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John Arden

The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years, 1564 - 1594 By Eric Sams Yale University Press Pounds 19. 95 0 300 06129 3

John Arden on how Shakespeare started as a playwright.

I am no William Shakespeare, but I have written plays for a living and spent the greater part of my working life at it. In the improbable event of someone in AD 2426 compiling a book called The Real Arden, he or she would discover that my first professionally-performed and published stage-piece appeared when I was a week short of 27 years old.

There might (or might not) be revealed an earlier obscure history of provincial upbringing, education, military service, office work. But the details of this would depend on the survival of buried records and on a few scattered statements of my own in prefaces, odd essays, interviews, letters - which might prove inconsistent as to dates and people's names, so that a sceptical 25th century scholar could well denounce half of them as forgeries. The more so as they would indicate that I had been continuously writing plays from the age of 12 onward. "What and where are the Lost texts of the Missing Years?" - a crucial question, to be snarled over by researchers for ever and a day.

Absurd scenario: but something like it always makes me want to smile when I come across yet another readjustment of WS's life and canon. Eric Sams's readjustment is more convincing than most, because it does take into account the real way in which plays get written. He aims to show that WS began his career as a fully-professional dramatist several years sooner than many other commentators will allow. He makes a point of accepting a number of stories (often dismissed as mere "gossip") about the poet's youth: in particular the deer-stealing legend. He does this very plausibly - until he rashly supports his argument by insisting that Act 1 Scene 1 of The Merry Wives of Windsor refers to Sir Thomas Lucy, the Stratford bigwig. Leslie Hotson, years ago, found a quite different gentleman for the Merry Wives "lousy-lucy' mickey-taking. A pity, then, that the name of Hotson appears nowhere in this book.

Nonetheless, I do feel that the Sams thesis more or less stands up. As follows: WS left home (aged 18 or 19) as soon as (or even before) his first child was born; he attached himself to a London theatre-company as an ostler, and then as a callboyprompter, thereafter elbowing his way onto the boards and into the script-department with arrogant speed. During the next few years he wrote all sorts of "traditional" rough-theatre stuff, neo-moralities, pageant-interludes and so forth; and then . . .

And then we come to the book's not-so-hidden agenda. In 1984 Mr Sams published a clumsy old anonymous play called Edmund lronside, asserting it was very early Shakespeare. Many people scoffed and snorted. I read the script and believed him. He hadn't proved his claim (of its very nature, unprovable); but he did make a most cogent case for it.

Now, if WS wrote Ironside, then WS (rather than Thomas Kyd) was the first to come up with an epic play in blank verse that lubricated the classicality of Inns of Court Seneca with the strong Gothic blood of the Old English popular stage; and Marlowe and Greene and Peele all learned from him, resentfully enough, and tried to copy him (instead of, as often assumed, the other way about). Ironside indeed harks forward in its awkward way to the big Plantagenet cycle and even to King Lear. It is clearly the work of a playwright with a wholly new vision of the potential of the New Drama in its newly permanent playhouses, a vision that the acting companies had hitherto no more than groped at.

But if the Ironside writer was in fact WS, then what else was he working on in the middle and late 1580s? Mr Sams has to show - to fill out his theory - a vigorous body of pioneer material; and he offers a selection of disputed-authorship plays, several of them already known as "anonymous WS sources" (the Ur-Hamlet, for example). I'd accept them all except for The Troublesome Reign of King John: such a nasty lump of anti-papist yobbo-mob vindictiveness that I cannot believe WS, with his deep Catholic background, could have had anything to do with it save to cleanse it and transmute it into his authentic King John.

But whatever the reservations, the book is well worth reading, for it really does set out a common-sense perspective of a stage-struck self-educated young spark ebulliently aware of his own talent and striving every which-way to fulfil it. Not a likeable WS, but a likely one for all that.

How his competitors must have hated him . . .

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