All entries for Tuesday 21 July 2009

July 21, 2009

Not–So–Famous Victories

In what appears to be another case of external evidence being willfully ignored, I've stumbled upon a rather surprising omission in critical writing on The Famous Victories of Henry V. This is the old play upon which Shakespeare (probably) based his Henry IV and Henry V plays.

The first quarto of 1598 states that the play is printed "as it was plaide by thc [sic] Queenes Maiesties Players". This is the company attribution generally accepted for the play. By 1598, of course, the Queen's Men had ceased to exist, but the title-page no doubt acknowledges the play's most famous or long-standing attachment.

The second quarto of 1617, however, claims it is "As it was acted by the Kinges Maiesties Seruants". The immediate implication of this evidence, then, is that the play later found its way into the repertory of Shakespeare's company, being performed by them. The Second Quarto is regarded as having some authority, making occasional corrections - it is not a 'pirate' text.

So far, so straightforward. However, the evidence of the later quarto is ignored in every discussion I've so far read of both play and King's Men's repertory. Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge completely ignore it in their Revels Companion volume The Oldcastle Controversy. Andrew Gurr meanwhile, in his The Shakespeare Company, 1594-1642, suggests that the play may have come into the Chamberlain's Men's repertory, but his suggestion is presented as a pure conjecture, failing to note the support that the title-page offers and omitting it from his survey of surviving company play-texts.

The most puzzling response, though, is that of Roslyn Knutson in The Repertory of Shakespeare's Company, 1594-1613, who acknowledges but categorically dismisses the information. I quote her in full:

I accept the claims of ownership by the Chamberlain's and King's men on title-pages of quartos except in the cases of The Famous Victories of Henry V and Alphonsus Emperor of Germany. On the title-page of the first quarto (1598) The Famous Victories of Henry V is attributed to the Queen's men. That claim is probably right. There is no evidence to suggest the migration of the playbook to Shakespeare's company by 1617, at which time it was published with an attribution on the title-page of the quarto to the King's Men (212).

The poor logic of this is hopefully immediately apparent. What Knutson actually means is that there is no additional evidence for the attribution: but the title-page of a quarto is, in itself, a substantive testimony that does not necessarily need extra support. Several plays are attributed unquestionably to companies purely on title-page evidence: Knutson herself gives Mucedorus, The Yorkshire Tragedy, The London Prodigal, A Warning for Fair Women and Sejanus to the Chamberlain's/King's Men on no greater grounds.

Furthermore, it is not as if the evidence of the two quartos is contradictory. By 1595 the Queen's Men had ceased to exist, and their repertory was divided up. In point of fact, I can think of no good reason to assume that the play did not go to the Chamberlain's Men: after all, if Shakespeare was to use the play as a primary source for his second tetralogy in 1597-9, surely it makes sense to imagine him having a copy of the playbook to hand.

So, why is the evidence of Q2 ignored in accounts of the King's Men's repertory, and of the play? There appears to, at some point, have entered into critical consciousness a conviction that the information of the quarto is simply wrong, and unworthy of discussion. This is bad practice: as Sam Schoenbaum has told us, "External evidence cannot be ignored, no matter how inconvenient" (Internal Evidence and Elizabethan Dramatic Authorship, 163).

The other reason that springs to mind for the ignoring of the information is the assumption that the play would not have been performed by the King's Men once they had Shakespeare's versions to draw on. This is a good argument, albeit one that needs to be articulated rather than just assumed. However, this does not mean that the play had no role in the repertory. I see two possible alternatives here:

  • 1. The play was popular, and may well have been performed regularly by the Chamberlain's Men for the first few years of their existence, before being replaced by Shakespeare's plays on the same matter. The attribution to the King's men on the 1617 title-page would then simply reflect the current title of the company that had most recently performed it.
  • 2. Is it actually justifiable to assume that it was replaced by Shakespeare's plays? Famous Victories is a play with its own intrinsic merits. Firstly, it allows for the whole story of Hal to be told in a single sitting: may the company have kept this 'abridged' version handy? It's also a highly comic play, with strong clown roles, and thus could have been considered sufficiently entertaining to maintain a place in the repertory.

Some of this is just conjecture, but is designed to demonstrate that the information on the Q2 title-page cannot simply be ignored. My personal suspicion is that the evidence is, indeed, good: that the popular old play came into the repertory of the Chamberlain's Men in 1594, that it was played regularly until the debut of Shakespeare's Hal plays, and that the play was later republished some years after it had used up its stage capital.


I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.

Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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