Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Just Kydding Around

Obscure literary erudition appears on the front page of the Times infrequently, so that when it does your bloguiste must sit up and take notice.  An energetic English professor at the University of Texas, Douglas Bruster, following in the traces of a British scholar named Brian Vickers, had advanced the theory that there is more to Shakespeare than we ever imagined.  Specifically there are some mysterious gobbets of text in Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (or Hieronimo is Mad Again) that first show up in the printed quarto of 1602.  The play itself was probably written about 1590. Thomas Kyd shed this mortal coil in 1596.  We have no idea whether he and Shakespeare had ever laid eyes on each other, though Shakespeare had certainly laid eyes on his play, which he plundered pretty thoroughly in writing Hamlet.

            There are pendulum swings in scholarship as in so many aspects of cultural life.  For more than a century it was all the rage to argue that Shakespeare didn’t really write most of Shakespeare, or maybe even any of him.   This might be called the “college graduate theory” advanced by—well, college graduates.  The supposed plays of Shakespeare exhibit extraordinary invention, wit, and (yes) erudition.  But we have it on the authority of Ben Jonson that Shakespeare had “small Latine & lesse Greeke.”  How is somebody like that going to write King Lear or come up with three-guinea words like Lady Macbeth’s “incarnadine”? 

            Nobody paused to ask why we should be so impressed by the educational authority of somebody who can’t even spell “Latin” or “Greek” correctly.  Instead they rushed on to attribute pseudo-Shakespeare’s plays to somebody else, and especially to Francis Bacon, who was very smart and a Cambridge man who habitually wrote out his shopping lists in correctly accented Greeke.

            The Baconian heresy eventually drowned in the sea of its own Rosicrucian cryptograms.  As the pendulum swings back, the current tendency—it might be called “Shakespearian maximalism”—is to try to foist off on the Bard, in addition to his own stuff,  a dubious assortment of unclaimed freight languishing about in Elizabethan songbooks.  The suggestion that Shakespeare was the author of some or all of the additions to the old text of the Spanish Tragedy found in the 1602 quarto is among the most plausible, and most ably argued; but in my view it is still iffy. 
            Admiration for the Roman writer Seneca accounts for the popular theme of gory revenge on the Elizabethan stage. The Spanish Tragedy is not quite the goriest of such spectacles, but it is right up there.  Hieronimo, Marshal of Spain, plots a grisly revenge for the murder of his son Horatio, which involves the device of a “play within the play,” with a principal villain named Soliman.  In the 1602 quarto Hieronimo’s speeches, and the dreadful pageant of Soliman, are considerably expanded.  In one of the additions, in which Hieronimo madly or ironically suggests that the murder of a man’s son should cause no greater discomfort than the slaughter of a domestic animal, Professor Bruster finds a significant clue:

What is there yet in a sonne,
To make a father dote, raue, or runne  mad?
Being borne, it poutes, cryes, and breeds teeth.
What is there yet in a sonne?  He must be fed,
Be taught to goe, and speake.  I, or yet? [14]
Why not a man loue a Calfe as well?
Or melt in passion ore a frisking Kid,
As for a Sonne?  Methinks a young Bacon
Or a fine little smooth Horse-colt
Should mooue a man, as much as doth a sonne.  [Act 3, sc 11. Lines 10-19]

Bruster is not the first to note the crux in line 14, but he is certainly has an original and engaging theory about it.  It is this: Shakespeare is the writer who supercharged Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, but he had terrible handwriting.  In old manuscripts punctuation is highly arbitrary and often lacking, so that what we are reading on a page is always half the work of a Renaissance printer or a modern editor or both.  What does “I, or yet?” mean—apart from nothing, that is.  According to Bruster “I, or” is probably the printer’s misreading of Shakespeare’s abbreviation (Ier) of the name of Hieronimo, speaker of the lines!

Strange textual accidents do happen.  In Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, the worldly wise Pandarus tries to cheer up the heartbroken Troilus, abandoned by Criseyde.  Women are like the M4 bus, he assures him.  Another one comes by every twelve minutes:

“And ek, as writ Zanzis, that was ful wys.
‘The newe love out chaceth ofte the olde’.”  [4.414/15]

            Trouble is, nobody has ever heard of a wise old writer named “Zanzis”.  The sentiment sounds like Ovid to me, but scholars have found something vaguely like it Seneca, a name Chaucer habitually spells as a disyllable (Senec, Senek).  Now if a copyist didn’t know who Senek was, and if in the original manuscript there was a marginal gloss explaining that he was “L[ucius] Annæus,” and if the L looked very like a Z, then he might have thought the name was Zannæus, or in English Zanzis.  QED.

            My hesitation with this part of Bruster’s argument must be tentative, since so far I know only what I read in the papers.  But I would note that Hieronimo is already thirteen lines into a speech at this point.  Furthermore one doesn’t normally indicate the speaker in the middle of a line.
            How goes King my good lady?
            O! My dear Queen husband!  Passing fair, withal.
Further furthermore if you remove the “I, or” you are left with a seriously infirm seven-syllable line ending with a formal conjunctive adverb.

a young Bacon

           Ashley Thorndyke, editor of the two volumes of The Minor Elizabethan Drama in the Everyman’s Library, accepts the common emendation of reading “Ay, or…” at the end of line 14, thus beginning a new, coherent, and plausible sentence.  The anonymous Bryn Mawr undergraduate of the 1920s (the original owner of my set) wrote thus, in ink, at the top of the Dramatis Personae page of the Kyd drama: “Italicized portions written by Ben Jonson.”  She undoubtedly knew that the Latin word for sun is sol—so that the name of the archvillain in the play within the play (Soliman) might mean sonne-manne.   She had looked carefully at the italicized speeches, especially, perhaps, the following lines:

What is there yet in a sonne? …
Why not a man loue a Calfe as well?
Or melt in passion ore a frisking Kid,
As for a Sonne?  Methinks a young Bacon

 a frisking Kyd

Oh, rare Ben Jonson!  Well done.

 in the poet's corner, Westminster Abbey