Eric Sams. The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1995. xvi+236 pp. Cloth ISBN 0-300-06129-3.
Bryan N.S. Gooch
University of Victoria

Gooch, Bryan N.S. "Review of The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.2 (1996): 13.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-2/rev_goo1.html>.

  1. Eric Sams' The Real Shakespeare constitutes a determined attempt to reconstruct the early part of the playwright's life. It shows Shakespeare not as a late developer but as an early starter who assiduously revised his work and who, in fact, was responsible for early dramas, including apparent source texts, not usually accepted as part of the conventional canon. Clearly the result of much work and contemplation of extant records and other details, The Real Shakespeare looks initially at biographical issues: a Roman Catholic Shakespeare leaves school, probably at the age of thirteen, to help with family farm chores, becomes involved (as a clerk) with the legal profession (hence the character of his hand-writing), marries Anne Hathaway (already pregnant), and departs soon after for London to escape the consequences (whipping, at the least) of poaching deer owned by the influential, anti-catholic Sir Thomas Lacy. In London, Sams asserts, Shakespeare makes his connection with the Shoreditch Theatre, working his way up the proverbial ladder as ostler, call-boy, prompter and soon becomes a Queen's Man far earlier than Schoenbaum et al. are inclined to allow (58).

  2. Biographical issues, however, cannot be detached from literary matters (which particularly dominate the second part of the book), and Sams, in looking at the Bard's young life, also takes into account the work and comments of contemporaries (e.g., Marlowe, Greene, Nashe, Spenser, et al.), the Parnassus plays, and Willobie his Avisa (1594) before turning to the Sonnets, the association with the 3rd Earl of Southampton, and the problem of the dedication in the first edition. He then moves to a consideration of the "early style" and ascription of both the 1589 and 1603 (Q1) Hamlet to Shakespeare, as well as A Shrew (c.1588), The Troublesome Reign of King John (c.1588), the first part of the Contention...(1594), and The True Tragedies of Richard... (1595); also offered as possible candidates for canonical authority are Faire Em and Locrine (of which there is, indeed, pace Sams, p.166, a modern edition). Attention is also given to bad quartos and the matter of memorial reconstruction, source-plays, derivative plays, dating, "collaboration," so-called "stylometry," and handwriting (a script, Sams suggests, of a law clerk suggesting links to the hand of Edmund Ironside [c.1588]). Curiously, for this strongly argued book, which contends in a detailed way with the conclusions of much twentieth-century scholarship (references to contrary opinion are carefully included), there is no concluding chapter, and the reader is left to pull the threads together. However, by way of addendum, Sams provides a section headed "The Documents 1500-1594," 205 biographical details and citations in chronological order, which under-pin especially the reconstruction of the early (Schoenbaum's "lost") years; and a bibliography (with + and * marks denoting items which support or counter Sam's arguments). An index concludes the volume.

  3. It is always important to review evidence for conventional knowledge, to challenge the validity of accepted views, and to suggest plausible solutions to bothersome problems. Yet, at times, the greater wisdom, unfortunately, lies in uncertainty, in being sure of what one can and cannot know, and in Shakespearean scholarship, the fields of speculation are rather broad. Given the available documentation, many readers will find some of Sams' arguments, while intriguing, still unconvincing and will prefer to rest with the more cautious approach of Schoenbaun, Vickers, Wells, and others. The academic community has not blindly or wilfully rejected solid evidence, and should not be reproached for what might appear, to some critics, to be tradition-bound precepts or unduly conservative empiricism.

  4. Could Shakespeare have known about ostlers and law-clerks without being an ostler or a law-clerk? Probably? Did he write Locrine? Almost certainly not -- given the style, and if he did, why did he not revise it? If Shakespeare was the dedicated reviser Sams claims that he was, why did he not rework the questionable scenes in Titus and Pericles? Were all the source plays (e.g., King Lear and Famous Victories) really by Shakespeare? Doubt could enter here. Does revision necessarily or "normally" mean that the resulting work will manifest two separate styles? No, it does not; though the reference to the Brahms' piano trio (Op.8) on p.187 is interesting, it does not, I think sufficiently support the general point. And what is the difference between an "ordinary" reader of Shakespeare and other kinds of readers (105)? Is one to infer that academic readers and textual editors lose some sensitivity?

  5. Certainly, Sams' The Real Shakespeare will shake the scholarly stage a little, which is not a bad thing. But I should guess that, when the tremors have subsided, many -- perhaps most -- of the props will be more or less where they were before and others, which would be nice to have -- some certainty about the early years, for instance -- will still be absent.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.

1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(August 28, 1996)