February 03, 2010

A Man Named Harris

This one's just too good to let pass.

The late Eric Sams, infamous among Shakespearean authorship scholars for his vitriolic, dogmatic and wild claims that Shakespeare wrote a great many unattributed plays, commits many basic errors in his methodologies. One is that he looks for positive parallels only, without checking against other plays to make sure that the parallel does not apply to other dramatists as well as Shakespeare. So, if Edmond Ironside and Julius Caesar share the phrase "Get out of here" (they don't), you have to make sure that no other plays also have the phrase "Get out of here", otherwise the parallel is meaningless. Basic common sense.

This is Sams in his introduction to "Shakespeare's" Edmond Ironside, justifying his refusal to search for negative evidence:

You have to meet in a crowd a Mr. Harris, hitherto unknown to you, but who, you are informed, has red hair, wears a monocle and walks with a limp. You address with some confidence a stranger possessing these characteristics; and if he responds to the name of Harris, you would accept the identification, without brooding over the fact that there are nearly a thousand Harrises in the London telephone directory alone. (2).

MacDonald P. Jackson, reviewing Sams' book, feels that the defining authorial characteristics of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama are, however, slightly less firm evidence than a limp and a monocle.

Stand Harris beside any man in the street and the pair will turn out to have any of their innumerable characteristics in common, over and above those that declare them to be human: both wear black shoes, are left-handed, have moustaches, carry umbrellas, are six feet tall and answer to 'Hey, you!' We might even reckon probabilities - one in ten men is left-handed, one in eight wears a moustache, and so on - and enlarge the list to the point where multiplying the separate odds would produce a billion-to-one coincidence. Harris must have met his doppelganger! No, the passer-by is a stout Caucasian and Harris is a slim West Indian. The total absence of constraints on our search for resemblances renders the calculations meaningless. (225)

One of the more eloquent cases for the importance of negative checks that I've found.

References:

Jackson, MacDonald P. "Editions and Textual Studies." Shakespeare Survey 40. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. 224-36.

Sams, Eric (ed.). Shakespeare's Lost Play: Edmond Ironside. London: Fourth Estate, 1985.


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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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