When it comes to the theatrical landscape of Shakespeare’s London, there are the plays whose names we are familiar with — plays like Hamlet and Henry V — and then there are the plays that were being performed around the same time and that Shakespeare’s audiences would have known well, but that are lost to us today.
These lost plays and the important context they provide for understanding Shakespeare’s place in the rich environment of early modern drama, as well as for gaining new insight into the Shakespeare plays that have endured over the past four centuries, are the subject of a new book by scholar David McInnis, Shakespeare and Lost Plays, published by Cambridge University Press. Read an excerpt below.
Shakespeare’s company experienced significant changes at the turn of the century: as the 1590s drew to a close and conjecture about the nation’s aging and heirless monarch loomed ever larger in the cultural imagination, the Chamberlain’s Men were to move to a new playhouse. A number of companies experienced such change: the Admiral’s Men temporarily lost their star actor, Edward Alleyn, to retirement, and moved from the Rose to their new Fortune theatre; the Earl of Pembroke’s Men, who had vacated the Swan and toured regionally in the wake of the ‘Isle of Dogs’ fiasco and the associated inhibition of plays, turned up briefly at the Rose in October 1600; and the Earl of Worcester’s Men appear to have replaced the Admiral’s at the Rose for a time, before amalgamating with the Earl of Oxford’s Men in 1602 and commencing playing at the Boar’s Head. The greatest documentary evidence, however, pertains to the Chamberlain’s and the Admiral’s. Both companies, as Knutson notes, could ‘anticipate the transfer of business’ to their new venues and had time to ‘prepare a suitable repertory’. Knutson argues that the Admiral’s Men (and infers that the Chamberlain’s Men) stocked up on new plays ahead of their respective moves of venue, thereby ‘saving themselves the expense of new productions (when their other costs were up)’. Decisions around what kinds of new plays to acquire were presumably informed by theatrical activity of the period leading up to the move, but consideration of lost plays has not featured as prominently as it warrants in critical discussions.
A key feature of the Chamberlain’s and Admiral’s change of venues was the fact that the Globe and the Fortune were custom-built for these companies, with the promise of stability that this entailed. Andrew Gurr, Richard Dutton and others have detected celebratory references to the Globe and the Fortune in the plays performed at those new venues by the respective resident companies. For these scholars, Hamlet’s reference to ‘this distracted globe’ (5.96) and Jacques’ conceit that ‘All the world’s a stage’ (2.7.138) function as metatheatrical allusions to the venue’s name and motto; Gurr attributes such sentiments to ‘the new security the company sensed it now had at its new workplace’. Elsewhere, he refers to ‘post-Hamlet plays in the repertory’, and suggests that ‘Hamlet, aided in complex ways by the evolution of Shakespeare’s history plays, helped to push the repertory towards a more complex view of what drama can do’ and thus represents a turning point in the company’s history – a turning point associated with their move to the Globe. It might even be argued that the very fact of Shakespeare creating a ‘new’ version of an old Hamlet narrative (known to playgoers since at least 1589, with versions appearing at Newington Butts in 1594 and at the Theatre in 1596) implicitly frames the play as forward-looking, announcing a conscious break with the past.
In this chapter, I focus on two plays that have been traditionally associated with the Chamberlain’s Men’s move to their brand-new Globe theatre: Henry V and Hamlet. These two plays by Shakespeare have become synonymous with the Globe, but their association with this playwright and venue has, I argue, distorted our perception of their place in London’s theatrical marketplace. An important finding of Edgar Rubin’s psychological work on visually experienced figures is that through ‘subjective’ or ‘relative localisation’ it is possible for the observer to perceive the figure as closer to them than the ground; moreover, different observers can arrive at different estimations of how close the figure seems to be. In other words, an unconscious bias affects such perceptions, and this is ‘reflected in the fact that the ground is often termed the back-ground and the figure is often described as “stepping forward”’. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in the case of Henry V and Hamlet which have stepped forward to such an extent in the popular imaginary that the lost plays they once spoke to in repertory have been relegated to the background and a vital context for understanding these plays has been overlooked. Our unconscious biases and our ignorance of what is lost have shaped our perceptions.
By putting Shakespeare’s plays into some unexpected dialogues with lost plays, I aim to defamiliarise Henry V and Hamlet and trace new sets of associations between their subject matter (and form) and the plays of other companies. Specifically, I argue that Henry V can potentially be seen as the culmination of Shakespeare’s 1590s romance comedies as much as of the Henriad, and that it can thus be regarded as a continuation of the 1590s rather than a turn-of-the-century play intended for the Globe (and thus, by implication, a break with the past). Likewise, Hamlet – although described by Stephen Greenblatt and others in forward-looking terms as marking an ‘epoch’ in Shakespeare’s professional life and having ‘relaunched his entire career’ – can be seen as participating in a ‘Danish matrix’ of 1590s plays that playgoers would recognise as having its own set of expectations and concerns. Furthermore, the fact of the Danish prince having studied at Wittenberg seems to speak importantly to a hitherto underappreciated repertorial context preoccupied with theology in 1602. By retracing the contour dividing extant plays from lost plays, I argue that Hamlet can be understood as having an unexpected affinity with the lost Admiral’s Men play, ‘felmelanco’, as well as with that company’s Doctor Faustus (which was being reprised around this time). In the new picture that emerges from this reconceptualisation of the figure and ground, Hamlet is more firmly embedded in its repertorial moment than breaking from it.
© David McInnis, 2021, with permission of Cambridge University Press