Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2007
In the recent crop of Renaissance studies, Eric Sams’ The Real Shakespeare must surely stand as one of the more contentious titles. With the recovery of the first thirty years of Shakespeare’s life as his stated aim, Sams presents a quirky case, erecting a thesis about the chronology and authenticity of the dramatist’s early productions on the basis of speculation and uncertain seventeenth-century biographical statement. The claim that Shakespeare came from an illiterate Catholic background, the observation that he left school to help on the family farm, the view that he was clearly named and identified in the Parnassus plays, and the conviction that the Earl of Southampton was a powerful presence behind the 1594 novella, Willobie his Avisa, are among the most surprising aspects of Sams’ argument. Equally problematic is the insistent conflation of biographical fact and textual detail, as revealed in the parallels drawn between imagery of blood in Shakespeare’s drama and his supposed experience of the butcher’s trade. For Sams, texts constitute codes to be deciphered or puzzles to be resolved through authorial identification, and to this end he asserts (unconvincingly) that Edmund Ironside, Fair Em, Locrine, The Taming of a Shrew, the Ur-Hamlet and other unassigned plays are all from the pen of the dramatist.