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Whether it’s a diary entry or a side note in a ledger or account book, history leaves us records of plays that were performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but their scripts never survived to the present day in any form that’s recognizable as a complete play. Other than the occasional snippet of a line or two here and there, we cannot read these plays, and we certainly can’t perform them, but we know they were real, and that they had a place in the life of William Shakespeare. This entire group of work is called collectively “lost plays” and even bard himself has a few titles that we know he wrote, but we no longer have anything but a passing record to tell us their contents. Researching and cataloging the collection of historical breadcrumbs that piece together a story of a lost play is the purpose of The Lost Plays Database, which is an online collection of the records and research being done into the theatrical works now lost to history. Their database records plays from as early as 1570 and as late as 1658. Our guest this week knows better than most the history of lost plays, because she is one of the editors at The Lost Plays Database, and a pioneer in the field of repertory study. We are delighted to welcome Roslyn Knutson.  

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Roslyn Knutson is Professor Emerita of English at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, is the author of The Repertory of Shakespeare’s Company, 1594-1613 (University of Arkansas Press, 1991) and Playing Companies and Commerce in Shakespeare’s Time (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Read More about Roslyn Knutson and her work here

She is co-editor with Kirk Melnikoff (UNC-Charlotte) on Christopher Marlowe, Theatrical Commerce, and the Book Trade (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Her essays have appeared in publications including Shakespeare Quarterly, English Literary Renaissance, Shakespeare Survey, and Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England. She was recently one of the keynote speakers at ANZSA, “Shakespeare at Play,” 2018. Roslyn served as a trustee for the SAA from 2003-5 and the president of the Marlowe Society of America from 2008-11. 

Learn more abotu Roslyn and her work at the links in today’s show notes. Link here:  

I’ll be asking Roslyn Knutson about:

  • What causes a play to become lost in the first place?
  • What are some of the historical records we have today that tell us about some of the lost plays? 
  • Given that lost plays no longer exist to study in depth or even to adapt into performance today, what does it look like to research a lost play? 
  • …and more!

Knutson, Roslyn and David McInnis, “Lost Plays Database: A Wiki for Lost Plays.Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, 24 (2011): 46-57. (FYI: this is really a “how did the LPD come about” essay; i.e., a birth narrative for the database. 

McInnis, David, Shakespeare and Lost Plays, Cambridge University Press, 2021. 

McInnis, David and Matt Steggle, Lost Plays in Shakespeare’s England, Palgrave, 2014.  📚

Steggle, Matt, Digital Humanities and the Lost Drama of Early Modern England: Ten Case Studies, Ashgate, 2015. 📚

They are all Fossils: A Paleontology of Early Modern Drama,” pp. 173-90; Palgrave 2020. 📚

What’s the “📚” symbol? Well, that’s a book emoji. I place it next to recommended resources that are either very expensive (anything over $50 to purchase outright), or that require an institutional login or subscription to access. For both these scenarios, I still recommend the value of these resources, but suggest seeking them out from your local library where reading it will be free. Note that this is a new feature to our show notes and older show notes may not provide this feature.

Additional Links That May Be Of Interest:

All three of the above books are 📚 books.

This is a screen capture of the title page of Thomas Heywood’s The English Traveller (1633). It is described as “The English traveller : as it hath beene publikely acted at the Cock-pit in Drury-lane by Her Maiesties Seruants” on the Folger’s Hamnet record for this publication. Source

What causes a play to be lost

Just like losing your car keys, or misplacing a library book, the same reasons that cause you to lose something at home, are what causes plays from the past to be lost to posterity. Roslyn points out that owners of scripts could have lost them, and cites a record by Thomas Heywood who wrote that “Shifting and change of companies have been negligently lost” as one reason play scripts get misplaced–they are simply lost in the move.

Title page of an early edition of Cambyses, showing the division of roles among actors. | C. 1595, Folger Shakespeare Library, Luna | Source

The Admiral’s Men was the premier playing company in Elizabethan theater, but with the rise of Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, they relocated their theater from the Rose to the Fortune theater in 1600. (Their premier player and playwright, Edward Alleyn, would retire in 1603). Roslyn points out this relocation is one example of a time when plays could get lost.

“The Chamberlain’s Men stay at the same playhouse, but the Admiral’s Men moving from the Rose to the Fortune is an example of an opportunity for plays to get lost. Disasters too like the fire at the Globe, must have taken out plays.”

In a letter from the Privy Council to the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, a report claims that on Shrove Tuesday, ‘a Rowte of lewde and loose p[er]sons Apprentices, and others committed ‘tumultuous outrages … in attempting to pull down a Playhowse belonging to the Queenes Mats Servants. Their attempts were not unsuccessful” Roslyn cites this incident as another example of where and how plays can be misplaced.

Portrait of John Warburton, 1750, the man who wrote that several of his play collection were burned up by his cook. Portrait is public domain. Source

Perhaps the most entertaining story of lost plays comes from John Warburton who claims to have had dozens of play scripts, but his cook used them to line pie pans and they were subsequently burnt up in the ovens.

Here is a list of the plays John Warburton claims to have lost:

  • Alexias, or The Chaste Gallant, a tragedy by Philip Massinger; it was licensed for performance by the King’s Men on 25 September 1639.
  • Antonio and Vallia, attributed to Philip Massinger; it’s possible this was identical to or a revision of a play of the same name performed by Philip Henslowe’s company in 1595.
  • Beauty in a Trance, by John Ford; it was performed by the King’s Men on 28 November 1630.
  • Believe as You List, a comedy by Philip Massinger. It was licensed for performance by the King’s Men on 6 May 1631, four months after the Master of the Revels refused to approve it because of “dangerous matter” in it about “the deposing of Sebastian king of Portugal by Philip the [Second,] and there being a peace sworn twixt the kings of England and Spain.”
  • The City Shuffler, no author named, or part specified; records indicate that The City Shuffler, part 2 was licensed for performance by the Salisbury Court company in October 1633 after a Mr. Sewster removed his objections to it, presumably because it had once contained some kind of personal satire.
  • The Crafty Merchant, attributed to Shackerley Marmion; it was licensed for performance by the Lady Elizabeth’s Men at the Red Bull Theatre on 12 September 1623, although that document ascribes the authorship to William Bonen.
  • The Duchess of Fernandina, a tragedy by Henry Glapthorne.
  • Duke Humphrey, attributed to William Shakespeare.
  • The Fair Favorite, by William Davenant. It was licensed for performance on 17 November 1638, and belonged to the King’s Men.
  • The Fairy Queen, no author given.
  • Fast and Welcome, a comedy by Philip Massinger.
  • The Fatal Love, no author given; a 1660 Stationers’ Register entry claims the play was “a French tragedy” (meaning set in France) written by George Chapman.
  • The Flying Voice, by Ralph Wood.
  • The Forced Lady, a tragedy by Philip Massinger; a record dated 7 August 1641 identifies it as a King’s Men play.
  • The Governor, a tragedy by Sir Cornelius Formido. It was acted by the King’s Men at court on 17 February 1637.
  • The Great Man, a tragedy, no author given.
  • Henry I, attributed to William Shakespeare and Robert Davenport; it was licensed for performance by the King’s Men on 10 April 1624, but in that record assigned only to Davenport.
  • The History of Job, by Robert Greene.
  • The Honorable Loves, a comedy by William Rowley.
  • The Honor of Women, a comedy by Philip Massinger; it was licensed for performance on 6 May 1628.
  • An Ill Beginning Has a Good End is the 1660 Stationers’ Register reading for a play Warburton listed as A Good Beginning May Have a Good End; both records ascribe it to John Ford. It is presumed to be the same as A Bad Beginning Makes a Good Ending, performed by the King’s Men at court during the winter of 1612–13.
  • The Inconstant Lady, a play by Arthur Wilson (Warburton mistakenly gives the first name as “William”); it was presented at court by the King’s Men on 30 September 1630.
  • An Interlude, by Ralph Wood, which Warburton said was “worth nothing;” “interlude” may have been a description rather than the title.
  • Jocondo and Astolfo, a comedy by Thomas Dekker.
  • The Judge, a comedy by Philip Massinger; it was licensed for performance by the King’s Men on 6 June 1627.
  • The King of Swedeland, no author given; a 1660 Stationers Register entry identified the king as Gustavus and the play’s author as Thomas Dekker.
  • The London Merchant, a comedy by John Ford.
  • Love Hath Found His Eyes, by Thomas Jordan.
  • The Lovers of Ludgate, no author given.
  • The Maiden’s Holiday, attributed to Christopher Marlowe; a 1654 entry in the Stationers’ Register says it was a collaboration between Marlowe and John Day.
  • A Mask, attributed to “R. Govell,” otherwise unknown; possibly the same as The Mask, which was licensed for performance by the Palsgrave’s Company on 3 November 1624, with no author listed. Records show that Richard Gunnell was writing for the company at the time, and G.E. Bentley notes that “‘R. Govell’ would be an easy misreading of ‘R. Gonell’ or ‘R. Gunell’; no other early-seventeenth century dramatist has a name so similar.”
  • Minerva’s Sacrifice, a play by Philip Massinger; it was licensed for performance by the King’s Men on 3 November 1629.
  • The Noble Choice, a tragicomedy by Philip Massinger.
  • The Noble Trial, a tragedy by Henry Glapthorne; the 1660 Stationers Register entry describes it as a tragicomedy.
  • The Nobleman, a tragicomedy by Cyril Tourneur. It was performed by the King’s Men at court on 23 February 1612.
  • The Nonesuch, a comedy by William Rowley.
  • Nothing Impossible to Love, a tragicomedy by Sir Robert Le Grys.
  • Orpheus, a comedy, no author given.
  • The Parliament of Love, attributed to William Rowley; it was licensed for performance on 3 November 1624, but there ascribed to Philip Massinger. The play is still extant through another source, and Massinger’s sole authorship is generally accepted.
  • Philenzo and Hippolito, a comedy by Philip Massinger; a 1660 Stationers Register entry characterizes it as a tragicomedy. An anonymous play of the same title belonged to Philip Henslowe’s company and was performed in 1594, but it is unknown what relation, if any, it had to the play in Warburton’s hands.
  • The Puritan Maid, the Modest Wife, and the Wanton Widow, attributed to Thomas Middleton.
  • The Royal Combat, a comedy by John Ford.
  • Saint George for England, a play by William Smith.
  • The Spanish Purchase, a comedy, no author given. It was licensed for performance by the Salisbury Court company in 1639.
  • ‘Tis Good Sleeping in a Whole Skin, attributed to W. Wager.
  • The Tragedy of Job. Possibly the same as The History of Job, which Warburton assigned to Robert Greene. Alongside the entry Warburton wrote “Good,” either his opinion of the play or who he thought was the author (no playwright named Good is known to have written for the English Renaissance stage).
  • The Tyrant, a tragedy by Philip Massinger.
  • The Vestal, a tragedy by Henry Glapthorne. Warburton lists it twice, either in error or because he had two manuscripts.
  • The Widow’s Prize, a comedy by William Sampson; licensed for performance by Prince Charles’ Men on 25 January 1625.
  • The Woman’s Plot, a comedy by Philip Massinger; it was performed at court by the King’s Men on 5 November 1621.
  • A Yorkshire Gentlewoman and Her Son, a tragedy with no author named; a 1660 Stationers Register entry assigns it to George Chapman.

John Warburton also listed “A Play by William Shakespeare” with no additional notes or elaboration, as well as as a copy of Sir John Suckling’s “Works,” possibly a printed edition.

This information comes from this article and can also be found in the Lawnesdown Collection at the British Museum (Source: “Warburton, John” entry in Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 59)

This is a drawing by Inigo Jones that may be of the Phoenix (aka Cockpit) theater. We know it was drawn in the 1616-1618 time frame by Inigo Jones, but whether it is of the Cockpit is speculated, but not confirmed. Source

Historical Records About Lost Plays

When a play is lost, or no longer in existence, one of the ways we know about the fact that it did, at one point in the past centuries, exist is through historical records (like Warburton’s list). Roslyn shares more information on places to look when you want to discover lost plays:

1592-1603, the diary is invaluable because of the number of play titles named, but also the span of consecutive years, a decade, and the number of companies named, allows those of us in her field to compare repertories, to see what one company had versus another. By his keeping a diary over the same years that Shakespeare was an active playwright, it invites speculation, of what Shakespeare’s companies must have been doing if the companies Henslowe is writing about must have been doing.  

In addition to records of specific plays, Roslyn shares that plot outlines also exist. “We also have a set of plots that survive, companies when getting read to put together a play they would write a plot which is essentially an outline of the play, not all of them from lost plays, but some of them are.”

This is a screen capture of one of the pages surviving of “the Second part of the seven deadly sins” play. This is an example of what a plot outline would have looked like. You can see the entrances of several characters and the order in which major events would take place. Read more about “The ‘Platt’ (or Plot) of The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins – MSS 19” by Grace Ippolo on the Henslowe-Alleyn digitisation project here. Image Source (you can see more images of this plot outline at the links provided here. Click up at the top where you see “MSS-19/01r MSS-19/02r MSS-19/03r“)

Roslyn points out that The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins is one lost play that is assigned by historical record to Shakespeare’s company.

“A couple of others we have a plot for but nothing else is Dead Man’s Fortune, Frederick and Basilea, Fortune’s Tennis, one called Troilus and Cressida, which we can tell from the plot is not Shakespeare’s but something similar.

Related Episode from our Back Catalog: Henslowe and His Diary with Dr. Amy Lidster. Listen now (with complete show notes!) when you join with Patreon.

One of Roslyn’s very favorite lost plays is The two-part “Tamar Cham” plays belonged to Strange’s men at the Rose, acquired later by the Admiral’s men (,_Parts_1_and_2); the plot belongs to a 1602 performance by the Admiral’s Men.

We know [Tamar Cham] was played at the Rose with Henslowe, but one very cool part of it is that it lists the characters that appear in the various scenes and this particular one ends in a parade of exotic characters—amazons, olive colored moors, people of Cathe, Crimea, and Batrea, so we know there was a giant procession at the end of the play because the plot tells us that. Otherwise the only thing we’d known is that there’s a Tamar Cham.  

This is an 18th century print of London done by William Hogarth. The original drawing is called “Masquerades and Operas” or “The Bad Taste of the Town”. Dated 1723, it represents a satire on the questionable tastes of London society. The public are shown thronging to the entertainments of Heidegger, Rich and Fawkes while the great works of literature are carted of for scrap in a wheelbarrow. In the original print, the wheelbarrow featured the name “Pasquin” and in a later edition, Pasquin is replaced by “Ben Jonson” but in both you can see the woman is crying out “waste paper for shops” and that Shakespeare is listed as waste paper alongside others. Source. Public Domain (See the second edition with Ben Johnson listed here)

Researching Lost Plays

While we have talked in previous episodes of That Shakespeare Life about how Shakespeare’s plays could have ended up as toilet paper when you want to research the lost plays we know about today (ever how they came to be lost), you start at your local library.

You start at libraries, the British Library and the Folger at the first places to think of, but these days we are enormously aided by digital sources. At [Early English Books Online] you can plug in a tag and if we have the title, Give a Man Luck and Throw Him into the Sea, you can see what other contexts that phrase turns up in and that may or may not give you an insight into what the play might have been about. It will at least expand our knowledge of that popular saying. Can bring up letters or other textual contexts of where that shows up. We divised on the website, Lost Plays Database, that allow to be very tentative, we say almost nothign factual except their titles and dates associated with them, but we put in ac oiple of categories, one called “For What It’s Worth” and it’s something that might eb relevant, but maybe not today, but potentially with something else we might find later.  

Screen capture of a book from 1917, outlining “Diverse book of proverbs” including “Give a Man Luck and Throw Him Into the Sea”. Source

Titles Getting Mixed Up in the Records

EK Chambers argued that Shakespeare’s play, Taming of the Shrew, was once called “Love’s Labour’s Won” and that scholars studying early modern plays actually thought for a long time that “Love’s Labour’s Won” was a lost play, until they discovered there was a copy of it available all along. Roslyn explains this kind of mixup happens regularly in this field of study.

Yes and this has been a deterrent in the field previously because there was the concept that lost plays could exist under a different name. [This practice is called] Lumping—where a play that is lost gets lumped with a play that exists in order to make some historical point or theatrical point that isn’t justified by anything other than the desire of the scholar to find a lost play in one that exists…John Collier argues with Malone some, but most often exaggerates, and not only is the play “such and such” but they say “It must be so” and they don’t give lost plays enough place.  

Will we find any lost Shakespeare plays in the future?

Roslyn certainly believes so, but cautions “I am a radical on this subject, so take me with a grain of salt.” I can only hope to be the kind of salty as Roslyn. I find such encouragement in her embrace of the radical position while simultaneously holding respect and place for those that might disagree.

Roslyn points out that the surviving corpus of Shakespeare’s works is substantially short of what we expect to be turned out by someone in his industry. A quick comparison to other playwrights in his field shows a large discrepancy in output levels, with Shakespeare producing far less than his colleagues per year.

When we look at comparable playwrights in Shakespeare’s lifetime, they are writing tons more than what we have surviving for Shakespeare. Dekker and Chettle, for example, they were with Henslowe’s companies, and they weren’t always owners or shareholders, so what does it mean for Shakespeare to have written 2-3 plays a year, when these guys are writing 6.8. 10 or even 15 a year. Scholars have said “he didn’t need to write as many” but if he is a company member, why is he not writing at the same level? What is the responsibility of someone who is a company dramatist? Is it to give a few plays a year, or is it to write continuously? Shakespeare is probably somewhere in between.  

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!