The name Shakespeare emerges for the first time in connection with the London Stage on the title page of the second edition of Richard III, published in 1598, shortly after the first, anonymous, edition of 1597. After several years of anonymous publication, why did the name appear at just that time and on that particular play? We’ve been examining the phenomenon of Richard III from a political viewpoint, that of the war waged by Secretary of State Robert Cecil on the London Stage. What about the play itself? What can we learn from that?
Albert Feuillerat, writing in the 1940s and into the early 1950s, made an exceedingly close study, word by word, phrase by phrase, of Richard III and several of the other earliest plays in the canon: Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus, and Henry VI parts Two and Three. The earliest to be published, they were also the first to bear the name Shakespeare. Feuillerat’s close attention to detail, to the meter and vocabulary of these plays, should command more respect than it does. That one hears his name so little is probably due to the fact that the results of his study tend to point in a direction uncomfortable for the Stratford biography, cornerstone of the academic cult.
One of the things Feuillerat brings out that should be a central point in Early Modern literary studies is the obvious fact that the repertory companies had to revise their plays every so often to keep their audiences coming back, a logical perception that should put paid to the academic nonsense about “bad quartos.” Anyone with money can build a theater. Anyone with a little chuzpah can grab a cloak and spear and do a turn on stage. But not just anyone can write a play that holds an audience’s attention, particularly one that brings them back for a second or a third time. So the plays had to be refurbished from time to time so that the producer could advertise them as “newly augmented” and thus continue to use them to bring the audiences in.
Of the six plays examined by Feuillerat, the three history plays have a further interest in that they’re closely related to a handful of anonymous plays known as the First and Second parts of The Contention between the houses of York and Lancaster, and The True Tragedies of Richard III and of Richard Duke of York. So perfectly do these fit the plots, characters, and much of the language of Shakespeare’s Richard III, Richard II, and the last two parts of Henry VI, that avoiding the inevitable conclusion that they are Shakespeare’s own early versions has required the kind of intellectual contortions that we’ve come to expect from the university English Departments.
The simplest and easiest and most likely explanation would be that Shakespeare wrote them himself; where else in literature do we find early versions of works by anyone but the individual who wrote the final version? But because the Stratford biography has Shakespeare placed too late for that, some other explanation had to be found. It was in search of this that Feuillerat spent 30 years deconstructing these plays, both the early versions and Shakespeare’s. Feuillerat’s close attention to the language, meter, tropes, archisms, etc. of these plays, reveals that they display four separate and definite styles, each, according to him, easily distinguished from the others, and all of them most relevant to our thesis.
Feuillerat calls the three styles, or hands, as he terms them, that preceded Shakespeare’s versions: authors A, B, and C; author A is the creator of the first version of the history plays while author C is the creator of the first versions (now lost, though traces remain) of Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet. Author A’s originals were revised at some point by author B, whose work he calls “Marlowesque” and whose job it was to regularize the uneven verse patterns of A into a tight iambic pentameter. This version was then updated in the early 1590s by Shakespeare, who added humanistic touches, Shakespearean imagery, further refinements to the meter––and what Feuillerat sentimentally and not very accurately calls his “sober sweetness”––to the versions published under his name in the 1590s. (Where is there any “sober sweetness” to be found in Richard III?)
Although Feuillerat makes no effort to affix dates to the originals by A and C, his descriptions suggest that those parts written by C may go as far back as the 1560s and 70s, while A fits better with the early 80s. And although he claims at the outset that he’s able to discern where author B has overwritten A, and Shakespeare all three, he confesses in several places that he’s not all that clear where Shakespeare and C are concerned, as both are fond of similar tropes. Nor does he make the slightest effort to identify any of the three, a significant ommission considering that he published several books and articles on Philip Sidney and also on John Lyly, whose dates, one would think, would make him a prime candidate for at least one of these hands.
One problem with Feuillerat’s scenario is that he’s forced to cast Shakespeare in the role of “play-patcher,” a ringer brought in in the ’90s to update old plays, who quickly works his way up to the role of Company playwright. So once again the workaround created to deal with problems caused by the Stratford biography forces Shakespeare into a role not befitting the most creative force in English letters. If Shakespeare didn’t write these plays, if he merely updated them, what about all the others? What about Henry V, which is so obviously a rewrite of The Famous Victories? Flatly dismissing the obvious connection between Thomas of Woodstock and Richard II, as “of no significance,” he never addresses any of these issues. What about all the plays that don’t have previous versions by earlier phantom writers? When did Shakespeare begin writing his own plays? Apparently such questions are also “of no significance.”
Worse than this is the problem his scenario creates of identifying authors A and C, whose plays were so dramatically sound that, despite their questionable versification and awkward archaisms, rather than let them go, the actors saw to it that they were consistently revised over time, with improvement to the language, but rarely to the structure, placing them first among the plays to be upgraded with the formation of the Lord Chamberlain’s men. It would seem that these two original authors deserve a place in English letters close to Shakespeare himself, if only we knew who they were. But of course we know who they must have been!
One of the things that struck me when I first began studying these matters was the immense disconnect between the fantasy Stage of the orthodox imagination and the limited reality of the times. The size of the community that produced these first works of genuine literature does not allow for all the ghostly figures conjured up, first by the courtiers who used one phony name after another to get published, then by later historians who, like Feuillerat, have filled the record void with any number of brilliant if nameless writers. The earliest days of the Stage, and of the popular Press that published its plays, was an outgrowth of what the Elizabethans called May Games, the mummings and disguisings of the Middle Ages that turned a few weeks in the heart of the winter into a fantasy world of feasting, masquing and role-playing. The writers were simply distilling the ancient May Games into books, entertainment via plot and character compacted into little back marks on white paper, bound into a small package that could be taken on trips and read alone at night by candlelight, that is, by people who could read.
May Games, mumming and disguising, were means by which a community trapped in its own hard reality could transport themselves into another world. Transformed by mask and costume into Faeryland, the Middle East, Africa, or, most often, Illyria, where, as Greek shepherds and nymphs they sang and played the lute surrounded by gods and goddessses. But when the party ended, and the mummers were unmasked, whom did they see but their same old neighbors? When Shakespeare’s audience demanded that the playwright be revealed, who was there to reveal? Let the names without biographeis, the authors A, B, and C, fade into the shadows whence they came. Let the masks come off.
Of course authors A and C were the same individual who, having turned 40 and, faced by the need to provide another Crown company with modish material, perfected his own earlier plays, the earliest in the style Feuillerat calls author C, the history plays by the one he calls author A. And of course the “Marlowesque” author B could have been no one but Christopher Marlowe himself, who, brought to Fisher’s Folly by Walsingham in 1584, had been given the task of regularizing the meter of the Contentions and the True Tragedies for the benefit of his new company, the Queen’s Men, “the jigging mother wits” he scorned in Tamburlaine, with unrhymed iambic pentameter (aka blank verse) which had become, in the intervening decade, the industry standard.
Thus, thanks to Albert Feuillerat, French Professor at Yale in the 1930s and 40s, we have another and extremely important piece to add to that puzzle, the Birth of the London Stage, of the Popular Press, of the Fourth Estate, of the British Media, call it what you will. Thanks to Feuillerat we have expert and thoughtful descriptions of Oxford’s voice from the early 70s, his voice from the early 80s, and Marlowe’s from the mid-80s. At some point we hope to take a closer look at his description of these voices.
Those with a taste for intelligent word studies will find Feuillerat’s book of interest: The Composition of Shakespeare’s Plays, 1953. Some parts are available online for free, but there is a downloadable version for $10.
Note: Archaelogists may have discovered the skeleton of Richard III beneath a car park in Leicester. Wounds to the back and skull are relevant to those suffered by the King at Bosworth field. The spine shows evidence of scoliosis, though not of a hunchback. They hope to get an answer from its DNA.