The London of Shakespeare’s day was a national capital encircled by crumbling walls. Beyond the walls were tenements, warehouses, vegetables gardens, workshops, gun foundries, brick kilns, windmills, and a countless number of stinking ditches and refuse heaps.
The landscape of Shakespeare scholarship is structured much the same way, with a small central core of established attributions and scant facts surrounded by a vast zone where workaday researchers toil making things of slight value, producing a whole lot of crap as by-products.
From this zone comes John Casson and his new book, Enter Pursued by a Bear: The Unknown Plays of Shakespeare-Neville. Casson claims to have found a trove of early Shakespeare works–so early, in fact, they don’t have Shakespeare’s name on them. Casson claims to have unearthed Shakespeare’s first published poem, signed by somebody named Phaeton; his first comedy, Mucedorus, his first tragedies, Locrine and Arden of Faversham; along with an early collaboration with John Fletcher called Cardenio.
Casson claims Shakespeare must have produced these anonymous apprentice works because “It is inconceivable . . . that his first plays were the massive
trilogy of Henry VI. Writers develop over time from simpler beginnings.” However, when Shakespeare arrived in London in 1587 the hit play was Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. Probably the first play Shakespeare ever saw in a free-standing theater, the tragedy was written by a playwright exactly Shakespeare’s age (they were both born in 1564) who burst onto the theater scene from the same humble provincial origins (Marlowe’s father was a shoemaker). The Henry VI plays were Shakespeare’s attempt to imitate his earliest rival’s precocious drama. With Marlowe already a star at 23, Shakespeare didn’t have much time to develop his craft.