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letter in question is an eighteenth-century fabrication. It is a forgery of no intrinsic brilliance or wit. It bears on its dull face marks of guilt which could only escape the notice of the uninformed. It is not likely to mislead the critical. Nevertheless it has deceived many an uncritical reader, and has constantly found its way into print without meeting serious confutation. It may therefore be worth while setting its true origin and subsequent history on record. No endeavour is likely in all the circumstances of the case to prevent an occasional resurrection of the meagre spectre; but at present it appears to walk in various quarters quite unimpeded, and an endeavour to lay it may not be without its uses.
Through the first half of 1763 there was published in London a monthly magazine called the Theatrical Review, or Annals of the Drama, an anonymous miscellany of dramatic biography and criticism. It was a colourless contribution to the journalism of the day, and lacked powers of endurance. It ceased at the end of six months. The six instalments were re-issued as "Volume I." at the end of June 1763; but that volume had no successor.1
All that is worth noting of the Theatrical Review of 1763 now is that among its contributors was an extremely interesting personality. He was a young
1 Other independent publications of similar character appeared under the identical title of The Theatrical Review both in 1758 and 1772. The latter collected the ephemeral dramatic criticisms of John Potter, a well-known writer for the stage.
man of good education and independent means, who had chambers in the Temple, and was enthusiastically applying himself to a study of Shakespeare and Elizabethan dramatic literature. His name, George Steevens, acquired in later years world-wide fame as that of the most learned of Shakespearean commentators. Of the real value of Steevens's scholarship no question is admissible, and his reputation justly grew with his years. Yet Steevens's temper was singularly perverse and mischievous. His confidence in his own powers led him to contemn the powers of other people. He enjoyed nothing so much as mystifying those who were engaged in the same pursuits as himself, and his favourite method of mystification was to announce anonymously the discovery of documents which owed all their existence to his own ingenuity. This, he admitted, was his notion of "fun." Whenever the whim seized him, he would in gravest manner reveal to the Press, or even contrive to bring to the notice of a learned society, some alleged relic in manuscript or in stone which he had deliberately manufactured. His sole aim was to recreate himself with laughter at the perplexity that such unholy pranks aroused. It is one of these Puck-like tricks on Steevens's part that has spread confusion among those of my correspondents, who allege that Peele has handed down to us a personal reminiscence of the great dramatist.
The Theatrical Review, in its second number, offered an anonymous biography of the great actor and theatrical manager of Shakespeare's day, Edward Alleyn. This biography was clearly one of Steevens's earliest efforts. It is for the most part an innocent compilation. But it contains one passage
in its author's characteristic vein of mischief. Midway in the essay the reader is solemnly assured that a brand-new contemporary reference to Alleyn's eminent associate Shakespeare was at his disposal. The new story "carries with it" (asserts the writer) "all the air of probability and truth, and has never been in print before." "A gentleman of honour and veracity," run the next sentences, which were designed to put the unwary student off his guard, "in the commission of the peace for Middlesex, has shown us a letter dated in the year 1600, which he assures us has been in the possession of his family, by the mother's side, for a long series of years, and which bears all the marks of antiquity." The superscription was interpreted to run: "For Master Henrie Marle, livynge at the sygne of the rose by the palace."
There follows at length the paper of which the family of the honourable and veracious gentleman "in the commission of the peace for Middlesex" had become possessed "by the mother's side." The words were these:
"I must desyre that my syster hyr watche, and the cookerie booke you promysed, may be sent by the man. I never longed for thy company more than last night; we were all very merrye at the Globe, when Ned Alleyn did not scruple to affyrme pleasantely to thy friend Will, that he had stolen his speech about the qualityes of an actor's excellencye, in Hamlet hys tragedye, from conversations manyfold which had passed between them, and opinyons given by Allen touchinge the subject. Shakespeare did not take this talke in good sorte; but Jonson put an end to the stryfe with wittielie saying: "This affaire needeth no contentione; you stole it from
CLUMSINESS OF THE FORGERY
Ned, no doubt; do not marvel; have you not seen him act tymes out of number"?
"Believe me most syncerelie,
The text of this strangely-spelt, strangely-worded épistle, with its puny efforts at a jest, was succeeded by a suggestion that "G. Peel," the alleged signatory, could be none other than George Peele, the dramatist, who achieved reputation in Shakespeare's early days, and was an industrious collector of anecdotes.
Thus the impish Steevens baited his hook. The sport which followed must have exceeded his expectations. Any one familiar with the bare outline of Elizabethan literary history should have perceived that a trap had been set. The letter was assigned to the year 1600. Shakespeare's play of Hamlet, to the performance of which it unconcernedly refers, was not produced before 1602; at that date George Peele had lain full four years in his grave. Peele could never have passed the portals of the theatre called the "Globe"; for it was not built until 1599. No historic tavern of the name is known. The surname of the person, to whom the letter was pretended to have been addressed, is suspicious. "Marle" was one way of spelling "Marlowe" at a period when forms of surnames varied with the caprice of the writer. The great dramatist, Christopher Marle, or Marloe, or Marlowe, had died in 1593. "Henrie Marle" is counterfeit coinage of no doubtful stamp.
The language and the style of the letter are undeserving of serious examination. They are of a far later period than the Elizabethan age. They cannot
be dated earlier than 1763. Safely might the heaviest odds be laid that in no year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth "did friende Marle promyse G. Peel his syster that he would send hyr watche and the cookerie book by the man," or that "Ned Alleyn made pleasante affirmation to G. Peel of friend Will's theft of the speech in Hamlet concerning an actor's excellencye."
From top to toe the imposture is obvious. But the general reader of the eighteenth century was confiding, unsuspicious, greedy of novel information. The description of the source of the document seemed to him precise enough to silence doubt.
The Theatrical Review of 1673 succeeded in launching the fraud on a quite triumphal progress. Again and again, as the century advanced, was G. Peel's declaration to "friende Marle" paraded, without hint of its falsity, before snappers-up of Shakespearean trifles. Seven years after its first publication, the epistle found admission in a slightly altered setting to so reputable a periodical as the Annual Register. Burke was still directing that useful publication, and whatever information the Register shielded, was reckoned to be of veracity. "G. Peel" and "friende Marle" were there in the year 1770, suffered to exchange their confidences in the most honourable environment.
Another seven years passed, and in 1777 there appeared an ambitious work of reference, entitled Biographia Literaria, or a Biographical History of