Sunday, September 6, 2020

A Yorkshire Tragedy, Thomas Middleton, and Edward de Vere

1608 Quarto of A YORKSHIRE TRAGEDY attributed to "Shakspeare" (Wikicommons). Note the epigram of what appears to be a falcon or hawk capturing another bird in hunt above a mountainous vista. The falcon was the Stratford actor Shakspeare's symbol in his coat of arms. The name of the writer is spelled "Shakspeare," making this two direct references to the Stratford businessman and actor in the frontispiece. It is also advertised on its 1608 cover and "Not so new as Lamentable and True."


In 1608 A YORKSHIRE TRAGEDY was attributed in quarto form to "William Shakspeare" (not "Will. Shake-speare," as the name was typically spelled in print). In the years and decades that followed the play was attributed to Shakespeare (using various spellings of the name) four different times, including when it was registered for publication on May 2, 1608. It was attributed to Shakespeare a second time on the title page of the quarto that soon followed when the play was performed in the Globe. It was attributed to Shakespeare a third time when the quarto was reprinted by Thomas Pavier. And, although it was excluded from the 1623 First Folio, the play did appear in Shakespeare's Third Folio of 1664. In 1685 the play was included in the Fourth Folio. It's also of note that in its original title page the play was advertised as, "Not so new as lamentable and true."

The reason it's described as "lamentable," is that the play was apparently based on an actual murder performed by a squire of the name Walter Calverly who had been forced to marry his guardian's granddaughter.  

Stanley Wells, in his Shakespeare and Co., calls the play "among the finest one-act plays in English." Wells also notes that " . . . nothing in Middleton's output to the date would have prepared one for the possibility that he could have written so powerful a tragedy in this stage of his career."

Yet today scholars assume the play was written by Thomas Middleton even though it seems to have little or nothing in common with the style in which he typically wrote at that time. And the tragedy has a lot in common with how Shakespeare wrote--or at least it does in spells and starts, which might lead a more objective mind to wonder if this play was partially written by Shakespeare and perhaps cobbled together by Middleton in a way that perhaps can teach us something about Middleton and his influence on Macbeth.

I absolutely do think Shakespeare wrote some of "A Yorkshire Tragedy" mostly because  the play contains one of my favorite Shakespearean soliloquies. The following passage is spoken by a suddenly repentant fallen earl who gambled away his fortune.


The play itself would seem to have been written by at least two different hands. The one in charge of structure was subpar. But the flights of language, at their best, are genius. 

In spite of his stated belief that Middleton did not write in this style, Stanley Wells seems to believe Middleton did somehow pen the tragedy yet Wells remains baffled by a number of problems, including the abrupt changes of tone between the first and second scene. Wells states, "The tone is relaxed, but after this the drama makes a fresh start. . . " Regarding the out-of-place opening scene, Wells speculates, "It could easily have been written after the body of the play had been composed. . . There are many signs that it represented the author very much in the process of hasty composition, writing with the source pamphlet before him, not stopping to polish his verse, and leaving decisions crucial to the play's staging to be sorted out later. I have hunch that Middleton, working with frenzied inspiration, sketched the play from the opening of what is now the second scene, found that it came out far too short for independent performance, embarked upon a process of expansion by writing an introductory scene in a more relaxed manner, decided it didn't work, and as a way of cutting his losses turned the whole play over to a printer who agreed to publish it provide he could say it was by Shakespeare." 

Whew. To this spiel of wild speculation, Wells then adds this gem: "I cannot prove this; but equally, so far as I know, no one can disprove it."

What? Well, just for the record, I can speculate that Shakespeare always wrote naked while standing on his head and nobody can disprove that either.

So let's touch upon those Macbeth parallels. Wells notes the writing contains "speeches of rare psychological complexity" that bring to mind Macbeth and specifically "the slaughter of Lady Macduff and her children." Macbeth is at times partially attributed to Middleton due to the lifted passages from Middleton's earlier works. And there's obviously a connection between the hideous murder of the nobleman's children here and the murder to Macduff's children in Macbeth. And, once again, it's worth stating that Middleton was not a violent writer in general.

So this play, hideously violent in nature, yet at times stunningly beautiful in language, remains a mystery, one that may never be attributed correctly until we get a better idea of who or what Shakespeare really was.  

I think we can all at least agree that A Yorkshire Tragedy would seem to be a cobbled-together play, the work where occasional genius meets lackey carpenter, but had the play become as well known as Macbeth it certainly would have lifted eyebrows earlier. Did Shakespeare write passages of it? I would argue yes. Did he structure it? I would say no. 

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