By Douglas Bruster
Why should we think that Shakespeare wrote lines first published in the 1602 quarto of The Spanish Tragedy, a then-classic play by his deceased contemporary Thomas Kyd? Our answer starts 180 years ago, when Samuel Taylor Coleridge—author of ‘Kubla Khan’ and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner—said he heard Shakespeare in this material.
Because Coleridge is among our best critics, you would guess his insight would be tested, and widely. But two things worked against him. First was an Elizabethan record: in 1601 and 1602, theatrical entrepreneur Philip Henslowe paid the playwright Ben Jonson for revising The Spanish Tragedy. Second is the Additional Passages themselves: they’re uneven, full of awkward phrases that don’t sound like Shakespeare. For almost two centuries, then, these 325 lines of verse and prose have remained in a kind of Shakespearean hinterland. Most readers acknowledge their real force and passion, but at the same time recoil from their defects.
Most, but not all. During the past century, a scholar named Warren Stevenson kept the argument alive with his thesis, an essay, and finally a book arguing for Shakespeare’s authorship of the material. Supporting evidence came from Hugh Craig, who demonstrated, first, that the Additional Passages were not in Jonson’s style, and, next, that their vocabulary was in fact like Shakespeare’s. Then, in a wide-ranging essay of 2012, Brian Vickers summarized the existing evidence and adduced a number of extremely striking parallels between the Additional Passages and Shakespeare’s known works. The parallels Vickers points to, which include both things Shakespeare had already written and things he would go on to write, make it incredibly difficult to imagine that anyone else wrote the Additional Passages.
What to do with Henslowe and Jonson, though? And what about the extremely rough bits? The first problem goes away when one realizes that the Additional Passages must have been in existence by 1598-1599, for in the latter year they were parodied and echoed by the playwright (and Shakespeare admirer) John Marston in two of his plays. In 1601 and 1602, therefore, what Henslowe was paying Jonson for was different work on this classic play. It’s possible that Henslowe was prompted to do so by the impending quarto. Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a revenge tragedy on a story that Kyd had already treated, also may have influenced him.
But how to explain the bad writing in the Additional Passages? My argument, published in the September 2013 issue of Notes and Queries, is that what’s pushed us away from the Additional Passages for so long is their closeness to Shakespeare’s own pen. That is, that what we’ve taken as bad writing comes in part from Shakespeare’s bad handwriting.
I begin by noticing that the Additional Passages are absolutely consistent with Shakespeare’s spelling as it survives both in the three pages of the manuscript playbook, Sir Thomas More, and in various corruptions in the quartos and Folio of Shakespeare’s works. Scholars like John Jowett and Eric Rasmussen have been instrumental in helping us to understand such material. Shakespeare was a creative speller, students everywhere will be happy to learn. And although he wasn’t alone in spelling words the way he did, there are nevertheless 24 categories of correspondence between tendencies we’ve identified with his practice and the Additional Passages. In short, this material is spelled the way Shakespeare would have spelled it.
But the corruptions in this material, I go on to argue, come largely from the fact that Shakespeare’s handwriting was difficult for the copyist or printing-house compositor to make out. What got printed in various places, then, is a misreading of a messy text. Here is one example that happens to bring in both spelling and handwriting. In the long fourth Additional Passage, Hieronimo (the main character) enters, distracted to the point of madness, and says:
I prie through euery creuie of each wall,
Looke on each tree, and search through euery brake . . .
Now, ‘creuie’ is an extremely rare word (if it’s even a word). It’s more likely that the source for the quarto featured some form of the word ‘creuice’ (here spelled in the Elizabethan manner). Aaron in Titus Andronicus, for example, says ‘I pried me through the crevice of a wall.’ Of course, the letter ‘c’ could have been omitted by accident. But what I think happened was that the copy text contained a characteristic Shakespearean spelling. We know, from the Sir Thomas More pages and elsewhere, that he routinely dropped the final ‘e’ from words usually ended ‘-ce’. So: ‘ffraunc’ for ‘fraunce,’ ‘offyc’ for ‘office,’ and so forth. In the above passage, I believe that the copyist or compositor encountered the word ‘creuic’ and, not being familiar with Shakespeare’s habit, misread the small ‘c’ as an ‘e’.
Yet in the end, it’s not necessary to accept the argument about spelling or handwriting in order to see that these Passages are by Shakespeare. As the Vickers essay makes clear, the Additional Passages are written with the very words, phrases, imagery, and ideas that Shakespeare had used before the second half of the 1590s (when the Passages appear to have been penned) and would return to throughout his subsequent career. Above all, they give passionate voice to grief. And in this, they remind us of such characters as Titus, Venus, Shylock, and Leonato, all of whom grieve the loss (sometimes figurative) of someone younger. Taken in sum, the parallels with Shakespeare’s known work argue overwhelmingly for his authorship of the Additional Passages. No one else we know of was capable of writing them. I believe that evidence will show that they were composed after A Midsummer Night’s Dream and before Much Ado About Nothing, and as bravura pieces for Richard Burbage, the lead actor of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men later celebrated for his portrayal of Hieronimo.
Professor Douglas Bruster teaches English at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a trustee of the Shakespeare Association of America, and editorial board member of Shakespeare Quarterly and Studies in English Literature 1500-1900. He is the author of “Shakespearean Spellings and Handwriting in the Additional Passages Printed in the 1602 Spanish Tragedy” (available to read for free for a limited time) in Notes & Queries.
Founded under the editorship of the antiquary W J Thoms, the primary intention of Notes and Queries was, and still remains, the asking and answering of readers’ questions. It is devoted principally to English language and literature, lexicography, history, and scholarly antiquarianism.
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Image credit: (1) Thomas Kyd – The Spanish Tragedie, or, Hieronimo is mad againe. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Portrait of Shakespeare – the so called Cobbe portrait – authenticity disputed! Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.