August 8, 2009

When I was a kid, probably about thirteen years old, I learned for the first time that there existed Biblical texts that weren't in the Bible. Texts that had been removed from the common King James version, and a huge wealth of even more Biblical-era texts lurking out there. Texts that many scholars believe should have been in the Bible all along.

Collectively, these texts are known as The Apocrypha, and since much of it is pretty weird stuff compared to King James' watered-down version, it was quite an eye-opener for me. My impressionable young mind was shaped by this early realization that nothing is complete, nothing is whole, nothing is intact. Everything mankind has ever touched, including the Bible, is hopelessly incomplete, fragmentary, edited, rewritten, blurred by the passage of time and by the tinkering of spin doctors. It is, apparently, just what we humans do best: muck around with stuff.

And so it is with the works of William Shakespeare.

There exists a vast body of work attributed to the Bard which remains cast out by University scholars. These plays are known as - yes - the Shakespeare Apocrypha. Sifting through it all gives you a strange floating feeling of going in and out of parallel universes in which Shakespeare plays that never existed suddenly do. Among the many fascinating lost gems relegated to the broom closet of literature:

  • Edmund Ironside - King Edmund II is at war with King Canute, but unbeknownst to them, a third party is out to get them both. Their mutual enemy Edricus seeks to use the chaos of the battle to take the throne for himself. Eric Sams and E.B. Everitt have argued that the play "contains some 260 words or usages which on the evidence of the Oxford English Dictionary were first used by Shakespeare himself. Further, it exhibits 635 instances of Shakespeare's rare words including some 300 of the rarest."

  • Fair Em - William the Conqueror falls in love with the image of a woman he sees on someone's tournament shield. He inquires of the lady's identity and finds the shield was based on a woman's portrait in a gallery in Denmark. William, in disguise, travels to Denmark to view the painting and ends up stalking the woman herself. Meanwhile, a young lady named Em is being pursued by three amorous suitors, and she pretends to have gone deaf and blind in order to get rid of them. Em and William cross paths in the end, and all's well that ends well. Is it really written by Shakespeare? Honestly, I don't care if it's written by Orville Shakespeare from Sandusky, Ohio - it sounds like a very interesting play!

  • The Merry Devil of Edmonton - A comedy about a stage magician named Peter Fabel, whose show-business nickname is "The Merry Devil". This play appeared in no less than six anonymous quartos during Shakespeare's time. We know for a fact it was played by The King's Men. We have three different important chroniclers of the day (Humphrey Moseley, Edward Archer, Francis Kirkman) attributing it positively to William Shakespeare. Despite this, academia have not been eager to accept the play into the Bard's canon. Cracks have begun to appear in the wall of denial, however - some experts are beginning to grudgingly allow that Shakespeare may have been the partial author.

  • Locrine - Published in 1595 in a quarto credited to "W.S." and included among the works that Philip Chetwinde added to the second impression of the Shakespeare Third Folio in 1664. Further compounding the scholarly debates on Locrine's authencity is its striking similarity to yet another anonymous play from the same time period, called Selimus. Like ancient monks arguing over how many fairies can fit on the head of the pin, some Shakespeare experts argue bitterly over which play influenced the other, and what either explanation means in regard to the Bard. The play itself is a fascinating three-level story told in five acts: Brutus, the leader of the Trojans, knows his death is near and urges his son Locrine to marry Guendoline, the daughter of a friend. Meanwhile, the Scythians invade Britain, led by King Humber and his wife Estrild. We also get two ghosts and three clowns woven into the bargain. Between each act, Atė (the ancient Greek goddess of folly and ruin) oversees a mythological pantomine "dumbshow".

  • The Birth of Merlin - I've been chomping at the bit to stage this play myself for over a year now, and soon it will come to pass as a full-scale live puppet theatre extravaganza (though I sometimes wonder if this play isn't as cursed as Macbeth.) The play concerns a clown named simply Clown, who is escorting his pregnant sister Joan through the wilderness searching for the child's mysterious father, who turns out to be Satan. As Joan gives birth to Merlin, Satan summons Lucina (the Roman goddess of childbirth) and the Greek Moirae (The Fates) to witness. Meanwhile, King Vortigern is attempting to build a new castle but it keeps collapsing. The King is told by his spiritual advisor that a "fiend-begotten child" must be blood-sacrificed to purify the construction site. The kooky entourage with baby Merlin shows up, and well, hilarity or something like it ensues. The play was credited to William Shakespeare and William Rowley in a 1662 quarto, and the play has many fervent supporters of the Bard's hand in it. It also has many ardent detractors - like a certain Louisville professor who actually became visibly angry when I mentioned my intent to stage this play one day!

    It's important to remember that some plays we regard as in canon today once were considered heretically apocryphal. Pericles was once considered to be total Fakespeare before it finally became accepted. The Two Noble Kinsmen and King Edward III are relatively recent newcomers to mainstream acceptance, and Sir Thomas More is making great inroads towards it.

    In the end, I really couldn't care less who wrote what when. It's like arguing about which bullet was fired from what location by which of Lee Harvey Oswald's co-conspirators. It's something that can never really be known no matter how much we study the available evidence. One of the many lessons to be learned from quantum physics: the more you look, you less you really know. I'm content to enjoy these plays for their own sake - plus I enjoy making little wisps of smoke emerge from the ears of those who cannot abide Shakespearean conspiracy theories.

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    Jeffrey Scott Holland is the Artistic Director for Catclaw Theatre Company, author of Weird Kentucky on Sterling Press, and painter whose works have been exhibited worldwide. Visit him on the web at