Introducing​ his text of Hamlet in The Riverside Shakespeare, Frank Kermode calls it ‘the first great tragedy Europe had produced for two thousand years’, and adds, as if conceding to the long academic stress on its highly ‘problematic’ character: ‘how Shakespeare came to write it is, of course, a mystery on which it is useless to speculate.’ As a statement of the autonomy of great works this is surely true. But links between early and later writing by an artist may be allowed to illuminate both. There is one very early and imperfect play by Shakespeare which may throw surprising light on the absolutely achieved and mature Hamlet, not as a source, but as in itself powered by a conception important to Shakespeare and affecting at least the first half of his work, up into Hamlet.

Hamlet opens with nine words, or three lines, whose oddness is rarely explained. With the words ‘Who’s there?’ the new watchman, Bernardo, enters to begin his midnight duty. But why is he the one doing the asking? He should have identified himself to his colleague Francisco, the preceding guard, who is still on watch. Understandably, Francisco barks a challenge back: ‘Nay, answer me; stand, and unfold yourself.’ Bernardo responds, ‘Long live the king!’, which is presumably a watchword acceptable to Francisco. But the whole tragedy that follows – and the Ghost, who enters the play and the stage within forty lines – proves this password to be dangerous, or at least ironical. The dead King Hamlet will soon narrate that he has been killed by his brother, Claudius, king at the play’s opening, and that this brother needs to be killed in revenge by the Ghost’s son, Prince Hamlet (who as his revenger and successor will probably himself be killed in the process). The tragedy’s monarchical laws and customs – however faithful those involved believe themselves to be – are now impossible, given the nature of society and its constituent and fallen human beings.

This sense of impossibility is also discoverable in Shakespeare’s very early work. Scholars have suggested that his first play was The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which may well be right. But he tended to back his horses both ways. He perhaps gave this unpretentious first comedy a far more ambitious partner. Henry VI Part I is now judged to be so packed with uncertainties and difficulties of authorship, dating and text, style and subject, that one hardly dares to call it Shakespeare’s first history play. If it is, it raises a question so radical, and so interesting in its answer, as to demand to be settled before any lesser and incidental issues are taken on. That question is: how could Shakespeare begin what he may very well have envisaged as a sequence, an ambitious three or four-part series drawn from English history, with Henry VI? (Until fairly recently, of course, English or British history, especially in its literary/dramatic forms, has been a story of kings.)

With the exception of King John and Henry VIII, Shakespeare’s English history plays have survived not as one series but two. The first works its way from Henry VI to Richard III. The second turns back into the past to cover the prequel reigns from Richard II to Henry V. It is hard to imagine any other inexperienced and late-beginning writer not starting from Richard II, and keeping to a straightforward chronology. Of course such thinking may proceed from a too knowingly modern, too retrospective stance. The twisted chronology we have makes the histories begin with Henry VI and end with his father, Henry V: this provides a pleasant climax, with the triumphant young monarch who brought his country great rewards in French lands. But the contorted sequence also says that those lands have already been lost by his weak son, Henry VI. This is a climax with its own inherent irony of history in it.

There would have been other reasons for a dramatist to begin with Richard II. To write on the recent past, from Henry VI to the arrival in power of Shakespeare’s own queen’s grandfather, Henry VII, would be more likely to encourage the attention of the Tudor censors. A clear run from Richard would also communicate a stronger sense of intention and success, the feel of the bestseller. Again, and perhaps most important, Richard himself would have given a beginner more purchase. He had or could be given a more vivid presence, with more angles to it – as is evidenced by Shakespeare’s eventual drama, clear and coherent with its all-verse unity, compared to the sense of confusion and formless, anonymous bustle that many have found in Henry VI Part I.

Henry has nothing like the superb theatrical rhetoric, in both word and action, that accompanies Richard. There was for Shakespeare, as there still is now, little to say about Henry. Not without decency and piety and love of learning, he was a weak man, liable to breakdowns, even insanity. His inability to manage the life of power made his reign one of civil wars in England. But now as then, brief biographical accounts give Henry one simple claim to fame. He was the youngest king ever to have worn the crown of England. He inherited it at nine months old, Henry V having died while at war in France. This fact is underlined by Shakespeare in the grand royal funeral for Henry V with which Henry VI Part I opens. The funeral gives some sense (not unlike the presence of the ghostly King Hamlet) of the way a great dead king might overpower or menace a child descendant. And indeed Henry is not even on stage until Act III, and then is prone to speak of his tender years. Shakespeare’s first history play keeps Henry not merely neurotic for life, but childish, unable to move fully into adulthood. He is dutiful, yet detests the role of king.

Henry has often been set beside Hamlet, with the two described as melancholy young men. This may be a mistake about both: ‘melancholy’ is too weak a word. Auden coined a haunting phrase, ‘they were their situation,’ which is both more accurate and more powerful. Henry interested Shakespeare, alerted his attention, for reasons beyond the psychological, profoundly relevant to a dramatist: Henry ‘was his situation’. He was a king and no king, a man crushed by his helpless entry into a life of power alien to him.

The moment in the Henry VI sequence now most appreciated occurs in Henry VI Part III, when Henry articulates in a long and fine soliloquy his need not to be king, but a ‘homely swain’, a shepherd, free to inhabit in peace a natural world with meaning and order in it – a version of pastoral. That this is not mere evasion but a possible form of rectitude is suggested by the entry of two half-symbolic figures embodying civil war, a ‘son that hath kill’d his father’ and then a ‘father that hath kill’d his son’, both of them dragging or carrying their victims, and speaking with pain and grief. There is a moment’s contact here with a dramatic form that had a huge presence on the Elizabethan stage, the revenge play. Its morality was focused on a principle of honour essentially based on court codes. The revenge play can now seem a savage, sterile and mechanical structure, but it provided at the time a plot to rely on, its laws felt to be dependable. For a moment in this scene we can see, behind the infant Henry, the father whose triumph in war killed him, leaving a son unequipped for war and rule – a son who came eventually and without motive to a kind of revenge on his father, by losing all the military gains owed to him. A decade later, in Shakespeare’s first great tragedy, father kills son and son kills father. We think of Hamlet Senior as the good king. But the old warrior, driven in both war and domestic life to principled rage, comes back as a ghost to order his trapped son, one ‘bound to hear’, to kill his second father, the more ignoble and political Claudius. When put into action, that order kills the son himself, together with most of the court.

The issues here go beyond melancholy. They approach the moral and the philosophical. Indeed, Shakespeare may have recalled something from the work of Seneca, who produced philosophical essays as well as revenge plays (and the essays are likely to have been studied in schools). In one of them he argued that all human beings are at birth like men in an acting company, who must accept the roles assigned to them, not quarrel for better. This is what Henry does and Hamlet tries to do, neither with a very hopeful outcome.

I questioned the term ‘melancholy’ being used for Hamlet as well as Henry. There is good evidence for this doubt in the prince’s first soliloquy, ‘O that this too too solid flesh would melt’. This is a passage important in recording Hamlet’s take on life even before he grapples with the Ghost. Many modern texts, including the Riverside, emend it, changing ‘solid’ to ‘sallied’ or ‘sullied’. But Shakespeare meant ‘solid’, and the angularity of the word hints at its importance. The meaning mattered, but was far from easy to articulate. It implies that human beings should live well and honourably, accepting their place in history – a history that is a given, in existence both before and after the individual, and in that sense terribly ‘solid’. But to act this out can be desperately difficult, even impossible, given a world in which an infant is called to the throne without having the power to stand or speak (the Latin word infans means ‘unable to speak’), unable to take his part on stage. For this reason, a later Henry – Henry Bolingbroke (earlier in history, later in Shakespeare’s history) – found that to read the Book of History was to die a little. And, later again, King Lear warned that the newborn child, smelling the air, will ‘wawl and cry’. The one word ‘smelling’ speaks for the solidity of being, of being in history.

It may be that this is making too much of a single fact, that Henry was king at nine months old. But Shakespeare made him, out of a creative compassion, a man who tried to be obedient while always hating his birth. He is seen as living out a kind of dutiful intransigence towards history. Elizabethan culture in general could be said to approximate to the contemporary culture of the US in its stress on success, on willpower, on ambition. It found a place, as contemporary Europe is beginning to do, for the belief that (God willing, of course), we can have whatever we want if we work hard enough for it. Henry stands out as the king who didn’t want, but had to have.

Henry is not the only figure in early Shakespeare who embodies this marked intransigence. I have already mentioned the work that may be a kind of twin to Henry VI Part I, The Two Gentlemen of Verona. If this comedy still earns a not unaffectionate reception, the reason is probably Crab, the unimprovably, incurably badly behaved dog loved and suffered for by the Fool, Launce. Crab is so effective because he innocently works as a stand-in for all life’s unreciprocating love objects. Played by any available actor’s dog, he barks, fights, pees his way happily through the play, recalcitrant to the end.

There is a third example of these remarkable early originals. At the beginning of the Sonnets, Shakespeare represents himself as trying to persuade an aristocratic young man (an earl, let us say, though one who looks not unlike the poet) to do his duty to his rank and his society, as Erasmus taught, by marrying and breeding a son. The earl is not willing. Some stress laid by Shakespeare on ‘thine own bright eyes’ suggests that the young man wants to be left alone to look, to read, to pursue an art or to study. (It may be worth remembering that Hamlet, too, writes not very good little poems, wants the players to let him contribute to their play, and reads the books he carries.)

The aristocrat who wants to be an artist, the king who longs to be a shepherd and the dog who insists on being a dog: these three memorable creations cluster at the start of Shakespeare’s career, and a glimpse can be caught of them at a number of later points. Falstaff, for instance, could be called a combination of all three. But it seems to make sense to allow the most fully realised of these three, Henry, to have left the original spark that will illuminate Hamlet.

The two men are of course immeasurably different. Henry is so slight and simple a character, Hamlet so much more complex, more authoritative, gifted and intelligent. But there are connections worth mentioning because they sometimes come, in their apparent inadvertence, to be problems. Where Henry aches for pastoral peace and harmony, Hamlet is given an academic Wittenberg he wants to return to, but (in humiliating contrast to Laertes, who races off to Paris) he is forbidden to leave the court by his second ‘father’; Hamlet’s only close friend, Horatio, rather vaguely derives from Wittenberg too. Henry’s helplessly belated arrival on the throne and into the play is remembered in Hamlet’s non-appearance in the long first great scene of the tragedy, with its reaches of near and far history; and then in his upstaged and marginal tacit presence in the court scene, and finally in his costive wit of wordplay at the end of it.

But these half-memories are balanced by differences so obvious as to argue something. Henry’s innocence, even sometimes childishness, is a neurotic inhibition imposed (as it perhaps seemed to Shakespeare) by a nightmare childhood. Hamlet, by contrast, changes in the course of the play, most evidently in its last movement, where – coming back to a court that seems long left behind – he appears tougher, harder, older. Hence the moment in the graveyard, found problematic by many critics, when a prince who began the play in late boyhood is given an age of thirty years by the Gravedigger – the age at which an Elizabethan male was reckoned to have arrived at full political maturity. In what may be a sign of the difference between history and tragedy, Henry drifts out of an action that he could never properly command. Hamlet achieves manhood, even if with a coarser, colder and more withdrawn self; he becomes what Henry James called ‘finely aware and richly responsible’, as a literary hero for James preferably should be. This is beyond Henry’s ken. It may also be a sign of the tragedy’s formidable solidity, a statement about the cost of living for human beings flung at birth into history.

It would be a waste of time​ to go on listing similarities and differences between the two plays. But there is one issue that demands to be noted. The excellent Arden 2 edition of Hamlet gives full treatment of the play’s problems, in particular the ‘problem of problems’: that of Hamlet’s ‘delay’ in avenging his father. This helps pinpoint the most important of all the differences between Henry VI Part I and Hamlet. As Kermode implied, with his ‘of course a mystery’, a work of art is what it is, even more than what it says. The only real way of seeing how Hamlet differs from Henry is to perceive the great difference in the plays that hold them, a mature tragedy and an early history.

Drama is an art that moves in time – sometimes in lifetimes. Othello is much mentioned as having a ‘double time scheme’. But in fact every work by Shakespeare has its own time scheme, part of its own expressive dramaturgy. With all respect to the Arden editors, Hamlet is not the problem here (as Gertrude Stein might say, it is the solution). The problem lies in our use of the word ‘delay’, which means a provoked or motivated lateness in time, a failure in punctuality. And to have that, there must be a time conceived and agreed on by all as directed towards action. On this matter, Hamlet has its own rules.

Throughout the tragedy, and especially in its first half, there are indications that Hamlet, who reads books and remembers them, is (or hopes to be) an artist by temperament and even by calling. (Colby in T.S. Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk believes it may be possible to be ‘called’ to be a bad organist.) At the beginning of the play Hamlet is still too young for the question of success or failure to be of material importance to him; later, he clearly reads and writes less. As one who perhaps wishes to be, and even thinks of himself as, an artist, he can be felt to live in what approximates to a different time scheme from most of the other characters (and Ophelia even corrects him on his calendar and clock). Time is a difficult subject, and given that Hamlet had an enormous influence on 19th and early 20th-century literature, I want to quote briefly from a novel that could almost be a brilliant rewriting of Hamlet, James’s The Tragic Muse (even its title is worth thinking about).

Its hero, Nick, wants to spend his life painting portraits, and plainly has at least minor gifts in that line. But his father was an important politician, and his family are deeply opposed. This is most loudly voiced by Nick’s patron or quasi-godfather, Mr Carteret, a passionate amateur politician (who ends by disinheriting Nick): ‘He talked for ten minutes, in his rich, simple, urbane way about the fatal consequences of getting behind. It was his favourite doctrine that one should always be a little before.’ What is meant by being ‘a little before’ is, in the terms of the novel, to foresee and arrange a use for other human beings. In Hamlet, it is the power-politicians who seek and plan to be ‘a little before’. James elsewhere condemns those semi-political persons who instead of observing or feeling for others lead ‘their hard functional lives’ – a phrase that describes with precision the style of Claudius’s opening address to his court in the play’s second scene. Hamlet is always ‘getting behind’ (as an artist perhaps, is behind his easel). At II.ii Polonius throws out a sentence, flatly enough: ‘You know sometimes he walks four hours together/Here in the lobby.’ For some reason this remark focuses for me not merely the extreme sense of tedium that can hit reflective teenagers, but an artist’s meaningless motionless movement in the eyes of the power-politician – life as a long walk in the lobby.

A number of plays in Shakespeare’s middle period seem to share this interest in the movement of time, particularly Henry IV Part II and Troilus and Cressida. A long poetic exploration of the rhythms of life, of the whole human sense of time, may have been initiated by Shakespeare’s encounter with, or interpretation of, that pathetic late-medieval king, Henry – his life stopped by an impossible childhood, so that he could not fully live, or dared not live on his own terms. The infinitely richer and more vivid Hamlet has by comparison become an artist in aspiration, who reveals through the play that there is, after all, more than one kind of living – though all of them, of course, do entail dying.

Hamlet seems, in the first movement of the play, peculiarly alive, but in the political sense incapable of action, because reflection and contemplation are to the politician not at all the same as action. Therefore he is led by his context to accuse himself of delay. In this he is in one sense right, but any audience may be lucky enough to know that the term ‘action’ fails to include some of the best things in life. An awareness of this fact is brought home by watching Shakespeare create the dramaturgy of what might be called the context of the context, the play itself. At certain intense moments, time stands still, and being displaces doing. In this sense, Hamlet delays, and never at a moment when his behaviour can be called faultless.

We know of his attempt to communicate with Ophelia only from her own narrative to Polonius, and it is bound to seem pointless except insofar as it is treacherous. Hamlet features in her account as speechless, useless (‘He falls to such perusal of my face/As ’a would draw it’). The same effect comes from Gertrude’s account of Ophelia’s death, witnessed (or it could not be told) and yet solitary, with no one to help – ‘her death was doubtful.’ Like the image of Hamlet walking four hours in the lobby, the effect is dreamlike, poetic, overheard. Revenge itself becomes an idea (as indeed it is – the dead never revenge themselves): revenge is a still of Hamlet hovering behind Claudius, who is praying and not praying, just as Hamlet is revenging and not revenging.

Packed as it is with incident and character, spawning new characters as the play moves on, Hamlet is a work that can affect the mind as nonetheless always travelling into solitude and stillness. This must owe something to its wholly individual stylistic brilliance. Its soliloquies stand outside of, and seem to stop, time; its perpetual wordplays and double meanings insist on slowing down and reflection. All this may still have something to do with the early king who is no king: Henry, a royal figure who remains a boy. But to believe that something of Hamlet begins with Henry is to raise a further question. If Shakespeare could be said to have created Hamlet because of Henry, then we have to explain his extraordinary use of a somewhat characterless king in his first history play.

The answer must of course be a guess, and a biographical one. There was a period when scholarship gave a good deal of thought to what became of Shakespeare during what were known as ‘the lost years’: the time between the public record of the birth and baptism of his twins in 1585, and Robert Greene’s published attack on him (which shows that Shakespeare was finding theatrical success) in 1592. E.A.J. Honigmann suggested that Shakespeare went north to join a household affiliated as he was to Roman Catholicism. This strikes me as too romantic and chancy for the businessman’s son who became Shakespeare. Something smaller, more private and more commonplace appears more likely: that the literary son was ‘at home, my lord’.

When John Shakespeare sank into mental or physical ill-health, or both, it is hard to believe that the family would not have called on their extremely clever eldest son to take over the family business. He was, like Hamlet, ‘bound to hear’, and surely forced to agree, from good sense as well as duty. After some four or five years, reluctance would have deepened into desperation. Given an offer from a needy travelling theatre company, he must have longed for London. It is possible to imagine the family coming to an agreement: if William could earn more there over, say, one year then he could stay in the London theatre; if not, he would return.

It has become slightly fashionable now, in the name of feminism, to criticise the now less young writer who left home on this basis. But it is hardly unnatural to prefer the image of a man who went to London and produced Hamlet to that of a man who never made it, leaving Henry VI Part I and The Two Gentlemen of Verona unpublished and unacted and all the rest unwritten. His thoughts would have been close to those of Keats, who as he was dying at the age of 27 wrote in a letter: ‘I would mention that there are impossibilities in the world.’ Shakespeare didn’t have to write a letter like that. Instead of having to live out the life of impossibilities, he felt it, and wrote it, and gave it to history. And he came home (we guess) some of the time.

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Vol. 46 No. 5 · 7 March 2024

I enjoyed Barbara Everett’s essay ‘Henry and Hamlet’, but was disturbed by her dismissal of ‘lesser and incidental issues’ concerning Henry VI Part 1, such as ‘authorship, dating and text, style and subject’ (LRB, 22 February). She describes it as ‘Shakespeare’s first history play’, beginning ‘a sequence’ of three or four plays. But no dramatist in the 1590s ever conceived of a trilogy; Marlowe’s Tamburlaine only went into a second part because of its unexpected success. Nor was Henry VI Part 1 Shakespeare’s first history play. That credit goes to his pioneering two-part work dramatising the ‘Wars of the Roses’, performed in 1591, which the Folio editors confusingly presented as Henry VI Part 2 and Part 3. Part 1 was in fact written a year later, and there is good evidence that it started life as a play performed by Lord Strange’s Men at Philip Henslowe’s recently enlarged Rose Theatre in March 1592, with the snappy title harey the vi. Although designed to cash in on the success of Shakespeare’s two-parter, the authors of that play were little concerned with the young king, who is ‘not even on stage until Act III’, as Everett notes, and speaks just 178 lines. The major character, not mentioned by Everett, is the heroic soldier John Talbot, who speaks 410 lines and dominates 16 of the 28 scenes. Talbot, not mentioned in any other Elizabethan play, was an ancestor of Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, whose company performed harey the vi. It is generally agreed that Thomas Nashe, with his distinctive style, wrote Act 1 of the original play, and I have identified Thomas Kyd as author of the remainder. Kyd had long been in Strange’s employ, and Nashe had recently enjoyed his patronage. Their loyal celebration of Talbot’s ‘rare success in arms’ culminated in a ten-line recital of his titles, copied from an epitaph, for which Shakespeare need no longer be blamed. (And it was Kyd who dramatised the degraded Joan of Arc portrayed by the Tudor historians.)

We might now be asking in what sense can this be called a Shakespeare play? The theatre companies again hold the clue. When their patron died in 1593, Strange’s Men disbanded, their playbooks being divided between the Admiral’s Men and the Chamberlain’s, Shakespeare’s company, which received harey the vi. A few years later Shakespeare revised it by adding three memorable scenes, two of them military. The third presents a quarrel between Yorkist and Lancastrian lawyers in the Temple Garden, in which each group plucks either a white or a red rose. The scene has no basis in history, but we can see Shakespeare retrospectively dramatising the beginning of the war that had filled his two-part play. His additions turned Henry VI Part 1 into a stand-alone play by three authors, written later, but serving as a prequel to Shakespeare’s two-part play. Nashe, Kyd and Shakespeare had distinct styles that can be easily recognised, and if verbal analysis is united with theatrical history Everett’s sense of it being ‘packed with uncertainties’ can be cleared up. At least, I hope so.

Brian Vickers
London NW6

Vol. 46 No. 6 · 21 March 2024

I am glad Brian Vickers enjoyed my essay ‘Henry and Hamlet’ (Letters, 7 March). The scholarly points he makes constitute a lucid and patient effort to straighten out the essentially hypothetical and peculiarly contentious context of Shakespeare’s early histories. Since I am not everywhere in agreement with his summary, it is fortunate that these arguments are less a direct response than a valuable addition to my own more critical or literary suggestion: that whichever of the play’s three parts came first, we need to explain why Shakespeare was so interested in Henry VI, this insubstantial late medieval monarch, in order to illuminate some of his later, greater writing.

Barbara Everett

Vol. 46 No. 7 · 4 April 2024

‘We need to explain why Shakespeare was so interested in Henry VI, this insubstantial late medieval monarch,’ Barbara Everett writes (Letters, 21 March). One answer would be theatrical rivalry. As Ros Knutson showed in The Repertory of Shakespeare’s Company, 1594-1613 (1991), between 1590 and 1594 there was a healthy rivalry between the London companies for plays about the Wars of the Roses. The Queen’s men, Strange’s, Pembroke’s and Sussex’s men each had their own contenders. Shakespeare wrote Henry VI Part 2 and Part 3 for Pembroke’s men. Scholars have long argued that the play Henslowe called harey the vi, acted by Strange’s men on 3 March 1592, was an attempt to cash in on that vogue, and that it represents an early version of Henry VI Part 1, revised by Shakespeare at some point after 1594.

As for the question ‘Which came first?’, Penny McCarthy is disturbed that I ‘assert’ that Part 1 was written a year later than the other two parts, as if I were making some new claim. It was first made many years ago by several major scholars (E.K. Chambers, John Dover Wilson, W.W. Greg), and has recently been endorsed by Martin Wiggins in British Drama 1533-1642: A Catalogue. The evidence is partly biographical, but nonetheless valid. We know that the second and third parts were in existence by the summer of 1592, if not earlier, because a pamphlet written by Robert Greene just before his death on 3 September included a mocking misquotation from Part 3. If Shakespeare had written Part 1 by 3 March, he could hardly have written Parts 2 and 3 in time for them to be acted and known by 3 September, not least because the theatres were closed owing to the plague between 23 June and Michaelmas. In addition to this external evidence, Part 1 reveals knowledge of characters and events from Parts 2 and 3, but they are ignorant of Part 1. To give one example, Talbot, the hero of Part 1, is never mentioned there, not even in a list of those who had shed their blood in France.

In my letter of 7 March I described Henry VI Part 1 as a stand-alone play by three authors, Nashe, Kyd and Shakespeare, whose contributions can be differentiated by verbal analysis. McCarthy disputes the value of ‘stylistics’ in authorship studies and queries ‘the reliability of the database’ that I have used. I have not been using stylistics, but a method that has long shown its value in identifying authors, their tendency to repeat distinctive phrases. All language users have their preferred phrases, linguistic ‘chunks’ that are repeated more frequently than individual words. Early modern dramatists, working for theatrical companies in a highly competitive environment, might be involved, singly or jointly, in writing several plays during the short performing season, and inevitably repeated themselves. This has been known since the 1880s, but scholars limited to reading and noting could never be sure that their figures were accurate.

Brian Vickers
London NW6

Vol. 46 No. 10 · 23 May 2024

In her call for scepticism with regard to the date of composition of early modern plays, Penny McCarthy claims that ‘we only ever have a terminus ad quem for any play – a “date by which” it must have existed’ (Letters, 21 March). We often also have a terminus a quo, a date before which it cannot have existed. The play Arden of Faversham, to which many experts think Shakespeare contributed at least one scene, obviously cannot have been written before the real-life murder of Master Arden that it depicts. If, as almost everyone agrees, the Earl of Essex is the ‘General … from Ireland coming,/Bringing rebellion broached on his sword’ mentioned in Shakespeare’s Henry V, this allusion cannot precede the planning of Essex’s expedition in 1598. Wherever we are sure that a play alludes to a historical event – there are many examples – that event gives us a terminus a quo for the play’s composition. And when the terminus a quo and terminus ad quem are close to each other, we can indeed begin to do what McCarthy thinks we should avoid and ‘pinpoint a date of composition’.

Gabriel Egan
De Montfort University, Leicester

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