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Thomas of Woodstock

by Mark K. Anderson

This article was first published in the Summer 1999 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.

It’s hard to believe that nearly four centuries after the author’s death a work of Shakespeare would still lie unproduced, unacted and unregarded. But in the anonymous Elizabethan historical drama Thomas of Woodstock, the Hampshire Shakespeare Company has unearthed one of the most promising contenders for anointment with the million-dollar tag “Written by William Shakespeare.”

The arguments for Woodstock’s canonization are compelling, though they can be touched upon only briefly here. The drama also provides the missing piece of a historical puzzle famously set out by Shakespeare. And it proves to be a surprisingly accessible, clever, fun, tragic, humorous and engaging text — long overdue for the public’s consideration and entertainment, regardless of author.

Thomas of Woodstock is named after and centers on one of the infamous seven sons of the 14th-century British monarch Edward III. King Edward’s offspring ultimately led the country through a century-long soap opera of intrigue, treason, greed, revenge, lust and war. And Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and Lord Protector of the Realm, played a crucial role in unfolding the drama at the outset.

By the time of Queen Elizabeth’s reign (1558-1603), the nation had put the War of the Roses into its collective past. But the populace had certainly not forgotten the battles and generations’ worth of strife. And, as the country endured a long-simmering war against Spain, Shakespeare’s recapitulation and contemporization of the civil tumult was a popular and widely praised enterprise. Some even think the Queen hired the author to craft patriotic propaganda for both the church and state that would arouse public sympathy for the crown and help the nation stave off the Spanish, Catholic menace.

Whether created for his own edification or for the Elizabethan state’s self-interest, Shakespeare’s history plays tell a nearly complete story of the War of the Roses from beginning to end.

It’s “nearly complete” in that part of the beginning — one of the crucial events leading up to the deposition of Richard II in 1399–is left untold. The first of Shakespeare’s “Lancastrian history cycle” is Richard II, and opens with a trial whose ostensible purpose is to discover who killed Thomas of Woodstock.

The background and the eventual enactment of Woodstock’s murder are precisely what Thomas of Woodstock is about. It’s the prequel to Shakespeare’s history plays that Shakespeare should have written — and, perhaps anonymously, did.

One of the chief problems of staging Thomas of Woodstock is that the play has no end. The only extant copy of the drama is a manuscript in The British Museum in London, and the final page or pages are missing. (The document is a prompt-book script, used for drama troupes of the Elizabethan period, and does not, unfortunately, appear to be written out by the author himself.)

When the Hampshire Shakespeare Company decided to take on Thomas of Woodstock — a play that, according to every source yet consulted, appears to have never been staged on these shores — it cleverly solved the problem with a contest.

The company spread the word earlier this year that it needed a late-20th-century bard to finish the late-16th-century Bard’s handiwork. If Woodstock had come from a later period in the artist’s development, of course, the contest would have been a cruel taunt. Since the work is still leagues away from the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s development, though, the task was daunting but certainly not insurmountable.

The winning entry — written by Frederick Carrigg of Agawam and chosen by a panel of three local judges — sews up the drama comfortably and sets the stage for the political unraveling that begins with Shakespeare’s Richard II and ends with soon-to-be Henry VII’s slaying of Richard III and rout of Richard’s forces on the field of Bosworth in 1485.

The other unusual dramatic challenge Woodstock posed was that the script calls for a courtier to ride onstage on horseback. And, while the director admits the parts would have been simple enough to cut, the comic exchange between Woodstock and the horse is so much fun and so Shakespearean — a la Launce’s harangue to his dog in Two Gentlemen of Verona — that director Timothy Holcomb opted instead to ransom his kingdom for a horse and proceed with the play as written.

The equine role, incidentally, will be handled by a gelding named Poco. “Has a wonderful temperament. Very agreeable,” Holcomb said. “Nothing phases him. Does what he’s told. Never misses a line.”

For those who follow the new discoveries surrounding Shakespeare’s life and works, Woodstock represents a small part of a truly monumental paradigm shift now under way.

Newly rediscovered Shakespeare works have been cropping up like wildflowers over the past few decades. Some, in the case of the anonymous Elizabethan plays Edmund Ironside and Edward III, are slowly being integrated into the officially sanctioned Shakespeare canon after the publication of comprehensive attribution studies (both, in this case, undertaken by the British scholar Eric Sams; the former in 1986, the latter in 1996).

We can only hope that others — such as the imitative, dry and ineffectual poem A Funeral Elegy for William Peter (an early-17th-century Shakespeare rip-off that, nevertheless, is included in the current edition of the industry-standard textbook The Riverside Shakespeare) — are temporary lapses in the critical judgment of the “experts.”

As the Hampshire Shakespeare Company’s production bravely sets forth, Thomas of Woodstock belongs with Edmund and Edward as an example of the bard’s early dramatic output. The troupe’s promotional material for the show does not attribute Woodstock to anyone — save, in the play’s program, where it’s attributed to “Anonymous.” Nonetheless, following a literary manhunt that stretches back into the 19th century, the program notes encourage what promises to be an exciting line of inquiry.

Although no definitive study advancing a Bard-authored Woodstock has yet been done, the program’s introduction to Woodstock quotes Shakespeare scholar Ian Robinson’s 1988 study of the play: “Who else but Shakespeare writes like this?” he asks. Essayist Roger Stritmatter of UMass’ comparative literature department, who also first brought Woodstock to Hampshire Shakespeare’s attention, replies, “The question is rhetorical: the only answer — with exception taken for the anonymous composition — is ‘nobody.’”

To those familiar with Shakespeare’s hallmark style, the play resounds with language, characters, rhetoric, scenes and allusions that sound suspiciously like our man, albeit in a youthful outpouring of his raw talent. If you go to this Woodstock expecting Hamlet, Richard III or even one of the comparatively unrefined Henry VI trilogy, you will be disappointed. No question.

But if you go to the show with a curious, skeptical mind, expecting a sampling of the Bard’s juvenilia, you may walk out at the end of the night saying, “So that’s how Shakespeare started out …”

The play, in short, is pockmarked with the rough pavement and potholes that young writers inevitably leave behind when first developing their art. It also contains moments of genius, transcendent wit and youthful exuberance that would recommend this production to any lover of historical — and literary — mysteries.

As Holcomb put it, “Here’s something that’s sat on the shelves, and the damned thing plays. It’s good theater.” Just as Shakespeare’s Richard II presents the titular monarch as an early draft of Hamlet — pensive poet-like royalty whose thoughts prove a truer kingdom than anything the real world presents — Woodstock casts through plot lines and character sketches that prefigure King Lear. Here King Richard II displays a Lear-like penchant for indulging sycophants and banishing the voices of truth. In that sense, Woodstock becomes a figure like Lear’s Kent — a man almost tragically predisposed to call everything for what it is.

When I pointed this out to Holcomb, he added, “It’s got this static-ness that finally breaks in Act Five. There’s the suggestion of a paring away that our playwright picks up — and the last actors on stage are York and Lancaster. It’s the same kind of ‘what are we going to do now?’ question that gets posed at the end of Lear.”

Still, Woodstock chooses a Hamlet-like course of inaction — and loses his life as a result. Ultimately, the line that best summarizes the play (spoken by Woodstock) resonates with one of the great overriding themes that pervades the Shakespeare canon: “When kingdoms change, the very heavens are troubled.”

When Richard’s queen dies, in the words of Woodstock’s servingman, “The lights of heaven are shut in pitchy clouds/And flakes of fire run tilting through the sky/Like dim ostents to some great tragedy.”

Woodstock’s multi-hued use of language also reveals a Shakespearean love of words, setting forth the same kind of idiosyncratic wordplay that define Shake-speare’s style — in more elemental form than what can be found in his mature works. The Shakespearean trick of antithesis and verb-noun inversions, for instance, dot the dialogue (“this chain doth, as it were, so toeify the knee and so kneeify the toe, that between both it makes a most methodical coherence, or coherent method”).

And one of Shakespeare’s favorite rhetorical forms — two complementary or even near-synonymous words joined by “and,” such as “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” — is so prevalent in Woodstock that I lost count by Act Two (“tax and pill,” “remiss and inconsiderate,” “mickle care and woe”).

Some scholars now argue that Woodstock is a 19th-century forgery, that the work indeed has many Shakespearean characteristics but is both too immature and perhaps too Shakespearean to be believed. To that accusation, Holcomb asks why a hypothetical forger would have created a drama that never appears to have been staged and never even states who the author is. History has seen several Shakespeare forgeries — but the forger has always derived some personal, professional or economic gain from it.

“I think there’s way too much stuff in here for someone to put the energy and time into this and then not do anything with it,” Holcomb said. “If it was a hoax, why didn’t it play? Why didn’t somebody make money off it?”

Put such questions of authorship and authenticity to the play itself — or at least to the version that includes Carrigg’s elegant two-page ending — and you find yourself concluding with the closing couplet:

“Only through plainness and truth dare we lay / The fate of the Crown on this field this day.”

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