Shakespeare Quarterly 54.4 (2004) 371-405
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Pancakes and a Date for As You Like It
For shakespeare scholars the lacunae in basic information are so familiar that it is easy to lose touch with students' astonishment that there are no manuscripts of any Shakespeare plays and that we don't know the exact dates of their composition.1 Furthermore, there are only a very few precise records of contemporary performance. We know that Twelfth Night was performed in the Middle Temple on 2February 1602 because John Manningham has recorded it in his diary.2 But was this the first performance? Qui sait? as Montaigne might have asked. Instead, we play games of informed guesswork as to which was the earliest play, whether Romeo and Juliet preceded or followed A Midsummer Night's Dream,and so on, pitting different experts against each other. That initial amazement does not entirely vanish from the face of the novice even after initiation into these skills. In the case of As You Like It the current state-of-play with regard to date can be quickly summarized.
The absence of As You Like It from Frances Meres's list of plays in Palladis Tamia (1598) seems to preclude an earlier date for the play.3 Equally it cannot have been [End Page 371] later than August 1600, because on 4 August it was "staied" in the Stationers' Register, an order that usually preceded regular entry and subsequent printing but in this instance was not followed by a quarto text.4 The only text of the play is the 1623 Folio. Lukas Erne has recently argued that the date of 1600 for the staying order, assuming a text available for printing at a later date, would imply that the play was in performance eighteen months to two years earlier (which would push the date back to late 1598 or early 1599).5 The parameters for discussion of the date of As You Like It are thus bounded on the one side by 1598 and on the other by 1600. Within that two-year period it is anyone's guess.
The problem with the chronological narrative that must be constructed in order to make sense of the Shakespeare canon is that hypotheses about date quickly become the stuff of certainty. Tiffany Stern points out that the suggestion that As You Like It postdates the building of the Globe in 1599 originated in 1886 with the notoriously unreliable Fleay.6 It arises from the observation that Jaques's "All the world's a stage" speech (2.7.139-66) appears to echo the motto allegedly inscribed around the new theater's circumference: Totus mundus agit histrionem ("All the world plays the player"); but the existence of the motto is by no means certain.7 Despite the hypothesis having gained a degree of popular currency, it does not qualify as evidence.8 A calculation [End Page 372] of a date arising out of a possible topical reference to the Bishops' Order of 1 June 1599 for the burning of satirical books—arguably alluded to in "the little wit that fools have was silenced" (1.2.86)—is equally unconvincing; the license of satirists was a stock complaint in the 1590s.9 But it is easy for conjecture to be converted into authorized narrative, and unravelling that narrative is less easy than repeating it.10 Leeds Barroll's widely quoted research into the ways in which Shakespeare in the Jacobean period composed his plays in bunches according to whether he could see opportunities for performing them has not had as great an impact as one might expect on thinking about dates in either that period or in the 1590s.11
There has long been a tradition that As You Like It was produced at court on 2December 1603 when James I was at Wilton, making it the first Shakespeare play to be seen in the new reign, particularly suitable because of James's passion for hunting and the play's Sidney connections.12 The hypothesis was set...