The “Day of the Tempest” and the Revels Records

Posted By on February 8, 2011

As noted in yesterday’s blog, Marie Merkel directed Lynne Kositsky and me to the intriguing ELH essay by John Bender (summer 1980), perhaps in the anticipation that something Bender says would disprove our case for the Tempest as a play originally written for Shrovetide performance.

Alas, Bender’s essay is merely another reminder that Stratfordians are as a group — naturally I overgeneralize to capture the predominant trend — incapable of ascertaining the significance of negative evidence. Bender begins by assuring us that his question (“What notable implications emerge from close attention to the day when The Tempest first appeared at court — November 1, that is All Saints’ or Hallowmass, of the year 1611?”) “assumes no more than the documentary fact that gives rise to it….Thus warned, let us suppose that the date of the original court performance is meaningful….” (235-36; my emphasis).

This is rather bizarre on two counts. First, Bender starts off by  asking his readers to assume what he must demonstrate — that there is some semiotic significance to the Hallowmass production date.

This might seem like nitpicking (nitwitting?) to those unfamiliar with the popularity of assuming in orthodox Shakesperotics — where we are asked to assume almost everything of any conceivable significance.  Still, can anyone imagine the laughter if Lynne and I had started our Shrovetide essay by writing “let us assume that there is some liturgical significance to The Tempest, even if it is not that usually identified by those who believe that the Nov. 1, 1611 performance date is the ‘orginal performance date.'” We would quite rightly have been laughed out of court.

This much is, or should be, obvious to anyone who bothers to consider the rhetoric  and logic of academic discourse.

Less obvious, to the non-specialist, may be the slender evidentiary thread by which the idea of an “original court performance” in 1611 actually hangs.

In fact,  it takes a surplus of sprezzatura for Stratfordians to describe the Nov. 1 1611 performance as the “original court performance” of anything. This is because the titles of court performances of all plays — at least in the official Revels documents — from the mid-1580s until 1612 are wholly undocumented, except for two anomolous surviving years, 1604-5 and 1611-12.

Bender evades this problem with the durably useful phrase “documentary fact,”  which, in the strictest sense of the term — but only in the strictest sense — is correct. Yes,  the Tempest was performed on Hallowmass, 1611. Here is where Stratfordians like Bender display a cleverness that justifies their PhDs.  Notice how we slip from the “documentary fact” (of the performance) to the (wholly unsubstantiated and invalid) logical  inference, magically transmuting performance into  “first performance.”

Meanwhile the larger context that would allow the reader to evaluate the significance of  this “fact,” and see just how much of a paper tiger the “first performance” argument is, is conveniently ignored.

Let’s review that context, shall we? In twenty-five years we have one more or less complete Revels record of plays performed — 1604-5. Just how many references to Shakespearean plays performed at court during the 1590s are we missing? If 1604-5 — which lists around a dozen plays performances between Hallowmass and Shrovetide (when the season ended at the start of Lent)  is a typical year — that would would mean we’re missing performance records for around 300 plays performances between 1585 and 1610.  Of course, some of the plays performed at court during those years are known from other sources.  But its a good bet that many are not.

Stratfordians like John Bender are asking us not only to assume that there is a Hallowmass significance to Tempest, but that we should believe them when they assure us that the November 1 performance is “the original court performance,”  even though only one of twenty-five previous years’ records of court performances have survived.

This is a logical fallacy big enough to run a string of 18-wheelers through without scratching a fender.

To consider just how large it is, run a counferfactual: suppose that the 1611-12 revels records, like those of so many previous years did not exist. Since there is no other mention of the Hallowmass 1611 performance in other records, Stratfordians (some of them anyway) would then be convinced that the Shrovetide, February 14, 1613 performance (for the wedding of Elizabeth Stuart and Elector Palatine Frederick V) was “the first court performance,”  and would doubtless then be assuring us with straight faces that we  can be sure  that the play was written sometime in 1612.

An interesting corollary of this scenario is that Stratfordians probably would have discovered a long time ago that The Tempest was written for Shrovetide production.

I hope that when Ms. Merkel recommended Bender’s article, she was not suggesting that we should regard his  creatively evasive logic as appropriate to academic inquiry.

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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