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THE FIRST HUMANIST PLAYWRIGHT

SHAKESPEARE: THE INVENTION of the Human, 1998, is a classic book by Harold Bloom, 1930–2019, who is oft cited as “the most influential English-language critic of the late 20th century.” As the book’s title suggests, Shakespeare transformed theater by his characters not being stereotypical gods or humans, but by their coming alive. 

“The Rage to Read,” Robert Gottlieb’s essay in The New York Times Book Review, January 31, 2021, introduced me to Bloom’s erudition and got me thinking about what’s been called Bardolatry, “the worship, particularly when considered excessive, of William Shakespeare.” Here are tidbits on the Bard’s Comedies, Histories, Romances, and Tragedies, gleaned from a variety of sources including Gottlieb’s essay.

William Shakespeare, 1564–1616, English playwright, poet, theater entrepreneur extraordinaire.

Just How Many Plays? A.L. Rowse’s The Annotated Shakespeare lists a total of 37 plays: 13 comedies, 10 histories, and 14 tragedies and romances.

The Annotated Shakespeare, edited with Introductions, Notes, a Biography and Bibliography by A.L. Rowse, Greenwich House, 1984.

Maizel’s Two Additions. Jennie Maizel’s Pop-Up Shakespeare adds two plays not included in The Annotated Shakespeare: One is The History of Cardenio, a lost play known to have been been performed in 1613 and attributed to Shakespeare and John Fletcher. It’s thought to have been based on Miguel de Cervantes’ character Cardenio in Don Quixote. 

The second addition is The Two Noble Kinsmen which may have been performed in 1613–1619, another Shakespeare/Fletcher attribution. This play is based on Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” part of The Canterbury Tales. 

The Two Noble Kinsmen, Fletcher and Shakespeare.

Three more plays are added in a chronology offered by Wikipedia: Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1594-1595, had a sequel, Love’s Labour’s Won, for which there are no recorded performances, albeit two known references. 

A historical play, Edward III, 1592–1593, is rather more of a puzzle: Although its title page suggests a performance in the 1590s, Wikipedia says, “the earliest recorded performance was not until 6 March 1911.” 

Title page of Edward III, 1596 Quattro.

A Political Drama—In Real Life. Bringing the total to 42 is the play Sir Thomas More, thought to have had Shakespeare involvement in 1603–1604 with a good political story involved: Thomas More served as Lord High Chancellor of England for Henry VIII, but refused to accept Henry as supreme head of the Church of England. Upon refusing to take the Oath of Supremacy, More was convicted of treason and executed. 

Sir Thomas More was written by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle sometime between 1592 and 1595. This was during the reign of Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII. Wikipedia notes, “In the play, Henry VIII is depicted as being relatively merciful to the instigators of the riots, whereas in 1595, Queen Elizabeth showed no such leniency.”

“The theory,” Wikipedia continues, “is that no playwright would have written a play which knowingly portrayed the current monarch in such a negative light when compared to a previous monarch, and as Munday was an occasional government spy, he would be even less likely to do so.”

Because of these censorship matters, Wikipedia notes, “the play was probably laid aside until after the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603.” 

Shakespeare’s Involvement. Nineteenth- and 20th-century paleographers suggest from handwriting and stylistic analyses that Shakespeare revised passages of Sir Thomas More after its political sensitivity diminished with the reign of Elizabeth I’s successor, James I. 

Facsimile of a page written by “Hand D” (William Shakespeare).

Update. To bring More matters to more modern times, Pope Pius XI canonized him in 1935 as a martyr. The 1960 A Man for All Seasons was a play, also twice filmed, that portrays “More as the ultimate man of conscience.” In 2000, Pope John Paul II declared Saint Thomas More as the patron saint of statesmen and politicians.

Sir Thomas More, 1478–1535, English lawyer, social philosopher, statesman, Renaissance humanist. Portrait by Hans Holbein.

This is quite a jump from Shakespeare inventing humanity, but that’s the fun of tidbits. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021 

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