Arthur Maltby interviews Dr. Eric Sams on Shakespeare (2003)

With two letters


previously unpublished; © the estate of eric sams



Arthur Maltby – Some of us who write about Shakespeare or his biographers have not lectured on English literature, coming to the subject from other specialisms. Your Ph.D. at Cambridge concerned the songs of Schumann. Many of your publications result from that expertise in musicology, which you taught briefly as Visiting Professor in Hamilton, Ontario. You also served for some time as opera critic of the New Statesman. But, by then, you had firmly embarked upon your primary career – in the British Civil Service, where you rose to a relatively senior rank. Given this background, I must begin by asking: how did you become interested in reconstructing Shakespeare’s life and work?


Eric Sams – I see Shakespeare as every Englishman’s birthright. He has always seemed to me to follow on easily and naturally from musicology – there is so much music in the plays. Those of us who were well instructed in youth might naturally make such a connection. And, of course, I came under the influence of E.B. Everitt, whose ideas partly foreshadow what I have written, especially on Edmund Ironside. [1]


AM – Among those I am interviewing, you come across as the most pugnacious – in articles as well as through your view of the great poet-dramatist’s early career in The Real Shakespeare. This is because you are convinced there are wrongs to be righted. Twelve years of university teaching convinced me that some challenges to the modern scholarly consensus may be no bad thing. In any field, there is a possibility of academic cliques forming. Worse, certain aspects of a subject may suffer misrepresentation, be overlooked or be discarded for whatever reason. [2] So we need people who will question “truths” as currently perceived or received. Some of the issues you raise strike a responsive chord in me: for example, it is likely that some memorial reconstruction by actors took place, but I am very uneasy, for instance, about that theory as explanation of the variant Quarto texts. However, rocking establishment boats successfully is certainly a task of immense difficulty. Do you feel any progress has been made?


ES – First, I would comment that I am perfectly willing to accept your choice of the adjective “pugnacious”. Certain things simply had to be said with force to impact upon modern Shakespeare scholars.

     Secondly, I am delighted to hear of you strong reservations about the theory of memorial reconstruction. For me that is the great bête noire. I do feel some progress has been made in criticizing the idea, and also on Shakespeare as author of Edward The Third. I could cite at least half a dozen commentators, from Britain or America, who have responded very positively to what The Real Shakespeare says on these subjects or others. One might consider, for instance, the work of Professor Laurie Maguire at Ottawa. [3] “Memorial reconstruction” isn’t any kind of explanation for those Quarto texts; there’s no evidence for it. It hasn’t been unduly difficult for her or for me to rock so very flimsy a vessel as that.


AM – Yes, it once held sway, but is now being questioned. We are not far apart there. But I find you too trusting in accepting, seemingly without question, those early traditions and attempted posthumous investigations about Shakespeare, some of which so influenced Rowe’s ur-biography in 1709. You distrust the modern scholars, but are happy with the testimony of John Jordan circa 1780 or even, in one place it seems, with that of his near contemporary, the forger, William Henry Ireland. A critic might well say you stance has an Orwellian ring: 17th or 18th century good, 20th century bad. How would you respond?


ES – Well, I do have some reservations over Jordan, although I would certainly not dismiss him out of hand. But I really have no sympathy at all for Ireland. I ask only that there be some decent early evidence (such as Aubrey or Rowe’s dealings with the Stratford neighbours) or some clear reason (such as Ockham’s Razor or indeed tradition) for taking whatever stance one does. If time, space, and energy permitted, I believe I could defend all I say on some grounds such as these. Many modern Shakespearean scholars have taken the stance they want, regardless of objective evidence, and some merely follow dutifully the majority viewpoint.


AM – With greater time, the opposition might expand too, as per Parkinson’s law. Alas, in some parts of your argument I would have to be part of it. It is very frustrating that we don’t know what is truth, what legend, in those early traditions. In a personal letter, you cited Chambers to me on the matter of John Shakespeare’s alleged spiritual testament. [4] I must make clear Chambers’ precise comments. Sadly, the document was lost at some time, after Edmond Malone had examined it. But the modern scholarly consensus accepts (as Malone did) that it was a genuine Elizabethan “template” for a Catholic statement of faith. Where there may have been fabrication by Jordan is in the attachment to it of John Shakespeare’s name. Chambers tells us that Malone claimed there were “documents that clearly prove it could not have been the composition of any one of our poet’s family.”


ES – Chambers preached rigour, but was sometimes vulnerable to the dubious criterion of his own opinion. For instance, he accepted Alexander’s views on the origins of Henry The Sixth which I suggest are just plain silly. And we have learned more about John Shakespeare’s spiritual testament since Chambers’ time. I’m apparently part of the modern scholarly consensus in this regard; even Schoenbaum seemed to accept the document as genuine. I wouldn’t worry too much about the reputation of John Jordan. And there is nothing sinister about the disappearance of the document – things do get lost!


AM – We could so easily get bogged down on this. Let me clarify. The modern consensus wholeheartedly accepts that the document concerned existed, and was a statement of Catholic faith; that fact in itself does not necessarily link it with John Shakespeare. Schoenbaum reflected to a large degree Chambers’ skepticism (and Malone’s) about the vital point here – the validity (or otherwise) of Jordan’s claim that it was John Shakespeare’s – though I know that some modern scholar’s would readily take that extra step with you.

     Let’s move on to another issue. Various plays not found in the 1623 Folio are attributed to Shakespeare by you. Among them are Edmund IronsideEdward The ThirdLocrine, and Fair Em. [5] This is quite different from the views of conventional English scholars who think Shakespeare had a small part, if any at all, in such anonymous plays. It is difficult to express the contrast briefly, but Kenneth Muir, to take just one example, emphasized some collaboration, thinking that Shakespeare had a hand in Edward The Third and Pericles, but that, in the latter, he was only “hastily revising a play by another dramatist”; rewriting some scenes, leaving others unchanged. [6] And you also give to Shakespeare The Troublesome Reign of King John and The Taming of A Shrew, generally thought of as plays by others, that he used as source material.

     You believe that the “Bad Quartos” represent Shakespeare’s plays at various stages of his revision, arguing that he had made an early start to his career as a dramatist. You suggest, in The Real Shakespeare, that William left school aged about 13, doing butcher’s work – which you see reflected in the interest in blood with the plays. [7] The opening of your first chapter tells us that this was against the background of “an illiterate Catholic peasant homestead.” But even the greatest genius needs input before delivering output. So are all these claims really compatible when considered in sum: do you not give him far too much to do, especially when still a young man?


ES – First, I would say that there is no evidence at all that Shakespeare was a collaborator at any time before 1613, although alas some commentators don’t think the early style shown in some of the example you quote is “good enough” for him. One way to contest this is to inquire why the invented “collaborator” spells so very much like Shakespeare.

     As to an excessive creative workload for that most remarkable young man, I’m sure that’s not the case. I know that you, like many others, are broadly sympathetic towards the idea of an early start. And as for the “additional” plays, consider: Everitt attributed Ironside to Shakespeare with some success; Seymour Pitcher does so with The Famous Victories. [8] Although “rubbished” by many academics, including Schoenbaum, these men were both genuine scholars. There are other plays to consider also, such as Woodstock.

     Of course, some conventional academic works, like those of Muir, see unknown collaborators everywhere; that’s the view bringing into sharp conflict with actual near contemporary witness like Dryden’s on Pericles. I suppose I’m in a minority, but I do believe the early testimony of John Aubrey who, after consultation with the Stratford neighbours of his day, said that Shakespeare came to London at about 18 or so: “he began to make essays at dramatic poetry, which at that time was very low, and his plays took well”. I see here a clear comparison between artists in different fields. My interest in musicology arises again to offer parallels. So I’m sure the young Shakespeare (like every other great creative artist who ever lived) spent his days doing what he knew and did best; he was writing plays, just as Schubert was writing songs. No, I don’t give him too much to do.


AM – Combining the ideas of yourself, Pitcher and some others gives a quantitative result that astonishes me: it seems Shakespeare’s apprentice hand was never idle!


ES – You must bear in mind that there is support for me from conventional pens on some of these source plays; for instance Wells and Taylor suggest that A Shrew might be Shakespeare’s own early play leading eventually to The Shrew. [9] Genius often flowers in youth. Schubert might have been suspected of being given too much to do, were it not for his habit of signing and dating everything. His hand too was never idle. He once said, in response to a journalist’s question about his method, that once he had finished one piece he soon started another. And remember, for Shakespeare there are about ten so-called “lost years” to accommodate this wider range of work.


AM – … with an unavoidable need, many of us think, for some acquisition of culture to be swallowed, then digested, as a pre-requisite for much of that outpouring! His situation is somewhat different form that of the musical genius. Differing markedly in our view of these things, we might debate long, though I think ever amicably. But I do not forget that The Real Shakespeare promised a sequel concentrating on the post 1595 period. Before we end our brief discussion, what is the news of that?


ES – Increasing intimations of age, along with certain other events in my life in the last year or two mean that I haven’t been getting on too well lately with my proposed sequel. It’s a pity, because there is much to say about Shakespeare’s life from the mid-1590s to extend what is in my account of his early years. I’ve gathered much of the material, and worked upon it. You may recall that when we first met, in January 2003, told you that The Real Shakespeare was to be translated into Italian. That is pleasing, but the statement of my views on the full recognition and restoration of Shakespeare’s achievements is really only half done. I still have hopes of completion.


Letter to Eric Sams from Arthur Maltby


12 February 2003


Dear Eric,


I attach a further draft of the “interview”; hopefully we are nearly there – but you must be content with the words I attribute to you before we agree it “done”. I now hope to have it soon completed, for eventual publication alongside the dialogues with Ernst Honigmann, Park Honan and a few others. Excuse my play with colour text!

    Please le me have your reaction when you can.

    This note comes with my further thanks and good wishes. And I’m grateful to have “discovered” Maguire via you!


Yours sincerely,


Arthur (Maltby)



Letter from Eric Sams to Arthur Maltby


13 February 2003


Dear Arthur,


     Well, I can see that I must defend myself, and even counter-attack – which I now belatedly do.

     First, it’s perfectly possible for a person to be amazingly right about Shakespeare and yet be a forger; for example Collier was right about Edward III. Nevertheless I was careful in RS to mention Ireland only in connection with others.

     Secondly, I should be more modest; such expertise as I had in music (your p. 2) was mainly to do with the musicology of song and songwriters, which dates back to Shakespeare’s time (Dowland et al.); so it would be better if the explanation could read “He has always seemed to me to follow on easily and naturally from the musicology of song – there is so much music and song in the plays”.

     p. 2 again: has Laurie Maguire moved from Ottawa? You’ve been rather short-changed here; there’s also Farley-Hills on Romeo Q1, Jowett on I forget what, a professor at Rome on Henry V Q1, myself on Hamlet Q1, and so forth; sorry about the lack of precision here, but my wife was very ill at the material times. And how would you respond to the counter-charge that you seem to prefer modern scholars (such as Kenneth Muir) to those nearer Shakespeare’s time; the reason for the opposite preference is obvious, at any rate to me.

     p. 3: but you don’t make clear Chamber’s precise comments. Malone lost some other document; I hold no brief for him. But he writes as if he had seen, on this one, the name John Shakespeare, who was (surely) a Catholic, and in whose house the document was found, - furthermore his son quotes from it (RS 34) in Hamlet.

     p. 4: why resist all those pages of argument (RS 135-146) in favour of “conventional scholars” and what is “generally thought”? Aubrey, who sensibly consulted the Stratford neighbours, says that Shakespeare made an early start to his career as a dramatist. We know what you say (without any consultation) namely that “even the greatest genius needs input before delivering output” or alternatively (p. 5) that he had “an unavoidable need, many of us think, for some acquisition of (non-dramatic?) culture to be swallowed, then digested, as a pre-requisite for much of that outpouring!” but you don’t say why, except that the case is “somewhat different from that of the musical genius”. Perhaps you’d like to say what the difference is? Or perhaps you’re not “broadly sympathetic towards the idea of an early start?”

     p. 5: But why should Shakespeare’s apprentice hand be idle, except that you’d be astonished if it wasn’t? For my own part, I’d be astonished if it was; which may be the essential difference between us. Perhaps too his time with the Hoghtons, or in the Southampton entourage, or his own intelligence, is to count for nothing? But there may not be much between us; after all, if BQs aren’t “memorial reconstructions” (as you seem to imply), what can they be but early Shakespeare?

     p. 6: there’s no mystery about item 9; 1988 (so throughout RS, because it was the actual year of publication of the Textual Companion), p. 169, which says, as plainly as possible, that A Shrew “may be Shakespeare’s own earlier play” (as of course it is).


Best regards and wishes,

Yours as ever,


Eric Sams


[1] E.B. Everitt, The Young Shakespeare, 1954

[2]  We need not necessarily think of Shakespearean studies. In more than one book, for example, Bryan Magee suggests how this has happened in the academic study of philosophy. See, for instance, his Confessions of a Philosopher (1997) where (p. 129) he speaks of some great men being misrepresented in lectures, and even of some university teaching as being “sectarian and excommunicative”.

[3] L. Maguire, Shakespearean Suspect Texts, 1995.

[4] Sir E.K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 1930, Vol. 2, p. 380-382.

[5] For example, Eric Sams, Edmund Ironside, 1985.

[6] Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare as Collaborator, 1960, p. 30.

[7] Eric Sams, The Real Shakespeare, 1995. p. 28-29.

[8] Seymour Pitcher, The Case for Shakespeare’s Authorship of “The Famous Victories”, 1961.

[9] S. Wells and G. Taylor, ……1988.