Sunday, May 23, 2010

Shakespeare's Lost Works

Over the years, the question of Shakespearean authorship has remained a valid, if not widely accepted, controversy. Christopher Marlowe, Queen Elizabeth and Sebastian Cramp, Shakespeare's dentist, have all been rumored as the real authors of the Bard's Repertoire.

But recently a document has been uncovered, that would tend to confirm even more, Shakespeare's right to authorship. The manuscript appears in the form of a notebook, containing the original rough drafts and outlines that would later become the plays as we know them. The notebook also contains stage directions and general insights into theatre techniques of the day.

This amazing discovery was made earlier this year at Grunting Squatties, a brothel in Stratford-upon-Avon, where, indeed, Stratford was upon Avon.

Squatties, as the locals refer to it, was Shakespeare's home away from home. The establishment contained his second favorite bed, second favorite chest of drawers, and his first favorite closet. It is in this closet where the notebook was found, underneath the floorboard and covered with a copy of Plutarch's Famous Roman Footwear.

The notebook was wrapped into the shape of an O, tied with a ribbon, and then covered in aluminum foil. Scholars are now calling it the First Foiled O.

What is truly enlightening about this notebook, is in the discovery of how each of the plays evolved from outline to finished form. Almost all the plays started with different titles and character names. It is believed that Shakespeare wrote during his hours at Grunting Squatties, making notes when the inspiration had gripped him. Many of these moments would seem to be the result of intoxication. And so, in the sobering light of the following day, Shakespeare would refine these ideas. He would change them from the radical bursts of fancy, into the serious, polished masterpieces that we have come to know.

A glance at the original titles would seem to confirm this: Much Doggie Do About Nothing, As You Were, Love's Labour's Lunch, Titus Androgynous, and Henry IV, Part 69.

Even some of the comments regarding stage direction make us wonder as to the state of Shakespeare's mind when he wrote it. We are all aware that boys played the female roles on the Elizabethan stage. But what a surprise to discover that a small dog once portrayed the lead in Richard III.

Many snippets of dialogue vanish from the finished works, as in this excerpt from the original King John:

King John: "He that knoweth not! And yet I say nay. (Arthur, Duke of Grunge enters) Ah! Your lordship, I wish to speak with thee. There are tongues that wag treason from thy very lips. Treason, I protest! Not from my kinsman, Arthur. Gases from his bowels, perhaps. But treason from his lips, never! But I caution thee, dear kinsman. If the rumour that has carried to mine ear, reveal the glint of truth, I am forsworn! Dear Arthur, Mark me well! (slash! slash! rip! rip!) Good Lord! You've marked me well!" (He falls).

Quite different from the finished result. Although the general opinion is that the completed works are the superior versions, some scholars and dramatists have conflicting views. So much so, in fact, that several acting companies wish to perform the Bard's works in their original form. A production of the original A Midsummer Night's Wet Dream will open this fall by England's Old Vic Vapor ("Aye, there's the Rub.") Theatre.

The discovery of this manuscript can only help further our understanding of the Bard and his works. They reveal to us the creative process, in which idea becomes art. Granted, some mystery will still remain:

"Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the grassy groins of Fred."

Bromeo and Orange Juliet

Perhaps we'll never fully understand what Shakespeare meant by these words. But I'm sure we will never stop trying. And why should we? Old William seems to have a saying for every thought and feeling we have:

"All the world's a stage. And some of my friends can do sofa impressions."
"O, I am Fortune's Fool."

[First published on September 2, 1980.]