Seneca by Candlelight

Over at The Valve, Adam Roberts posted an unorthodox theory on who wrote the Ur-Hamlet.

Scholars suppose that there was a version of Hamlet before Shakespeare wrote his play in 1600 or 1601, and they refer to this version as the Ur-Hamlet. No text of the play survives, but an earlier version of the revenge tragedy must have existed, because contemporary references to the play have survived. Thomas Lodge in his Wit’s Misery (1596), for example, famously refers to the “ghost which cried so miserably at the Theatre, like an oysterwife, Hamlet, revenge.” Not only does this passage give us an amusing glimpse of the warlike King Hamlet shrieking like an oysterwife, it also tells us that a Hamlet must have been performed in or before 1596 in The Theatre.

Who wrote this earlier Hamlet? We can only guess, and most people think it was Thomas Kyd, the author of The Spanish Tragedy, another Senecan revenge tragedy first performed in 1587. It’s an educated guess based on a passage in Thomas Nashe’s preface to Robert Greene’s Menaphon (1589). In that preface, Nashe praises humanist scholars of the past, such as Erasmus, Thomas More, Thomas Elyot, and Roger Ascham, whose learning he admires. He contrasts them with the playwrights of his time, whom he chides for merely using English translations of the classics:

It is a common practice now-a-days amongst a sort of shifting companions, that run through every art and thrive by none, to leave the trade of noverint whereto they were born and busy themselves with the endeavours of art, that could scarcely Latinize their neck-verse if they should have need; yet English Seneca read by candlelight yields many good sentences, as Blood is a beggar, and so forth, and if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls, of tragical speeches. But O grief! Tempus edax rerum, what’s that will last always? The sea exhaled by drops will in continuance be dry, and Seneca, let blood line by line and page by page, at length must needs die to our stage, which makes his famished followers to imitate the kid in Aesop, who, enamoured with the fox’s newfangles, forsook all hopes of life to leap into a new occupation[.]

The Senecan phrase “Blood is a beggar” is supposed to be a quotation from the apparently heavily Senecan Ur-Hamlet, which according to Nashe was written by an author who could not Latinize his neck-verse (the verse that had to be read by a person claiming benefit of the clergy), and therefore relied on English translations of the classics. A collection of Seneca’s tragedies translated into English, edited by Thomas Newton, had been published in 1581. The author is also described as the kind of man who leaves his trade of Noverint, scribe, to become a playwright. Because Thomas Kyd did not have a university education, because his father was a scribe, and because Nashe mentions “the kid in Aesop,” he is often supposed to have been the author of the Ur-Hamlet.

As Adam Roberts remarks, the case is not watertight. He therefore offers an alternative, which, as he is the first to admit, is not watertight either, but which he thinks is a more plausible speculation:

Here’s an alternative. Let’s hypothesise that the ur-Hamlet was written by student of St John’s Cambridge called John Kendall in the mid 1580s; that Kendall produced a play full of Senecan tags that elaborated the revenge theme; and that his version of the venerable Hamlet story owed something to Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (which, therefore, would have to be early 1580s). Kendall’s play was performed first in the University, afterwards enjoying some fame in London, but it was never printed and so has vanished. […] So we don’t have the play, but we can deduce that Kendall is the author because of Greene’s punning ‘English Seneca read by candle-light’, which is to say by Kendall’s-lights. The pun is appropriate too, for ‘candle-light’ implies a fusty academic labour, and this is exactly what Kendall provided.

I like it that Adam tried something new, even if he is probably kidding (no pun intended), and it is not a bad idea that other words in the passage could be a pun. Why does Nashe mention that playwrights read English translations of Seneca by candlelight? Perhaps night (and frosty morning) is the fitting time for Senecan rhetoric (as in Hamlet’s “tis now the very witching time of night, […] now could I drink hot blood”)? A pun on Kendall would explain the reference.

On the other hand, the fact that one of the few things Adam reveals about Kendall is that he was a student at Cambridge, and that he is associated with fusty academic labour, rather disqualifies him for the position. The playwright mocked by Nashe reads Seneca in English translation and is not even able to properly translate a verse from the Bible into Latin. Surely a student at Cambridge university would have been better versed in the classics.

If you read Nashe by candlelight, it will give you handfuls of exciting detective work, but it seems that this theory just cannot hold a candle to the case for Kyd.


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