I’m on sabbatical at present, and my reading is skewed towards my research on lost plays from Shakespeare’s England. The overwhelming majority of plays written and performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime have not survived. We know of at least 744 by name but estimate that a further 1700 or more must have been written in order for the commercial playing companies in London to have enough titles in their repertories to remain competitive in the marketplace. Against these staggering figures for the lost plays, we know of only a paltry 543 plays that have actually survived (Shakespeare being responsible for about 40 of those). So, what to do about this vital but lost context for understanding Shakespeare’s work?
Since 2009, I’ve worked with an international team of theatre historians who share the conviction that something can be done to better understand what Shakespeare was responding to and influencing in the repertories of rival playing companies. Our Lost Plays Database brings together the historical records pertaining to lost plays, summarises the insights that other critics have offered, and explores the likely subject matter of plays known only from their often enigmatic titles.
I’m currently reading sixteenth-century texts that were available to playwrights as possible sources for lost plays about Charlemagne and about King Saul and David. We know that plays on these topics were written, probably in the late 1580s, because a single page of a theatrical inventory list survives which includes references to a ‘cloak’ worn by the actor playing Charlemagne, to a wig and beard worn by actors in both plays, and to the scripts for both plays. Harvard acquired the manuscript in the early 1970s as part of a larger collection of papers, but it seems to have been once associated with the Elizabethan superstar actor, Edward Alleyn (who, amongst other roles, was probably the first Doctor Faustus and the first Tamburlaine).
The story of Charlemagne, king of the Franks (reigned AD 768-814) and subsequently Holy Roman Emperor, was known to Elizabethans from a variety of sources. William Tyndale, now best known for his translation of the Bible into English in the Reformation, offers a detailed account of Charlemagne’s military exploits, describing him as a great tyrant who overcame many nations with his sword and who successfully converted his enemies to Christianity. Tyndale’s depiction of Charlemagne suggests thematic parallels with Marlowe’s megalomaniac Scythian conqueror, Tamburlaine, and the two rulers are actually mentioned together by the playwright George Peele in a poem comparing the fictional adventures of the English stage to the adventures that imminently departing soldiers are about to experience abroad. Possibly the ‘Charlemagne’ play was in repertorial competition with the Tamburlaine plays, each seeking to attract playgoer patronage via appeal to outlandish military exploits and exotic settings.
As sometimes happens when one digs a bit deeper, though, it turns out that a completely different narrative was available to the playwright who sought to dramatise Charlemagne’s life. John Foxe, best known from his hagiography of Protestant martyrs (Actes and Monuments; I’ve been consulting the 1583 edition), paints an alternative picture of Charlemagne as lascivious and superstitious. Foxe describes Charlemagne as a ‘filthy whoremonger’ who kept multiple concubines and was seduced by a prostitute with an enchanted ring to the point that, after she died, he had her body embalmed and carried it around with him. Suspecting something was unusual about Charlemagne’s behaviour (!), one of his lords noticed the enchanted ring and removed it from the embalmed corpse. This had the unfortunate side effect of making Charlemagne infatuated with the lord who now possessed the ring, leading the lord to throw the jewellery down a well. Charlemagne remained by the well til he died, founding a monastery on its site. A ‘Charlemagne’ play along these lines would anticipate the farces of 1590s romantic comedies more than it would resonate with 1580s conqueror plays.
The ‘Saul and David’ play is fascinating for a number of reasons; the narrative (of course) is biblical, coming from 1 Samuel 16-31, roughly commencing with David slaying Goliath and culminating with David replacing Saul as king. So I’ve been reading the bible again recently in order to assess how a dramatization of this narrative may have connected to other repertorial offerings of the 1590s theatre. Biblical plays are strangely absent from the records of Shakespeare’s London; George Peele’s David and Bathsheba (1590) is one of only a couple of biblical plays to survive. We know that others once existed and have been lost, especially from the repertory of the Admiral’s Men, a company about which we know significantly more than we do about Shakespeare’s. (The diary of Rose playhouse manager, Philip Henslowe, survives; it records significant chunks of the Admiral’s Men’s performance schedules). So, on one hand, a play about Saul and David is extremely unusual for the Elizabethan theatre; so too is its likely inclusion of a giant in Goliath. It has been conjectured that giants were on stage in other lost plays, but none (to my knowledge) feature in the surviving drama. Yet a rereading of Samuel offers some uncanny parallels with Shakespeare’s surviving plays. David, like Hamlet, feigns madness for his own safety. David, like Macbeth, is aware of the impropriety of killing God’s anointed king (but David resists where Macbeth is easily won over to the deed). Saul, like Antony (from Antony and Cleopatra) decides that he cannot go on and pleads with a servant to kill him; Saul’s armourbearer, like Antony’s follower Eros, refuses to kill his master and instead kills himself. Saul and Antony are left to fall on their own swords.
The playtexts themselves might be lost, but the wealth of sixteenth-century material available as possible sources makes for entertaining reading and helps illuminate the connections between lost and surviving drama of the period.
David McInnis is the Gerry Higgins Lecturer in Shakespeare Studies at the University of Melbourne. With Roslyn L. Knutson and Matthew Steggle, he founded and co-edits the Lost Plays Database (www.lostplays.org).