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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

X. Plays of Uncertain Authorship Attributed to Shakespeare

§ 1. Classification of extant Plays

THE FOUNDATIONS of the Shakespearean apocrypha were laid while the dramatist was still alive, when a number of plays, in the composition of most of which he could have had no hand, were entered upon the Stationers’ register as his, or were published with his name or initials on the title-page. Against the laying of these foundations Shakespeare, so far as we know, raised no protest. In any case, it is upon them that the ascriptions of publishers and others in the generation that followed his death, and the theories advanced by students of the Elizabethan drama during the last two centuries, have built up a superstructure so massive that the total of the plays of more or less uncertain authorship attributed to Shakespeare already equals in quantity that of the accepted canon.

Disregarding those plays—six in all—which were claimed by their publishers as Shakespeare’s, but which have since been lost, we may attempt the following classification. First, plays which were published during Shakespeare’s lifetime with his name, or initials, upon the title-page: Locrine (published in 1595); The first part of the … life of Sir John Oldcastle (1600); The whole life and death of Thomas Lord Cromwell (1602); The London Prodigall (1605); The Puritane (1607); A Yorkshire Tragedy (1608); Pericles (1609). Two of these plays do not concern us here: Sir John Oldcastle, part I, has been assigned, on the evidence of an entry in Henslowe’s diary, to the joint authorship of Munday, Drayton, Wilson and Hathwaye; and certain parts of Pericles have been almost universally recognised as the work of Shakespeare.

A second class comprises three plays which were published after Shakespeare’s death with his name, as sole or joint author, upon the title-page: The Troublesome Raigne of John, King of England (published as Shakespeare’s in 1622, after having been issued anonymously in 1591); The Two Noble Kinsmen (published as the work of Fletcher and Shakespeare in 1634); and The Birth of Merlin (“written by William Shakespear and William Rowley,” 1662).

Again, three plays have been attributed to him on the very slender evidence that they were discovered bound up together in a volume in Charles II’s library, labelled “Shakespeare, vol. I.” These are Mucedorus (first published, anonymously, in 1598); The Merry Devill of Edmonton (1608); and Faire Em (1631). None of these was included in the third folio edition of Shakespeare’s works, which appeared in 1664, and which added to the thirty-six plays of the first folio the seven plays first mentioned above.

The last class of plays of uncertain authorship attributed to Shakespeare will comprise those which have been assigned to him since the beginning of the eighteenth century on the basis of internal evidence. The number of plays which could be brought under this heading is very large, but only three of them—Edward III, Arden of Feversham and Sir Thomas More—can be included here. Two other plays—The First Part of the Contention and The True Tragedie of Richard, Duke of Yorke—also fall into this division; but these, like The Troublesome Raigne of John, King of England mentioned above, have been treated in a preceding chapter.

In considering the question of Shakespeare’s share in any of the above plays, it is unfortunate that our main evidence has to be sought in the plays themselves. The appearance of his name on the Stationers’ register, or on the title-page of a play, is of interest as showing the extent of his popularity with the reading public of his time, but is no evidence whatever that the play is his. On the other hand, it is uncritical to reject a play as Shakespeare’s solely because it does not find a place in the first folio of 1623. Valuable as that edition is as a standard of authenticity, it does not include Pericles, portions of which are almost unanimously claimed for Shakespeare, while it includes The First Part of Henry VI, portions of which are just as unanimously believed not to be his. There remains, therefore, the evidence furnished by the plays themselves—evidence which, for the most part, consists in the resemblance which these plays bear, in respect of diction and metre, characterisation and plot construction, to the accepted works of Shakespeare. Such evidence, confessedly, is unsatisfactory and leaves the whole question under the undisputed sway of that fickle jade, Opinion.

But the question of Shakespearean authorship is not the only point of interest presented by the doubtful plays. So varied in character are the works which go to form the Shakespearean apocrypha, that they may fairly be said to furnish us with an epitome of the Elizabethan drama during the period of its greatest achievement. Almost every class of play is here represented, and one class—that of domestic tragedy—finds, in Arden of Feversham and in A Yorkshire Tragedy, two of its most illustrious examples. The Senecan tragedy of vengeance is represented by Locrine; the history or chronicle play by Edward III, The First Part of the Contention, The True Tragedie, The Troublesome Raigne of John, King of England, Sir Thomas More and Cromwell, and, less precisely, by The Birth of Merlin and Faire Em. The romantic comedy of the period is illustrated by Mucedorus, The Merry Devill and The Two Noble Kinsmen, while The London Prodigall and The Puritane are types of that realistic bourgeois comedy which, in Stewart days, won a firm hold upon the affections of the play-going community.