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The Plays

What actually constitutes the apocrypha? Over the centuries there have been a great many plays attached to Shakespeare's name, from the likely to the deliberately forged. This page introduces some of the most important of these.

The 1664 Folio additions

To the second imprint of the third Folio of Shakespeare's collected works were added seven plays. These include Pericles, The Yorkshire Tragedy, The First Part of Sir John Oldcastle, Thomas Lord Cromwell, The Puritan, The London Prodigal and Locrine. These are the seven 'core' apocryphal plays; though, of course, Pericles is now universally accepted as Shakespeare's. The likelihood of Shakespeare's input varies wildly; The Puritan, for example, is known to have been written for a boys' company, which we have no evidence for Shakespeare ever writing for. Equally, Henslowe's theatre records show that John Oldcastle was composed by four other dramatists for Shakespeare's rival company, the Queens' Men. The Yorkshire Tragedy, on the other hand, has been fought over for some time and many scholars believe that Shakespeare's hand is present in at least the first scene of the play, while few scholars would now question the authenticity of Pericles.

The early attributions

The most famous of the plays which had Shakespeare's name attached as early as the seventeenth century is The Two Noble Kinsmen, now included in all important Shakespeare collected editions, multi-volume and single-volume, as a collaboration with John Fletcher. Lesser-known are The Birth of Merlin and The Troublesome Reign of King John, again both published with Shakespeare's name on the title page.

Other early attachments

The Second Maiden's Tragedy (or The Lady's Tragedy, as the new Oxford edition of Middleton's Collected Works (2007) would have us call it) exists only in an anonymous manuscript, but handwritten remarks by the Master of the Revels suggest Shakespeare as one of three possible authors. More likely, again in varying degrees, are three plays found in a volume belonging to Charles I entitled Shakespeare Volume One, which contained Fair Em, Mucedorus and The Merry Devil of Edmonton. Of these, we know that the last at least belonged to the King's Men. The Arraignment of Paris is also attributed to Shakespeare in some early book catalogues, but is now unanimously attributed to Peele.

Later, there is the unusual case of Double Falsehood, a play by Lewis Theobald that he claimed was based on a manuscript in his possession of a lost play by Shakespeare. The claim was refuted by his contemporaries and Theobald quietly dropped his case. However, there is a strong case for the surviving play being a version of the lost Cardenio which we know was written by Fletcher and Shakespeare and performed by the King's Men.

More recent attributions

The two most famous of the plays more recently attributed to Shakespeare are Edward III and Sir Thomas More. The former has been fought bitterly over by scholars and critics, and is increasingly included in editions and series of Shakespeare's plays as at least partly by him. The latter is even more controversial - it survives in manuscript form with several handwritten additions, one of which is believed by many to be in Shakespeare's own hand. The weight of critical opinion is strongly inclined this way and has been for many years the source of intense critical and paleographic study.

The other likely late attribution is of Arden of Faversham, which has been the subject of intermittent interest particularly in the twentieth century. Regarded as one of the 'best' of the apocryphal plays, it is another of the strongest contenders for Shakespeare's hand. There have also been impassioned recent cases for Edmond Ironside and Thomas of Woodstock, both claims only made in the latter part of the twentieth century.

The outsiders

Other plays to which Shakespeare has been linked are far more unlikely (for example, The Arraignment of Paris, Edward II, Edward IV, all of which are now confidently attributed to other dramatists). There is potential interest in plays linked to canonical plays: King Leir and his Daughters, The True Tragedy of Richard III, even The Famous Victories of Henry V. Coupled with The Troublesome Reign of King John and the ongoing debate about the 'bad quartos' or 'alternative versions' of certain Shakespeare plays (The Taming of a Shrew, The Contention..., Richard, Duke of York etc.), there is important discussion to be had about the relationships between the canon and the plays that share the same material.

1664 Folio Title Page

The 1664 Folio Title Page, naming the seven plays 'never before Printed in Folio'

Title page of The Birth of Merlin, 1662

The 1662 title page of The Birth of Merlin, claimed to be "written by William Shakespear and William Rowley"