A common technique to deal with this dilemma is to go ahead and note the association, but just say it is ‘curious’. It’s a pretty good strategy. If you turn out to be right, the association was worth noting, and you get the credit; if it turns out you were wrong, well, all you said was that it was curious.
E.A.J. Honigmann used this technique when glossing the following passage in his 1954 Arden edition of King John:
Enter Lady Faulconbridge and James Gurney
Bastard O me! ‘tis my mother. - How now, good lady?
What brings you here to court so hastily?
Lady Faulconbridge Where is that slave, thy brother? where is he,
That holds in chase mine honour up and down?
Bastard 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 Faulconbridge 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.
Bastard James Gurney, wilt thou give us leave awhile?
Gurney Good leave, good Philip.
Bastard Philip? – sparrow! – James,
There’s toys abroad: anon I’ll tell thee more.
Honigmann noted that the passage "would suit A. Harbage's thesis that Guy Earl of Warwick (1661) ('by B.J.') contains an early satire of Shakespeare ... It is curious that Shakespeare drags in the Guy story [by referring to Colbrand, the giant who Guy fights and defeats in the romance legend of Guy of Warwick] ... then recalls P.Sparrow ... whom B.J. first associated with Guy, adding ‘There’s rumours abroad’”.
In other words, it looks like the passage is a response by Shakespeare to being satirised as the clown Sparrow in Guy of Warwick. A number of scholars believe that the passage is exactly that. Helen Cooper discusses it at length in Guy of Warwick, Upstart Crows and Mounting Sparrows, Katherine Duncan-Jones accepts it in Shakespeare, Guy of Warwick, and Chines of Beef, and even Helen Moore, who is not committed to Harbage’s hypothesis, concedes in her Malone Society Edition of Guy of Warwick that it is “undoubtedly ‘curious’”.
A key, albeit very short, role in this pasage is that of James Gurney (spelled alternately ‘Gurney’ and ‘Gournie’ in the First Folio, but also spelled ‘Gournay’ at the time). James Gurney enters with Lady Faulconbridge, says one line, ‘Good leave, good Philip’, then exits. It’s not a role for the ages, though Samuel Taylor Coleridge was apparently quite excited by it [Specimens of the Table Talk of S.T.Coleridge]:
“For an instance of Shakespeare’s power in minimis, I generally quote James Gurney’s character in King John. How individual and comical he is with the four words allowed to his dramatic life!”
Ignoring Coleridge’s excess of zeal (or laudanum), we can see that James Gurney’s only real purpose in the passage is to serve as the prompt for the Bastard’s outburst “Philip? – sparrow! – James, There’s toys abroad”, as Helen Cooper noted:
“The juxtaposition of Colbrand and Sparrow suggests at the least an association on Shakespeare's own part. It also raises the further possibility that the [Bastard's] exclamation had some immediate and topical point recognisable by both players and audience ... Gurney, to whom the 'Sparrow' remark is made, seems to be introduced only in order to give the excuse for it.” [my italics]
This should put us on the alert for any other oddities about James Gurney, and there is indeed another one - that he is called James Gurney at all. That is, it is odd that this inconsequential character is fully named. Characters with only one line in Shakespeare are usually just given a generic name ('Page’, 'Gentleman’, 'Commoner' etc), or at most only a first name (see Shakespeare characters, sorted by number of lines). The First Folio doesn’t tell us who James Gurney actually is, but he is usually assumed to be a servant, so why does Shakespeare go to the bother of fully naming him? Just ‘Servant’ would have sufficed, or if something more personal was required (though it doesn’t seem to be, really), just ‘James’ would have been fine. But ‘James Gurney’? Why did Shakespeare bother to give him a full name, and why did he make it ‘Gurney’?
Originally, I suspected that the answer to this question might lie in an allusion to some historical figure called Gurney, but after much fruitless Googling of the Gurneys I could only come to this conclusion - the family didn’t leave much of a mark on history. This left one alternative: that the meaning of the name itself might be the point. Since the etymology of the name Gurney is not of great general interest, this also led to much fruitless searching. Eventually, however, I stumbled on the following: Daniel Gurney, Supplement To The Record Of The House Of Gournay, London, 1858, a tome from the 19th century dedicated to the ‘House of Gournay’. On page 725, there’s a section on the origin of the name Gurney.
If you have read the Background or Papers section of this blog you will know my hypothesis: the clown Sparrow in Guy of Warwick is a satirical response to Shakespeare’s original satire of the Isle of Dogs affair in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Sparrow’s genesis, if you like, was The Isle of Dogs, “a peninsula in the Thames known for its wet, marshy conditions”. Imagine my surprise then when I read the following in The House of Gournay:
“The derivation of the name Gournay appears to arise from this circumstance: Gore in Saxon, and I believe in Celtic, means mud, the Saxon genitive of which is Gorena; and Eye, which means waters, or island, is the second syllable of the word; hence Gorena-eye, the muddy waters or island.”
‘Muddy waters or island’? What are the chances that to a character whose only apparent purpose is to provoke an allusion to Sparrow in Guy of Warwick, Shakespeare has given a name more than a little evocative of the Isle of Dogs? For my hypothesis this is surely a Eureka moment?
Not really. More like a ‘you cannot be serious’ moment i.e. too good to be true.
But I’m recording it here anyway. I think it’s at least worth a ‘curious’.