A folio of a play thought to be written in Shakespeare’s own hand has gone on display at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., alongside 50 other of the most important manuscripts and printed books related to the Bard. The Shakespeare, Life of an Icon exhibition displays pieces from the Folger’s collection plus loans from the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library, the British Library, the Kings, Heralds, and Pursuivants of Arms, the London Metropolitan Archives, the UK’s National Archives, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and The Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers. Many of these exhibits have never been shown in the United States before. Some haven’t been shown anywhere ever.
It’s a fascinating combination of the literary and mundane which reveal Shakespeare the man, actor and playwright. There’s Shakespeare’s copy of the contract to buy New Place, his last home in Stratford-upon-Avon, diary entries from people in the audience at his plays, the 1623 First Folio of his collected works, the only surviving letter written to Shakespeare and the only surviving copy of the first edition of Titus Andronicus which was the first Shakespeare play printed.
The only known account of Shakespeare’s death in on display as well. It’s a diary entry by John Ward, physician and vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon, written in the early 1660s, almost 50 years after the Bard’s death. He wrote: “Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and it seems drank too hard for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.” Shakespeare was friends with playwright Ben Jonson and although we have no explicit records of a friendship with poet Michael Drayton, they traveled very much in the same circles and would almost certainly have known each other. No contemporary accounts of how Shakespeare died and of what have survived.
The play with Shakespeare’s handwriting wasn’t actually written by him alone. The Booke of Thomas More was the collaborative effort of several writers. Its main author was Anthony Munday who wrote it between 1596 and 1601. He submitted this copy (the original draft is lost) to Edmund Tilney who had the Spuds McKenzie title of Master of the Revels but the distinctly unrevelrous job of crossing out politically sensitive material. Once he was done marking the whole thing up in red pen, Munday brought in some help to rework the script. Henry Chettle is believed to have contributed first, possibly followed by Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood and William Shakespeare.
Despite all the changes, the play about Henry VIII’s Catholic Lord Chancellor who was executed for refusing to acknowledge the king was the head of the church was never printed. There are no surviving records that indicate it was ever performed. Most of the time there are no such records, so there’s no reason to assume the play was shut up in a drawer and forgotten about. It was probably staged and just not remarked up, like the vast majority of other plays from the period. The British Library’s manuscript on loan to the Folder is the only surviving copy of the play in the world.
The portion of the play thought to have been written by William Shakespeare is a three-page revision of a (fictional) speech delivered by Thomas More to anti-immigrant rioters during the Evil May Day Riots of 1517. Tilney objected to the scenes of the riots because economic hardship and potentially violent hostility to foreigners were again major issues when he wielded the censor’s pen and he didn’t want to angry up the blood, to quote Abe Simpson. In Shakespeare’s revision, therefore, the focus of Sir Thomas More’s speech was keeping the peace.
You can read a transcript of the pages here. (Scroll down to the Semi-diplomatic transcription and click Expand.) The original spelling and the formatting might make it a tad hard to read. Thimble summary: More decries the rioters’ violence, appeals to them to empathize with the foreigners, notes that their violence might beget more violence and chaos and lastly invokes the divine authority of the King which makes all violations of the King’s laws a sin against God himself.
The oratory matches the playwright’s poetic style. Because only six signatures of Shakespeare’s on four legal documents and no other writing have survived, authenticating the revision as written by Shakespeare is a challenge. With only his signed name to go on, the sample size is so small letter-by-letter comparisons can’t be definitive so the attribution is disputed by some scholars, but it’s been generally accepted since the mid-20th century. Scholars have named the contributor of the passages believed to be by Shakespeare “Hand D.”
The complete manuscript is currently being digitized. A version was published in 1911 that had photographs of some of the manuscript, but they’re blurry and not really readable. It Harley MS 7368 will be available to peruse in high resolution next month in the British Library’s Virtual Books gallery.
Shakespeare, Life of an Icon runs through March 27th at the Folger, after which the documents will move to the British Library where they will be on display as part of its Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition.
Here’s a timelapse video of the installation of the exhibition at the Folger. I like how they project elements onto the ceiling to give an immersive feel.