christopher james

Poems and prattle

Category: detective fiction

Fragment of lost play by William Shakespeare discovered in Tuscany

Four hundred years on from Shakespeare’s death, the discovery of a fragment of a new play, The Jeweller of Florence, is dividing academic opinion. Could there really be an undiscovered work in the Bard’s canon?

There are two plays generally accepted to be written, at least in part, by William Shakespeare, which are now considered ‘lost.’ The first, ironically, is titled, Love’s Labour’s Won and is mentioned on a contemporaneous 16th century bookseller’s list. It is also referred to by the late 16th century writer Francis Meres, although no text is extent. This has led some scholars to believe that it was merely an alternative title for All’s Well That Ends Well or Much Ado About Nothing.

shakespeare

Then there is the intriguing prospect of Cardenio, said to be a late collaboration between Shakespeare and Fletcher, also referenced in documents from Shakespeare’s time. Its source, it is said, is Cervantes’ Don Quixote , which fits Shakespeare’s pattern of drawing on existing sources as the starting point for his own works. Over a hundred years on from Shakespeare’s death, a play emerged called Double Falsehood  produced by one Lewis Theobald in 1727. He admitted that he adapted it from no less than three manuscripts of an unnamed play by Shakespeare. Critical consensus is that Double Falsehood does indeed contain authentic work by Shakespeare.

This leads to the most recent discovery, in February 2016 of a single page of a play in a private collection of papers in Lama, a remote hamlet in Tuscany. ‘The fragment is a tantalizing prospect,’ says Shakespearean expert, Professor Anna Greening, ‘made even more so by the name of Ferdinando I de’Medici inscribed in the margin, leading some to believe he was the patron of the work.

‘It is thought to be written around the same time as The Merchant of Venice, 1596, possibly earlier. A draft of the inscription, also included in the papers reads: The most excellent history of The Jeweller of Florence being the true account of the marriage between Alessandra, daughter of the Duke of Florence and Flavio, master jeweller. With the obtaining of a necklace of pearls for the wife of the Duke and the comic interludes of Filippo the clown who appears in divers jocular scenes.’ 

It was discovered in a cache of papers by a family who had recently purchased a property in the area. ‘The theory runs as follows,’ says Professor Greening. ‘Ferdinando I de’Medici, son of the infamous Cosimo I of Florence, was a cardinal and eventually the Grand Duke of Tuscany. He was a ruthless and perhaps a cruel man even by the standards of the day. But at heart, he was an artist. This manifested itself in his collecting. He was a man of enormous curiosity and boundless appetites. He created an unrivalled collection of sculpture, bestowed patronage on poets and composers and commissioned mosaics, notably the intricate pietre dure created from precious stones.

‘Above all, he was obsessed by the idea of artistic genius. As a man of the court, naturally his principle entertainment was theatre. The re-enactments of battles on the Arne are legend. But he was a man of the world and his interests extended far beyond the shores of the Mediterranean. He dreamed of establishing civilizations in the new world, creating great cities in Brazil. We believe he had heard of this man William Shakespeare and had his plays translated and enacted for him. He was fascinated by the playwright’s mind; how he could conjure a man from the air and make him as real as you or I. But it was not enough simply to hear his plays; the same words that had been heard by countless others. The Medici was a family of limitless wealth and power. Nothing was impossible for them and once set on a course they could not be easily swayed. Through his brokers he sent word to England that he would commission this playwright at whatever cost. He wanted a play that would be no less dazzling in its ambitions than any other Shakespeare’s great works. For this he would pay handsomely. But there was one condition, it must be his and his alone.

‘A fee was negotiated, it is believed through Richard Burbage, the actor and one of Shakespeare’s closest associates. No one has recorded the sum, but it must have been stupendous. In 1596, he was writing four plays simultaneously. How could he write another?

‘Legend has it,’ continues Professor Greening, ‘that he wrote it in a furious burst over three days. At the end of it he drank a bottle of Spanish wine and then slept for a day and a night. A single copy was printed in conditions of the greatest secrecy.’

If the theory seems fanciful, then the fragment itself is convincing enough, even if, perhaps it does not contain some of Shakespeare’s greatest poetry.

DUKE

What music, sir, is this?

 

ANTONIO 

Tis wedding music, my lord. They practice as larks at dawn.

 

DUKE

What happy pair will join in such delight?

Hannibal’s elephants would not trumpet

With such joy as this. The trunks of England’s

Trees would shake at such a cacophony.

This fanfare of angels, this well wrought sound

of heaven, has seeped through our vault of sky

and filled the twin cathedrals of our ears.

Fetch me those who engendered this row

I shall bless their matrimony, their solemn vow.   

 

                                                                (They go)

 

SILVIO

What foul weather has blighted our fair conceit!

The servant’s flapping tongue forewarns the duke

Of a marriage. But yet he has not wind

That these nuptials are his own daughter’s,

And that she is betrothed to the only son

Of his foresworn enemy. What dark skies

would come from this unseen tempest;  

such squalls and that would wreck his heart.

 

MARCELLO

Soft, fair brother, he hath not the reason

Nor temperament to suspect; his season

Is always spring; serenity blossoms

In him as bitterness dwells in the spleen

Of the cynic; by the time he smells the rose

The altar will be clear, the candles snuffed.

 

SILVIO

Now where goes Flavio? These hours ‘til our

Brother’s union will I fear be fraught;

But for a stoup of wine to numb our nerves.    

 

While the possibility of a hoax remains, the pages are currently being forensically examined and dated with the results expected in January 2017. Then there is the question of the remainder of the play. Is it still waiting somewhere on a Tuscan hillside to be discovered?

There is a compelling piece of evidence that corroborates the story. In 1597 Shakespeare suddenly found the money to buy New Place, the grandest house in all of Stratford. How could a simple actor find such wealth?

The discovery has already inspired a work of fiction: Sherlock Holmes and The Jeweller of Florence, by Christopher James, which puts the famous detective on the trail of the lost play.

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The Thirty-Nine Steps

It was only last year that I finally got around to reading John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. I’d watched the celebrated Hitchcock film, but the book has a particularly stylish and exhilarating quality all of its own. The voice of the irrepressible, resourceful Richard Hannay, an engineer and intelligence officer recently arrived in London from Africa  is what gives its character, both cynical and scornful of authority. The pace is astonishing, with several things happening almost at once – there are chases, explosions and gun fights, but the central motif is travel.

The 39 steps

Buchan clearly has fun with the possibilities offered by motor cars and aeroplanes and along with trains, and chases on foot across Scottish moors, Hannay is always on the move. The plot, which revolves around a plan to precipitate a European war, is almost ancillary to the odd characters (including a milkman, hung over road worker and prospective parliamentarian) Hannay meets on the way. While it owes something of a debt to Conan-Doyle, it has inspired a thousand of copy-cat blockbusters and Hollywood films, particularly those which feature the archetype of the stylish, clever, maverick outsider, wayward, but ultimately committed to King and country. Ian Fleming, you suspect had a copy on his bedside table.

Anyway, all of this inspired the inevitable song! 

10 Untold Sherlock Holmes stories

I set myself half an hour to come up with ideas for ten new Sherlock Holmes stories. Who knows if any of them will ever be written? Which ones would you like read? Thanks to Penguin for the image of their rather beautiful editions of the original Conan Doyle novels.

The Adventure of the One Eyed Fish
Holmes and Watson are presented with a damaged glass ornament, which provides an unusual clue to a lost fortune.

The Adventure of the Missing Moon
A distressed astronomer arrives at Baker Street convinced that the recently discovered moon of Neptune, Triton, has disappeared.

Holmes books

The Adventure of the Three Astronomers
A set of triplets, all astronomers, present a star chart pertaining to show an undiscovered galaxy; Holmes discovers it is a map showing the location of lost Welsh treasure.

The Adventure of the Spice Ship
A merchant who has made his fortune transporting the spices of the orient comes to Holmes after discovering a body buried in his cargo of cinnamon.

The Adventure of the Missing Page
A publisher pleads for Holmes’ help when the last page of his sure-fire bestseller goes missing, along with its author.

The Adventure of the Laughing Earl
Holmes and Watson are invited to a remote country estate by the son of an earl who appears to have lost his mind after witnessing a strange and unexplained event.

The Adventure of the Vanishing Man
An illusionist succeeds in making himself permanently disappear while performing on the London stage. His assistant, Astrid Bonner begs Holmes to help her find him.

The Adventure of the Underwater Ballerina
Holmes and Watson travel to New York where they become embroiled in a argument between Harry Houdini and a ballerina who performs in a giant glass tank.

The Adventure of the Chelsea Tenor
A famous singer believes he has been poisoned, causing him to lose his voice. Holmes investigates the motives and comes up with a novel remedy.

The Adventure of the Smiling Puppet
A ventriloquist is not all he seems, when Holmes and Watson discover he is the head of a gang of counterfeiters.

My own Sherlock Holmes novel, The Adventure of the Ruby Elephants, appears in November from MX Publishing. My recent poetry collection, The Fool, is currently available from Templar Poetry.