The curious and complicated case of Locrine

 

Locrine illustration
Detail from plate illustration of Locrine in Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 edition of Shakespeare. Folger ART File L811.7 no.1 (size XS)

Reminiscent of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the 16th-century play The Lamentable Tragedie of Locrine has repeatedly been connected to Shakespeare through the centuries, even though scholars today have dispelled the idea of Shakespeare as its author.

However, the curiosities and complications surrounding Locrine’s authorship evoke a greater conversation about the literary history of the Shakespearean canon and its apocrypha.

The beginning of Locrine sees Brutus, the ancient leader of the Trojans in Britain, divide his kingdom amongst his three sons, Locrine, Camber, and Albanact. Knowing that he is dying, Brutus orders Locrine to marry Gwendolyn, daughter to one of Brutus’s most loyal followers, Corineus. When Brutus dies, Locrine obeys his wish and marries Gwendolyn.

The backdrop of this play features a war between the Trojans and the Scythian invaders, in which the Trojans are ultimately victorious. Locrine falls in love with the captured Scythian queen, Estrild, and locks her away for seven years, so that she will always be available to him. Upon the death of Corineus, Locrine repudiates Gwendolyn and no longer hides his affair with Estrild. This angers Gwendolyn and her brother, Thrasimachus, who both embark on a quest for revenge against him.

Locrine title page
Locrine quarto title page, 1595. Folger STC 21528 copy 1.

First printed in 1595 by Thomas Creede, Locrine’s title page reads “Newly set forth, overseen and corrected, By W.S.” Because Shakespeare was in London at this time writing plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, it is not impossible that the “W.S.” from Locrine’s title page referred to him as its author. Alternatively, scholars have also discussed the possibility that Shakespeare may have supervised a process of revision for another playwright instead of this being his own work. Because the phrasing “overseen and corrected” doesn’t necessarily mean authorship, it becomes possible that Shakespeare was involved with this play in other ways. Even so, it was maintained for many years that Shakespeare was, in some form, connected to Locrine.

Third Folio title page
Third Folio title page, 1663. Folger S2914 Fo.3 no.13

The First Folio, published in 1623 and known as the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, did not include Locrine; nor did the Second Folio, published in 1632. However, the Third and Fourth Folios are of particular note since they did include Locrine. Because Nicholas Rowe used the Fourth Folio as the base text for the first edited collection of Shakespeare’s works in 1709, this meant that Locrine was also included.

Subsequent editors, however, began to question the validity of Locrine as a Shakespearean play. Alexander Pope omitted Locrine from his edition printed in 1725. Later, in 1733, Lewis Theobald also neglected to include Locrine in his edition. The case of the play’s Shakespearean authorship was weakening as the years went on; however, it was not yet overcome as debates seemed to continue.

In the nineteenth century, a handful of scholars and writers perpetuated some degree of possibility for Locrine belonging to Shakespeare’s canon. Additionally, actor William Charles Macready created a character named Locrine in his productions of King Lear throughout the mid-nineteenth century, although it’s not clear whether this meant Macready believed Locrine to be the work of Shakespeare. By the twentieth century, however, scholars refused to entertain the idea that Locrine was written by Shakespeare, and by the twenty-first century, Locrine seemed to have been forgotten altogether as it has faded into the apocrypha.

For the most part, modern readers have no issue discerning which plays are part of Shakespeare’s body of work, known as his canon. However, determining the apocrypha, or those plays that may have once been attributed to Shakespeare but are no longer, is more difficult. The longtime authorial conflicts for many apocryphal plays allude to an ongoing effort to identify the true canon of Shakespeare. Because of the popular desire to connect with all that is Shakespeare, many continue in the hopeful search of completing the Shakespearean canon.

It is unknown whether Shakespeare did have some hand in the writing, revision, or publication of Locrine. What is significant, however, about Locrine’s curious and complicated journey in and out of the Shakespearean canon is that it reveals just how flexible Shakespeare’s body of work has been in recent centuries and how evolutionary it continues to be. As decades pass and new scholarship comes to light, we are given tools to evaluate and reevaluate Shakespeare’s work. And while this will perhaps be a never-ending process as readers and scholars continue to engage with the Bard, it does afford us opportunities to continue to discover and rediscover his plays—and the plays surrounding him—anew.

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