Obituary: Leslie Hotson
Thursday 03 December 1992
ONCE in every generation a scholar emerges in most academic disciplines who manages so to juxtapose the gleanings of personal research with received opinion on the subject as to create something startingly new. Leslie Hotson was one such. Since his work was centred on the life and times of William Shakespeare, his innovative insights became of instant interest not only to the Shakespeare buffs in Departments of English Literature on both sides of the Atlantic, but to an international public of lay readers.
The technique that he was to employ to achieve this distinction manifested itself first in The Death of Christopher Marlowe (1925). Marrying assiduous research in the Public Record Office with the narrative skills of a Dorothy Sayers or an Agatha Christie, he succeeded in endowing the dry historical facts he had uncovered with an exciting sense of intrigue and discovery more normally associated with detective fiction than literary criticism. By so doing he lifted Marlowe out of the murk of Bankside's pubs and stews and placed him in a far more sinister world of government spies and counter-intelligence in the years following the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots and the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
By following this up with the finding of the letters of the poet Shelley addressed to his wife about the breakdown of their marriage that led to her subsequent suicide, and their publication in 1930 in Shelley's Lost Letters to Harriet, Hotson secured his reputation as a scholarly sleuth of exceptional virtuosity.
Adoption of a similar approach to particular aspects of Shakespeare's plays produced Shakespeare versus Shallow (1931) and Shakespeare's Motley (1952), with a string of equally controversial articles published in the years between. In the latter book he cast new light on the place of court fools in Tudor society from Will Somers to Robert Armin, as well as on Shakespeare's many fools; but his championship of one of the Surrey Magistrates, William Gardiner, as the sitter for Shakespeare's portrait of Justice Shallow has proved to be less convincing.
Born in Canada, but resident in New York and educated at Harvard, Hotson won travel awards which took him to London and to the Public Record Office. Enabled thus to complete his Ph D thesis on dramatic activity precariously undertaken during the Civil War and Cromwell's Protectorate, the resultant Commonwealth and Restoration Stage (1928) remains the standard work on this neglected area of theatre history and obligatory reading for students today.
Service with the US Army during the war again brought him to Europe and renewed his appetite for tracking down aspects of Shakespeare's work that had escaped earlier scholars. His first post-war target was the Sonnets. In Shakespeare's Sonnets Dated (1949) he sought to establish them as written before Shakespeare turned his pen to the service of the stage. This was a subject to which he returned again in Mr WH (1964), thus challenging AL Rowse by refuting his identification both of the dedicatee and of the Dark Lady and substituting his own.
By then, Hotson was fully accustomed to the storm of controversy that his arguments and evidence were calculated to provoke: opponents found it very difficult to overthrow the former without first refuting the latter. He had used the same approach when turning his attention to the staging of Elizabethan plays in The First Night of Twelfth Night (which he claimed to have been commissioned for court performance 'in the round' and not on a raised stage backed by hall-screen and gallery: 1954), and again in Shakespeare's Wooden O (1959), in which he argued that the basis of the design of the first Globe Theatre was a medieval-style pageant- wagon set down in an open yard surrounded by a three-tiered polygonal frame. For good measure, by identifying the playhouse depicted in the British Library's unique copy of The View of the Cittye of London from the North towards the South (c1600) as the Curtain, he was able to tell his readers that Henry V received its first performance there and not at the Globe. Thirty years on, while it remains possible to bring in a Scottish verdict of 'not proven' on Hotson's contentions about Elizabethan theatre design and practice as presented in both books, the evidence he employed to support them is still formidable enough to command respect and to warn students against outright rejection of all of them.
If the whole corpus of Hotson's published work in English Renaissance Drama, ranging as it does from the 1530s to 1660, seems idiosyncratic and eclectic, a unifying strain is detectable in an unwavering sense of mischief which, from the 1930s until the publication of Shakespeare by Hilliard (1977), underpinned his meticulous and exhaustive exhumations from dusty archives. Designed to shock, infuriate, stimulate and please, his narrative style ensured that all this work would be as widely scrutinised by critics and reviewers as it would command readers. And nowhere is that spirit of academic mischief-making better captured than in the following passage from his own Prologue to Shakespeare's Wooden O:
Now for the first time we can understand and visualise the stage of the Globe. But on coming to give an account of it, why not begin at the end, with the game bagged? In emulation of the old tracker, why not make the sight of his captured quarry bring forth the story of the chase? In a murder mystery, we do not object to being offered an end at the very beginning. On the contrary, the detective in each of us finds this method agreeably stirring.
How better to start the book itself than with a chapter entitled 'Scandal Packs the Globe'?
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