Recently New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley extolled the virtues of reading plays out loud in your living room as a way to while away the COVID-19 time at home. Memories of his own time reading Hamlet as a child opposite his mother “have been much on my mind in this time of shuttered theaters and social isolation . . . reading plays aloud is a tradition I’d love to revive — and one I would highly recommend to those looking for ways to find magic in empty hours.”
Today we look at the earliest record of an amateur private performance of a Shakespeare play, jumping in the way-back machine and journeying to the English county of Kent in the 1620s.
Edward Dering was born January 28, 1598, at the Tower of London, where his father was likely deputy-lieutenant. While Dering might consider his 1619 knighthood or becoming a baronet in 1627 the major accomplishment of his life, Shakespeare scholars are more interested in a bit of shopping he did in 1623. In December of that year, Dering purchased not one but TWO copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio, marking the earliest recorded purchase of this collection of Shakespeare’s works.
This was not the first nor only purchase Dering made in support of the arts. His account books also feature numerous entries for playscripts and theater visits, showing him to be an avid and active drama enthusiast. Beyond that, we also have evidence that he staged theatrical presentations at his home, Surrenden Hall, in Kent. His account books from 1622/23 show a payment to scribe Samuel Carington for “writing oute ye play of K: Henry ye fourth” as well as entries for hairpieces (“heads of haire and beardes”) that may have been part of a costuming scheme.
Accompanying these entries is the manuscript version of Henry IV that Carington prepared (now helpfully referred to as “the Dering manuscript”) to help with Dering’s theatrical endeavors. The manuscript is sourced from the 1613 quarto of Part 1 and the 1600 quarto of Part 2, conflating the two works into a single play and leaving out about 3000 lines of Shakespeare’s original text (largely to do with Falstaff). Most of the work is in Carington’s hand, but Dering went back through the document to make corrections and amendments. His extensive editing resulted in significant creative changes to the text.
There’s also evidence that Henry IV was not the only play Dering’s informal gathering of amateur actors had in their repertoire. A slip with a cast list for John Fletcher’s The Spanish Curate (ca. 1622) was discovered alongside Dering’s manuscript, listing several members of the Dering family and his neighbors in Kent. A note includes Anthony Dering, Edward’s son, as a possibility for the role of “assistant” or judge. In his book, Shakespeare and Amateur Performance: A Cultural History, Michael Dobson points out that Anthony was born in 1620, while the also-listed Sir Thomas Wootton died in 1630, which means that Anthony could have been no older than ten at the time of the performance—quite the casting choice!
We get this tantalizing glimpse into at-home performance thanks to the Reverend B. Larkin, who discovered it in 1844 while researching the history of Kent. He sent it on to the Shakespeare Society of London. Having written an introduction to the 1845 published version, James Haliwell-Phillips—himself a finder of important Henry IV documents—soon acquired it, but then sold it to the 4th Earl of Warwick, George Greville, in the 1860s. Henry Folger bought it after Greville’s death in 1897 and now it is part of the Folger’s collection. You can see the first few leaves on Shakespeare Documented.
Want to engage in your own amateur dramatics? The Folger Shakespeare offers all of Shakespeare’s plays in an easy-to-use, free, digital format. Maybe tonight is the perfect night to gather the family—if even remotely—and explore the adventures of fairies, kings, magicians, and fools. With the right coaxing, maybe you can even get Edward Dering to play the ghost.