Is this the real deal?
Description: A sheaf of old, dry papers, the ink smudged and faded with age. The Lost Play is written in several different styles (prompting the few Shakespearean scholars who have heard of it to question its authenticity). The pages were bound in leather long after being written and the binding
doesn’t quite fi t the pages, leaving the manuscript looking overstuffed and ragged.
History: Every Shakespearean scholar dreams of discovering a “lost play,” complete (or complete enough for publication)and verifi able as Shakespeare’s work. It hasn’t happened yet, despite many potential contenders, some of which Shakespeare may actually have collaborated on or edited. Hoaxes
appear from time to time as well. Most Shakespearean scholars recognize two plays, Love’s Labours Won and Cardenio, as the only true lost works of the Bard (and nothing survives of those plays but the names and references to them as Shakespeare’s work from independent sources).
But one other play that few scholars have even heard of came from the pen of William Shakespeare. Entitled The Witches, it was performed once, and only once, in summer of 1603, for a limited audience. (It would be fair, in fact, to call the performance a dress rehearsal). The play focused on
the tragedy of three sisters, all devout, chaste and pure, who become enthralled with a character simply called “the Dark Man.” By the end of the play, every major character is not only dead but seen burning in Hell – except for the youngest sister, who takes her place as the Dark Man’s bride.
The play calls to mind the Greek myth of Hades and Persephone, but obviously introduces several Judeo-Christian aspects as well. Why it was never performed for a public audience is a matter of speculation, but one reason might be that the subject matter was simply too troublesome.
Given the sheer amount of rape, blood and murder that Shakespeare’s other plays contained, however, this theory is hard to support. Whatever the case, though, something prompted Shakespeare himself to forbid performance of the play and destroy the copies he had made, although certain aspects of the story wound up in his next tragedy, Macbeth (whether this similarity has anything to do with the longstanding theater superstition of not mentioning the name of “the Scottish Play” is unknown).
The other actors in the production, working from memory, composed a copy of The Witches, possibly in an attempt to sell it to a competing theatrical company. They failed to do so, however, and the manuscript was lost for centuries. The reason that Shakespeare forbade the further performance
of The Witches was that while sitting in the audience watching the play, he saw Hell. At the end of the play, when the youngest sister (named Nell) joins her lover at center stage, the audience saw the fi res of Hell behind the Dark Man. The actors, facing forward, could not see it, but the
rest of the audience (all friends of the cast or other people associated with the production) could. Shakespeare gathered them together after the production and made them swear
that they would not reveal what they had seen, even to the actors. The assembled audience members, 26 in all, swore on their eternal souls, placing their hands on the manuscript,
which the Bard then burned. They each slept fi tfully that night, but those few weak souls who tried to speak of what they had seen afterwards found they could not.
After the actors in the production assembled their makeshift copy, though, this prohibition (apparently for everyone present, but certainly for the actors) was lifted. As such, references to The Witches do occasionally show up in memoirs, other plays, and writings
from the 17th century, but since anyone who knew about it was sworn to secrecy, it’s rarely mentioned in conjunction with Shakespeare. A dedicated scholar, though, might be able to dig deeply enough to uncover the connection, perhaps finding a personal diary describing the events of that night.
• A moderately famous English stage actor named William Pafford died during a rehearsal of Macbeth in 1963. Pafford, playing the title role, showed up drunk for rehearsal one day and launched into a monologue that, while it contained similar language to Macbeth, was clearly not from the play. He then collapsed, clutching his chest, and before expiring gasped, “I can’t get those damned lines out of my head.” Pafford was known to dabble in the occult, and was a firm believer in the superstition of the Macbeth curse.
• Some of the witches’ dialog in Macbeth is taken directly from The Witches. In his Bocke of Plaies (Book of Plays), the English herbalist and occultist Simon Forman remarks that he has “heard these words [speaking of the witches’ dialog in Macbeth after a performance in 1611] before, but from
what source I dare not say, lest I see Hell once more.” The Bocke of Plaies is sometimes considered to be a later forgery, but it’s not inconceivable that Forman would have been among the few witnesses to The Witches debut.
• Every building in which the manuscript has been kept for any length of time has burned. The Globe Theater burned in 1613, and while no one realized it at the time, the manuscript of The Witches was stashed in a disused room when it happened. Rare books collections, university libraries and other locales have all housed the manuscript (which is itself completely impervious to fi re), but if left alone and unread too long, the fl ames come. The book seems to be trying, unsuccessfully, to draw notice to itself.