Identity of the Clown in Othello

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.126  Thursday, 14 April 2016

 

From:        Jinny Webber <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         April 12, 2016 at 10:13:45 PM EDT

Subject:    Re: SHAKSPER: Othello's Clown

 

Dear Arnie and fellow contributors to this thread,

 

In following this debate I’ve had no strong reaction to your thoughts about the Clown. Intriguing possibility which seems slightly far-fetched. And the thought that Iago has homoerotic feelings for Othello seems perfectly plausible. How better to explain his ‘motiveless malignity’?

 

However, the notion that Iago is a woman in disguise does not work. Iago is a hardened soldier; his masculinity is not assumed for safety and perhaps temporarily as it is with Viola or Rosalind. I’ve spent years on the woman-disguised-as-a-male concept, producing three novels about the historical actor Alexander Cooke from the perspective that ‘he’ was ‘she.’ 

 

For a woman to convincingly present herself as a man, let alone serve in the army for years, would be extraordinarily difficult. There’s the problem of menses—yes, herbals of the day tell how to end “female courses”, however effectively—as well as urination, dressing in relatively public situations, backstage or in the barracks. Way more is involved than putting on male apparel and padding the crotch. I can’t help but think that if this were the case with Iago, Shakespeare would have given a clue. And hey, he had such a person right there in his playing company, if indeed Alexander Cooke was born female (which of course he guessed). 

 

All in good fun,

Jinny Webber

www.jinnywebber.com

 

 

 

Podcast about Shakespeare and Cognition

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.124  Thursday, 14 April 2016

 

From:        Neema Parvini <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         April 13, 2016 at 10:55:36 AM EDT

Subject:    Podcast about Shakespeare and Cognition

 

Hi there, of possible interest to subscribers:

 

https://blogs.surrey.ac.uk/shakespeare/2016/04/13/shakespeare-and-contemporary-theory-19-shakespeare-and-cognition-with-raphael-lyne/

 

To kick-start season 2 of Shakespeare and Contemporary Theory, Dr Neema Parvini (University of Surrey) spoke with Dr Raphael Lyne (University of Cambridge) about the ‘cognitive turn’ in Shakespeare studies and what studying Shakespeare might be able to tell us about the human mind.

 

 

ASTR Shakespearean Performance Research Group 2016

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.123  Thursday, 14 April 2016

 

From:        Don Weingust <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         April 12, 2016 at 11:21:07 AM EDT

Subject:    ASTR Shakespearean Performance Research Group 2016

 

The Shakespearean Performance Research Group

 

Conveners: Catherine Burriss (California State University, Channel Islands), Franklin J. Hildy (University of Maryland), Rob Ormsby (Memorial University of Newfoundland), Don Weingust (University of California, Berkeley), and W. B. Worthen (Barnard College, Columbia University)

 

American Society for Theatre Research 2016 Conference

Minneapolis Marriott City Center
November 3-6, 2016

 

Trans-

 

The Shakespearean Performance Research Group of the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR) provides an ongoing home for the study of Shakespearean performance within ASTR.

 

Like performance generally, perhaps, Shakespeare performance takes up theory and practice of “trans”: as a site of cultural production, Shakespeare performance is at once productively between cultural categories – literature and/or theatre; theatre and/or other media; acting and/or “acting”; history, histories, the present; the Globe and the globe; normative and/or subversive enactments of identity – and, sometimes at least, transformative of them. In 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s mortal transformation, we invite papers that take up the question of the trans: the translational, transadaptive, transnational, transplanetary, transidentitarian, transdisciplinary, transmedial, transversal, transgressive problematics of Shakespeare performance.

 

As the conveners continue preparations to publish an edited volume on the subject, stemming from the work of the Research Group, we continue to welcome proposals for papers meeting the larger conference and Research Group theme that may consider the topic of “original practices” in Shakespearean performance.

 

Selected papers will be assigned to subgroups by the group’s conveners, and the conveners will organize on-line communication of subgroup members before the conference. At the conference session, papers will be discussed first within subgroups, after which the subgroups will come together to exchange ideas.

 

For any specific questions, please contact the working group conveners at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Please note that all submissions must be received formally through the ASTR website, at http://www.astr.org/page/16_WGSubmissions, where you will be asked for, amongst other information, an abstract of up to 500 words and a biography of up to 250 words. The form will allow you to indicate second- and third-choice working groups if you wish; if you do so, note that there is a space for you to indicate how your work will fit into those groups. The deadline for receipt of working group proposals is June 1, 2016 and we anticipate that participants will be notified of their acceptance no later than June 30. As this is the first year of this new process, please contact the conference organizers at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if you have any questions about the process.  More information about ASTR is available at http://www.astr.org.

 

 

 

Identity of the Clown in Othello

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.122  Tuesday, 12 April 2016

 

From:        Arnie Perlstein <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         April 11, 2016 at 6:14:50 PM EDT

Subject:    “I am not what I am” is Iago’s code for his being, like Viola……a woman disguised as a man!

 

A few weeks ago, I wrote:

 

“…I am not the first to note that Viola and Iago speak the identical words “I am not what I am”. For example, Stephen Booth noted this parallel in 1995, when he wrote the following in drawing a number of surprising parallels between /Othello /and /Twelfth Night/: “To begin with the truly minimal, central deceivers in both /Twelfth Night /and /Othello/ echo and play on “I am that I am” the phrase in Exodus 3:14 by which Jehovah so unsatisfactorily defines himself for Moses. During their second interview, Olivia asks the disguised ‘Viola’ “his” opinion of her and thereby opens the way into an ontological cul-de-sac [”I am not what I am”]…Iago uses the same words in celebrating the difference between what he is and what he appears to be…”

 

However, where I vigorously disagree with Booth is that I do not consider the usage of that identical God-like pronouncement by both Iago and Viola to be of minimal significance. Rather, I believe this exact quotation is Shakespeare’s way of alerting the reader who treats his entire canon as a kind of “Bible” with dense, thematically significant intertextuality amongst its parts, that Iago and Viola are profoundly similar not merely in their readiness to assume metaphorical disguise to achieve their goals, but in their readiness to assume ACTUAL disguise (Viola presenting herself to the world as Cesario, Iago briefly presenting himself to the world as the CLOWN)!

 

But it was only as I was finishing this post, that I noticed Shakespeare’s final wink at the parallel between Viola in disguise as Cesario and Iago disguised as CLOWN. It occurs when Viola says to Olivia—“now I am your FOOL”. For Shakespeare, fools and CLOWNs were virtually synonymous. And this is especially the case in /Twelfth Night/, because in the speech attributions and stage directions Feste is always referred to as “CLOWN”, whereas he himself, and the other characters in the play, always refer to him as Olivia’s fool!” 

END QUOTE FROM MY EARLIER POST

 

A wild and crazy idea occurred to me yesterday relative to the above: “What if Iago was not merely like Viola in adopting a physical disguise as another person (the Clown), but was even more like Viola, in being a /woman /who adopts, over an extended period of time, a physical disguise as a man?” I quickly realized that this would provide a much more satisfying explanation than I gave in my earlier post for why Shakespeare caused Iago to echo Viola in uttering that identical parody of God’s words in Exodus. I.e., Viola spends nearly the entirety of /Twelfth Night /disguised as “Cesario”—what if Iago is a woman (whose real name we never hear) doing exactly the same thing in /Othello/?

 

One argument in favor of this reading is that it is not entirely new. Some quick research showed me that there have been productions of /Othello /over the years in which Iago has indeed been played as a woman disguised as a man, although I cannot discern that this decision was based on a belief that it was fulfilling Shakespeare’s original intention. And I also found a half dozen Tweets in which the same idea has been floated. But…I don’t see that anyone has ever connected the dots between those productions and speculations, on the one hand, and the crucial fact that Iago echoes Viola in that famous line, on the other.Let’s take a closer look, shall we, and see how those dots connect up?

 

In /Twelfth Night/, Act 3, Scene 1, Olivia is making Viola (“Cesario”) very uncomfortable by coming on to “him” romantically, as a result of which Viola in effect shares a private joke with the audience, that she obviously does not wish to share with Olivia. We in the audience, who witnessed the transformation of Viola into “Cesario” at the beginning of the play, therefore understand “I am not what I am” as Viola’s coded and poignant message that she is not a man, but a woman – and what’s more, a woman in love with a man – Duke Orsino—to whom for whatever reason she does not yet wish to reveal her female identity, when we read:

 

VIOLA Then westward-ho! Grace and good disposition Attend your ladyship!

You'll nothing, madam, to my lord by me?

 

OLIVIA Stay: I prithee, tell me what thou thinkest of me.

 

VIOLA That you do think you are not what you are.

 

OLIVIA If I think so, I think the same of you.

 

VIOLA Then think you right: I AM NOT WHAT I AM.

 

OLIVIA I would you were as I would have you be!

 

VIOLA Would it be better, madam, than I am? I wish it might, for now I am your fool.

 

OLIVIA O, what a deal of scorn looks beautiful In the contempt and anger of his lip!

A murderous guilt shows not itself more soon Than love that would seem hid: love's night is noon.

Cesario, by the roses of the spring, By maidhood, honour, truth and every thing,

I love thee so, that, maugre all thy pride, Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide.

Do not extort thy reasons from this clause, For that I woo, thou therefore hast no cause,

But rather reason thus with reason fetter, Love sought is good, but given unsought better.

 

VIOLA By innocence I swear, and by my youth I have one heart, one bosom and one truth,

And that no woman has; nor never none Shall mistress be of it, save I alone.

And so adieu, good madam: never more Will I my master's tears to you deplore.

 

OLIVIA Yet come again; for thou perhaps mayst move That heart, which now abhors, to like his love.

 

Now let’s take a look at Iago, who speaks that exact same line but in a very different circumstance. As the play begins, we catch him in mid-conversation defending himself to Roderigo, who is irked because he believes Iago, who has supposedly been acting as Roderigo’s hired “Yenta” for courtship of the rich heiress Desdemona, should have done something to prevent Othello from eloping with Roderigo’s “intended”.

 

IAGO O, sir, content you;

I follow him to serve my turn upon him: We cannot all be masters, nor all masters

Cannot be truly follow'd. You shall mark Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave,

That, doting on his own obsequious bondage, Wears out his time, much like his master's ass,

For nought but provender, and when he's old, cashier'd: Whip me such honest knaves. Others there are

Who, trimm'd in forms and visages of duty, Keep yet their hearts attending on themselves,

And, throwing but shows of service on their lords, Do well thrive by them and when they have lined their coats Do themselves homage: these fellows have some soul; And such a one do I profess myself. For, sir,

It is as sure as you are Roderigo, Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago:

In following him, I follow but myself; Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,

But seeming so, for my peculiar end: For when my outward action doth demonstrate

The native act and figure of my heart In compliment extern, 'tis not long after

But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve For daws to peck at: I AM NOT WHAT I AM……

 

Iago’s defense is to explain to Roderigo how much he r/eally/ hates Othello, all appearances to the contrary. He even makes a point of saying that he serves Othello “not…for love”. He uses the Biblical phraseology to explain that he disguises himself as Othello’s honest servant, while secretly using Othello for his own “peculiar end”—but Iago never explains what that “peculiar end” is, and end that would presumably coincide with preventing Othello from marrying Desdemona. How come?

 

The true motive (or lack thereof) for Iago’s malicious destruction of the happiness of those closest to him has been a mystery that has fascinated and stymied centuries of Shakespeare scholars and ordinary Bardolaters alike. One strand of speculative interpretation has explored whether Iago is a gay man who loves Othello, and therefore (ironically) is motivated by jealousy and a desire for revenge on both the secret beloved who has spurned him, and also on the woman who has stolen his secret beloved’s heart right from under him. That latter motivation sparks even more irony, when we hear Roderigo’s self-pity, because Iago, as longtime unrequited lover of Othello at close proximity, has reason to feel much greater pain upon Othello’s sudden elopement, than Roderigo, whose courtship of Desdemona has existed entirely in his own imagination, as carefully and cynically cultivated by Iago.

 

I’ve always found great merit in that interpretation of Iago as a gay man, but what if Iago’s “peculiar end” is even more convincingly understood as being the same /exact/ end that Viola seeks? I.e., what if Iago is a woman who impersonates a man because it is the only way /she/ can stay close, in the role of trusted right hand “man”, to Othello, the man /she/ loves? In that reading, Othello would not be Olivia, but Duke Orsino.

 

The ripple effects of this massive change in understanding the play’s protagonist are enormous, but to take just one, think of the layers of fresh meaning this interpretation brings to the two scenes in the middle of /Othello /during which Iago eventually maneuvers Othello toward a strange “marriage ceremony” .

 

In Act 2, Scene 3, right after Iago firmly plants the first seeds of jealousy in Othello’s brain, note Iago’s words of love subtly slipped into the mix:

 

OTHELLO …if thou dost love me, Show me thy thought.

 

IAGO My lord, you know I love you.

 

OTHELLO I think thou dost; And, for I know thou'rt full of love and honesty,

And weigh'st thy words before thou givest them breath, Therefore these stops of thine fright me the more:

For such things in a false disloyal knaveAre tricks of custom, but in a man that's just

They are close delations, working from the heartThat passion cannot rule.

 

IAGO For Michael Cassio,I dare be sworn I think that he is honest.

 

OTHELLO I think so too.

 

IAGO MEN SHOULD BE WHAT THEY SEEM;OR THOSE THAT BE NOT, WOULD THEY MIGHT SEEM NONE!

 

OTHELLO CERTAIN, MEN SHOULD BE WHAT THEY SEEM.

 

IAGO Why, then, I think Cassio's an honest man.

 

OTHELLO Nay, yet there's more in this: I prithee, speak to me as to thy thinkings,

As thou dost ruminate, and give thy worst of thoughts The worst of words.

 

 

OTHELLO By heaven, I'll know thy thoughts.

 

IAGO You cannot, if my heart were in your hand; Nor shall not, whilst 'tis in my custody.

 

OTHELLO Ha!

 

IAGO O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock

The meat it feeds on; that cuckold lives in bliss Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger;

But, O, what damned minutes tells he o'er Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!

 

OTHELLO O misery!

 

IAGO Poor and content is rich and rich enough, But riches fineless is as poor as winter

To him that ever fears he shall be poor. Good heaven, the souls of all my tribe defend From jealousy!

 

OTHELLO …. No, Iago; I'll see before I doubt; when I doubt, prove;

And on the proof, there is no more but this,-- Away at once with love or jealousy!

 

IAGO I am glad of it; for now I shall have reason To show the love and duty that I bear you

With franker spirit: therefore, as I am bound,Receive it from me. I speak not yet of proof.

….

 

IAGO Why, go to then; She that, so young, could give out such a seeming,

To seal her father's eyes up close as oak-He thought 'twas witchcraft--but I am much to blame;

I humbly do beseech you of your pardonFor too much loving you.

 

OTHELLO I am bound to thee for ever.

 

IAGO I see this hath a little dash'd your spirits.

 

OTHELLO Not a jot, not a jot.

 

IAGO I' faith, I fear it has. I hope you will consider what is spoke

Comes from my love. But I do see you're moved:I am to pray you not to strain my speech

To grosser issues nor to larger reachThan to suspicion.

 

…..[Going] My lord, I take my leave.

 

OTHELLOWhy did I marry? This honest creature doubtless

Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds.

 

And then, we reach the culmination of this strange romantic arc in an /ad hoc/ ceremony improvised by Iago and Othello in Act 3, Scene 3:

 

OTHELLO: Never, Iago: Like to the Pontic sea, Whose icy current and compulsive course

Ne'er feels retiring ebb, but keeps due onTo the Propontic and the Hellespont,

Even so my bloody thoughts, with violent pace,Shall ne'er look back, ne'er ebb to humble love,

Till that a capable and wide revengeSwallow them up. Now, by yond marble heaven,

 

/Kneels/

 

In the due reverence of a sacred vowI here engage my words.

 

IAGO Do not rise yet.

 

/Kneels /Witness, you ever-burning lights above, You elements that clip us round about,

Witness that here Iago doth give up The execution of his wit, hands, heart, To wrong'd Othello's service! Let him command, And to obey shall be in me remorse, What bloody business ever.

 

/They rise/

 

OTHELLOI greet thy love,Not with vain thanks, but with acceptance bounteous, And will upon the instant put thee to't:Within these three days let me hear thee sayThat Cassio's not alive.

 

IAGOMy friend is dead; 'tis done at your request: But let her live.

 

OTHELLODamn her, lewd minx! O, damn her!Come, go with me apart; I will withdraw,

To furnish me with some swift means of deathFor the fair devil. Now art thou my lieutenant.

 

IAGOI am your own for ever. /Exeunt/

 

Not exactly a traditional exchange of “I do’s”, but it’s the best Iago can get, right?

 

And realize that this arc of Iago’s heterosexual love for Othello began when Shakespeare gave us that first, unambiguous signal that Iago is a woman, prompting us to recall Viola speaking specifically about /her /disguise as a man. It makes perfect sense that this echo be sounded at the moment when we’re first introduced to Iago in Act 1, Scene 1, of /Othello/, even before we have any idea at all about Iago’s character.

 

By the end of Act 1, Scene 1, we know that disguise is Iago’s middle name, so to speak, so such a physical disguise would fit perfectly with such a character. And then, when we get to Act 3, Scenes 1 and 4, we’re already primed to think about Iago as a master of disguise, and so we in the audience would have a good chance of hearing the Clown’s Iagoishness, and then guessing that Iago was /also/ the Clown in disguise, making it a disguise of a disguise! We know by then that Iago’s art of disguise has no limits, in his behavior, his speech, and/or his garb—it is all part and parcel of the essence of the satanic shapeshifter he so clearly was.

 

And all of the above would be enough to make this line of inquiry worthwhile, but here’s where Iago as a woman gets more interesting still. Through my brief study this morning, I quickly found that there’s /another /significant echo in /Othello /of that above quoted exchange between Viola and Olivia – in fact, it occurs a mere three /lines/ earlier than Viola’s “I am not what I am”—it’s the line in which Olivia flirts with “Cesario” in a very particular way:

 

OLIVIA Stay: I prithee, TELL ME WHAT THOU THINKEST OF ME.

 

VIOLA That you do think you are not what you are.

 

OLIVIA If I think so, I think the same of you.

 

VIOLA Then think you right: I AM NOT WHAT I AM.

 

OLIVIA I would you were as I would have you be!

 

VIOLA Would it be better, madam, than I am? I wish it might, for now I am your fool.

 

I realized as soon as I read that exchange with /Othello /specifically in mind, that I had just seen something exactly like that in /Othello/, because I had just discussed the following exchange in Act 2, Scene 1, in one of my posts over the weekend just ended!:

 

DESDEMONA WHAT WOULDST THOU WRITE OF ME, IF THOU SHOULDST PRAISE ME?

 

IAGOO gentle lady, do not put me to't; For I am nothing, if not critical.

 

DESDEMONA Come on assay. There's one gone to the harbour?

 

IAGO Ay, madam.

 

DESDEMONA I am not merry; but I do beguile The thing I am, by seeming otherwise.

Come, HOW WOULDST THOU PRAISE ME?

 

Is it just a coincidence that Iago and Desdemona /both /strongly echo in the above quoted passage the distinctive lines spoken by Viola and Olivia in their short exchange? Of course not!! Shakespeare was NOT /that/ unconscious an artist! No, I claim he very much meant for those who read his plays as a unified canon like the Bible, or even those who had only seen /Twelfth Night /on stage, and then were attending a performance of /Othello /two years later/, /to notice this striking double parallelism, and then, to ask themselves: what might this mean? And seeing Iago as a woman becomes even more interesting when we see Desdemona’s echoing Olivia in the above scenes, in terms of what it suggests to us about both Iago and Desdemona.

 

Olivia has no conscious awareness that “Cesario” is actually female, but it is also plausible to speculate that Olivia’s strong attraction to Viola is based at least in part on an unconscious lesbian attraction she feels for Viola (and perhaps vice versa as well?). This all lays the groundwork for Olivia’s abrupt transfer of her affections to the very masculine Sebastian (who, by the way, used the assumed name “Roderigo” while on the voyage to Illyria), who somehow manages to resemble Viola very strongly, at the end of the play.

 

So, what is Shakespeare suggesting to us about Desdemona, by drawing this surprising parallel between the recently married innocent bride of Othello, on the one hand, and the worldly, provocative, desirable unmarried heiress Olivia, on the other? Desdemona explains her teasing questions posed to Iago as an innocent way for her to reduce her anxiety for Othello’s safe return from the wars. After all, Desdemona knows Iago to be Othello’s right hand “man”, and so who would be a safer man to mildly flirt with?

 

How can she even guess that such flirting will both exacerbate Iago’s jealousy of Othello, but also reveal to his sharp eye her vulnerability to defamation. Iago will take that innocent flirting by Desdemona, and weave it into a narrative of wanton adultery. And perhaps, even in the innocent young woman, might there also be, some subconscious sexual attraction felt by Desdemona to Iago, similar to that felt by Olivia toward “Cesario”? or even similar to the way Duke Orsino sees “Cesario”? Many questions, no clear answers—but I hope you’ll agree that the meme of Iago as a woman opens up some fruitful avenues for fresh interpretation of the entirety of /Othello./

 

Cheers, 

ARNIE

 

 

 

A Conversation Piece

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.121  Monday, 11 April 2016

 

From:        Laurie Johnson <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         April 9, 2016 at 8:58:15 PM EDT

Subject:    A Conversation Piece

 

While the world wonders at the serendipitous recent find of a copy of F1 on the Isle of Bute, this Conversation piece by David McInnis might give us pause: 

 

https://theconversation.com/weve-found-a-shakespeare-folio-but-a-swag-of-original-plays-are-still-missing-54596 

 

Food for thought, perhaps, or at least a timely reminder of the work that remains to be done in historical scholarship.

 

Laurie Johnson

 

We’ve found a Shakespeare folio but a swag of original plays are still missing

 

Almost 400 years ago, on 23 April 1616, William Shakespeare died. Perhaps the looming anniversary is what prompted a search through the library of Mount Stuart House on the Isle of Bute, Scotland, where a valuable copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio (1623) has recently been discovered.

 

As Eric Rasmussen predicted in 2014, the chances of more folios turning up are reasonably good. This newest folio brings the grand total of known copies to 234, out of approximately 750 originally printed. Although this latest discovery is a welcome addition, Shakespeare’s First Folio is hardly a rare book.

 

By contrast, latest estimates suggest that whilst 543 plays survive from the commercial theatres of Shakespeare’s London, a staggering 744 remain known by their titles or descriptions of them only. At least two of them (there might be more) were by Shakespeare: Love’s Labour’s Won, and Cardenio. In other words, only the minority of drama from Shakespeare’s day survives.

 

New research on the lost plays shows how interconnected the drama of the day was, with rival playing companies emulating each other’s successes and replicating their own blockbusters with serials and spin-off plays.

 

Today we celebrate Shakespeare as one of the greatest writers of all time. But the survival of his plays – including masterpieces such as Antony and Cleopatra and The Comedy of Errors – was more precarious than you might think.

 

Only around half of Shakespeare’s plays were printed during his lifetime. Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and others appeared in cheap print “quarto” editions, but some of the earliest printings did not even include Shakespeare’s name on their title pages.

 

Titus Andronicus (1594), two of the Henry VI plays (1594, 1595), Richard II (1597) and Richard III (1597) all advertised the name of the companies who performed them, but not the playwright who wrote them.

 

Although the print run of plays published in quarto would have comprised several hundred, no copies of the first quarto of Hamlet were known until 1823 (we now have two copies, at the British Library and the Huntington).

 

Only a single copy of the first quarto of Titus Andronicus has survived (now at the Folger Shakespeare Library) – and it was only discovered in 1905, in a Swedish cottage.

 

The first plays to be published with Shakespeare’s name were the 1598 editions of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Richard II, and Richard III.

The 1598 quarto of Love’s Labour’s Lost says that it was “Newly corrected and augmented By W. Shakespere”, hinting at the possibility of an earlier publication (which may have borne the author’s name too). Remarkably, Shakespeare seems to have written a play called “Love’s Labour’s Won” (possibly a sequel or spin-off play), and that play even appears to have been printed, but has since been lost altogether.

 

He must have written it by 1598, when the Elizabethan schoolmaster Francis Meres praised Shakespeare as amongst the best of the English writers of comedy and tragedy, citing “his Loue labors lost, his Loue labours wonne” and other plays as examples.

 

In 1953, a second reference to this lost play was discovered in a bookseller’s list dated 1603. Perhaps, like the unique copy of Titus or the Mount Stuart House library’s First Folio, a copy of “Love’s Labour’s Won” will turn up in an attic or basement one day too: possibly someone has already seen it, and the likely absence of that magic word “Shakespeare” on the title page has prevented further interest.

 

The first edition of Henry IV, Part 1, was also nearly lost; indeed, remains mostly lost. Only a four-leaf fragment survives, having been found in Bristol, in the binding of another book. Luckily Henry IV, Part 1 seems to have been immensely popular, appearing in 9 quarto and 2 folio editions before 1660.

 

Occasionally a character gets lost too. A stage direction at the start of Much Ado About Nothing reads: “Enter Leonato gouernour of Messina, Innogen his wife, Hero his daughter, and Beatrice his neece, with a messenger”. “Innogen” (or “Imogen”) is never heard from or seen again.

 

Midway through The Taming of the Shrew, the character called Hortensio is a suitor to Bianca Minola, but is frequently left out of the conversations about her known suitors; worse, another suitor, Tranio, seems to be allocated lines intended for Hortensio.

 

In 1623, seven years after Shakespeare died, his friends and colleagues assembled the collected works commonly referred to as the First Folio. The Folio “saved” some 18 of Shakespeare’s plays from possible loss, in that it printed them for the first time. Macbeth, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night and 14 others may never have made it to us if they hadn’t been preserved in 1623.

 

But printed plays from Shakespeare’s period are the minority, and we don’t know why some plays were printed and others not. Shakespeare co-wrote a play called “Cardenio” with fellow King’s Men dramatist, John Fletcher, sometime around 1613, when court records show that it was performed at Whitehall Palace.

 

Most scholars assume this play was based on a subplot from Don Quixote: perhaps in 2016 we should be commemorating the death of Cervantes (who was buried on 23 April 1616) and Shakespeare together.

 

Four centuries on, Shakespeare’s plays continue to bring us joy on stage, page, and film, thanks to their memorable characters, lines, unique words and powerful insights into the human mind. That – and the fact that so much of his work survived at all – is something worth celebrating.

 

 

 

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