Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 164
Today, the texts of roughly three thousand plays from the great age of Elizabethan theater are lost to us. The plays that remain constitute only a sixth of all of the drama produced during that period. How do we make sense of a swiss-cheese history with more holes than cheese?
The Lost Plays Database tries to fill in those holes. It’s an open-access forum for information about lost plays from England originally written and performed between 1570 and 1642. The database collects the little evidence that remains of the lost plays, like descriptions of performances, lists of titles, receipts, diaries, letters, or fragments of parts.
David McInnis, an Associate Professor at Australia’s University of Melbourne and one of the founders of the Lost Plays Database, has collected some of his discoveries about lost plays, as well as the new theories they have spawned, in a new book, Shakespeare and Lost Plays. We spoke with McInnis about a few favorite lost plays and how researching them is critical to understanding the works that have survived. David McInnis is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Explore the Lost Plays Database at lostplays.folger.edu.
David McInnis is an Associate Professor in English and Theatre Studies, Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne in Australia. His new book, Shakespeare and Lost Plays, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2021.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published March 30, 2021. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “Praising What is Lost,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.
Excerpt: Shakespeare and Lost Plays
Read a short excerpt from David McInnis's book about the wider theatrical moment that produced Hamlet and Henry V.
Shakespeare Documented: Love's Labor's Won listed in a fragment of a Stationer's account book
See the fragment that alluding to the existence of Love's Labor's Won.
MICHAEL WITMORE: Turns out, when it comes to scholars who work on the plays of Shakespeare’s era, not only don’t they know, they sometimes don’t know they don’t know.
From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. We have texts of only one-sixth of the plays written during the great age of Elizabethan theater. One-sixth. For the other three thousand or so plays that were performed in those years there’s almost nothing. Sometimes, just a little evidence: descriptions of performances, lists of titles, receipts, diaries, letters, or fragments of parts.
That raises the question: How do you make sense of a swiss cheese history when you have more holes than cheese? One tool to try and fill in some of those holes is the Lost Plays Database—an open-access forum for information about lost plays from England that were originally written and performed between 1570 and 1642. The database started in Australia and in 2018 found a new home here at the Folger.
Pulling all of this information together into one place has offered up some remarkable discoveries. And some of them are beginning to upend long-established scholarly ideas about Shakespeare, his theater, and his times. One of the founders of the Lost Plays Database is David McInnis, an Associate Professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia. David has now placed some of his best discoveries—and the new theories they spawned—in a book. It’s called Shakespeare and Lost Plays.
David woke up very early in the morning to join us from his home in Melbourne for this podcast that we call, “Praising What Is Lost.” David McInnis is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: Yeah, a simple question to start. If plays are lost, how do you know about them? I mean, I imagine you like an Indiana Jones of lost plays, searching high and low for clues for lost treasure.
DAVID MCINNIS: You know that's what I kind of hoped would happen originally when I got into this line of work, I mean, delving through dusty archives and looking for fragments and manuscripts and things like that. Typically, what I'm doing is looking for diary entries, and licensing records, and legal objections, and any contexts from the early modern period in which someone may have named or referred to a lost play. And looking for ways that we can extrapolate from those tiny fragments or play titles and get a greater understanding of what that lost play may have once been about.
BOGAEV: So, give us a sense of something that you've found: a hint. You have this wonderful anecdote about a lost play that's only identified as Henry the Una. Henry the U-N-A, …
MCINNIS: So, this was one of the earlier discoveries that my colleague Matt Steggle at Bristol made. Henry the Una is a fragmentary title. The end of that final word has been burned off in the manuscript in a fire. And, so no one knew what this play was about, and everyone assumed it was something to do with Henry the First of some country.
Using new technology available to us these days, like Early English Books Online, which digitizes and makes fully searchable thousands and thousands of books from Shakespeare’s lifetime, you can search for a phrase like “Henry the Una” and see what it turns up. And it only turns up three hits with that exact phrase in it and they all refer to Henry the Unable, an impotent Castilian king. So, that play had nothing to do with the typical Shakespearean history and was actually a very weird sexual politics play, basically.
BOGAEV: Oh well, at least the “una” kind of set you in that Spain direction.
BOGAEV: Turns out to be right. But that is funny. I mean plays about impotent kings are quite—apparently—quite a thing. That's not that uncommon.
MCINNIS: You can understand why it was a short-lived moniker though.
BOGAEV: But, you know, I am thinking of the Henry VI plays and King John and I guess you could even say Richard II is… So, there are a lot of existing plays like this. You’ve made a discovery of a lost play, but it wasn't a genre then. You haven't discovered a whole lost genre.
MCINNIS: Not on this occasion. I think that is starting to happen a little bit, though. One of the things I did find in my book was that a number of lost play titles seemed to point to a very unlikely subgenre of a biopic, essentially. There was a play about Pythagoras. That's a very strange topic for a play. And there is another one about Sir John Mandeville, the famed English traveler who didn't really travel beyond his library. So, there are interesting subgenres here that aren't really accounted for in the surviving drama of the period.
BOGAEV: Oh, well, now that's interesting because my first question was originally going to be, why do we care about lost plays?
MCINNIS: We care about lost plays because Shakespeare was, first and foremost, a playwright who was invested in making money and London was a very rich theatrical landscape during his lifetime. A number of companies, a number of theaters, all competing for the same playgoers’ attention and money. So, we need to understand what Shakespeare was responding to and influencing in terms of the other plays around at the time. And, of course, frustratingly, the vast majority of those plays are lost.
BOGAEV: So, it’s giving a context for the history that we do know. It seems as if you could potentially get a completely different understanding of a country or a time period just by looking at the entertainment that people are consuming. So this kind of work can turn things on its head.
MCINNIS: I would argue—and, of course I’m biased—but the drama is the most important context for arguing Shakespeare’s work because it’s very immediate to him: it’s livelihood. So, getting a fuller richer understanding of what the theater of his day looked like, I think, is really important for appreciating Shakespeare’s work and context.
Just to give the listener some idea from that period, only 543 plays survived, but probably up to about three thousand were written. So, everything we say about the plays from Shakespeare’s time could be a massive distortion based on that minority of surviving examples.
BOGAEV: Wow. What we don’t know, what we don't know. I mean one thing you’re looking at is travel literature, right?
MCINNIS: Yeah, I did my PhD on travel literature. I'm really quite fascinated about by what people in England during the 16th and 17th century thought about the world. I love travel. I wish I could travel right now but of course the pandemic prevents it. But Shakespeare’s audiences also were similarly limited in their travel opportunities.
And the work I've done on lost plays shows that in this instance, most of the lost travel plays are distinctly different from those that survive. They seem to be steeped in recent history. So, a play called The Conquest of the West Indies; The Plantation at Virginia; The New World's Tragedy. These are all plays that are more topically related to historical events in the new world. Whereas, the surviving travel plays are much more usually romances like The Tempest or satires like Ben Jonson's Eastward Ho.
BOGAEV: So, how does that change how you think about The Tempest? Because when we're talking about using these lost plays that you're uncovering to understand this time period or country, when you're talking about Shakespeare’s era, we do know some of the historical ramifications of the plays that do exist.
MCINNIS: So, with The Tempest in particular, that's a really fascinating example, because scholars since the last decade of the 19th century have been interested in this possibility that The Tempest is about the new world of the Americas. There's no real explicit clues in the play. There are passing references, so scholars have really had to try and work hard to establish why the play resonates with real life travel and the Americas, the new world.
I would argue that by recovering the lost plays and realizing there are precedents for plays set in the Americas, you strengthen your claim for an early modern audience seeing The Tempest in the same way that more recent scholars are seeing it.
BOGAEV: Well, throughout your book, you do keep bringing up this theory about how lost plays are the negative space of our understanding of this period, which is a lovely visual image. I'd like to know more about what you mean by that.
MCINNIS: Yeah, so it’s an art history term and it refers to the interplay of the primary object in a two-dimensional illustration and, usually, the background. So, one example I like to give is the FedEx logo, which you notice slowly has a forward-facing arrow embedded in the space between the letters and you can't really see one without seeing the other.
And so my argument, by metaphor, is that we've been seeing Shakespeare’s drama and the surviving plays, and we think that's the extent of the picture. What we haven't really allowed for is the extent to which the lost plays have actually shaped our vision of the existing drama.
BOGAEV: It’s really wild. It’s as if we from history only have cable television and not network or only network and not cable.
MCINNIS: It makes big difference to our understanding, it does.
BOGAEV: Well you have an example of all of this as it relates to Hamlet and to two plays; one of them, maybe, is called Felmelanco and another one is called the Tanner of Denmark.
BOGAEV: So, when it comes to the Tanner of Denmark, what light does that shed on Hamlet or what context does it provide for it that we just didn't know about until you found... it was found?
MCINNIS: So, we tend to think of Hamlet as being a little bit unusual. We celebrate it as one of Shakespeare’s greatest masterpieces, being very proto-modern. We associate it with his companies move to the Globe Theatre, which is a period obviously of positivity and excitement and is very forward looking anticipating the modern.
I'm arguing that Shakespeare’s Denmark actually has important connotations for an early modern playgoer. Shakespeare’s only Danish plays are for us, it’s an anomaly but not for his original audiences. Throughout the 1590s there are a whole series of plays, most of them lost, that had either prominent Danish characters or Danish settings.
What I've found is—I haven't solved what the Tanner of Denmark was about. It’s one of those names that you can search and google and EEBO—which is Early English Books Online—and any other large corpus database. It doesn't return any meaningful hits. So, it’s a storyline that's potentially been lost for us forever, but it has some options.
The more you look into Denmark in this period, the more you recognize that historically, of course, the Danes ruled England for a while and so the two countries’ fates were intertwined. There's a sense in which Denmark becomes almost an uncanny other for England, for exploring England’s political face and its future in particular.
BOGAEV: Well, the queen was from Denmark, right?
MCINNIS: Anne of Denmark was, that’s right. James's wife was Danish. Obviously during the 1590s, England was aware that the Scottish king was marrying a Danish bride. And towards the end of the 1590s when Elizabeth is essentially on her deathbed, there would be a growing awareness that James might be coming down to London and become the next king of England with a Danish queen.
But until that point, Denmark has a consistent role in the English stage as being this other, the parallel universe in some way. So, Shakespeare is not the first to realize, “That's a really helpful context for exploring English politics.” And it’s no coincidence, then, that this play, Hamlet is a thinly veiled mirror for Elizabethan England. But what is surprising to me, at least, is this long-staged tradition of doing that.
BOGAEV: So, I see, that gives you a sense of what Denmark just means to the average playgoer who lands in that seat.
MCINNIS: That's right, so it wasn't just a foreign exotic random setting. It was rich in political context and connotations for the English.
BOGAEV: And, with Felmelanco, you have a theory that relates to Philip—I don't know how to pronounce his name—Melanchthon.
BOGAEV: He was a contemporary of Martin Luther and he had some kind of theological kinship with Queen Elizabeth. That’s as much as I know. Who is Philip Melanchthon—or whatever his name is—and what's he got to do with Hamlet?
MCINNIS: So, one of the primary sources for learning about lost plays is the diary or account book of the Rose Playhouse manager Philip Henslowe. If you ever saw that film Shakespeare in Love, Stoppard film, that's the character played by Geoffrey Rush in that film.
BOGAEV: Wonderfully played.
MCINNIS: And Henslowe keeps this meticulous diary of all the plays that are being performed by the various companies at the Rose Playhouse. One of the most ambiguous play titles that he enters in his diary is something that we call Felmelanco, all one word. Doesn't mean anything and scholars have always struggled to understand what this play could be about.
I don't claim I've solved it, but part of what I wanted to do in this book was to explore methods for dealing both with loss and with ambiguity. So I've run a number of scenarios. I did some searches of key terms that could fit and what I've come up with was that perhaps Felmelanco was perhaps a mangling of two words: Felmelanco, where Fel is possible Phil, and Melanco is an abbreviation of Melanchthon, so Philip Melanchthon. And, it seemed to fit reasonably well.
It’s still just an educated guess. I would need a smoking gun before it’s all confirmed. But what I like about this theory is that it makes sense of that mangled title. The subject matter was readily known to the English at this point in time. In fact, the play we know was co-authored by Henry Chettle, an established playwright, and a mysterious Mr. Robinson who we never hear of again. But there was a Robinson who translated Philip Melanchthon’s theological writings into English who is particularly well versed in Melanchthon's writings.
So, it would make sense for an established playwright to team up with an expert on the subject matter and for them to work together to develop one of these biopics, essentially in this case, about one of the great reformers, one of the great theologians of 16th-century Germany from Wittenberg.
So, suddenly we have potential for a Wittenberg scholar on stage at the same time that Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, about a Wittenberg scholar, is being reprised by the Admiral's Men. And Shakespeare weirdly keeps on insisting two or three times in the opening scene that Hamlet specifically went to the University in Wittenberg. It seemed to be a topical reference that everyone at the time would understand and would make sense, and there'd be a reason for name dropping Wittenberg in this way. My suggestion is that maybe Hamlet is part of this broader relationship to other theological concerns that are being dramatized at that point in time.
BOGAEV: Wow, this is really sleuthing, even down to the level of syllables. This comes up also in another lost play that you explore. It’s kind of a slightly different example, and it’s by Michael Drayton about Owen Tudor. You suggest in your book that it gives a different perspective on what audiences liked about Shakespeare’s Henry V. It sounds like the war play wasn't a war play for audiences back then, somehow. Explain, please.
MCINNIS: Well, I think probably screenwriters or scriptwriters are familiar with a concept where they've written something they think is really wonderful and tragic and then the audience laughs in the wrong places. There's always that potential for an audience to take away something that maybe wasn't the primary intention.
So, I would still say that Henry V, of course, is a war play. But, of course at the center of Shakespeare’s Henry V play is the future queen Catherine. And the final scene of the play, we see Henry wooing Catherine and talking about marriage. That seems to have struck a chord with at least some playgoers in 1599, 1600. When Shakespeare’s play is being performed at the Globe Theater, just across the road at the Rose Playhouse, another company, the Admiral's Men are performing. And you can see a number of points of correspondence between those two companies’ reportorial offerings.
My suggestion is that when the Admiral’s Men saw how successful Henry V was, they had to make a decision about how they are going to respond to that particular play. And, in this instance, the Admiral’s Men who had Drayton amongst their playwrights, produce a play called Owen Tudor. Owen is Catherine’s second husband. Drayton had written about them previously in terms of the romance, the love story. So, it seems to me that Drayton's play would have been a romance featuring Catherine again but this time with her second husband Owen, which is an interesting, sort of a spin-off for a take on Henry V.
BOGAEV: It’s a spin off. It’s like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
MCINNIS: Right, exactly. Or Frasier having his own show after Cheers.
BOGAEV: Was it a hit? Do you know?
MCINNIS: Well, it seems to have done okay. Obviously we don't have…
BOGAEV: I mean, it got lost.
MCINNIS: It did get lost, but there are a number of reasons why plays get lost. And, one of the fascinating things I learned in the course of writing this book was the extent to which lost plays consistently performed as well as or better than surviving plays at the box office.
So, one of the great things that Henslowe gives us is a string of years for which we have relatively complete data about how much money is associated with the profits basically. We don't know exactly whether he's recording his own takings, like his share, or whether he's recording a list of how much money he owes the company who performed the plays, but it's consistent, regardless. And we see by crunching the numbers, that lost plays are often the most profitable.
It doesn't matter which company I look at, because Henslowe is a manager at the Rose Playhouse. He doesn't have necessarily a tie to one specific company. It’s just whichever company is performing at the Rose at the time. So, he lists four or five companies at least, through the 1590s. It doesn't matter which company’s money figures I look at. It all comes out the same. The lost plays are always either at the top of the pile or very close to it.
BOGAEV: Well, that's wild.
MCINNIS: So, they don't get lost because of quality.
BOGAEV: Well, that’s it. That was my next question. You know, why do plays go lost anyway? And there are tons of examples of this and reasons that you give, but it doesn't seem as if it’s about quality.
MCINNIS: No, and that's been the common supposition. So the other challenge I faced in writing this book and working on lost plays, is that scholarship has made certain decisions or assumptions about why plays become lost and what their value was. So I've had to slowly dismantle some of those assumptions and offer counternarratives, offer evidence for why we should take lost plays seriously and think about what their value really was.
One theory is that plays that were collaboratively authored were just too difficult to secure all the rights to in order to publish as easily as plays were sole authored. We think about the Shakespeare First Folio, for example, which mostly consists of sole authored plays, where the recent work has been gradually exposing the extent to which even those plays were actually coauthored in some way.
But Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Won was a play that we know he wrote in the 1590s and seemed to have written by himself, and yet that was lost altogether. He, as a playwright, was still with the same company, so it was not as if he kept chopping and changing his allegiance and lost the play somehow because he left it behind with an old company.
We know that that play had been singled out for its quality, as well. The earliest record we have of this is the Elizabethan scholar master Frances Meres who praises Shakespeare as one of the best for the English comedies and specifically lists Love’s Labor’s Won.
We also know—we think that this play was printed because a bookseller’s list from around 1603 turns up and includes Shakespeare’s Love’s Labor’s Won. So that implies the play was once in print, in circulation, and maybe it was simply read to pieces; it was so popular and nothing has survived.
BOGAEV: That is so wild. Okay, I want to ask you more about this, because there are other Shakespeare plays that might have gotten lost, but we need to take a short break. We’re talking with David McInnis, Professor of English at the University of Melbourne in Australia. He’s co-founder of the Lost Plays Database.
I’m Barbara Bogaev. This is Shakespeare Unlimited, from the Folger Shakespeare Library. We’ll be right back.
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MCINNIS: Well yes, so there are at least two plays Shakespeare wrote that have definitely been lost: Love’s Labour’s Won and another play he wrote with John Fletcher called Cardenio. But when the Shakespeare’s First Folio was put together posthumously, it’s not a perfect document. The plays included are of uneven quality. Some of them are very roughed, worked over manuscripts and some of them are much more polished final products. They took whatever they could get, and they printed it. And in the course of doing so, they managed to publish for the first time about 18 of Shakespeare’s plays that hadn't appeared in print during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Plays like Antony and Cleopatra and Macbeth and Twelfth Night.
BOGAEV: And there are all sorts of crazy reasons why plays go lost. One I love that you give is this old story, I don't know if it’s even true, about someone named Warburton who blamed his cook for his plays, his script, disappearing.
MCINNIS: That's right. This is this tragic moment where we think we're tantalizingly close to having dozens and dozens of first-rate play manuscripts owned by this collector in the late 17th century. He has a list of all these plays by name and it seems to have been—this piece of paper that has the list seems to have been a wrapper, like a binder that went around his big collection of plays. And there's this very sad note at the end of it that says, unluckily they were put under pie bottoms and burned. He blames his cook, who obviously not being able to read, allegedly used the sheets of paper to line the baking trays with and incinerated them. Whether that's true or not, is still being debated. There is good reason to think he owned at least some of them though.
BOGAEV: Well poor old Betsy—the cook. I mean, it’s kind of…
MCINNIS: I know. The fall guy for this, right?
BOGAEV: Right, it sounds like the dog ate my homework.
BOGAEV: And there are more common examples that seem to involve much more serious reasons of censorship. Isn’t that right? Didn't Ben Jonson decide to leave a lot of plays out of his first folio and now, we don't have them?
MCINNIS: Censorship takes a number of different forms in this period. Self-censorship. Probably the best example I could think of is a guy called Fulke Greville, who wrote a play about Anthony and Cleopatra and then belatedly realized that, “Hang on, if this ever gets performed or read, people are going to associated this with recent political turmoil.” He thought it was going to be misconstrued as an allegory of the Essex rebellion, so he destroyed his own play before it saw the light of day.
Ben Jonson was involved in a play, a seditious play, he wrote with Tom Nashe, called the Isle of Dogs, in the mid-1590s. We’re not entirely certain what this was about but it was so problematic that the authorities, hearing about it, threatened to close all the public theaters across London. So Nashe fled, Jonson fled. In fact, it was the end of Nashe's playwriting career. And Jonson, when he came to publish his own works in 1616, deliberately did not include this play.
BOGAEV: Well, we're talking about how—and it’s obvious now—how these lost plays, the fact that they're lost is no reflection of their quality. It’s not because they deserve to be lost. But plenty of scholars have made the case that if they were any good, someone would have published them. So, what is the basis for their argument? And you imply that they do real harm to your field.
MCINNIS: So, my problem is that it’s not an argument so much as an assertion. It’s a self-comforting assertion and it’s quite natural. I think we would all intuitively go there when faced with the catastrophe of five-sixths of the drama of Shakespeare’s period being lost, including plays by Shakespeare. The only comforting thing to do naturally is to think, “Oh well. Hopefully, it’s the best ones who have survived and we don't need to worry so much about the others.” But the work I've been doing for the last 10 years has shown that actually that is just not an assumption that we're entitled to make on the basis of the existing evidence.
The trouble is that—well, it’s a historical problem really. It’s about the way scholars think about drama and it’s the fact that in the 20th century, the dominant mode of literary criticism privileged close reading. And in the absence of a play text, where close reading is not possible, lost plays are recorded a lower status or worth by those scholars whose bread and butter, whose daily work consists of doing close reading.
Gradually we’re realizing that actually, there's no basis for quality judgement about these lost plays at all. We know that significant playwrights like Shakespeare wrote plays that have since become lost, so there isn't really an obvious rhyme or reason for why plays become lost. And quality judgements are simply not going to be an adequate explanation.
BOGAEV: I do want to ask you about your Lost Plays Database. We don’t have to spend too much time on it because I don't want to seem like the Folger slapping itself on the back, but maybe you can give us, just the thumbnail description of why you started it and what exactly is in it.
MCINNIS: So, I started the lost plays database with my friend and colleague Professor Roslyn Knutson, from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. We did this back in 2008, 2009 after a casual conversation at the British Library where I wanted to know something more about lost travel plays, because I was writing my PhD at the time and I’d noticed a bunch of lost travel plays that seemed really tantalizing. She happened to have some information. Just a few snippets that she knew that weren't of immediate use to her work at that time but were illuminating for me.
And she, in turn, asked me a question about another lost play. I think it was Bellendon, a play about the first thief hanged in England. I happened to remember a little reference to that play in a poem which she’d never heard of. And it occurred to us that if a PhD student and a very senior professor could each tell each other something new, then maybe we should formalize that conversation.
So we started gathering together all the snippets of information that we could find about lost plays and posting them in a Wiki, basically. It’s the same software that Wikipedia uses, and we want to make that publicly available in the hope that it would encourage others to work on lost plays, as well.
One of the great challenges we’ve had working on lost plays, is not just those value judgements, but the fact that lost plays are so ephemeral they typically didn't warrant chapters or books on their own. They were buried in footnotes and weren’t even indexed in scholarly books. So if you want to know what have been written about lost plays, what we've learned about it over the centuries, it was really hard to find that information.
MCINNIS: The Lost Plays Database transcribes the historical records or digitizes them to make them available for inspection. It summarizes what’s known about these lost plays from the existing scholarship. It offers fresh suggestions or insights about what these plays could have been about, as well. And it brings all of those things together in the one convenient place to sort of, kick start scholarship on lost plays, essentially.
BOGAEV: Wow, and it's still a Wiki?
MCINNIS: It’s still a Wiki. It’s now coedited by myself and Matt Steggle from Bristol, and Misha Teramura from Toronto. Rosalyn Knutson is our editor emerita. And we have a team of about three dozen theater historians around the world who contribute from time to time.
BOGAEV: Well, stepping back to get a big picture on all of this research then. How radically does the knowledge of lost plays change how you think about Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s studies?
MCINNIS: I think studying lost plays is immensely powerful and enabling for scholars because it rids us of the burden of continuing to see Shakespeare’s plays in the same way the scholarship has often treated them for the last several centuries, where only certain parts are important or certain contexts are important or this is what the play means.
BOGAEV: Okay, well to really nail you down, does it make Shakespeare seem more revolutionary for his period or less? Or more skilled or brilliant or groundbreaking or more middle of the pack and hackneyed, or less?
MCINNIS: I would argue that it does not detract from Shakespeare’s genius. If anything, it augments it because we appreciate to a greater extent, not just his artistic success, but his commercial success. He knew what would sell, he knew what would work. So here we see a man who was churning out masterpieces, but in a timely fashion to make money. We get a greater sense of just how attuned he was to audience tastes and what was going on at the time. So, I think it’s really quite important to think about that commercial context and understand what Shakespeare is doing from that point of view.
Does it make Shakespeare more or less original? What I would suggest is that we see in Shakespeare something called “continuous innovation.” We don't see a radical break from the past, a radical break from what everyone else was doing. What we see is this constant refinement: knowing what works, what's trendy and improving, perfecting, steering the conversation in new directions. He is leading the pack, and I think that becomes much more apparent once we recognize the extent to which lost plays inform what was the topics and the themes of the surviving plays from the period.
BARBARA: You know, I'm still really blown away by the fact that 5/6th of all the plays are lost to us. I mean we're only seeing this tiny fraction, and we've done so many podcasts that have looked at the work of female scholars and scholars of color. They've often revealed all these elements of Shakespeare’s era that just were invisible to us. You know, examples like, female acrobats and scholars who question the idea that Othello isn't about race. I mean, when you think about the marginalized people and the marginalized history, that is what is hidden to us in these lost works. It really makes you wonder what biases are at work in scholarship.
MCINNIS: Absolutely. One of the reasons I turned to visual images, those two-dimensional images, is because it is about biases. It’s about what do you see initially and why have you been trained to see that first? And in Shakespeare’s scholarship has to do with the influence of those dominant scholars who've come before us. So, we live still with a legacy from 19th-century scholarship and that ossifies into fact throughout the 20th century, where people repeat those claims without really interrogating them. Dealing with those kinds of biases and trying to work out why we think about Shakespeare’s plays the way we do is an important element of what I'm trying to do in this book, as well.
Shakespeare and his colleagues were writing for the stage: they were writing, they were producing live events. And trying to capture some of the excitement, and the energy, and that ephemeral moment is something that is going to be difficult for us four centuries later. That's why we learned so much about female acrobatics, and that changes the way we think about what it meant to go to a playhouse during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The same holds true for lost plays, as well. Trying to recapture that moment, try to reanimate that moment and better understand the theater of Shakespeare’s time is something that's going to be tantalizing, but within grasp now, I hope.
BOGAEV: Well, there is, by definition, so much speculation when it comes to this topic, which also makes it tantalizing. Your book is full of what-ifs, and academics just aren't generally that open to speculation. Not at all, right?
BOGAEV: In a lot of fields, you have to really establish that your feet are on firm ground before you make anything that looks like an assertion, and you don't seem too troubled by that. So, how do you deal with the conjecture dilemma, or challenges form your colleagues?
MCINNIS: Well, scholars tend to want to have a clear answer. Their authority rests on being able to answer questions confidentially and clearly and be able to explain something that they've been studying for years with a clear response. They don't like it when there is ambiguity. But I think the extent of the loss from Shakespeare’s period has to be recognized, and I think it’s actually empowering and responsible to do so.
There is still room for conjecture, but it has to be responsible conjecture. We have to explain why we're saying what we're saying. Establishing a methodology like that is something I was really keen to do in this book. And so, what you'll see in the book, as in Lost Plays Database entries, is that I always start with the historical evidence and then I move on to what it might mean. When I say, “What it might mean,” I'm always open to acknowledging that it could be this or it could be that: here're the reasons why scholars have thought in either direction, or why I've thought in both directions. And ultimately, if there isn't conclusive evidence for a firm answer at the end of the day, I feel compelled to say that.
BOGAEV: What-ifs open up so much space. Don't you love to think that there could have been a woman playwright who was better, so much better than Shakespeare, and she's been lost forever to history? Right? I mean I'd love to think about...
MCINNIS: I would love to know who Anonymous was.
BOGAEV: Well, where does your mind go with this? You know, what wish fulfilling recovered play fantasies do you dream about?
MCINNIS: Yeah, I would love to be able to time travel. I would love to go back four centuries and be an audience member at the Globe or any of those other playhouses that Shakespeare’s lifetime. And to see all sort of really quite wacky and probably lowbrow plays being performed to be honest. I don’t think I’d be going to the theater for the intellectual masterpieces, I’d be going there for the fun and for the laughs. And there were so many of those plays at that point in time, so I'd give anything to go and actually be witness to some of those performances.
BOGAEV: And do you give yourself license to reimagine Shakespeare?
MCINNIS: Privately. I have no desire to write a Shakespeare’s lost play or anything like that. I know it’s something I'd like to think about doing sometimes. But, yeah, I do enjoy just thinking about those what-ifs and try to imagine plays different ways.
BOGAEV: This has been so much fun. I've really enjoyed imagining them and also hearing about your Indiana Jones sleuthing. It’s been a joy. Thank you.
MCINNIS: Thank you so much for having me.
WITMORE: David McInnis is an Associate Professor in English and Theatre Studies, Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne in Australia. His new book, Shakespeare and Lost Plays, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2021. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
If you want to use the Lost Plays Database you can get to it online by going to lostplays.folger.edu. That’s lostplays.folger.edu.
Our podcast episode, “Praising What Is Lost,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California.
If you’re a fan of Shakespeare Unlimited, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find the Lost Plays Database and much more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.