What is the Shakespeare Apocrypha? It’s a list of works that could be by Shakespeare but scholars aren’t sure. So they’re Shakespeare-adjacent or almost-but-not-quite-Shakespeare or definitely–not-Shakespeare-but-some-random-guy-once-said-they-were. Some of these works were printed anonymously, others may have been collaborations, and some are lost forever (unless someone finds a manuscript hiding in an attic somewhere).
Personally, I’m not a fan of claiming that any of these works are by Shakespeare (except for Pericles) but I thought it might be a fun post to look at two or three of the plays that are in the category of definitely–not-Shakespeare-but-some-random-guy-once-said-they-were.
The Birth of Merlin was first published in 1662 and it was attributed to Shakespeare and William Rowley. When you’re looking at a play attributed to a playwright so long after his or her death then things start to seem a little iffy. Especially when that playwright is Shakespeare. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes plays were printed long after their own time and the playwright was attributed correctly but, more often than not, the wrong playwright was credited. This claim of Shakespeare’s authorship has been thoroughly disproven as there is unambiguous evidence that the play was written around 1622, six years after Shakespeare’s death, as the play was first performed in 1622 at the Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch.1 It’s a fun play though and archive.org has a facsimile version available to read if you’re up for it. I’ll try to find a good transcript version but don’t hold me to that.
In contrast to The Birth of Merlin, Sir John Oldcastle was originally published anonymously in 1600. Shakespeare was still alive at this point so if it had been by him then he may have claimed it but, to be honest, Shakespeare didn’t seem too fussed about printing his plays and some of his actual plays weren’t even attributed to him during his lifetime. Some of his plays weren’t even printed during his lifetime. A second edition of Sir John Oldcastle was printed in 1619, after Shakespeare’s death, and the play was attributed to Shakespeare. It was part of William Jaggard’s ‘False Folio’. However, the diary of Philip Henslowe records that the play was written by Anthony Munday, Michael Drayton, Richard Hathwaye, and Robert Wilson so Shakespeare’s name should never have been included on the title page.2 Philip Henslowe’s diary is a treasure trove of information for scholars who research this era of theatre and I’ve referenced him a few times. You can read a transcript of this play for free thanks to Project Gutenberg.
The London Prodigal was printed in 1605 under Shakespeare’s name. You’d think that Shakespeare would contest this if the play wasn’t by him but, like I said earlier, Shakspeare didn’t really seem to care about the printing of his plays. However, this one is a little bit more complicated than the two other plays discussed in this post. The London Prodigal was a King’s Men play so Shakespeare may have had a minor role in its creation, he may have even written an outline or a draft of the play before handing over the reins to another playwright employed by the King’s Men. We’ll never actually know what Shakespeare’s role in the creation of this play was – unless someone finds evidence hidden somewhere – but it’s accepted that he wasn’t the main playwright because the play doesn’t resemble his style at all.3 Once again, there is a digitised facsimile edition available via archive.org.
There are a lot more plays in the Shakespeare Apocrypha, some with more questionable and tenuous links to Shakespeare than the ones I’ve mentioned in this post, and I might do another post in the near future exploring those questionable plays. I’d also like to look into the ‘lost’ plays in a future post.
1. N.W. Bawcutt, The Control and Censorship of Caroline Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)
2. Philip Henslowe, The Diary of Philip Henslowe, from 1591 to 1609, volumes 7-8 via Google Books
3. C. F. Tucker Brooke, The Shakespeare Apocrypha (Oxford University Press, 1908)
1. Title page from the second volume of Mary Shelley’s novel Valperga (1823) via archive.org
2. Title page of Sir John Oldcastle first quarto (1600) printed anonymously
3. Title page of The London Prodigal (1605)
This post does not contain affiliate links.