Michael J. Hirrel

Mike Hirrel is a trial and appellate lawyer who is also a scholar of the literary and early stage history of Elizabethan period plays.


Sometimes ah sets an’ thinks, an’ sometimes ah jes sets.
          Pogo (as I remember it, anyway)

As you see above, I’m a trial and appellate litigator, who has represented both private clients and the United States in commercial and antitrust disputes, primarily in telecommunications industry matters. I also do Shakespeare scholarship, specifically the literary and early stage history of Elizabethan period plays. I bring to my scholarship the same detached analytic methods that are used by every successful litigator. I don’t approach this work with any favored prior theories.

I’m completing a book about Thomas Kyd’s Hamlet, the predecessor play, now lost, of Shakespeare’s. The book first examines the early play’s authorship, date and stage history. It then undertakes a detailed reconstruction, supported by substantial evidence, of the early play itself. It concludes with observations about how Shakespeare changed the play and why. Kyd’s play, in sum, resembled Shakespeare’s more closely than we might think. But Shakespeare made important changes, rearranging the chronology of events, introducing significant ambiguity into the characters and motives of Hamlet, Claudius, Laertes and Ophelia, and providing a different ending.

I grew up near Gulfport Mississippi. I earned my BA in history and English from Boston College in 1973, and my JD from George Washington University law school in 1977. I’m a member of the District of Columbia and Florida bars, the US Supreme Court bar, and the bars of the District of Columbia, 9th and 10th Circuit federal Courts of Appeals. When I was in private practice I earned an individual “AV” rating from Martindale-Hubbell, based on the evaluations of lawyers who knew my work and judges before whom I had appeared, the highest rating for both legal skill and ethics. I live in Arlington Virginia.

Michael Hirrel


“Duration of Performances and Lengths of Plays: How Shall We Beguile the Lazy Time?,” Shakespeare Quarterly 61 (2010): 159-82.

Elizabethan performance events lasted almost four hours, play performance times varied, and the residual time was taken up by incidental entertainment. In that flexible vehicle, the long plays of Shakespeare and Jonson could have been and probably were performed essentially as written.

“The Roberts Memoranda: A Solution,” Review of English Studies 61 (2010): 711-28.

Fly-leaf entries on the Stationers’ Company register reflect two Court of Assistants proceedings in which the Lord Chamberlain’s Company sought to prevent James Roberts from printing six of their plays, including three by Shakespeare and one by Jonson.

“When Did Gabriel Harvey Write His Famous Note?,” Huntington Library Quarterly 75 (2012): 291-99.

Harvey’s often cited “note” is actually five separate notes written over a long period of time. The note concerning Hamlet was written after the play was published, and thus reveals nothing about the date on which Shakespeare wrote the play.

Alcazar, the Lord Admiral’s, and Aspects of Performance,” Review of English Studies 66 (2015): 40-59.

We lack a detailed early performance chronology for any Elizabethan play, but we can discover one for George Peele’s 1588 The Battle of Alcazar. To do so we must examine several issues important in constructing the history of the Lord Admiral’s acting company and in apprehending Elizabethan stage practices generally.

“Thomas Watson, Playwright: Origins of Modern English Drama,” in David McInnis and Matthew Steggle, eds., Lost Plays in Shakespeare’s England (Basingstoke UK, Palgrave MacMillan, 2014).

Modern English drama did not begin with The Spanish Tragedy and Tamburlaine, but was being developed in the late 1570s and early 1580s. The plays are now lost, but the evidence shows that Thomas Watson performed a pivotal role in this gestational period.

Performance reviews

Der Bestrafte Brudermord (The Punished Fratricide), in Shakespeare Bulletin 28 (2010): 578-82. (What did German audiences see when visiting English players of the Elizabethan period performed plays in English?)

The Fair Maid of the West, in Shakespeare Bulletin 29 (2011): 418-22. (Did playwrights such as Heywood, Marston and Webster intentionally write two meanings into their lines, one straight and one ironic?)

Henry VIII and The Blind Beggar of Alexandria, in Shakespeare Bulletin 30 (2012): 79-80. (“Great actors make so-so scripts good plays. And the last decade gave us two memorable examples.”)


Meet Ben Jonson!, a one act satire concerning the foibles and peculiarities of Elizabethan playwright Ben Jonson, performed October 26, 2011, at the Sixth Blackfriars Conference, Staunton VA

Papers, Talks, Seminars and Miscellaneous

“Kyd’s Hamlet,” October 27, 2007, Fourth Blackfriars Conference, Staunton VA

“Speaking of Shakespeare,” a talk concerning the “Duration of Performance” article and other topics, as directed by the moderator and audience, March 21, 2011, Shakespeare Guild, National Arts Club, NY

“A Play Perhaps Not Lost: Henslowe’s Mahomet and Peele’s Alcazar,” Lost Plays in Early Modern England, Seminar, March 30, 2013, Shakespeare Association of America annual meeting, Toronto Canada

“Marlowe’s Mortography Once Again,” June 25, 2013, Seventh International Marlowe Conference, Marlowe Society of America, Staunton VA

“Forklifts and Frolics at the Folger,” Shakespeare Newsletter, 65:1, Summer 2013, p. 7.

“Severed Heads on the Elizabethan Stage,” OUPblog, March 15, 2015.

The Wars of Cyrus: Date (and Authorship),”  March 24, 2016, Shakespeare Association of America annual meeting, New Orleans LA.




Here I’m going to post my occasional musings on Shakespeare scholarly matters, the most recent at the top.

The Arc of a New Elizabethan Play: From Conception to Performance

One of the hot debates among scholars concerns whether Shakespeare wrote his plays principally conceiving them to be literature or principally for the purpose of performance. It surely is no secret that although I count the first group among my good friends, I fall into the latter school. And if we think of Shakespeare’s plays as written principally for performance, I would add, we will understand them much better as literature. The plays’ shapes, their warps and their woofs, arise because they were written with performance in mind.

Why Do We Do Scholarship?

The current issue of PMLA landed in my mailbox with a thud. It reminded me again why I worry about the future of language and literature scholarship. The study of languages and literatures is immensely important. But I fear that we scholars are unintentionally undermining the importance of our own work.

Of Scholars and Narratives

At the Shakespeare Association of America’s recent annual meeting in Vancouver one of the most frequently repeated buzzwords was “narrative,” always with disapproval, as if “narrative” were a term of disparagement. I’m puzzled why the word has acquired this pejorative connotation. There are of course bad narratives, ones which are misleading or unsupported, or which unreasonably associate unrelated facts, but why would we classify all narratives as bad?

Michael J. Hirrel


Ask me questions, or disagree with me, concerning matters of scholarly opinion related to Shakespeare and Elizabethan plays by contacting me at Michael J. Hirrel. Include your name on the email. I will do my best to respond appropriately. Do keep in mind that I’m not a reference service and I won’t write your term paper for you.

If I believe that your question and my answer would be interesting to other readers I will post them here, the most recent at the top. You agree, unless you say otherwise, to let me do that, to edit your question for clarity and brevity, and to use your name.

Dear Mr. Hirrel,

Having noticed that you are both a Shakespeare scholar and a lawyer, I wonder if you’ve had the opportunity to read Justice Stevens’s celebrated 1992 article in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, “The Shakespeare Canon of Statutory Construction,” arguing that Shakespeare’s plays actually were written by Edward de Vere, England’s 17th Earl of Oxford?

I also wonder why so many orthodox Shakespeareans continue to insist on the reality of an early version of Hamlet by Thomas Kyd, when we have the Hamlet First Quarto version in hand, and it is, as Steven Urkowitz, Eddie Jolly, and many others have suggested, pretty manifestly an early authorial draft of Shakespeare’s play, predating the versions which are considered to be standard. Perhaps your book will convince me otherwise.

Best Regards,

Roger Stritmatter, PhD
Professor, Department of Humanities,
Coppin State University


Dear Prof. Stritmatter,

You raise two very good questions in one letter. I cannot do either of them justice in my answer, but I shall sally forth as best I can.

Justice Stevens is well known for his Oxfordian advocacy, among non-lawyers perhaps better than for his Supreme Court opinions. He certainly took a great interest in the matter. He regularly sent over to the Folger Library next door for books, apparently not realizing that the Folger is not a lending library. The Folger complied, but don’t ask if you aren’t a Supreme Court Justice. Lawyers in general are also associated with Oxfordian advocacy. So much so that when I first “came out” as a Shakespeare scholar, I was often asked by my fellow scholars, when they learned that I am a lawyer, whether I was advocating for Oxford.

Well, no, actually. I believe the case for Shakespeare, and against Oxford, is overwhelming and beyond a reasonable doubt. I can’t review all the evidence here. Let me just recommend two works that take on the task: Shakespeare in Fact by the late Irvin Matus and “The Question of Authorship” by David Kathman (in Wells and Orlin, eds., Oxford Guide to Shakespeare). Both Matus and Kathman write as independent scholars, so they have no vested interest in the outcome. Both review the evidence thoroughly, straightforwardly, and without condescension.

Matus and Kathman share one characteristic not, however, possessed by Justice Stevens and other lawyer advocates of Oxford. They are Elizabethan period scholars. Kathman in particular has spent many thousands of hours rooting through Elizabethan documents. The knowledge one acquires from being a period scholar is important in evaluating the evidence here. Justice Stevens and other Oxford advocates who are not period scholars apply by default the cultural assumptions embedded in their own experiences of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Those assumptions will often lead to error when they are applied to Elizabethan period evidence. The Elizabethan cultural milieu was different from ours.

Justice Stevens examines at some length, for example, the variations on how Shakespeare spelled his name, then briefly concedes that “incorrect spelling was common in Elizabethan England.” Well no, not exactly. There was then no such thing as correct or incorrect spelling. “Correct” spelling was an invention of the 18th Century. In Elizabethan times one could spell as one wished, as long as the letters more or less approximated one of the word’s pronunciations, which themselves also often varied. And Stevens notes in a footnote that “spelling of one’s name was often simply a matter only of personal whimsy.” It was in fact common for folks to use various spellings of their own names. It really wasn’t a matter of “whimsy.” Elizabethans simply did not value consistency the way we do.

Perhaps one reason for that difference is that theirs was still largely an oral culture. They relied much more than we on memorization, and much less on written records. That difference accounts for many other facts which Oxford partisans find puzzling. Shakespeare’s bad handwriting, for example. Penmanship was learned by young men training to be scriveners, scribes or clerks. Almost everyone else’s handwriting was what we would call deplorable. They didn’t need good handwriting, and paper and ink were far too expensive to be wasted on training school children in penmanship.

The paucity of records concerning Shakespeare, which Oxford partisans find so surprising, is partly attributable to this same cultural difference, the lesser reliance on records altogether in Elizabethan England. And because records were not considered as important as we consider them, any that were created were more likely to be disposed of. Often, literally, for use as toilet paper. Remember, paper was expensive then. Any records that did survive may have been destroyed in subsequent events, as in the great London fire of 1666.

And there is a final reason for the paucity of records concerning Shakespeare. We tend to think that there should be more because Shakespeare was in fact a literary genius. Elizabethans, on the other hand, regarded him as one of contemporary England’s several excellent writers. By about the mid-1590s his name seems to have drawn patrons to the Globe to hear his plays; thus at about this time stationers began to put his name on prints of his plays, and even on prints of plays that were not his. His and others’ virtues as writers were recognized by Meres in 1598. And although lavish encomiums were customary upon the publication of any important new book, those accompanying publication of the First Folio in 1623 do seem sincere. But nothing suggests that Elizabethans regarded Shakespeare as The Immortal Bard, whose every utterance and every scrap of paper should reverently be preserved.

Let me just say, Prof. Stritmatter, that although you classify me as an “orthodox Shakespearean,” I am anything but. Everything I write challenges some orthodoxy or another. If I didn’t have something new to say, I wouldn’t write anything at all. But I am an Elizabethan period scholar. And when I look at the near conclusiveness of the evidence regarding Shakespeare’s authorship, a more interesting question occurs to me. Why do folks insist on making this an issue?

I think the answer is that all intelligent and accomplished people possess at least a small engine of ego and ambition. We want to believe that with all our education, intelligence, and accomplishments we too should be able to write like Shakespeare. But we can’t. So how could an ill-educated countryman from Stratford write like that? A man who seems more interested in collecting the rents on his properties than in literature? A man whose authentic bust, in the memorable words of Stanley Wells, more closely resembles a “self-satisfied pork butcher” than a literary genius? Surely, what must have been required here were advantages that we ourselves were denied. A great inheritance, an earldom, and an Oxbridge education.

Yet if an inheritance, an earldom and an Oxbridge education were sufficient to produce a Shakespeare, we should by now have several hundred of them. We don’t. The simple truth is that Shakespeare was a one in ten billion, and still counting, phenomenon. No matter how ordinary he may seem in his quotidian affairs, he happened to possess a genius not granted to any other mortal who has ever lived. And that would be just as true even if he were an earl. So why must he be an earl?

The particular nature of Shakespeare’s genius may be unique, but the general phenomenon is not. You can name your own candidate, perhaps Einstein or Picasso, both rather ordinary people in most respects. Einstein could not pass high school math. My own candidate would be Giacomo Puccini. A rather unlikeable little man, really. But how his music does soar! When I hear Turandot I feel that I have by mistake ascended to heaven. The evidence that the Earl of Oxford was not Puccini is even more conclusive than that he was not Shakespeare.

Well, OK, sorry, I have gone on too long on your first question, and neglected the second. Yes, as I hope I will show in my book, the evidence is as strong as we may reasonably expect that Thomas Kyd wrote the original Hamlet. He wrote the play late in 1589, about three years after he had written The Spanish Tragedy, which he mirrored in Hamlet. I’ll show the circumstances, and the reasons why he wrote a competing play at that time.

Shakespeare changed the order of the plot, revised the language, and, most importantly, added significant moral ambiguity. The play we know could only have been written by Shakespeare. Nevertheless, the play’s underlying structure and much of its language was created and written by a literary genius of lesser, but still great, talent. Thomas Kyd.

The relationship between the First Quarto version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the early play is a vexed question. It isn’t the 1589 play itself. Its contents don’t match several descriptions of that play. But I believe, as you suggest, that the First Quarto version does have a relationship with the early Hamlet. It was based, as I hope my book will show, on Shakespeare’s first version of Hamlet, written in 1601. That version was in several respects closer to Shakespeare’s principal source in Kyd’s play. Shakespeare revised Hamlet in 1603, creating the play we know today.

Yours truly,

Mike Hirrel


Dear Mike,

I note that you begin your essay on Thomas Watson with the claim that Watson “surely was the most important playwright in English none of whose plays survive.” Isn’t that an oxymoron? If Watson was so important, how come none of his plays survive?

Very truly yours, Michael J. Hirrel


Dear Mr. Hirrel,

Inasmuch as you are my harshest critic, I want to express my appreciation to you for writing this very good question. I’ll ignore the argumentative slip of logic in the question—some such playwright necessarily was the most important one—and deal with the substantive issue that you raise. Let’s get the ball rolling on this feature of my web site.

The fact that we don’t have a play published under Watson’s name doesn’t actually tell us that he wasn’t an important playwright. Watson wrote his most influential plays, I believe, in the decade between 1577 and 1587. By 1587 he had been overtaken by his own younger friends, and, as I conceive it, protégés, Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe.

Modern-style popular stage plays written before 1587 were essentially never published. The Episcopal book censors, as I note in my essay, probably did not allow such publication. And stationers may not yet have realized that such plays could make profitable books. It wasn’t until 1590 that the first modern style popular stage play, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, was published. Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy followed in 1592. Both had been written around 1587. Thus Watson, who died in 1592, may have missed his window of opportunity for this form of print immortality.

The possibility exists, moreover, that plays by Watson were published, but without his name. From 1590 until about 1598, modern style popular stage plays almost all were published anonymously. Many plays thereafter were as well. We are able to identify authors, to the extent we can, only because of historical accident.

The Spanish Tragedy itself, for example, was published in ten editions from 1592 through 1633. None of those editions identifies the author. We know the author was Kyd only because: 1) Thomas Heywood in his ca. 1608 Apology for Actors casually and incidentally refers to “M. Kid, in his Spanish Tragedy, . . .”; and 2) bookseller Edward Archer attributes the play to “Tho. Kyte” in his 1656 list of plays books for sale. No one doubts that Marlowe wrote Tamburlaine, but the evidence is slight. Tamburlaine was published in four editions from 1590 through 1606. None identifies the author. Our attribution arises because: 1) Greene, Harvey and Heywood all seem to allude to Marlowe’s authorship; and 2) bookseller Francis Kirkman attributes the play to Marlowe in his 1661 list of play books for sale.

So it is entirely possible that a play by Watson actually was published, anonymously in the ordinary course, and that no historical accident has revealed him to be the author.

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