The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 24.0258  Friday, 24 May 2013


From:        Gerald E. Downs <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         May 23, 2013 1:17:56 AM EDT

Subject:     Simon Forman and Tannenbaum


In their second paragraph on Collier’s “hundreds of falsifications” Arthur and Janet Ing Freeman rightly assert that “by far the more insidious mischief is by way of ‘report’ . . . e.g., ‘I have before me’ a copy of a now-unlocated text, or ‘A friend of mine informs me’, etc., etc.” (John Payne Collier: Scholarship and Forgery, xii). Although the Freemans devote over 1500 pages to their subject, it is not exhausted and their warning shouldn’t be forgotten. It applies specially to those documents among the massive “questioned data” (QD) accepted as “certainly genuine” (grade A, per the authors). Presumably, no one wants phony documents or reports taken as genuine; conversely, the genuine should be accepted. Collier’s hoaxes are often pretty certain. But QD’s may be accepted on faulty or incomplete investigation or they may be accepted for reasons external to inquiry; we want them to be true or we receive our opinions hook, line, and donut. Some ‘A’ cases should remain open, especially if smacking of the ‘insidious report.’ Such a one is “Simon Forman’s Book of Plays.”


Collier’s New Particulars Regarding the Works of Shakespeare (1836) is full of flunking QD’s. In this bad company the Forman Notes get an A. I’ll revisit the case as far as I’ve seen it, and from the perspective of Dr. S. A. Tannenbaum’s condemnation. That is, Dr. T condemns the Notes, for which he is himself condemned in the roundest terms (unjustly, in my opinion). First, here’s Collier’s ‘report.’


> When I was at Oxford, six or seven years ago,

> looking for materials for the History of Dramatic

> Poetry and the Stage [you guessed it], I heard of

> the existence, in the Bodleian Library, of a Manuscript

> containing notes on the performance of some of

> Shakespeare’s plays, written by a person who saw

> them acted during the life-time of the poet. These

> would have been a great prize to me [if not the Bozo

> who informed J.P.], and I made long and repeated

> searches for them, but without success. The fact is,

> that I was accidentally put on the wrong scent; and,

> had I been put upon a right one, in that immense

> receptacle of rarities, I might easily have failed in

> making the wished-for discovery. The MSS. were not

> then as well arranged as at present, and even now,

> without previous and correct information, the most

> eager hunt might someday be ineffectual. Not long

> since a gentleman of my acquaintance, of peculiar

> acquirements, was employed to make a catalogue of

> the Ashmolean MSS. only, and he, very unexpectedly,

> found among them the notes I had anxiously sought in

> a different direction. He instantly forwarded a copy of

> them to me (New Particulars, 6).


Tannenbaum objects to this report for reasons of no consequence if the Notes are genuine. Yet it fits the insidious pattern (and then some). As it happens, part of the story has been verified and used to credit the whole. I’ll get to that, but Dr. T makes these observations (condensed):


a) Collier could have said more of his first informant, who might have verified the tale and said why the Notes weren’t publicized sooner.


b) Where were Hunter, Knight, Singer, Dyce, Ritson, and Halliwell?


c) Why no details about the ‘wrong scent’ if Collier isn’t the skunk?


d) Why not consult others, including Bliss and Bandinel?


f) The report is worded as if the MS. had not been catalogued previously. Yet Anthony à Wood, Bernard, Ritson, and Philip Bliss all studied the document without mentioning the Shakespeare Notes.


e) Tannenbaum didn’t believe a gentleman cataloguer had found the Notes and “instantly forwarded a copy” to Collier.


So his case is alert to Collier’s vague introductory habit that in other instances is a dead giveaway. Provenance is so important that lack of records nowadays dooms claims of authenticity. Collier traded on his word until (and after) he was caught; and yet the Forman Notes escape the stigma in replies to Tannenbaum. Knowledge of a six-page ‘Book of Plays’ predating Collier could obviate further argument and save trouble since Dr. T covers a lot of ground; but a vague report is still a red flag.


In 1947 (RES 23) Dover Wilson and R. W. Hunt observed that W. H. Black began to catalogue the Ashmolean collection in 1830. He left a note stating that “I made a transcript of this curious article, in 1832, for my friend J. P. Collier, which he designed to print. He did so, but without the old orthography”; which seems to be taken as evidence of genuine Forman Notes.


J. H. P. Pafford (RES 1959) quotes Joseph Hunter, New illustrations of. . . Shakespeare: “My attention was first drawn to these notes of Forman by my friend Dr. Bliss (to whom everything of this kind at Oxford is perfectly familiar), at the meeting of the British Association at Oxford in the summer of 1832.” Tannenbaum discounted Hunter’s statement but Pafford asserts it is a


> “strong piece of evidence in favour of authenticity . . .

> because this is the first published record of the

> discovery and is in no way associated with Collier. . . .

> Tannenbaum believes that Bliss would have seen the

> notes when he used Ashmole 208 for his edition of

> Wood's Athenae Oxonienses (1813-20). There is little

> reason to think that he did not do so: it is true that he

> did not publish the notes; but it would seem that he had

> spread news of his find, for, if Collier is truthful (and the

> question must be begged), someone knew and had been

> speaking about the notes before 1830.


These inferences strike me as particularly weak when the alternative is a minute examination of the physical evidence by persons qualified to judge, as Tannenbaum repeatedly advocated. Taking the last statement first: if Bliss had seen the notes before 1820 he apparently kept the knowledge to himself (not even telling his pal Hunter) and Collier never asked one “perfectly familiar”; that’s reason to think Bliss hadn’t seen them. However, without corroboration the question is moot (unless it’s asked of the other silent early investigators). There’s no evidence Bliss provided Collier’s initial (reported) info. Besides, “if Collier is truthful . . .” is a nonstarter. Collier wasn’t truthful; he was a serial faker.


The only evidence that counts in these reports is their dates. To say Hunter’s remark isn’t associated with Collier begs the other questions. Collier asserts that “six or seven years” before 1836 he was put on a wrong scent. We can’t trust the date (1830) as far as his involvement, but that’s the year Black began his work. It’s a fair presumption that Collier discussed his (reported) search with Black, who copied the Notes expressly for the soon-to-be-infamous huckster. Further, Hunter’s date coincides with Black’s “discovery.” There’s no reason to back-date these checks; as far as we know, Collier may be behind everyone’s info. The issue may be decided on other grounds, but skepticism based on the insidious report syndrome is still a good idea.


Tannenbaum’s critics (Collier’s apologists, in effect) often seem naïve in their failure to realize both the forger’s advantages and his capacity for gamesmanship. For instance, Wilson assumes one simple item will “convince most people that Dr. Tannenbaum has troubled us all with yet another fancy forgery”:


> “Towards the end of the account of The Winter's Tale

there occurs the following sentence . . . 'Remember also

> the Rog that cam in all tottered like coll pixci.' . . . [In the

OED] under 'colt-pixie', of which 'colle-pixie' is a . . . variant,

> I found that the goblin horse was generally represented as

> 'ragged'. Hence the point of Forman's 'tottered' or 'tattered'

> . . . . Quite a pretty stroke on Forman's part! and one hardly

> possible except to one who carried away with him a vivid

> recollection of the play in action. Yet . . .  it was conceivable

> that Collier may have known [the expression]. Happily he

> himself provides the proof that he did not. The sentence I

> have given above appears thus in the transcript printed in

> his New Particulars: 'Remember, also, the Rogue that came

> in all tattered, like Coll Pipci.'1 In other words, he did not

> recognize the expression when he saw it.”


Collier apparently used Black’s transcript, which he modernized. If the original was forged it would be in Collier’s interest to distance himself from manuscript spellings and to take advantage of mistranscription. Nothing would be easier, though it’s hard to believe Collier wouldn’t want to see the manuscript he had searched for (if his tale is true) to apply his expertise. And is coll pixci “hardly possible” for Collier to have written? Collier had a world of trivia to work with and no one was better read. It’s no surprise that Black failed to recognize the phrase but he’s in a different category from one who picks the material. Dover Wilson’s argument has no value, pretty strokes notwithstanding.


Wilson acknowledges evidence adduced by Joseph Q. Adams from the Macbeth Notes that is more telling: “the writer, though professing to describe an actual performance, obviously relies to some considerable degree upon Holinshed”. So much for vivid recollection. No wonder J.Q. distrusted the Notes; they’re not kinds of writing that depend (in normal circumstances) on reference works for their haphazard phrasings. The probability that Forman would consult Holinshed is nil. So far Adams and Tannenbaum look pretty good.


Gerald E. Downs


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