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Monday, June 04, 2018

Thomas Churchyard in The Merry Wives of Windsor

George Steevens may be the first great Shakespeare scholar in the modern mode.  Alexander Pope, before him, was an amateur editor who made many ill-informed choices while collating the extant Shakespeare texts for the first edition of the complete plays.  Upon being corrected by Lewis Theobald he wrote one of the language’s great satires, “The Dunciad”, upon him.  Theobald survived, barely, to issue his own edition.  He himself was an exceptional editor (it is fair to say “the first”) if one does not count his work on the play “The Double Falsehood”.  Still the thought did not come to him to include comparative notes by various scholars.  That final tool was added to the scholarly toolkit with Steevens’s improvements upon Samuel Johnson’s edition.  

In 1773, Steevens’s name began to be included together with Johnson’s.  Johnson’s 1769 edition had proven a disappointment.  At Johnson’s behest, Steevens had done most of the work for an improved 1773 edition, but Johnson’s name was so much more famous that it kept first billing.  The edition would sell many more copies that way.

Among the many signature characteristics of Steevens’s work was a small one that only recently has come to my attention.  While researching my own Edward de Vere's Retainer Thomas Churchyard: the Man Who Was Falstaff[1], I first began to notice that Thomas Churchyard occasionally appeared among the standard citations on Shakespeare’s works.  There are a scattering of such citations, and, in every instance, they originate from George Steevens.  No other Shakespeare editor or annotator, before or since, mentions the old soldier-poet.

To the best of my recollection, only one of the citations actually suggests that Shakespeare was aware of Churchyard’s works.  It is one of three Churchyard citations — all originating from Steevens — to standard annotated texts of the The Merry Wives of Windsor.  The note refers to the dance of the fairies in Act V.

The idea of this stratagem, &c. might have been adopted from part of the entertainment prepared by Thomas Churchyard for Queen Elizabeth at Norwich : "And these boys, &c. were to play by a deuise and degrees the Phayries, and to daunce (as neere as could be ymagined) like the Phayries. Their attire, and comming so strangely out, I know made the Queenes highnesse smyle and laugh withal], &c. I ledde the yong foolishe Phayries a daunce, &c. and as I heard said, it was well taken." Steevens.

Churchyard’s dance of the fairies, to which Steevens refers, is described in his A DISCOVRSE OF The Queenes Maiesties entertainement in Suffolk and Norffolk: With a description of many things then presently seene. Deuised by THOMAS CHVRCHYARDE, Gent. with diuers shewes of his own inuention sette out at Norwich… published in 1578.  The book was printed by Henrie Bynneman seruante to the right Honourable Sir CHRISTOPER HATTON Vizchamberlayne, a sign that Churchyard might have some hope, at last, of finding a patron, some five years after having been dismissed by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.

In my book on Churchyard as the model for Falstaff, I forward the old soldier’s Churchyard’s Challenge, published in 1593, in particular, as a text that Shakespeare was lampooning in the character of Falstaff.  For the dance of the fairies, in particular, I cite his poem “A Dreame”[2], from the Challenge.

Me thought a troupe of Dames I saw,
a thousand in a roe:
They would not tread vpon a strawe,
they minst the matter so.
All hand in hand they traced on,
a tricksie ancient round:
And soone as shadowes were they gone,
and might no more be found.[3]

I cite numerous other perplexing comments by Falstaff as references to other works by (and habits of) Churchyard.  Especially “A pitefull complaint, in maner of a Tragedie, of Seignior Anthonio dell Dondaldoes wife, somtyme in the duke of Florences Courte: Translated out of Italian prose, and putte into Englishe verse.”[4] with its complaint at having been shamefully dismissed by the Earl of Oxford.

Anyway, when I discovered that an auction list had been made of George Steevens’s library[5] upon his death my interest was piqued.  Imagine my disappointment, then, to find only three Churchyard titles listed:

811. Churchyard (Tho.) Challenge, containing various Poetical Pieces, and the Honoure of a Souldíer, in Prose,  4to. Lond. printed by John Wolfe, 1593.

816. The Contention betwyxte Churchyeard and Camell, upon David Dycer's Dreame, sett out in such order, that it is both wyttye and profytable for ail degryes, b. l. 4to Impr. a1 London, by Owen Rogers, for Mychell Loblee, dwelyng ia Paull's Cburchyeard, 1560, with curious MS. Notes.

1625. Churchyarde (Tho.) lamentable and pitifull Description of the wofull Warres in Flanders, 1578.

While he does refer to The Contention by the moniker “an early work,” none of these books is referred to by title.  I can only imagine that the free access to the even better stocked libraries of Samuel Johnson and Isaac Reed, granted to him for use toward the Shakespeare edition, must have brought the Churchyard titles he cited into his hand.  

[1] Edward de Vere's Retainer Thomas Churchyard: the Man Who Was Falstaff.  Richmond, VA: The Virtual Vanaprastha, 2017.
[2] “A DREAME. To the right worshipfull my good Lady the Lady Paulet, who was wife to the ho∣norable sir
Hugh Paule Knight.”  CHVRCHYARDS Challenge. LONDON Printed by Iohn Wolfe. 1593.  176-192.
[3] Edward de Vere's Retainer Thomas Churchyard: the Man Who Was Falstaff.  Richmond, VA: The Virtual Vanaprastha, 2017. 91.
[4] “A pitefull complaint, in maner of a Tragedie, of Seignior Anthonio dell Dondaldoes wife, etc.”  A generall rehearsall of warres, called Churchyardes choise wherein is fiue hundred seuerall seruices of land and sea as seiges, battailes, skirmiches, and encounters. Etc.” Imprinted at London by Edward White, dwellyng at the little North-doore of S. Paules Churche, at the signe of the Gunne. No page numbers.
[5] BIBLIOTHECA STEEVENSlANA. CATALOGUE OF THE Curious and Valuable LIBRARY of GEORGE STEEVENS, Esq. Printed by J. Barker, Great Russell Street, Covent-Garden, 1800.

  • Let the sky rain potatoes! December 16, 2017. "In fact, the sweet potato had only just begun to be a delicacy within the reach of splurging poets and playwrights and members of the middle classes at the time that The Merry Wives of Windsor (the play from which Falstaff is quoted) was written.  The old soldier liked to keep abreast of the new fads."
  • Did Falstaff Write a Poem for Lowe’s Chyrirgerie?  December 2, 2017. "Can honour set-to a leg? no: or an arm? no: or take away the grief of a wound? no. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? no. What is honour? a word. What is that word, honour? air."
  • Falstaff's Sack. August 7, 2017.  'The question Mr. Hart addresses is “Just what is sack?”.  This is not the first time the question has been addressed but his is a particularly thorough attempt at an answer.
  • A Shake-speare Authorship Primer.  January 29, 2015.
  • Check out the English Renaissance Article Index for many more articles and reviews about this fascinating time and about the Shakespeare Authorship Question.

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