Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Mysterious James Gurney

Scholars sometimes find themselves in a position where they think they may have discovered an important association of some kind, but aren’t really sure if it’s just coincidence or the real thing. This poses a dilemma: should they publish what they have, or wait for more evidence to come in?

A common technique to deal with this dilemma is to go ahead and note the association, but just say it is ‘curious’. It’s a pretty good strategy. If you turn out to be right, the association was worth noting, and you get the credit; if it turns out you were wrong, well, all you said was that it was curious.

E.A.J. Honigmann used this technique when glossing the following passage in his 1954 Arden edition of King John:

Enter Lady Faulconbridge and James Gurney

Bastard O me! ‘tis my mother. - How now, good lady?
What brings you here to court so hastily?

Lady Faulconbridge Where is that slave, thy brother? where is he,
That holds in chase mine honour up and down?

Bastard My brother Robert? old Sir Robert’s son?
Colbrand the giant, that same mighty man?
Is it Sir Robert’s son that you seek so?

Lady Faulconbridge Sir Robert’s son! Ay, thou unreverend boy –
Sir Robert’s son? – why scorn’st thou at Sir Robert?
He is Sir Robert’s son, and so art thou.

Bastard James Gurney, wilt thou give us leave awhile?

Gurney Good leave, good Philip.

Bastard  Philip? – sparrow! – James,
There’s toys abroad: anon I’ll tell thee more.

Exit Gurney.

Honigmann noted that the passage "would suit A. Harbage's thesis that Guy Earl of Warwick (1661) ('by B.J.') contains an early satire of Shakespeare ... It is curious that Shakespeare drags in the Guy story [by referring to Colbrand, the giant who Guy fights and defeats in the romance legend of Guy of Warwick] ... then recalls P.Sparrow ... whom B.J. first associated with Guy, adding ‘There’s rumours abroad’”.

In other words, it looks like the passage is a response by Shakespeare to being satirised as the clown Sparrow in Guy of Warwick. A number of scholars believe that the passage is exactly that. Helen Cooper discusses it at length in Guy of Warwick, Upstart Crows and Mounting Sparrows, Katherine Duncan-Jones accepts it in Shakespeare, Guy of Warwick, and Chines of Beef, and even Helen Moore, who is not committed to Harbage’s hypothesis, concedes in her Malone Society Edition of Guy of Warwick that it is “undoubtedly ‘curious’”.

A key, albeit very short, role in this pasage is that of James Gurney (spelled alternately ‘Gurney’ and ‘Gournie’ in the First Folio, but also spelled ‘Gournay’ at the time). James Gurney enters with Lady Faulconbridge, says one line, ‘Good leave, good Philip’, then exits. It’s not a role for the ages, though Samuel Taylor Coleridge was apparently quite excited by it [Specimens of the Table Talk of S.T.Coleridge]:

“For an instance of Shakespeare’s power in minimis, I generally quote James Gurney’s character in King John. How individual and comical he is with the four words allowed to his dramatic life!”

Ignoring Coleridge’s excess of zeal (or laudanum), we can see that James Gurney’s only real purpose in the passage is to serve as the prompt for the Bastard’s outburst “Philip? – sparrow! – James, There’s toys abroad”, as Helen Cooper noted:

“The juxtaposition of Colbrand and Sparrow suggests at the least an association on Shakespeare's own part. It also raises the further possibility that the [Bastard's] exclamation had some immediate and topical point recognisable by both players and audience ... Gurney, to whom the 'Sparrow' remark is made, seems to be introduced only in order to give the excuse for it.” [my italics]

This should put us on the alert for any other oddities about James Gurney, and there is indeed another one -  that he is called James Gurney at all. That is, it is odd that this inconsequential character is fully named. Characters with only one line in Shakespeare are usually just given a generic name ('Page’, 'Gentleman’, 'Commoner' etc), or at most only a first name (see Shakespeare characters, sorted by number of lines). The First Folio doesn’t tell us who James Gurney actually is, but he is usually assumed to be a servant, so why does Shakespeare go to the bother of fully naming him? Just ‘Servant’ would have sufficed, or if something more personal was required (though it doesn’t seem to be, really), just ‘James’ would have been fine. But ‘James Gurney’? Why did Shakespeare bother to give him a full name, and why did he make it ‘Gurney’?

Originally, I suspected that the answer to this question might lie in an allusion to some historical figure called Gurney, but after much fruitless Googling of the Gurneys I could only come to this conclusion - the Gurney family didn’t leave much of a mark on history. This left one alternative: that the meaning of the name itself might be the point. Since the etymology of the name Gurney is not of great general interest, this also led to much fruitless searching. Eventually, however, I stumbled on the following: Daniel Gurney, Supplement To The Record Of The House Of Gournay, London, 1858, a tome from the 19th century dedicated to the ‘House of Gournay’. On page 725, there’s a section on the origin of the name Gurney.

Now if you have read the Background or Papers section of this blog you will know my hypothesis: the clown Sparrow in Guy of Warwick is a satirical response to Shakespeare’s original satire of the Isle of Dogs affair in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Sparrow’s genesis, if you like, was The Isle of Dogs, “a peninsula in the Thames known for its wet, marshy conditions”. Imagine my surprise then when I read the following in The House of Gournay:

“The derivation of the name Gournay appears to arise from this circumstance: Gore in Saxon, and I believe in Celtic, means mud, the Saxon genitive of which is Gorena; and Eye, which means waters, or island, is the second syllable of the word; hence Gorena-eye, the muddy waters or island.”

‘Muddy waters or island’! What are the chances that to a character whose only apparent purpose is to provoke an allusion to Sparrow in Guy of Warwick, Shakespeare has given a name more than a little evocative of the Isle of Dogs? For my hypothesis this is surely a Eureka moment?

Not really. More like a ‘you cannot be serious’ moment i.e. too good to be true.

But I’m recording it here anyway. It's surely worth noting as ‘curious’.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Shakespeare Apocrypha and Exotica

I recently came across a site with a reference to my 2006 paper linking Mucedorus with Guy of Warwick. The site is Sabrina Feldman's The Apocryphal William Shakespeare.

Feldman is an anti-Stratfordian who has proposed yet another candidate to add to the already staggeringly long list of people who were the ‘real’ Shakespeare: Thomas Sackville. It is bizarre how the most unlikely people get on this list, but not the candidate whose credentials dwarf all others: William Shakespeare from Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Unlike most anti-Stratfordians who allow the Stratford man no writing capabilities at all, Feldman is from the school of Shakespeare sceptics who give him some connection with the plays, but only a very mean one. Disgruntled by the notion that Shakespeare could actually have been human, made mistakes, wrote bad stuff as well as good, and even had some unlikeable personal characteristics, they prefer to imagine a neat binary situation where everything they like about Shakespeare was the work of the ‘Bard’, and everything they dislike was the work of someone else. The Bard is always a 'concealed' poet, and nearly always Sir Someone, Lord So and So, or, preferably, the Earl of Something or Other. In this case, Thomas Sackville (aka Baron Buckhurst) is the 'Bard', and William Shakespeare from Stratford-Upon-Avon is the 'someone else'.

Feldman’s twist on the usual scenario is to focus on the 'Shakespeare Apocrypha' (plays like Locrine, Fair Em, The London Prodigal etc, attributed at various times to Shakespeare, but not generally accepted as his), and on the ‘bad quartos’, supposed stolen or mangled versions of Shakespeare's acknowledged plays.  She thinks that William of Stratford, though not the actual Bard, was a "gifted poet who wrote in the Bard's style" and “wrote the apocryphal plays and bad quartos (in large part) while serving as a front man for the Bard”. Her revelation that William wrote the bad quartos is particularly surprising. You’d think the Bard might have told his front man to stop it.

Anyway, my interest in all this is really with how Feldman deals with my paper on Mucedorus, one of the plays included in the Shakespeare Apocrypha. The short answer is that she quotes the paper fairly, but, as you would expect, interprets differently the verbal links between Mucedorus and Guy of Warwick that I noted. Where I saw Sparrow's allusions as a satire on Shakespeare, she sees it through her Bard/William prism. Thus, she believes that 'William' wrote Mucedorus, and that Sparrow’s allusions to that play in Guy are a ridiculing of William’s less-than-Bardish writing style.

I can't think of much to say about this, other than there's no evidence for it, and no need for it. If we are unburdened by any psychological impulse to protect the ‘Bard’ against criticism by deflecting that criticism to a mythical ‘William’, there’s no need to doubt that Shakespeare was the object of ridicule in Guy. Whether or not he wrote Mucedorus is relatively unimportant. All that really counted was that an audience would recognise him, as the leading playwright of the company that played Mucedorus, in Sparrow’s satirical allusions. If Shakespeare did have a hand in Mucedorus, all the better, but it was not a necessary condition for the satire to have been effective.

[Addendum: One question I did not address in my 2006 paper - because I did not have any answer to it then - was why exactly the author of Guy chose Mucedorus as a vehicle for satirising Shakespeare. There were, after all, other plays indisputably by Shakespeare that he could have chosen. Since then, however, I have proposed that Guy was written in 1598, and I now suspect Mucedorus was chosen for reasons of timing more than anything else. The play was printed for the first time in 1598, and the likelihood is that the author of Guy chose it as a target because its first printing made it a topical item. Unfortunately, we do not know when exactly in 1598 Mucedorus was printed, so this can only be a guess.]