Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

John Webster, James Shirley, and the Melbourne Manuscript

Academic journal article Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England

John Webster, James Shirley, and the Melbourne Manuscript

Article excerpt


IN 1986 there was discovered in the muniments room at Melbourne Hall, Derbyshire, the manuscript fragment of a play apparently written during the early decades of the seventeenth century. A single sheet of paper, folded once, contains 144 lines of text covering its four pages. It had been wrapped around a packet of Sir John Coke's correspondence. Coke had been Charles I's secretary of state. (1)

The dialogue of the dramatic remnant involves Alessandro de' Medici, Duke of Florence (here Duke Alexander), and his favorite, Lorenzino de' Medici (here Lorenzo). After the duke has dismissed "Alphonso" and his other courtiers, he confronts his "dear cousin" with a letter in which the banished Castruccio accuses Lorenzo of being a traitor who has avowed Alexander's death "and alteration of the government." (2) Lorenzo first responds with a disingenuous admission that "Whoso'er writ this caveat had infallible intelligence," and offers the duke his own sword with which to "run quite through a traitor." He goes on to remind the duke--who is duly flummoxed by this ambiguous acknowledgment of guilt--of his many services in discovering conspiracies against the state, and claims to have been acting as a kind of double agent in the interests of Alexander's safety. The whole exchange is managed with considerable flair. The intricacies of Lorenzo's obfuscatory self-defense are matched by the duke's conflicting emotions and sheer puzzlement. The historical Alessandro de' Medici was indeed assassinated by Lorenzino. Since there are abundant signs that the Melbourne MS is not scribal but authorial, with alterations made currente calamo, the Melbourne MS evidently represents the fragmentary "foul papers" of a talented dramatist, who is likely to have written for the professional theater.

Manuscript consultant Felix Pryor compiled a lengthy sale catalog for Bloomsbury Book Auctions, in which he argued for John Webster's authorship within the period 1606-9. Webster is one of the few prominent playwrights of Shakespeare's era for whom no known sample of handwriting exists. Richard Proudfoot wrote a brief account of the "Jacobean dramatic fragment," finding Pryor's proposition "tempting" but regarding the evidence as inconclusive. In a letter to the Times Literary Supplement, where Proudfoot's piece had appeared, I. A. Shapiro next identified the Melbourne MS as "a rejected early version of the second scene of [James] Shirley's The Traitor," and in Shirley's handwriting, which can be studied in his corrections and revisions to a transcript of his The Court Secret, of which an early draft is preserved in the library of Worcester College, Oxford. (3) To Pryor's protestation that "there is virtually no similarity" between Shirley's handwriting in The Court Secret and that of the Melbourne MS, Shapiro responded that The Court Secret was composed at least ten years later than The Traitor, that Shirley was evidently "trained in writing a variety of scripts," and that examples of Shirley's hand more nearly contemporary with The Traitor--especially some notes, among the papers of Bulstrode Whitelocke at Longleat, made in connection with the masque The Triumph of Peace--put "beyond doubt" Shirley's responsibility for the Melbourne MS. (4)

The Melbourne MS was then examined by Antony Hammond and Doreen DelVecchio, who provided an invaluable transcription. (5) They surveyed the controversy, weighed up the evidence, and concluded that Shapiro was wrong. Direct examination of the manuscript of The Court Secret convinced them that "the handwriting of the secretary additions to The Court Secret is not the same as that of the Melbourne." (6) Though duly cautious, they considered it likely that Webster was the author of the newly discovered fragment and promised that it would be included, as a "possible" work, in the Cambridge Webster.

Antony Hammond died before The Works of John Webster could be completed, and I took over his role as textual editor. …

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