Cummings: A Chronological Time Bomb Under Shakespeare

Posted By on December 18, 2009

The astonishing statement at the recent Globe Theatre symposium on authorship by Graham Holderness, Shakespearean professor at  the University of Herfordshire, that

If you were to construct a biography which ticked all the boxes – if you were to read Shakespeare’s plays and infer a biography from it – it wouldn’t be Rowe’s, it would actually be the Earl of Oxford’s.

has been widely reproduced in various commentaries on the internet, including this blog.

Yet the equally astounding statements of Brian Cummings at the same event have not yet received the attention they deserve. As reported in this account by Shakespeare Authorship Trust board member Julia Cleave, Cummings, Professor of English at the University of Sussex and founding Director of the Centre for Early Modern Studies from 2004 to 2008, commented with uncanny prescience  about the present “state of the debate” in Shakespearean studies.

A number of Cummings’ statements focused on the uncertain nature of the chronology of Shakespearean plays:

  • There is a chronological time-bomb under Shakespeare!
  • People react to changes in chronology!
  • What is Thomas Nashe doing with his mischievous references?  Do these provide a terminus ad/ante quem (“date before which”) to various of Shakespeare’s plays?

Assuming that Professor Cummings has been accurately quoted about the “time-bomb,” then this is about the most explicit testimony that one could ask for regarding the unstable condition of mainstream Shakespearean studies.

It would seem that we are rapidly approaching some kind of phase shift in the academic world.  Barring any surprising new “smoking gun” evidence, it is doubtful that this will constitute, in the near term, a full-scale paradigm shift, but it is clear that the edifice is creaking.

As readers may be aware, for several decades one of the primary arguments against the Oxfordians has been that since the Earl of Oxford died in 1604, he can’t possibly be the author of the Tempest and a handful of other plays that are customarily placed in a post-1604 framework.

Yet, as Professor Cummings is surely aware, the basis for the dating of at least one so-called “late plays” – namely the Tempest itself, has been seriously undermined in a series of recently published or forthcoming articles by the present writer and Lynne Kositsky (see bibliography below).

These articles all tend decisively towards the conclusion that The Tempest was known to Elizabethan audiences at least by 1603.

This is by no means to imply that the only source of chronological unrest is this series of articles, although their potential impact is no doubt considerable.

In the same issue of Critical Survey, edited by William Leahy under the general editorship of Graham Holderness, Penny McCarthy’s contribution on Cymbeline likewise argues that the this play has been misplaced by perhaps twenty years — contrary to the traditional Jacobean era dating of circa 1609, McCarthy argues convincingly on the basis of internal allusions that Cymbeline belongs to the 1580s.

If both Tempest and Cymbeline have been misdated, it is not difficult to see that the entire edifice of the “Jacobean Shakespeare” has been compromised, perhaps beyond repair.

Doubtless there are other revelations, “waiting in the wings,” about the Shakespearean chronology. And now that Richard Waugaman has set forth a critical reading of the Tempest as a play by the Earl of Oxford, it does appeared that the days of orthodox hegemony are numbered….

Stritmatter and Kositsky articles on The Tempest, published 2007-2009 or under review

“Shakespeare and the Voyagers Revisited,” Review of English Studies 58: 236 (2007): 447-472.

The Spanish Maze and the Date of the Tempest,” The Oxfordian 10 (2007), 9-29.

“‘O Brave New World’: The Tempest and De Orbe Novo,’’ Critical Survey 21: 2 (Summer 2009): 7-42.

“Pale as Death: The Fictionalizing Influence of Erasmus’s Naufragium On the Renaissance Travel Narrative,” Discovering Shakespeare (2008), 143-151.

“A Moveable Feast: The Tempest as Shrovetide Revelry,” forthcoming in The Shakespeare Yearbook, January 2009.

“An Elizabethan Tempest,” forthcoming in The Shakespeare Yearbook.

“How Shakespeare Got His Tempest: Another ‘Just So’ Story (A Reply to Alden Vaughan), under review.

“Where in the World? Geography and Irony in Shakespeare’s Tempest,” forthcoming in the Coppin State University Annual Review.

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, and renaissance literature, the latter a field in which he has published extensively

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