Culture: Culture Labouring from beyond the Grave; the Royal Shakespeare Company Launches Its New Stratford Season on Wednesday with Its First Production of a 'New' Play by Shakespeare. Terry Grimley Looks at the Background to It

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Byline: Terry Grimley

To most of us, the fact that the list of Shakespeare's plays still seems to be growing nearly 400 years after his death is a bit of a puzzle.

The Two Noble Kinsmen, now gen-erally accepted to be a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, was the last to be officially welcomed into the canon with a production by the RSC. On Wednesday it will be joined by Edward III, which launches a season of five Elizabethan and Jacobean rarities at the Swan Theatre.

Edward III was published anonymously - not an unusual practice at the time - in 1595. There is no evidence at all to suggest that Shakespeare had anything to do with it, other than stylistic resemblances to his known work. These led the publisher Edward Capell to suggest Shakespeare's authorship as early as 1760.

The play deals with Edward's conquests in France, with a sizeable subplot concerning his attempted conquest of the Countess of Salisbury, a fictional composite of possibly as many as three actual women.

It is the scenes involving the countess which first suggested Shakespeare's hand.

'Edward III was not included in the First Folio of 1623, and the most obvious reason would be that it wasn't by Shakespeare,' points out Prof Stanley Wells, chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and general editor of the Oxford Shakespeare.

'It is possible, however, that a collaborative play on which Shakespeare had worked would have been excluded by the editors of the Folio. There is no external evidence to suggest it's by Shakespeare, but collaboration was a feature of the theatre at that time.

'Shakespeare is known to have collaborated on two plays - Henry VIII, which is included in the Folio, and The Two Noble Kinsmen, which is not. One reason why Henry VIII may have been included is that it was needed to complete the sequence of history plays.

'In the middle of the 19th century scholars reading the play picked up the gut feeling that it was by Shakespeare. That feeling has been growing over the last 100 years, and more recently one or two reputable scholars have come up with the suggestion that the entire play could be by Shakespeare.

'People nowadays use stylistic tests, sometimes including computers, which are more sophisticated than what was available 150 years ago. They have to do with things like idiosyncratic uses of words.

'My own gut feeling is that some of it is by Shakespeare, but I find it hard to believe that he designed this play because it's so different to the other early history plays.

'It's quite reasonable to advertise it as being a play that was possibly written by Shakespeare. Of course, the RSC can do what it likes, though it shouldn't make any false claims. It is quite a good play which has been anthologised, but this will be its first major production.'

During this season at The Swan Edward III will be seen in the context of four rarities by Shakespeare's contemporaries. As Prof Wells points out, what is rare to the theatre-goer is not necessarily unfamiliar to English students, although Fletcher's The Island Princesse, unusual in featuring major Asian characters, is conspicuous as one which has been little studied.

'Fletcher is a writer who 'comes up' in performance,' Prof Wells says. 'He had a very strong sense of theatre, and the plays come to life to a surprising degree compared to the way they may appear on the page. …