The new film Anonymous offers one of several theories about whether Shakespeare wrote his own plays. Theories surrounding Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays focus on whether he had enough education to do so and whether a learned man who was a noble, and therefore, feared people would think it beneath him to write the plays, may have asked Shakespeare to take the credit for them. Scholars have debated these questions for years and will continue to do so.
Few people, other than Shakespearean scholars, know that besides the thirty-seven plays generally attributed to Shakespeare, there are a group of “apocryphal” plays that have been attributed to him, either with him being the author in full or in part. Even editions of Shakespeare’s works that include these apocryphal plays do not always include all of the same ones, including The Birth of Merlin. In all, over forty additional plays have been attributed to Shakespeare besides the thirty-seven usually agreed upon as his work.
The Birth of Merlin—the only Arthurian play ever attributed to Shakespeare—first had Shakespeare’s name placed on it when it was published in 1662. The play is noticeably absent from the First Folio of his plays published in 1623. In fact, it was not performed on stage until 1622—six years after Shakespeare’s death. It has been attributed to Shakespeare with William Rowley as co-author. Most scholars believe Rowley wrote the play himself and Shakespeare’s name got attached to it to give it popularity. Rowley was himself a playwright who lived from 1585-1626.
After having read The Birth of Merlin, I personally feel it unlikely it was written by Shakespeare. It has some elements typical of Shakespeare—such as iambic pentameter and nobles speaking in verse while commoners speak in prose—but these were common in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. My first thought was that it could be a very early play of Shakespeare’s—at best it might be ranked with his early Titus Andronicus, but even that play is far more dramatic and has a stronger plot. And since it wasn’t performed until 1622, it is unlikely a part of Shakespearian juvenilia—and Shakespeare retired after The Tempest, one of his best plays, so a falling off in his powers seems unlikely if he wrote it at the end of his life—after all, he died at the young age of fifty-two; and again, if he did write it, why would it not have been staged until six years after his death? Furthermore, the play is lacking in the poetic element, the double-meaning word play, or really any scenes that stir the heart or imagination. I have a hard time believing it could be Shakespeare’s play, although his interest in history would have made it a likely topic for him.
Arthurian scholars have often noted the falling off of popularity in the Arthurian legend during Elizabethan and Jacobean times, save for some masques and the Tudors’ attempts to claim a family relationship to King Arthur. The only reference in all of Shakespeare to King Arthur, actually, is in King John where Prince Arthur, upon dying, hopes to rest in “Arthur’s bosom.” We will never know whether Shakespeare ever considered writing a play based on the Arthurian legend or why he may have decided against it. That said, The Birth of Merlin does reflect that the Arthurian legend was still well-known and popular in Jacobean times.
William Rowley, or whoever wrote the play, did know his Arthurian legend. All the basic elements of Merlin’s story, as told in Geoffrey of Monmouth and other authors, are here, with some odd additions. In the play, Aurelius has defeated the Saxons and chosen as his bride Artesia, the sister to the Saxon leader, who ultimately plots to overthrow him and poisons him toward the end of the play. Meanwhile, Joan, a young commoner, has become pregnant and goes to her brother, simply named “Clown” in the play, to tell him of her misfortune; together, they try to find her a husband so her child will not be a bastard. The “Clown” character is typical of comedies of the era and there to add comic relief, although admittedly, the play is not very funny, and it does not fit into standard definitions of comedy or tragedy but rather would have been classified as a “History” play.
Joan does not even know the name of the man who impregnated her, although eventually it is revealed to be the Devil. When Merlin is born, he is already grown and has the start of a beard. The rest of the story follows the traditional one of Vortigern trying to build his castle. Merlin goes to him since Vortigern believes he needs to sacrifice one without a human father to keep his castle from falling. Merlin, however, reveals the dragons beneath the castle. He goes on to reveal that Aurelius has been slain and Uther will become king. He then makes a prophecy about Uther’s descendants, similar to the prophecy in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, including predicting King Arthur’s coming.
Wikipedia states that “The play is rich with visual effects of varying types, including devils and magic and masque-like spectacles. It was clearly designed to provide broad, colorful, fast-paced entertainment.” Among these spectacles is the comet that Merlin interprets to make his prophecies. Having only read the play, and it being unlikely ever to see it performed, I cannot speak to how entertaining it would be on stage, but it is a solid piece of Arthuriana in terms of following traditional stories about Merlin’s birth and youth.
As for Shakespeare, we can only dream what his Arthurian play would have been like had he ever written one. If only….
Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com