‘The heavens are just’: Brian Vickers on Thomas Kyd and The True Chronicle History of King Leir.

May 18, 2015


by Darren Freebury-Jones

On Saturday 16th May I had the pleasure of attending a reading of the anonymous play The True Chronicle History of King Leir, in the Chapel at Somerville College, Oxford. It was a delight to see this old play come to life. The great Richard Proudfoot made for a superb Leir, and the bawdy character of Mumford simply stole the show. It was clear to the audience that, in performance, this is a very funny play, but it also has some poignant passages, such as Leir’s reunion with his daughter Cordella (although this ‘loving controversy’ is punctured by comedy). There are also some ludicrous moments that simply do not appeal to modern sensibilities, such as Perillus’ offering the King his blood as sustenance, to which Leir cries: ‘I am no cannibal’!

Much of the talk afterwards, during the symposium, revolved around how this somewhat archaic play influenced Shakespeare. Tiffany Stern argued that Shakespeare adapted/adopted some of the sentiments of the old play when he wrote his masterpiece, King Lear, but replicated little in the way of verbal details. There were also arguments that the nature of the few phrases replicated in King Lear suggests Shakespeare was recalling passages from the play; he did not have a copy to hand. I agree. I dare say he had acted in King Leir. His early plays in particular show a remarkable affinity, as has long been recorded by Thomas H. McNeal.[1]

Martin Mueller has created a database consisting of 548 plays dated between 1552 and 1662 (‘Shakespeare His Contemporaries’), which lists n-grams of four or more words that occur in only two plays within this corpus. Mueller notes that ‘If we look more closely at shared dislegomena by same-author play pairs, we discover that on average plays by the same author share five dislegomena, and the median is four. Roughly speaking, plays by the same author are likely to share twice as many dislegomena as plays by different authors’.[2] So it is somewhat striking that Leir shares 10 n-grams with Henry VI Part Three; 8 with Richard III; 8 with King John; 8 with Henry IV Part One and 7 with Much Ado About Nothing. Shakespeare seems to have had a much more intimate knowledge of the play than was articulated at the symposium. One wonders just how easy it might be for a misguided attribution scholar to assign parts of this old play to Shakespeare himself, on the basis of his exceptional familiarity with the play’s verbal details. If Shakespeare did not have a copy of the play to hand, it says something for his capacious memory. It is a pity that, as Ann Thompson has noted, scholars ‘often seem reluctant to accuse’ Shakespeare ‘of being the borrower but prefer to assume that the other dramatist borrowed from him’.[3] Given that Martin Wiggins (surely one of the most brilliant academics on the planet; it was a real pleasure to be in his company at the event) dates the play around 1589, we can be confident that this proliferation of unique matches is the result of Shakespeare’s borrowing.

I myself have had a fairly intimate relationship with this text in the last few years. I must have read it at least a dozen times; thrice in the week running up to the symposium. I have analysed both rare and common word sequences; synonym preferences; feminine endings; pause patterns; dissyllabic suffixes; rhyme schemes; dramaturgy; characterisation etc. and I know that Martin Mueller has applied Discriminant Analysis to the play with some very interesting results. I shan’t present my data until the allotted time (I shall be giving a preliminary account of my findings regards the authorship of King Leir at Cardiff University in July, for the conference Magic and the Supernatural in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods), but needless to say I found Brian Vickers’ talk on the authorship question very interesting. He lists 96 unique collocations shared between the play and Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. I am most interested in verbal parallels as a means of learning about an author’s individual thought processes and his verse formation. Quantitative arguments can be tricky. For example, having analysed Shakespeare’s early plays in comparison to Kyd’s accepted plays, I have compiled quantitative data that, at times, makes Shakespeare look more Kydian than Kyd himself! A quick look at Mueller’s spreadsheet (I have replicated some of his results in a table below) will tell you that Shakespeare was still borrowing from Kyd right up until the end of his career, irrespective of genre. I would contend that more research needs to be done concerning the relationship between Kyd and Shakespeare’s drama. As Lukas Erne puts it, ‘More than anyone else, Kyd appears to have paved the way for Shakespeare’s dramaturgy’.[4]

A real strength in Vickers’ employment of anti-plagiarism software is that it often picks up sequences one would not even consider. These low-level formations constitute what we might call an author’s idiolect. MacDonald P. Jackson prefers to give all candidates an equal chance, and this is certainly a sensible/fair notion, but he uses ‘Literature Online’ to check the rarity of self-determined utterances.[5] For my own methodology, I utilise the software program ‘Info Rapid Search and Replace’[6] to check matches – highlighted by ‘WCopyfind’[7] – against a corpus of 134 plays first performed in London between the decades 1580-1600 (these are old spelling versions of the texts drawn from ‘ProQuest’). I double-check the rarity of these matches using ‘LION’,[8] and then triple-check results using the database ‘Early English Books Online’, or ‘EEBO’,[9] for variant spellings. In this respect I have attempted to consolidate the approaches of eminent attribution scholars such as Vickers and Jackson towards verbal parallels. I have long found the sole use of ‘LION’ to be quite inadequate for ensuring that every instance of a distinct parallel is recorded…

The cumulative evidence Vickers provided for Kyd’s authorship was impressive. Many of the points raised afterwards concerned verbal parallels, but Vickers also cited evidence drawn from the likes of Ants Oras, Philip Timberlake and James E. Routh Jr. It would perhaps be helpful if someone could also apply function-words and lexical-words tests to the play. However, there has been much misuse of computational stylistics in early modern authorship attribution studies of late. Unfortunately, certain judgements, reached with the aid of small sample sizes, without acknowledgement of inherent subjectivity, have been treated as gospel. But a proper review of these findings is forthcoming.

In summary, it was a great day, and Vickers’ talk, chaired by Wiggins, who offered some excellent points, was enlightening. It seems to me that Vickers’ Kyd ascriptions have been largely dismissed, before his evidence has been properly elaborated. One is reminded of reactions to E.H.C. Oliphant’s Middleton attribution. There are, however, reasons to suspect that antagonism towards Vickers’ methodology and results is largely on the basis of personal antagonism towards Vickers himself, and his previous scholarly critiques of other methodologies and results. The proper course would be to listen to all the evidence presented by the scholars in question (who each have their strengths and weaknesses), and then make an objective evaluation. The boundaries of early modern dramatists’ canons seem to be fluctuating, but one hopes that editors will pause before hastening to add plays to modern anthologies, when all the relevant data has yet to be presented. I shall say no more, for fear my words are carried with the wind and conveyed amongst unfriendly ears. Needless to say, just as in both Leir and Lear plays, there is a storm brewing in attribution studies. It is, alas, unlikely that those involved will forget old quarrels…

Relationship between Shakespeare plays and plays Brian Vickers attributes to Thomas Kyd, according to ‘Shakespeare His Contemporaries’. These are the totals for unique tetragrams (four-word sequences and/or more) shared between electronic texts, within a corpus of 548 plays:

Spanish Tragedy Soliman King Leir Arden
Richard III 7 9 8 8
Verona 7 7
3HVI 10 9 10
Titus 7
1HIV 8
King John 8
Much Ado 7
Merchant 7
Troilus 7
Cymbeline 7
Henry VIII 7

[1] Thomas H. McNeal, ‘Margaret of Anjou: Romantic Princess and Troubled Queen’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 9 (1958), 1-10.

[2] https://scalablereading.northwestern.edu/category/shakespeare-his-contemporaries/

[3] Ann Thompson, ‘The Taming of the Shrew and The Spanish Tragedy’, Notes and Queries, 31 (1984), 182-84 (p.182).

[4] Lukas Erne, Beyond the Spanish Tragedy: A Study of the Works of Thomas Kyd (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), p.4.

[5] MacDonald P. Jackson, Determining the Shakespeare Canon: Arden of Faversham and A Lover’s Complaint (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[6]  http://www.inforapid.de/html/searchreplace.htm

[7] http://plagiarism.bloomfieldmedia.com/z-wordpress/software/wcopyfind

[8] http://lion.chadwyck.co.uk

[9] http://eebo.chadwyck.com/home


MEMORI – Dr Mary Morrissey (Reading) this evening

April 23, 2015


The next MEMORI research seminar takes place tomorrow at 5.15 in room 2.48.

Dr Mary Morrissey (Reading) will be speaking on ‘Conversion and Reformation Polemic in John Donne’s Sermons’.

Mary’s research focuses on Reformation literature – particularly that emerging from London. Her 2011 monograph, Politics and the Paul’s Cross sermons, 1558-1642 (OUP), is a detailed study of England’s most important pulpit of the Reformation period, analyzing the rhetorical and interpretative strategies used by preachers on politically sensitive subjects and occasions. Mary also retains an interest in early modern women writers, with a particular focus on women writers’ use of theological arguments.



CFP: Magic and the Supernatural in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods

April 10, 2015

Cardiff University Postgraduate Conference, July 21st 2015

An understanding of magic and the supernatural is crucial to the study of the medieval and early modern periods. Magic was a part of everyday life, ingrained into the cultural world view and popular imagination. It was also elusive, encompassing a plurality of meanings and forms that permeated every level of society and resulted in a wide range of practices, from those based on folkloric beliefs to quasi-religious rituals. As a means of understanding and attempting to control the social, spiritual, and natural world, it could be both a comfort and a threat to established norms.

We welcome papers exploring the significance of magic and the supernatural to medieval and early modern thought.

Suggested topics include but are not limited to:

  • Magic and religion
  • Magic and science
  • Attitudes towards magic and the supernatural
  • Science fiction and fantasy
  • Alchemy
  • Ritual magic
  • The psychology of magic
  • Magic and technology
  • Magicians and cunning folk
  • Astrology
  • Angels and demons
  • Ghosts and apparitions
  • Witchcraft
  • Medicine and anatomy
  • Shape-shifting
  • Supernatural creatures
  • Otherworlds
  • Prophecy and dreams
  • Necromancy and conjuring

We welcome abstracts from postgraduate students and early career researchers on all aspects of this topic in medieval and early modern history, literature, art, archaeology, architecture, and music.

Please send abstracts of 200-300 words to supernatural@cardiff.ac.uk for papers no longer than 20 minutes by Monday 25th May, 2015.

Find out more here: https://magicandthesupernaturalcardiff.wordpress.com/

In addition to panels, the conference will feature keynote addresses from Professor Ronald Hutton from the University of Bristol and Dr. Darren Oldridge from the University of Worcester.


CFP: Shakespeare and Waste (Kingston Shakespeare Seminar in Theory)

April 1, 2015


Kingston Shakespeare Seminar (KiSS), part of the London Graduate School, announces the launch of Kingston Shakespeare Seminar in Theory (KiSSiT): a series of seminars and conferences for postgraduate students and early career scholars with an interest in Shakespeare, philosophy and theory. The program will be committed to thinking through Shakespeare about urgent contemporary issues in dialogue with the work of past and present philosophers – from Aristotle to Žižek. It is intended that one-day KiSSiT conferences will be held three times a year at the Rose Theatre, Kingston-upon-Thames, which was developed by the great director Sir Peter Hall to be a ‘teaching theatre’, where actors and academics would work together. KiSSiTevents will be free and open to all. The inaugural KiSSIT conference will take place at the Rose Theatre on Saturday 23 May, 2015, on the theme of SHAKESPEARE AND WASTE (see CFP below). Auditors are also encouraged to attend. Confirmed speakers include Scott Wilson (Kingston University) andPeter Smith (Nottingham Trent University). Although there is no attendance fee, seating is limited, and registration is necessary: see email contact below. Reduced-price tickets will be available to all participants for the evening performance at the Rose Theatre of Jonathan Miller’s acclaimed production of King Lear, starring Barrie Rutter   CFP: SHAKESPEARE AND WASTE The Oxford English Dictionary lists three main senses for ‘waste’ in the English language:

  1. Waste or desert land
  2. Action or process of wasting
  3. Waste matter, refuse

The conference invites abstracts for 20 minute papers which fit under these broad headings. Papers might consider, but are not limited to, the following areas and questions:

  • The early modern association between waste and idleness
  • The link between waste (land) and wilderness
  • Waste paper
  • Economic concerns relating to Shakespeare
  • Do waste products of the body suggest a leveling and/or intensification of social hierarchy?
  • The relationship between human waste and abjection
  • The concept of human waste associated with digestion, purging, emetics, and / or blood-letting
  • The concept and processes of ‘catharsis’ in relation to waste
  • Waste in King Lear
  • What does the imagery of contamination by human waste (muddy fountains / cisterns, stains, filth) suggest about the relationship between racial and ethnic groups?
  • Human waste as the traditional Protestant symbol of money; conversely, money as the denial of feces and its evocation of the human body as pure physicality

Organizers: Johann Gregory, Paul Hamilton, Anne Sophie Refskou, Timo Uotinen, Richard Wilson. Please submit abstracts and brief CVs, or register as an auditor, by emailing the organizers at kingstonshakespeareintheory@gmail.com before 1 May, 2015 (auditors may register before 15 May) Please indicate whether you would like to book a ticket for King Lear in your mail.

Visit this website for the latest:

Sophie Battell: Hospitality in Shakespeare

March 24, 2015

Simon Russell Beale, centre, is in compelling form in Nicholas Hytner’s production of Timon Of Athens (2012)

Sophie Battell (Cardiff University) will be presenting a paper on “Hospitality in Shakespeare” as part of a panel on “Faire la fête à la Renaissance: Renaissance Feasts and Festivals” at this year’s Renaissance Society of America conference in Berlin.


Paper Abstract

Shakespeare’s dark ‘middle comedies’ depict rituals of feasting in interesting, but often uneasy ways. In Troilus and Cressida, when the city of Troy is at war and under siege, the risk of offering hospitality to one’s enemy is great. The play presents blended moments of hospitality and hostility mixed, as when the Greek warrior, Ulysses describes his intended entertaining of the Trojan warrior, Hector: “I’ll heat his blood with Greekish wine tonight, / Which with my scimitar I’ll cool tomorrow. / Patroclus, let us feast him to the height”. In Timon of Athens, meanwhile, the relentless show of hospitality’s maimed rites and broken banquets is perhaps what has led so many modern critics to describe the play as difficult and essentially ‘unpalatable’. My paper aims to demonstrate how Troilus and Cressida and Timon of Athens invert rituals of feasting, leading to moments of dark theatrical spectacle.

Find out more here:


Sophie Battell tweets for Cardiff Shakespeare @CardiffShakes



Hamlet by Everyman Youth Theatre

March 22, 2015

Everyman Youth Theatre is proud to present their dystopian like interpretation of this powerful play, where our tragic hero cannot move without it being reported back to the false king. As with Hamlet’s own thoughts, the play questions the nature of revenge and what is considered madness. The production retells Hamlet’s journey but has been shortened for the younger audience.

Fri 27 Mar – Sat 28 Mar, 2015

Cardiff, St David’s Hall

Find out more here:




March 18, 2015



It was 7:15pm. I was in the unenviable position of attempting to find a parking space in Canton during a football match on St Patrick’s Day. The play was to start at 7:30pm and I hadn’t even picked up my tickets yet. I’d been stuck in traffic for almost an hour… But I had faith that a bit of Jacobean comedy would make this all worthwhile.

I say comedy, but as any director of this too oft neglected text will know, Measure for Measure problematizes the notion of genre. So much so that it was given a genre of its own by Frederick Boas in 1896: ‘problem play’. Yet Measure for Measure has all the conventional tricks of early modern comedy plays. The bed trick. Disguise and deception. A family reunion. Matrimony. Structurally, Measure for Measure is as much a comedy as, say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Twelfth Night. But the play is hardly light comedy. It’s enveloped by Jacobean cynicism. There are pockets of darkness…

Fortunately, at 7:25pm, I found myself sitting in the front row, with time to spare…

The set was fairly simple, just as I like it. Wooden doors, rostrums etc. The music playing as audience members shuffled in reminded me of productions at the Globe theatre I’d seen on Sky Arts. The sort of sweet (contemporary) harmonies I imagine Robert Johnson composed for Shakespeare productions. Apart from the familiar Chapter stage, this felt like a Royal Shakespeare Company production. Indeed, Cardiff’s Everyman Theatre are staging this play as part of the RSC Open Stages Project. This initiative is great for amateur theatre. I’ve watched professional productions with actors who’ve yet to disrobe themselves of amateur habits. I’ve watched amateur productions with remarkably professional actors. Seeing an amateur company with professional training was an intriguing prospect.

The play opens with the Duke Vincentio (played by Brian Smith) telling his deputy, Angelo (Andreas Constantinou), that he intends to leave Vienna. This is a fib, of course, and the fantastical duke of dark corners disguises himself as a friar so that he can, like a groundling, observe his fellow actors from below. From the off Brian Smith exuded stage presence. It is easy to forget, as an audience member, how much work goes into a production like this. The duke speaks almost a third of the lines in this play. Smith’s Vincentio can be stern, he can be pitiable, he can be hilarious. It is the mark of a very good player that he clearly feels no trepidation about involving the audience with a quick glance, a cursory aside, a metatheatrical wink. I realised instantly that Vienna, and the play itself, was in good hands. Smith could pass as an RSC professional quite easily, methinks.

We progress to the streets of Vienna. I was dazzled by the range of accents, some authentic, others difficult to identify. It was rather like the Babylonian play-within-a-play in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. But dislocality pervades throughout this text, to the extent that Oxford editor Gary Taylor has argued for Thomas Middleton’s hand in changing the play’s setting from Italy to Vienna. As an ‘attribution scholar’ I am uncertain about this, and may pursue the subject myself one day if I progress in the field, but the point is that verisimilitude is not paramount in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.

There are some wonderful characters on the streets of Vienna. Pompey Bum, played by the delightful Dan Burrows, who nailed every aspect of this character tour-de-force. Elbow, portrayed by Arnold Phillips, who delighted us with his hilarious malapropisms. The slanderous Lucio, played superbly by the remarkably talented Philip Jones, who wowed me not only with his twisty moustache and dangly earring but also his comic timing. Shakespeare set the precedent for Charles Dickens in his vivacious characterisation of the lower classes. We learn that Claudio (played by Henry Nott) is to be executed for impregnating Juliet (played by Amanda Lever) out of wedlock. To modern sensibilities this may seem hard to identify with, given that the players in the theatre of today are often inbred Jeremy Kyle participants. I realised that I have acted alongside most of this ensemble, and hope to act with many of them again. I was thus fully aware of their talents, but it was somewhat different watching them, like the fantastical duke, from a dark corner.

There is not a weak link in this cast, I realised.

Claudio’s sister, Isabella (played by Cari Barley, who clearly has a good ear for blank verse), learns of Claudio’s impending doom and entreats the surrogate ruler, Angelo, to save his life. The corrupt deputy tries to take advantage of this, and the first half of the play closes with what can only be described as an attempted rape of the nun. Like I said, there are pockets of darkness…

Andreas Constantinou revealed himself as reliable and industrious an actor as ever. His portrayal was remarkably sinister, but he also nailed down each and every complex trait of the antagonist. At times, I even felt sympathy for him. Shakespeare’s characterisation was often paradoxical. His villains can be heroic. The heroes villainous. Constantinou’s delivery of the famous ‘What’s this?’ monologue would be good enough for entrance into any drama school, even if it has become a frequently chosen piece for auditions. He injected refreshing viscerality and dynamism into a passage that, one could argue, has been Mistress Overdone.

Indeed, the play is satiated with some of Shakespeare’s best known aphorisms and speeches. Another such speech is Claudio’s ‘Ay, but to die’ piece. Henry Nott gave perhaps his most understated performance here. He oozed prospective professionalism, and though Claudio is more often not on stage than on, Nott really stood out. (He seemed rather serious during the bows… I cannot tell if he was still in character or not, but I think he should have permitted himself a smile for this wonderful performance!).

I must also mention Richard Watson as the drunken and dissolute Barnardine, my favourite character in the play. He clearly relished playing this comic part, and the audience loved him. He also coped remarkably well with the only first-night hiccup that I could perceive. His cell door came off, but he used this to his advantage and emphasised the poor security in his prison house, to comic avail!

The play concludes with bed tricks and revelations. It is a happy ending (though perhaps not for Angelo and Lucio). A comic ending. And yet, there’s those pockets of darkness again. For all of Isabella’s hard work in retaining her cloistered existence, she is married to the duke without a word of complaint. In this respect, the play is not unlike Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, The Taming of the Shrew and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, in that the resolution actually poses more problems than answers. Modern day audiences might question if Shakespeare was a sexist, a racist etc. (or, bardolatrously, speak as if he were Germaine Greer and John Lennon’s love child). But we are governed by the milieu of the century we live in. This mechanical resolution was a wee bit undermined by a nun’s (literally speaking) blessing. Nevertheless, Isabella looked rather affronted as the play closed to rapturous, well deserved, applause.

Some very minor quibbles. A couple of silent background actors pulled focus in the last scene, and some actors did not always suit their actions to their words. Their gesticulations sometimes came across as artificial, rather than spontaneous. In this respect they did not always hold a mirror up to their characters’ natures. However, despite the risk of coming across as hyperbolic, I thought this was a tremendous production. I understand Wales Online have given four stars. I’d agree. I would be tempted to give five.

It was certainly worth braving the traffic to enjoy the two hours’ traffic of the Everyman stage.

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