Press Oxford, Hardback, 1930.

8vo. 2 vols.
Vol. I: xviii+576 pp. 15 b/w illustrations.
Vol. II: xvi+448 pp. Appendices A-H [1–408]. 15 b/w illustrations. Indexes to both volumes [426–48].

First published, 1930.


I have said whatever I have to say about the first volume of this marvellous work in my review of a PDF version; I have also given the table of contents for the second volume as an appendix there. Few desultory comments about the second volume will have to do here.

Apart from an index to the whole work, the volume actually consists of eight appendices. The first three are much the most substantial. They are dedicated to public records (Appendix A, 25 entries), contemporary allusions (B, 58) and “The Shakespeare Mythos” (C, 58). Except for copious commentary by E.K.C. in square brackets and smaller font, the entries consist of original sources reprinted as close as possible to their original form, which includes their original language. Thus the well-known reference by Thomas Platter, the Swiss traveller who attended a production of Julius Caesar in 1599, is given in the original German. But this is easy to understand compared to Will’s marriage license, dated 27 November 1582, which reads thus:

Item eodem die similis emanavit licencia inter Willelmum Shaxpere et Annam Whateley de Temple Grafton.

Then again, this is almost easier to understand than the Bond of Sureties, dated 28 November 1582. This is presumably written in English. See if you can agree:

The condicion of this obligacion ys suche that if hereafter there shall not appere any Lawfull Lett or impediment by reason of any precontract consanguinitie affinitie or by Shagspere on thone partie, and Anne Hathwey of Stratford in the Dioces of Worcester maiden may lawfully solennize matrimony together and in the same afterwards remaine and continew like man and wife according vnto the lawes in that behalf prouided, and moreouer if there be not at this present time any action sute quarrel or demaund moved or depending before any iudge ecclesiasticall or temporall for and concerning any such lawfull lett of impediment...

Hence the mystery of the two Annes. Ivor Brown was so smitten with the mysterious Anne Whateley from Temple Grafton that he wrote a whole play about poor Will caught between the hammer and the anvil. E.K.C. is expectedly less given to speculation, but he is by no means noncommittal. He considers the dual name to be a clerical mistake and the marriage probably to have taken place in Temple Grafton, which is only about five miles from Stratford. But E.K.C. takes his time to go there: all possibilities are taken into account. He is just as thorough, lucid and meticulous with all other facts and problems about Shakespeare, from his christening, his will and his epitaphs to the business deals and lawsuits he was involved in. Admittedly, sometimes the amount of detail is excessive and the detective work exhausting. Even then, however, I am reluctant to skip once I have started reading a certain section. The authorial voice is compelling, and the neat organisation has its own aesthetic appeal.

The contemporary allusions go well beyond the First Folio and Frances Meres. Nor is Robert Greene the first one to mention, or at least allude to, Shakespeare in print. Spenser and Nashe, no less, were there before him. Their allusions are cryptic and vague, but so are many others. They range from very brief glimpses in pamphlets to extensive excerpts from dramatic works. Even though some of these may not refer to Shakespeare at all, it is fascinating to have a look at them. E.K.C. employs rather a lighter touch here, but he is not the one to mince words. When it seems unlikely that Will is meant, he says so. Nevertheless, he has not shied away from rather tenuous cases. Even Milton’s sonnet “On Shakespeare” (1630) is included on the basis that Milton, who was not yet eight years old when Shakespeare died, might have seen the Bard in London.

“The Shakespeare Mythos” covers posthumous personal references until the early 19th century. The biographical sketches of Aubrey and Rowe are the most famous and presumably the most reliable of these, but even they relied on local gossip from Stratford collected long after Will’s death. Much of what is “known” about Shakespeare’s life, or at least the most popular stuff, is of such dubious origin. The famous account by Thomas Fuller of the wit battles between Shakespeare and Ben Jonson can also be found here. It is a lovely bit of naval imagery, but the rest is likely to be mere pub folklore. Even Dryden, quite apart from his penetrating criticism (not quoted here, of course), casually mentioned that Shakespeare said he had to kill Mercutio to avoid being killed by him. How Dryden knew that no one has ever been able to find out. Thus is the Shakespeare mythos created, expanded and kept alive. E.K.C. seems to have had a soft spot for this curious process. For once, he is almost unscholarly:

It is, I think, possible to underestimate the value of biographical tradition, where it is not inconsistent with other evidence. Provincial memories are long-lived, and so are those of professions which, like that of the stage, are largely recruited as hereditary castes. There is, of course, a tact to be exercised in taking the gist of a statement, without laying too much stress on its details. And it must be admitted that after all there is much here which throws less light upon Shakespeare than upon the mental processes which lead to the development of myths.

Appendix D is a massive performance history of the years between 1588 and 1648. Every play ever played in this period, in London or in the provinces, by Shakespeare or not, for which there is some documentary evidence is given here. The eyewitness account by Platter mentioned above falls in this category. It is frightful to contemplate the amount of hard labour that must have gone into the preparation of that appendix alone. Essentially, it is an abridged version of the other magnum opus produced by E.K.C., the four volumes of The Elizabethan Stage (1923).

Appendix E is wholly dedicated to the name “Shakespeare”. No fewer than 83 different spellings are given, including exotic versions like “Sheftspere” and “Chacsper”. The various permutations go back at least to the 13th century. One William Sakspere, of Clopton, was hanged for robbery in 1248.

Appendix G is simply a table of the early quartos. Nothing new or illuminating here, but a very convenient way to see what, when and how was printed until 1623. For each year are given the entries in the Stationers’ Registry, the original editions and the reprints. As I have argued elsewhere, the least you can see objectively verified from such a table is that Shakespeare experienced a marked decline in popularity in later years. You can guess the same from the list of plays that first appeared in the First Folio.

Appendix H is a set of metrical tables which E.K.C. compiled from various sources. Their chief value is to show to what extremes scholars would go in dissecting Shakespeare’s plays. They would scrutinise every line, every word, every syllable even. The more ingenious do it on a grand scale for the whole canon, apply rigorous statistical methods and congratulate themselves on epoch-making discoveries. Nobody with a modicum of sanity takes them seriously, E.K.C. included.

Appendix F deals with “Shakespearean Fabrications”. Unsurprisingly, a large number of these have been perpetuated for centuries. Only the thirteen most impressive cases are included here. This is where the trenchant style of E. K. Chambers is on full display. About one George Steevens (1736–1800), he writes:

The contributions of Steevens to Shakespearean learning were substantial and valuable. But he had a devil of perversity, which sufficiently accounts for Gifford’s description of him as ‘the Puck of commentators’. He is said to have ascribed his notes on the more indecent passages of Shakespeare to two clergymen, Richard Amner and John Collins, who had offended him. Nor do I think that he can have been altogether serious when he wrote on the ‘parish top’ in Twelfth Night, i. 3. 44, to be solemnly followed by later annotators down to the Arden edition, ‘This is one of the old customs laid aside. A large top was formerly kept in every village, to be whipped in frosty weather, that the peasants may be kept warm by exercise, and out of mischief, while they could not work.’ Whether he was ever responsible for a deliberate fabrication is less clear.

One William Henry Ireland (1777–1835) was even more inventive and adventurous, not to say bold beyond the point of sanity. E.K.C. had a field day with him, and rightly so:

Ireland’s forgeries deceive nobody now. He was a conveyancer’s clerk, and had access to old deeds, in imitation of which he began in 1794 to produce others purporting to be signed by Shakespeare, together with bogus manuscripts of plays and inscriptions on the title-pages of many books. These he palmed off on his father, Samuel Ireland the antiquary (cf. App. C, no. li), with a story of a gentleman who preferred to remain anonymous, and whose ancestor had saved Shakespeare from drowning and received these documents in reward. Samuel Ireland exhibited the forgeries at his house in 1795 and reproduced a collection of them in Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments under the Hand and Seal of William Shakespeare (1796). Here are a letter and verses from Shakespeare to ‘Anna Harherrewaye’, letters to the Earl of Southampton and Richard Cowley, letters from Southampton and Queen Elizabeth, deeds between Shakespeare and John Heminges, Henry Condell, and John Lowin, a Profession of Faith by Shakespeare, and many minor things.

The man had massive chutzpah. One has to admit that!

One must also admit that E. K. Chambers had genius. He seemingly did nothing more than compile and annotate some contemporary references. Yet he produced a work, not only vast in scope and learning, but with its own personality.

More than ninety years after it was first published, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems remains an invaluable resource. Neither “modern scholarship” nor the mighty Web has been able to make obsolete the achievement of a Victorian scholar buried under musty volumes in dusty rooms. As long as Shakespeare continues to be read and staged, E. K. Chambers will continue to be consulted. If he is not, so much the worse for Shakespeare – and for us. ( )
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