The Shakespeare Chronology Recalibrated

Dating Shakespeare’s Plays: A Critical Review of the Evidence
edited by Kevin Gilvary
(Parapress, 2010)

Determining the chronology of Shakespeare’s plays has been both central and problematic since Shakespeare studies originated in the 18th century. Edmond Malone, whose work is regarded as the cornerstone of Shakespeare scholarship, made the first serious attempt. Malone’s initial Shakespeare achievement was his essay An Attempt to Ascertain the Order in which the Plays attributed to Shakespeare were written, included in the second edition of the Johnson-Steevens Shakespeare in 1778. This was “pioneering research,” as Peter Martin called it in his 1995 biography.

In 1875, Edward Dowden, in his Shakespeare: A Critical Study of his Mind and Art, divided Shakespeare’s career into four periods, based on what he deemed appropriate to the playwright’s age and mood, a division that Shakespeare academics still widely affirm. Dowden vastly expanded on Malone’s use of stylistic data, like frequency of rhyme, to support his chronology with statistics.

E. K. Chambers thoroughly reviewed the full scope of dating research in his William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, published in 1930, and laid out a chronology derived largely from Malone and Dowden. Of the 36 plays in the First Folio, Chambers’s dating exactly matches Malone’s on 14 plays and deviates from it by only one year on eight more.

Then, in 1987, came William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion by Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor. Though Wells and Taylor admitted, “The existing or ‘orthodox’ chronology for all Shakespeare’s plays is conjectural,” their dates match Dowden and Chambers exactly for 24 plays and differ on average by less than two years for the rest.

All of this is recounted in the introduction to Dating Shakespeare’s Plays: A Critical Review of the Evidence. This new book, apparently several years in the making, goes on to review other aspects of the inherited tradition, and then lays out, play by play, the evidence put forward by scholars who believe that the plays were written by William Shakespeare of Stratford, followed by the evidence put forward by scholars who believe they are by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

The book is a major comprehensive revision and re-envisioning of the Shakespeare chronology, but it does not set up a rigid chronology of its own. The new chronology is refreshingly diverse, like the world of Shakespeare authorship studies.

The main challenge to the Shakespeare orthodoxy for much of the past century has been Oxfordian, though Oxfordians, unlike Stratfordians, have made the effort inclusive and welcome into their conferences and journals advocates for Bacon, Marlowe, William Stanley, Edward Dyer, Mary Sidney, et al., including, of course, Stratfordians. As a result, a more open-minded approach to Shakespeare is developing outside the mainstream.

In bringing together all of the Oxfordian scholarship on the chronology for the first time, though the only alternative dates it includes are Oxfordian, Dating Shakespeare’s Plays is not dismissive of rival positions, and if anything it is polite and respectful to the orthodox. It is not the aim of the book to advocate the Oxfordian case. Its editor and principal author, Kevin Gilvary, writes: “In considering Oxfordian dates, the intention is not to prove that the Earl of Oxford may or may not have written the works: the purpose is to consider whether alternative, often earlier, dates for the plays are tenable.”

So, regardless of one’s position on the authorship question, Dating Shakespeare’s Plays is a most informative and useful book on a subject at the center of the Shakespeare labyrinth. It is not the last word, but rather an advantageous starting point. A historical review of scholarship organized as a reference work, it does not interpret or try to persuade readers that any proposed date is absolute, but systematically presents what scholars have projected, lets readers consider the possibilities, and raises important questions.

In the essay “Verse, Style, and Chronology,” Gilvary challenges the statistical tests that have been widely used: “There has been no explanation as to how a study of style and/or verse can date an author’s works.” Those who rely on such tests assume that “there is a discernible, measurable, and relatively consistent evolution in an author’s use of language across a significant number of works and period of time.”

What’s more, scholars increasingly acknowledge that some Shakespeare plays have been revised. “In order to have any validity,” Gilvary says, “every core text used for establishing style must be known to have been composed within one short space of time.” In addition, there is acceptance of co-authorship in various plays, which would tend to nullify the value of stylistic tests.

Wells and Taylor, Gilvary says, “take 26 different language features which they call ‘colloquialisms.’ They hope to demonstrate a (presumably unconscious) evolution in style, perhaps influenced by changes in the language used by people at large.” 19 of them “involve elisions,” several with it, the, and them: ’t, tth’, o’th’, th’, ’em.

This notion of colloquialism, ‘an informal, spoken use of language,’ is problematic today but is much harder to recover from the Elizabethan era.... Wells and Taylor appear to select findings which coincide with the traditional or orthodox chronology. What is not explained is why these particular colloquialisms should indicate an evolving style.

Published by the De Vere Society, a British Oxfordian group, Dating Shakespeare’s Plays comprises 40 chapters, one for each of the 36 plays in the First Folio, plus three plays that have been added to the Shakespeare canon (Pericles, The Two Noble Kinsmen, and Edward III) and one that is proposed for it (The Famous Victories of Henry V).

There are also several introductory essays and a concluding essay along with a useful appendix of tables, mostly comparing orthodox dating systems in a variety of ways.

Gilvary wrote more than half of the chapters and essays himself, and edited throughout—but with 19 contributors (at least one of whom is skeptical about the Oxford case) credited for particular chapters, and more contributions credited in other ways, the book is a group effort.

No doubt also due to Gilvary’s efforts, the chapters are uniformly designed: they include a brief opening statement of the widest possible range of dates for the origin of the play under discussion; followed by sections on first publication and first performance dates, if known; sources each play is drawn from; orthodox and Oxfordian dates and the internal and external evidence for them; and conclude with a brief summary.

There is a great deal packed into each of the play chapters in the 508 pages of Dating Shakespeare’s Plays, and the chapter on The Merry Wives of Windsor, the play about Falstaff’s lechery and the humiliation he endures for it, may serve as an example. Merry Wives was first published in 1602 in Quarto (the smaller-size format used for individual plays) and is the third comedy in Folio (the larger-size format used for the 36 plays). The chapter is by Philip Johnson, a scholar who died in 2007.

According to a legend that dates from 1702 and was elaborated on by Nicholas Rowe in 1709, Queen Elizabeth ordered Shakespeare to write Merry Wives after he had written the Henry IV plays, so as to show Falstaff in love. But, Philip Johnson tells us, “Samuel Johnson pointed out 250 years ago that Rowe’s ‘How well she was obey’d, the Play it self is an admirable Proof’ is simply wrong: Shakespeare did not comply with the queen’s wishes, since Falstaff is never in love.”

Falstaff was the original name of the character in Merry Wives, but in the Henry IV plays the character was apparently originally given the name of a historical soldier, Sir John Oldcastle. It is possible, Philip Johnson writes, “that Merry Wives was written first and that when Shakespeare hurriedly needed to rename Sir John Oldcastle (and friends) he transferred names of similar characters from the comedy.”

The date 1597 for Merry Wives “wins the approval of almost all modern editors,” ever since the scholar Leslie Hotson, citing references in the play to the Order of the Garter, conjectured in 1931 that “the play was performed on St. George’s Day, April 23, 1597, for the Garter Feast at Whitehall,” since “one of the five knights elected that year was George Carey, Lord Hunsdon, patron of the Chamberlain’s Men,” the Shakespeare company at that time.

But other orthodox scholars, as well as H. H. Holland, an Oxfordian, view the play as “a rewriting of The Jealous Comedy, a lost play performed by Lord Strange’s Men in 1593, when they were performing other plays of Shakespeare” and when “the Order was celebrating its 250th anniversary.”

Further evidence for 1593 is an apparent appropriation of an allusion to a biblical quotation used in Merry Wives. The Book of Samuel says that the staff of Goliath’s “spear was like a weaver’s beam.” Falstaff says in Merry Wives, “I fear not Goliath with a weaver’s beam.” Johnson notes, “Curiously, ‘fear,’ ‘Goliath,’ and ‘weaver’s beam’ occur together in Pierce’s Supererogation, published by Gabriel Harvey in 1593: ‘…I feared the brazen shield, and the brazen boots of Goliath, and that same hideous spear, like a weaver’s beam.’”

Johnson quotes the American Shakespeare scholar Roger Stritmatter as saying that, in the absence of a common source for both Harvey and Shakespeare, “the simplest explanation…is that Harvey read, or more likely observed a performance of, an early version of The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Johnson concludes, “This would make 1593 the latest date for the play’s first performance.”

The biblical quotation comes from a particular copy of the Geneva Bible in the Folger Shakespeare Library. It was Oxford’s own copy, and in it the quotation is underlined, it is reasonable to assume, by Oxford himself, as Stritmatter pointed out in his dissertation on the parallels between the book’s underlined passages and Shakespeare’s biblical references.

But a “latest date” does not preclude the play’s being earlier, and other Oxfordian scholars suggest that Merry Wives dates to the 1580s. Robert Brazil, who died last year, wrote that the “Songs and Sonnets” that the character Slender says he misses in Merry Wives could well have been an allusion to the Songs and Sonnets of Oxford’s uncle Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey. “Published posthumously in Tottel’s Miscellany in 1557,” they were republished several times, including in 1585 and 1587, “after a gap of 11 years,” Johnson says, adding that an allusion to this work “would have been less meaningful in the next decade (and it is missing from the 1602 Quarto).”

Still other Oxfordian scholars date Merry Wives to no later than 1573. “Charlton Ogburn sees the wooing of Anne Page by Slender as a comic representation of the negotiations in 1568–69 for the marriage of Philip Sidney to Anne Cecil. A formal settlement was drawn up on August 6, 1569, its terms somewhat similar in monetary value to those mentioned in Act 3, Scene 4. Two years later the Cecil-Sidney contract was deemed to have lapsed, and Oxford became Anne’s bridegroom; Ogburn regards Fenton as a stage representation of the successful real-life suitor.” Ogburn, who died in 1988 and whose book The Mysterious William Shakespeare is a major Oxfordian study, also saw the character of Doctor Caius in the play as an allusion to Dr. John Caius of Cambridge University, who died in July 1573, when, Johnson notes, “Shakespeare of Stratford was a boy of nine.”

Because Stratfordians have always simply assumed that the Shakespeare works are by William of Stratford, it follows that all of the plays must have been written during years when William would have been productive, and so to begin with, their dating theory is largely a matter of ordering the plays in a way that would fit William’s hypothetical career.

William was born in 1564. Could he have written an early version of Hamlet by the time he was 25? Thomas Nashe, who has been suggested as a collaborator on Henry VI, Part 1, refers to Hamlet in 1589. To get around the age problem, Malone maintained that Nashe was referring to a Hamlet by another author, and most orthodox scholars have continued to endorse that view even though no evidence for such a play has ever been found.

Oxfordians fit their dating not just to Oxford’s years of productivity, but to specific events in his life, a strategy Stratfordians can’t match because William’s life is so little recorded. E. T. Clark and H. H. Holland date Hamlet to 1583–84, “after the trip to Denmark” of Peregrine Bertie, Lord Willoughby of Eresby “(the brother-in-law of Oxford), where he dined with the great Danish families including those named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.”

Links to Oxford in Hamlet “include allusions, names, and possible biographical references,” says Eddi Jolly, who wrote the chapter on the play, and she lists nine, citing as her source Monstrous Adversary, a defamatory biography of Oxford by Alan Nelson.

References to Oxford’s life in Dating Shakespeare’s Plays are deliberately keyed to Nelson’s book, though there are good Oxfordian sources available, like Mark Anderson’s “Shakespeare” by Another Name. The first book in Oxfordian studies, “Shakespeare” Identified by J. Thomas Looney, is barely even mentioned, but Nelson’s book is cited in full 36 times, as each chapter has its own complete bibliography and notes.

The Oxfordian challenge began to impact Stratfordian scholarship soon after the Oxford case was put forward by Looney in 1920. Oxford died in 1604, a point that Stratfordians assumed on the face of it would exclude him as an authorship candidate, because they had already dated a considerable number of plays to late in the career of William of Stratford, who died in 1616. Malone included The Tempest, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Macbeth, King Lear, and Antony and Cleopatra as post-1604, and Chambers, post-1920, kept all of those and added The Winter’s Tale, Henry VIII and Cymbeline. But it wasn’t a tight case, because the few post-1604 sources and topical references claimed for these plays have all been effectively challenged.

In recent years, orthodox scholars have tried to discover minor works to attribute to Shakespeare that can be dated after 1604. Funeral Elegy, a poem that met those criteria, was inserted into some editions of the canon, resulting in considerable embarrassment when it was definitively discredited by other orthodox scholars, including Brian Vickers, whose admirable work on this matter and co-authorship is cited several times in Dating Shakespeare’s Plays.

Many orthodox dates seem quite arbitrary, especially for three plays that just pop up in 1623 in the Folio, never having been registered, published, mentioned in performance or directly alluded to—All’s Well That Ends Well, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens—and for plays never registered or published until 1623 but that are mentioned very late, like The Tempest. Orthodox scholars date All’s Well in 1602-5, Coriolanus in 1607-9, and Timon in 1604-8. Opinions among Oxfordians are less definite: All’s Well in 1579 or 1591, Coriolanus in 1581, 1601, or 1603, and Timon in 1576 or 1592–1604.

The Tempest is dated 1611-12 in orthodox chronologies, making it the last of the plays Shakespeare wrote “unassisted,” even though it is the first play in the Folio. Malone regarded Prospero’s speech about breaking his staff and abjuring magic as Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage. Assuming the first play in the Folio was the last Shakespeare play, the dating of the rest of the canon had to be in complete chronological disarray.

The first known performance of The Tempest was in late 1611, but that doesn’t mean the play originated then. For several other plays not published until 1623, there are no known contemporary performance dates, and there are few contemporary performance dates known for any of the plays. “That the earliest mentioned performance is the first staging” and “that the first performance must have occurred soon after composition” are “two assumptions,” Gilvary says, that “it is quite common for orthodox scholars to make.”

A mention in The Tempest of the “still-vexed Bermoothes” is taken by Malone (followed by most orthodox scholars ever since) as an allusion to the crash of a ship on Bermuda in 1609. The relevant account of it was not published until 1625, so they say Shakespeare must have read it in manuscript. The play, however, is clearly set on an island in the Mediterranean near Italy.

Specific Oxfordian dates for The Tempest range from 1583-4 to 1602. One argument, by the French scholar Georges Lambin, suggests that Prospero is based on “Francesco Maria de Medici, second Grand Duke of Florence and Tuscany from 1574–1587,” who “conducted alchemical and necromantic experiments,” and could have been familiar to Oxford, who visited Florence in 1575.

Gilvary and Johnson, who are both credited for the Tempest chapter in Dating Shakespeare’s Plays, consider it an early play because it “observes the unities” of time and place. “Shakespeare’s only other play to do so is The Comedy of Errors, which is taken to be an early play.” Another sign that The Tempest is an early work is that “it has a long, tedious exposition of background material” in Act 1, Scene 2, “when Prospero speaks with Miranda, Ariel, and Caliban, and recounts their biographies for the benefit of the audience.”  

A distinguished orthodox scholar, Stephen Orgel, “points out that its place at the start of the Folio might be taken to suggest that it was an early play.”

One conceivable order of dating Shakespeare’s plays, though I know of no precedents for it (and aside from that very vague hint from Orgel, Dating Shakespeare’s Plays does not suggest it either), concerns the order of the plays in the First Folio. The Histories have their own order, sequenced according to the kings’ reigns, but could the Comedies and the Tragedies have been sequenced by the Folio publishers according to their notion of the plays’ chronology?

The 14 Comedies in Folio order (and their chronology according to Wells and Taylor) are as follows: The Tempest (14), The Two Gentlemen of Verona (1), The Merry Wives of Windsor (7), Measure for Measure (11), The Comedy of Errors (3), Much Ado About Nothing (8), Love’s Labor’s Lost (4), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (5), The Merchant of Venice (6), As You Like It (9), The Taming of the Shrew (2), All’s Well That Ends Well (12), Twelfth Night (10), The Winter’s Tale (13). Eight of the 14 plays are in chronological order, for example: 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 12, 13. In reverse chronological order, at most only five plays are in sequence, for example: 14, 11, 8, 5, 2.

Looking at the 12 Tragedies in the Folio in the same way yields a similar result: Troilus and Cressida (5), Coriolanus (11), Titus Andronicus (1), Romeo and Juliet (2), Timon of Athens (7), Julius Caesar (3), Macbeth (8), Hamlet (4), King Lear (9), Othello (6), Antony and Cleopatra (10), Cymbeline (12). Seven of the 12 are in chronological order, for example: 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 12. In reverse chronological order, at most three, for example: 11, 7, 6.

25 years before the First Folio was published, when Francis Meres identified Shakespeare as the author of 12 plays in his book Palladis Tamia: Wits Treasury, he listed the comedies, histories, and tragedies in that order, the same as the First Folio, but more astonishing, he listed the comedies themselves in Folio order: The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labor’s Lost, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Merchant of Venice. (He also named Love’s Labor’s Won, but it’s not in the Folio, at least by that title.) The two tragedies at the end of his list were also in Folio order: Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet.

The odds of Meres’s correctly guessing those five comedies in Folio order are steep. If Meres and the Folio were both putting these plays in a particular order, what could it be but chronological?

The ranges of the dates for the plays in the Folio as given in Dating Shakespeare’s Plays allow for the order of the comedies and the order of the tragedies to be chronological.

Perhaps an exploration of chronology suggested by Folio order is something to consider for a future edition. Given the dynamic nature of Shakespeare scholarship today, and the material the book presents for scholars to build upon or contend with, Dating Shakespeare’s Plays may have a reasonable chance of becoming a standard reference work that will periodically need updating.

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