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Dating As You Like It, Epilogues and Prayers, and the Problems of “As the Dial Hand Tells O’er”


The date of composition and early performance history of As You Like It are uncertain. This is partly because these topics are intimately associated: questions of date, occasion, and venue entail one another in a circular manner. “As the Dial Hand Tells O’er,” a poem from a manuscript anthology put together by Henry Stanford, has been proposed as the play’s epilogue and attributed to Shakespeare. The poem is dated 1598–99, mentions the Queen and Shrovetide, and has been linked to court performances of that year, specifically, to performances by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. As You Like It has been singled out as the play for which the poem was written, for a first performance on a Shrove Tuesday, so that Shakespeare becomes the obvious candidate for authorship. However, if we move backward along this chain of logic, these links become much less certain. The poem turns out to be formulaic and not readily related thematically to the play: it is more a prayer than an epilogue, its date is problematic, and it could be associated with any one of several Shrovetide performances at court by a number of companies—Jonson is a more likely candidate for authorship than Shakespeare. Terminal prayers may have been as common at court and private performances as terminal jigs were in the amphitheater playhouses. Because there are no positive terms, we must resist the temptation to construct a single narrative out of such evidence as we have.

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