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Shakespeare & Beyond

Discovering Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play

William Shakespeare's Long Lost First Play (abridged)
William Shakespeare's Long Lost First Play (abridged)
William Shakespeare's Long Lost First Play (abridged)

Reed Martin, Teddy Spencer, and Austin Tichenor in William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged) at Folger Theatre, 2016. Photo by Teresa Wood.

During a tour of the Folger Shakespeare Library vaults back in 2010, my wife asked our hosts what they hoped the lost treasure would be in some fictional Shakespeare-themed Da Vinci Code-type mystery. Associate librarian and head of reference Georgianna Ziegler offered, “My holy grail would be to find an actual manuscript of a Shakespeare play, in his hand.” The Folger’s then-director Gail Kern Paster agreed. “That would be soo cool!” she said.

The light bulb went on immediately: Since the discovery of such a precious artifact seems unlikely (though not impossible), we decided we should create one instead. Thus was born William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (abridged), written by me and my Reduced Shakespeare Company partner Reed Martin, and just recently published in both the US and the UK.

Our concept was that seventeen-year-old Shakespeare, a young man bursting with creative genius but little experience or craft, created a massive work stuffed with almost every character and famous speech from his ensuing canon. Realizing the result would be impossible to stage, and that most of it was in rhyming iambic pentameter (clearly the mark of a very immature playwright), Shakespeare would “bury it certain fathoms in the earth” — in a parking lot in Leicester, next to some bones that didn’t look that important.

With 1,639 characters and a textual declaration that it will encompass “the one hundred hours traffic of our stage,” this first play was clearly never meant to be performed, which meant that we would have to edit it down to a manageable two-hour running time. We focused on the “merry war” and “ancient grudge” between the magical creatures Puck and Ariel, whose supernatural rivalry creates a Sorcerers Apprentice-level of chaos, throwing familiar characters we know from Shakespeare’s later work into strange and unexpected combinations, such as Lady Macbeth spurring her fiancé Hamlet into action, Cleopatra wooing the rustic player Bottom, the three weird sisters from Macbeth disappointing their father King Lear, and Dromio (from The Comedy of Errors) fleeing Juliet.