‘The heavens are just’: Brian Vickers on Thomas Kyd and The True Chronicle History of King Leir.May 18, 2015
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 scholars such as Thomas H. McNeal.
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’. 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’. 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’.
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. For my own methodology, I utilise the software program ‘Info Rapid Search and Replace’ to check matches – highlighted by ‘WCopyfind’ – 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’, and then triple-check results using the database ‘Early English Books Online’, or ‘EEBO’, 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-word and lexical-word 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|
 Thomas H. McNeal, ‘Margaret of Anjou: Romantic Princess and Troubled Queen’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 9 (1958), 1-10.
 Ann Thompson, ‘The Taming of the Shrew and The Spanish Tragedy’, Notes and Queries, 31 (1984), 182-84 (p.182).
 Lukas Erne, Beyond the Spanish Tragedy: A Study of the Works of Thomas Kyd (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001), p.4.
 MacDonald P. Jackson, Determining the Shakespeare Canon: Arden of Faversham and A Lover’s Complaint (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).