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The Dates of Shakespeare’s Plays

by Peter R. Moore

This article first appeared in the Fall 1991 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter

The first serious effort to date the plays was that of Edmond Malone in 1778, who wrote that “the plays which Shakespeare produced before the year 1600 are known, and are 17 or 18 in number. The rest of his dramas, we may conclude, were composed between that year and the time of his retiring to the country,” which Malone put around 1610 (Malone’s Shakespeare Third Variorum Edition, 1821, AMS reprint 1966, Vol.ll, p.291). Malone’s dates were adjusted a bit in the 19th century, and then, in the early decades of the 20th century, Sir Edmund Chambers reviewed all of the evidence and produced his scheme that it is “a hypothesis which…is consistent…with the known events of Shakespeare’s life” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1964, Vol.20, p.446). He also wrote in Vol. l of his William Shakespeare that “There is much of conjecture, even as regards the order, and still more as regards the ascription [of plays] to particular years” (p.269), and that the order of the plays had to be “fitted…into the time allowed by the span of Shakespeare’s dramatic career” (p.253), and that his scheme was partly arranged to provide a fairly even flow of production” across the presumed working years of the Stratfordian (p.269). In short, both Malone and Chambers clearly stated that their schemes were based on the assumption that they must start around 1590 and end around 1610-13. Therefore the argument that the dates of the plays eliminates Oxford is completely circular, hence invalid. The Stratfordian dating scheme does not support the Stratfordian authorship theory; it is the other way around.

Chambers’ dates are demonstrably and improbably late. It is rare to be able to pin a Shakespeare play firmly to a four or five year period. More common is the case of King John which was penned somewhere during the bracket of 1587 to 1598. And yet Chambers puts twenty-seven of Shakespeare’s thirty-eight plays within one or two years of the latest possible date. I could observe intuitively that such an outcome is extremely unlikely, but, as amateur statistics have become fashionable, I propose to employ a commonplace statistical tool, the Chi-square test. Of Shakespeare’s thirty-eight plays, four have no usable latest plausible date (AII’s Well, Coriolanus, Timon, and Kinsmen), which leaves thirty-four. I will assume that each play was written during a five year window (which is generous), and that any given play has an equal probability of being written in any one of the five given years. We want to know the likelihood that as many as twenty-seven out of thirty-four plays would fall in the last two years of their respective spans. The Chi-square statistic calculates as 22.005, with one degree of freedom, so the probability of Edmund Chambers’ outcome resulting from random chance is about 1 in 600,000. This states mathematically what important scholars have been saying since 1923 –Chambers’ dates are too late. But no one save Andrew Cairncross had the nerve to do more than tinker lightly with Chambers. The reason for this leaving undone that which ought to have been done is not that it would take ”between a quarter and a half century” as E.A.J. Honigmann asserts in Shakespeare’s Impact on his Contemporariess (p.55); the job could be done in a year or two. The trouble is that the plays would drift backward into the zone of the Earl of Oxford and away from Stratford. Another factor is that an honest dating scheme would simply list the best estimate of the order in which the plays were written, based solely on stylistic grounds, and then list the dating evidence on each play. Any attempt to ascribe each play to a one or two year period is mere guesswork and gives a spurious appearance of precision.

We will now look at Kenneth Muir’s The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays (1978). Any work on this subject involves much personal judgment and is always subject to change, but Muir’s book has considerable authority owing to its recency, its author’s eminence and judiciousness, and the considerable post-World War II scholarship on this topic. I went through Prof. Muir’s book and listed works that he states to be either certain or probable sources for Shakespeare’s plays (ignoring ‘possibles’ and ‘analogues’); the list has 112 titles. I then looked up the year of publication of each of the 112 titles and recast my list in chronological order of composition. The results are as follows:

Dates # of Titles
Pre -1500 13
1501-1560 13
1561-1565 3
1566-1570 6
1571-1576 3
1576-1580 12
1581-1585 8
1586-1590 12
1591-1595 21
1596-1600 11
1601-1604 5
1605-1611 5

The five titles appearing after the Earl of Oxford’s death are Camden’s Remaines, Daniel’s Arcadia Reformed, Jourdain’s Discovery of the Bermudas, Strachey’s True Declaration, and Speed’s History of Great Britain. The only one of these that Muir calls a certain source is Speed’s 1611 work, but Speed was used in a portion of Henry VIII that Muir and most other authorities attribute to John Fletcher, so it drops out of the picture. Muir calls Camden the probable source of the parable of the belly in Coriolanus, but Chambers and others say that Shakespeare’s source for this oft told parable was Plutarch. Muir has Daniel’s work as the probable source of an item in Macbeth, but Muir also gives an earlier alternative source, not to mention the fact that Macbeth was altered by another hand after Shakespeare wrote it. We are now down to Jourdain’s and Strachey’s 1610 Bermuda shipwreck pamphlets, which Muir calls probable sources for the The Tempest, to which I will return shortly.

In short, according to Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare read deeply in works published in the 1570’s, 80’s, and 90’s, but seemed to lose interest in works written after the death of Oxford in 1604.

In Shakespeare’s Impact, Prof. Honigmann analyzed and faulted a number of underlying assumptions of the Chambers dating scheme, but he didn’t go far enough. The orthodox ‘late start, late finish’ dating of Shakespeare’s plays rests on several atrocious academic errors, of which I will give two examples.

It is the grossest sort of beginner’s error to examine Shakespeare out of context, to say, for example, that Shakespeare hated lawyers because he wrote “first. . . let’s kill all the lawyers,” without considering that these words are spoken by a villain. But the ‘out of context’ fallacy is the only way to prop up the pathetic theory that The Tempest can be firmly tied to the 1610 Bermuda shipwreck pamphlets, as if they were the only such literature in existence. Examination of Hakluyt’s accounts of the voyages of Francisco de Ulloa, Robert Tomson, or James Lancaster yields far more parallels (of language, incident, locale, and plot) to The Tempest than do the Bermuda pamphlets. Further, de Ulloa and Tomson have descriptions of St. Elmo’s fire that are far closer to Strachey’s Bermuda pamphlet than the latter is to Shakespeare. (See The Tempest and the Bermuda Shipwreck of 1609 article in this Ever Reader)

The Tempest has no known source; it borrows form Florio’s Montaigne and a performance was recorded in 1611, and that is about all we know of its date. Chambers was well aware of this when he wrote his famous Britannica article on Shakespeare, saying that Jourdain’s pamphlet “or some other contemporary narrative of Virginian colonization probably furnished the hint of the plot” (my emphasis). Another orthodox fallacy is the hidden assumption that Shakespeare borrowed from everyone, but no one borrowed from him. Pericles has two passages that are nearly identical to two in John Day’s Law Tricks, which was written in 1604. Orthodox scholars invariably say that Shakespeare was the borrower, without considering the obvious alternative. But Day was an extremely imitative writer who borrowed from Sidney, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, and others, and Law Tricks is full of scraps and plot devices taken from at least a half dozen of Shakespeare’s plays (Hamlet, Merry Wives, Much Ado, Julius Caesar, Measure, 2 Henry IV, and Richard II) and also from Jonson’s The Case is Altered.

The overwhelming presumption must be that Law Tricks borrows from Pericles, and therefore the latter existed by 1604. Whenever one leans on evidence purporting to show that some of Shakespeare’s plays were written after Oxford’s death, the evidence crumbles. The ‘late start, late finish’ theory on Shakespeare’s dates is a rotten edifice founded on circular reasoning, spurious precision, shaky assumptions, selective use of evidence, and willful ignorance of context.

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