The Shakespeare Apocrypha

ya boy Will

The Shakespeare Apocrypha is a collection of plays and poems that at various times have been attributed to Shakespeare, but are now generally deemed to be the work of other writers.

The list includes plays such as;

The Birth of Merlin
Sir John Oldcastle
A Yorkshire Tragedy
Edward III
The London Prodigal
The Second Maiden's Tragedy
The Merry Devil of Edmonton
Thomas Lord Cromwell
The Puritan
...and many others.

Some were attributed to Shakespeare during his lifetime, some in the century following his death and others much, much later. Scholars dismiss these works for various reasons. Some because there appears to be documented evidence suggesting others wrote them, some because stylistic analysis of the texts suggest they don't conform to Shakespeare's normal style. Another black mark against these texts is that they weren't included in the First Folio - the collection of Shakespeare works published shortly after his death.

My interest in all this partly stems from my interest in the Shakespeare authorship question - was it Francis Bacon who wrote 'em? Was it Christopher Marlowe, or Edward de Vere? Maybe these apocrypha plays hold some clues?

Another reason for my interest is my general distrust of academics. In fact, my first thought on discovering the Shakespeare Apocrypha plays was this;

If people in the 17th century were happy to attribute these plays to Shakespeare, how can scholars overrule this centuries later?

It reminds me of the way the Bible was stripped of certain books by the various church councils that believed they knew what was and wasn't true Christianity.

These plays, once lauded as Shakespeare works, now wallow in the dust, unknown by the general public. Unknown by active fans of Shakespeare even. I don't mind academics stating that this play or that play wasn't a true Shakespeare, they might even be right for the most part, but their certainty and self-confidence often means that these things almost disappear from history. At least give other generations the option to decide for themselves.

As mentioned above, we're still not totally sure who Shakespeare actually was, so how can we be totally sure about what he actually wrote? For all we know the name Shakespeare might have been a pseudonym for a group of different playwrights. Maybe the people that attributed these plays to Shakespeare at the time were aware of something we aren't.

Anyway, all this intrigued me enough that I actually made the effort to read some of these apocrypha plays.

I've noticed three things that seem to set these plays aside from the rest of the Shakespeare canon. Firstly, profane or overtly sexual language. Secondly, Englishness - ironically. And thirdly, overtly political/religious themes. Maybe these factors in of themselves were enough to have these plays expunged from the record and deemed un-Shakespearian.

The Profane

Some of these plays contain a lot of bawdiness. I can easily imagine stuffy Victorian scholars viewing these as lesser works, unworthy of the name Shakespeare. How could our national poet have possibly peddled such filth?

Of course, there's plenty of bawdiness in many of the conventional Shakespeare plays too - references to the C-word appear in Hamlet, Henry V and Twelve Night! So this wouldn't have been in the least bit out of keeping with Shakespeare, however some of the apocrypha plays seem to slightly overstep the mark.

For example, this line appears in the play Arden of Faversham;

Will. Plat me no platformes, give me the money, And Ile stab him as he stands pissing against a wall, But Ile kill him.

And take this passage from the play The Tragedy of Locrine;

Oliver. [...]will you have my Daughter or no?
Strumbo. A very hard question, Neighbour, but I will solve it as I may; what reason have you to demand it of me?
William. Marry Sir, what reason had you when my Sister was in the barn to tumble her upon the Hay, and to fish her Belly.

I also came across this in The History of Sir John Oldcastle;

Harpool. Welcome, sweet Lass, welcome.
Doll. I thank you, good Sir, and Master Constable also.
Harpool. A plump Girl by the Mass, a plump Girl; ha, Doll, ha. Wilt thou forsake the Priest, and go with me, Doll?
Constable. Ah!, well said, Master Harpool, you are a merry old Man i'faith; you will never be old now by the Mack, a pretty Wench indeed.
Harpool. Ye old mad merry Constable, art thou advis'd of that? Ha, well said Doll, fill some Ale here.
Doll (aside). Oh, if I wist this old Priest would not stick to me, by Jove I would ingle this old Serving-man.
Harpool. O you old mad Colt, i'faith I'll ferk you: fill all the pots in the House there.

Ingle and ferk were words that essentially meant have sex with. Ferk obviously being a variant of the word fuck. All a bit common for our nations poet methinks :p


This commonness brings me to the second differential - Englishness. When I started reading the apocrypha plays I was amazed by how many were set in England. This may seem an odd statement to make given that Shakespeare was an Englishman, writing plays in England, but when you think about it most of Shakespeare's more famous plays tend to be set abroad - think Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, etc - it was only really the history plays such as Henry V and so on that focused on England. Contemporary England didn't get much of a look in.

Why didn't Shakespeare produce more plays about the society he was actually living in - and the audience he was writing for? The apocrypha plays would make sense of this. If we include these works in the Shakespeare canon then it would appear more balanced. He did write plays about contemporary England, but they weren't included in the First Folio because they didn't carry the lofty gravitas of the more exotic works that were set at the various royal courts of Europe and elsewhere. Instead they were tinged with earthy, common English banality.

If these plays were in fact written by Shakespeare then not only are we losing important plays by excluding them, but we're also losing a window into our own history.

Political/Religious Themes

And this brings us to the final noticeable thing about some of these plays - their religious and political connotations. Some of them are overtly political. For example, the play Thomas Lord Cromwell has a decidedly anti-Catholic sentiment. And the play The History of Sir John Oldcastle unsurprisingly tells the tale of Sir John Oldcastle - a Lollard dissenter who was hanged and burned for heresy in 1417.

It's easy to imagine how such plays would divide opinion and be considered problematic at times, especially given how quickly the political landscape often changed in post-Reformation Europe.

Some scholars have argued that the overtly anti-Catholic sentiment in Thomas Lord Cromwell means it couldn't have been written by Shakespeare as they've detected pro-Catholic sentiments in some of his other works. However, this ignores the fact that peoples opinions and politics can change over time. Their motivations for writing such works may also be different - an apolitical person may write a partisan play for a partisan audience for example. This sort of thinking also precludes the idea that numerous different authors may have contributed to the collective 'Shakespeare' effort.

In conclusion, I'm still not sure what to make of all this or what my opinion is in regards who wrote these plays - or in fact in regards who Shakespeare actually was. However, I feel bringing a bit of daylight to these apocryphal plays is a worthwhile thing to do. Plus I've enjoyed reading them :) ..and intend to read the rest (when I get round to it). Whoever the real authors may be I feel these plays add to the richness of the whole Shakespeare mystery.

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