On December 2, 1959, John Berryman, the poet and Shakespeare scholar, announced  to his publisher – obviously in a state of some excitement - that ‘”I have a staggering matter up my sleeve, a play called Guy of Warwick of the early 1590s, part Nashe’s, with an attack on Shakespeare not Nashe’s, which I’ve been studying for years … Please do not speak of this”’.

The ‘Guy of Warwick’ Berryman was so excited about was The Tragical History, Admirable Atchievments and various events of Guy earl of Warwick, printed in 1661, and ascribed on the title page to a ‘B.J.’. That this obscure play was actually from the 1590s and contained an attack on Shakespeare was not Berryman’s idea. Alfred Harbage had first suggested it 1941, having been struck by the following passage in Guy:

Rainborne. Art thou a Christian? prethee where wer't born?

Sparrow. Ifaith Sir I was born in England at Stratford upon Aven in Warwickshire.

Wer't born in England? what's thy name?

Nay I have a fine finical name, I can tell ye, for my name is Sparrow; yet I am not no house Sparrow, nor no hedge Sparrow, nor no peaking Sparrow, nor no sneaking Sparrow, but I am a high mounting lofty minded Sparrow, and that Parnell knows well enough, and a good many more of the pretty Wenches of our Parish ifaith.

Harbage argued that this passage with its specific reference to a “lofty minded” Sparrow from Stratford upon Avon “may be a glancing hit at Shakespeare, written when his mounting star was vexing new writers as well as old”. He suggested that the play was written ca. 1592-3, at a time when plays based on Romance heroes, such as Huon of Bordeaux in 1593, and Godfrey of Boulogne in 1594, were popular.

Harbage conjectured that Thomas Dekker may have been the author of Guy, based mainly on some very slight verbal parallels with Dekker’s known works. He assumed, without further discussion, that the ascription to ‘B.J.’ could not have genuinely referred to the obvious candidate - Ben Jonson - but was an invention of the publishers: "Thomas Vere and William Gilbertson, having a stray theatrical piece to vend, wished to suggest the name which in 1661 and for a few years ​thereafter headed the roll of honor of past writers for the stage."

There was no further scholarly attention given to Guy until 1954, when E.A.J. Honigmann pointed out in his Arden edition of Shakespeare's King John that there was a passage in that play that could support Harbage’s hypothesis that Sparrow in Guy was a satire on Shakespeare. The passage (Act 1, Scene 1) is as follows:

Enter Lady Faulconbridge and James Gurney

Bast. O me! ‘tis my mother. - How now, good lady?
What brings you here to court so hastily?

Lady F. Where is that slave, thy brother? where is he,
That holds in chase mine honour up and down?

Bast. My brother Robert? old Sir Robert’s son?
Colbrand the giant, that same mighty man?
Is it Sir Robert’s son that you seek so?

Lady F. Sir Robert’s son! Ay, thou unreverend boy –
Sir Robert’s son? – why scorn’st thou at Sir Robert?
He is Sir Robert’s son, and so art thou.

Bast. James Gurney, wilt thou give us leave awhile?

Gur. Good leave, good Philip.

Bastard                                           Philip? – sparrow! – James,
There’s toys abroad: anon I’ll tell thee more.
[Exit Gurney.

Honigmann commented that "It is curious that Shakespeare drags in the Guy story (l. 225), then recalls P.Sparrow (l. 231), whom B.J. first associated with Guy, adding “There’s rumours abroad”."

It was this note of Honigmann’s that had excited Berryman’s interest. His announcement to his publisher is in reference to a planned essay on King John. Berryman apparently believed that Guy was the work of Thomas Nashe in collaboration with another author, this unspecified other author being responsible for the 'attack' on Shakespeare (“part Nashe’s, with an attack on Shakespeare not Nashe’s”).​ Unfortunately, just as Berryman is about to reveal the identify of this other author ... the text trails off. We do not know if his planned essay on King John was ever completed, but if it was, it was never published. We only have this fragment published many years later.

Apart from Berryman's interest, Harbage’s radical proposal was ignored for over 40 years, until 2001 when Helen Cooper revived the idea, arguing that the play was probably written, or rewritten, in the early 1590s and that Sparrow was in part a satire on Shakespeare [‘Did Shakespeare play the Clown?’, TLS, 5116 (20 April, 2001), 26-7, an early summary version of Helen Cooper, ‘Guy of Warwick, Upstart Crows and Mounting Sparrows’, in Takashi Kozuka and J.R.Mulryne eds., Shakespeare, Marlowe, Jonson: New Directions in Biography (2006)]. Around the same time as Cooper, Michael Wood also embraced Harbage’s proposal. Like Berryman, Wood thought Nashe was involved, but, in contrast, thought Nashe (not Berryman's unspecified other author) was responsible for the parts of Guy that contained the ‘attack’ on Shakespeare.

It was Cooper’s paper which inspired me to look more deeply into Guy. I had been independently studying the play for a while, intrigued by what seemed to be a strong parallel between a long monologue about a dog by Lance in Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen Of Verona, and a long monologue, also about a dog, by Sparrow in Guy. It seemed to me that the two passages must be related, but at that stage I could not find compelling reasons to decide on the direction of influence: was Guy alluding to Two Gentlemen, or was it the other way round?

My first published paper on Guy, Links between Mucedorus and The Tragical History, Admirable Atchievments and Various Events of Guy Earl of Warwick, did not answer this question, but documented something I had noted while looking more closely at Guy. Sparrow’s lines contain a number of rare phrases that just happen to appear in a single scene in  Mucedorus, one of the most popular plays of the period. Since Mucedorus may have been seen at the time as  ‘a Shakespeare play’ because Shakespeare was the leading figure of the company who performed the play, this borrowing in Guy could be seen as a link between Sparrow and Shakespeare.

The first edition of Guy appeared in 2007 with Helen Moore’s Malone Society edition. Moore adopted an agnostic position on Harbage’s hypothesis about Sparrow, but did not countenance the possibility that Jonson could have been involved in Guy, stating unequivocally that the ascription to ‘B.J.’ was ‘spurious’.

By this time, I had privately developed a radical hypothesis about the date, authorship and backstory of Guy. In studying Two Gentlemen further because of the likely link with Guy, I had been struck by the fact that (1) the traditional dating of Two Gentlemen as ‘early’, perhaps even Shakespeare’s first play, had placed editors in a very awkward position. Two Gentlemen shares many features with later Shakespeare plays, but rather than simply deduce that this was because it was written around the same time as those plays, editors had to explain away these associations as ‘anticipations’ of later work, and (2) many scholars believed that the clown Lance and his dog Crab in Two Gentlemen were a late addition to the text as we have it. This suggested to me that Two Gentlemen was probably written later than commonly believed, and that Lance and Crab may be used by Shakespeare to allude to a topical event – Crab, in particular, being a suspiciously unusual character; he is, after all, a dog. Looking for such a topical event, I found (to my surprise) a very large and very likely candidate indeed - the notorious Isle of Dogs affair.

In July 1597 a play called The Isle of Dogs was performed at one of the theatres on the Bankside. The Privy Council was unhappy with it, describing it as a "lewd plaie…contanynge very seditious and sclanderous matter", and ordered all the public theatres closed for the rest of the summer. Thomas Nashe was held to be primarily responsible for the play, but escaped the authorities by fleeing to Great Yarmouth. Ben Jonson was also implicated, both as co-author and actor, but did not escape punishment, being imprisoned, along with two other actors, in the Marshalsea. This was no trivial matter. Richard Topcliffe, Queen Elizabeth's master torturer, was brought in to interrogate Jonson. Eventually, an order for the release of Jonson and the others was given on October 2. No copies of The Isle of Dogs survived the government's crackdown on the play, so we know frustratingly little about it.

The Isle of Dogs itself was a peninsula in the Thames known for its wet, marshy conditions. It has been suggested that the play "may have glanced at members of the court circle and possibly at the queen herself, whose palace at Greenwich lay opposite the Isle of Dogs, down river from the city" [Ian Donaldson, ‘Jonson, Benjamin (1572–1637)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004)]. Useful background material on The Isle of Dogs is available here.

In Why a Dog? A Late Date for The Two Gentlemen of Verona I put forward my hypothesis that Lance and Crab in Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona were a satire on Nashe and Jonson for their roles in the Isle of Dogs affair. Since The Isle of Dogs was performed in July 1597, the corollary to my hypothesis was that Two Gentlemen had been written in late 1597 or in 1598, much later than anyone had previously suspected - in fact, almost a decade later than the date assigned by 'early dating' commentators, who put it as far back as 1588, and generally regarded it as Shakespeare's first play.  

In a follow-up paper, Ben Jonson's 'Villanous Guy', I argued that the clown Sparrow in Guy is, in fact, Jonson's own satirical response to Shakespeare's satire on him in Two Gentlemen, and that Thomas Dekker alludes to this in Satiromastix. Based on my proposed dating of Two Gentlemen in late 1597 or early 1598, I suggested Guy was probably written and performed not long after, in the first or second quarter of 1598.