A discovery that researchers say could redefine the scope of Shakespeare scholarship, the 206-page play was discovered in January 2016 but has until now been kept under wraps while a specially commissioned team of historians and literary scholars at The British Institute of Shakespeare Studies conducted rigorous examinations to certify its veracity.
“There have been so many hoaxes over the years, we wanted to solidly verify the manuscript before we made the news public,” said Dr Helena Jones, head of the institute’s research team. “We couldn’t believe our luck – it’s the most remarkable discovery in Shakespeare scholarship since the Bard’s death. We need to reassess everything we’ve assumed about Shakespeare’s life up until this point.”
Hidden within a travelling case dating from the early 17th century, the manuscript was discovered during recent restoration work on the original site of the Globe theatre in London. “I couldn’t believe it,” said Steve Winter, the construction worker who found the case. “When I saw the scrawly handwriting I knew it must be pretty old, but I never imagined it could belong to Shakespeare!”
Dig on the site of what is thought to be London’s first purpose-built playhouse, Shakespeare’s original Globe Theatre. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)
Following radiocarbon dating, experts believe the play was written between 1606 and the Bard’s death in 1616. “The play’s final scene remains unfinished, which could suggest that Shakespeare was still working on it when he died”, said Jones. “In many ways this represents his swansong”.
Academics have suggested that the untitled manuscript – dubbed the ‘Lost Play’ – has strong autobiographical undertones. Following the progress of central protagonist John Halfpenny, a young playwright seeking success in Elizabethan London, the narrative in many ways mirrors Shakespeare’s own youth and early career.
One notable scene in the second act proves particularly revelatory, giving credence to what has previously been largely dismissed as conspiracy theory. It sees Shakespeare’s protagonist Halfpenny steal the script of a tragic romance from a fellow playwright who is killed prematurely in a street brawl. In a subsequent soliloquy Halfpenny confesses his crimes, describing his rival as a “pitiful victime of untimely massacre” whose work he “most cruelley after stole and claim’d mine own, more the curse upon me”. Experts have read this as a coded confession that Shakespeare may have plagiarised Romeo and Juliet from his contemporary and rival Christopher Marlowe, who was killed unexpectedly during a pub quarrel in 1593.
Researcher Dr Helena Jones told History Extra: “What makes this manuscript so unprecedented is that, as an autobiographically minded piece, it transcends the accepted genres of history, tragedy or comedy that Shakespeare’s plays have formerly fallen into.
“Shakespeare transforms his own life story into a universal saga for all ages. What’s more, the verse used throughout is undoubtedly amongst the most profound in the canon. Its depth and detail makes Hamlet look like a colouring book.”
Responding to the news, Tudor historian Tracy Borman told History Extra: “This is a once-in-a-lifetime discovery, and hugely exciting for historians and Shakespeare scholars alike. To have unearthed a previously unknown work by the world’s most famous playwright is akin to finding the Holy Grail. It has already solved one of the greatest literary mysteries of our time, and who knows what other secrets it might yield. I cannot wait to get my hands on a copy.”