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The Quest Unveiled: Delving into the 420-Year Odyssey in Search of Shakespeare's Lost Play

"Unraveling the Mystery: The 420-Year Quest for Shakespeare's Lost Play

In commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's First Folio, BBC Future embarks on an intriguing investigation into a centuries-old enigma – the disappearance of a play that has eluded discovery for over four centuries.

In 1953, Solomon Pottesman, a peculiar and prolific book collector known as "Inky," stumbled upon what seemed to be an ordinary yet remarkably ancient manuscript. As he unraveled the contents of 'Certaine sermons,' published in 1637, two weathered parchment leaves slipped out, revealing a revelation that sparked excitement in the literary world. Covered in florid, archaic handwriting, the yellowed pages unveiled an unexpected treasure – a casual inventory of works for sale by an Elizabethan stationery shop, camouflaged within the spine of religious lectures for more than three centuries.

Cait Coker, curator of rare books and manuscripts at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, reflects on the unassuming nature of this paper, stating, "This [paper] was just junk... And then someone else would have used it, not thinking about it whatsoever, and that would have been the bones of a new book." However, the tattered pages not only offer a glimpse into the mind of an Elizabethan bookseller but also unravel a literary mystery that has captivated scholars for generations.

Midway through the list of book titles, a cryptic entry emerges: "… Loves labor lost… Loves labor won [sic]." While the former is a well-known play by William Shakespeare, performed globally, the latter is a complete unknown. Its existence, or lack thereof, challenges conventional wisdom. How did this mysterious work find its way onto the inventory of a bookshop? Could it be plausible that a play by the revered Shakespeare, considered the greatest dramatist and writer in the English language, has truly vanished?

This narrative unfolds as a tapestry of antique manuscripts, scattered clues, passionate debates, accidental revelations, and the enduring secrets of William Shakespeare, inviting readers into a captivating journey through time and literature in pursuit of the elusive lost play."

"Surviving the Odds: The Unlikely Tale of Shakespeare's Lost Inventory

Cait Coker, curator of rare books and manuscripts at the University of Illinois, reflects on the improbable survival of a seemingly mundane list that was never meant to endure the test of time. She notes, "This [list] was something that was never meant to survive – it was someone's daily note." The serendipity lies in the list's journey, from a daily jotting to becoming a vital piece of history, preserved within a book for centuries. It was during the 1950s, as someone meticulously unraveled the layers of a book, that this overlooked piece of paper was recognized for what it truly was.

The intrigue deepens with the mention of 'Love's Labour's Won,' a play that has been missing since its first acknowledgment in 1603. The mystery unfolds against the backdrop of Shakespeare's final days. On March 25, 1616, the literary giant, though professing to be in "perfect health & memorie," penned his last will. Amongst peculiar bequests, such as leaving his wife Anne Hathaway their "second best" bed, Shakespeare allocated funds for his closest companions to purchase rings in his memory. A month later, he passed away. The guardians of his legacy, John Heminge and Henry Condell, colleagues at The King's Men acting company, played a pivotal role in ensuring the preservation of Shakespeare's works.

During the Elizabethan era, plays faced myriad threats to their existence. The scarcity and expense of paper meant that even the manuscripts of a literary genius like Shakespeare were at risk of being repurposed for entirely different uses. An anecdote from the 18th century illustrates this peril, recounting how a pile of precious manuscripts stored in a kitchen were unknowingly repurposed by the cook to line baking dishes. Despite Shakespeare's fame, the only remaining samples of his handwriting, aside from signatures, are notes on a collaborative work, 'The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore.' Despite half of his plays being published by the time of his death, their survival was not guaranteed. Issued as 'quartos,' these manuscripts, akin to modern paperbacks, were vulnerable to the passage of time and the whims of recycling.

As we delve into the survival saga of this ancient inventory, the echoes of Shakespeare's era resonate, emphasizing the precarious journey that these literary treasures undertook to defy the odds and persist through centuries."

"The Fragile Legacy: The Vanishing Act of Elizabethan Plays and Shakespeare's Resilience

In the Elizabethan era, the very nature of books, particularly plays, made them inherently disposable and susceptible to loss. These affordable quartos were easily damaged, frequently lost, and sometimes even carried pirated content, with authors often left unnamed. According to Emma Smith, a professor of Shakespeare studies at the University of Oxford, they were not designed for posterity but were rather regarded as transient items.

Emma Smith emphasizes, "They're not really in a form that you would say, 'Oh, these are for keeps – these are to look back on in 20 years' time.'" Even those plays that had been published as quartos before the release of the First Folio faced the risk of extinction, given the variations that could range into hundreds of lines across different versions.

An estimated 3,000 Elizabethan plays have gone missing, showcasing the ephemeral nature of this literary form. For William Shakespeare, a pivotal moment occurred in November 1623 with the release of the First Folio by John Heminge and Henry Condell. This monumental compilation documented 36 plays, including 18 never before in print, meticulously reconstructed from original prompt books, scripts, and notes. The First Folio became the savior of works like 'All's Well That Ends Well,' 'The Taming of the Shrew,' and 'Macbeth,' ensuring their survival for centuries.

However, even with this groundbreaking intervention, notable absences persisted. 'Love's Labour's Won' is not the sole Shakespearian play believed to have vanished. In May 1613, a payment of "twentie powndes" was made to Heminge for presenting six plays, one of which was titled 'Cardenno.' Fast-forward to 1653, 'The History of Cardenio' appeared in a bookseller's list, attributed to John Fletcher and William Shakespeare. Yet, the play mysteriously fades from the records, adding a layer of ambiguity to its historical trajectory.

As we navigate the fragile legacy of Elizabethan plays, the resilience of Shakespeare's works stands as a testament to the enduring power of literary preservation against the odds of time and impermanence."

"Unveiling the Enigma: The Elusive History of Cardenio and the Controversial Double Falsehood

In 1727, the Covent Garden Playhouse in London hosted the premiere of a new play with an original title. Yet, according to printed editions, 'Double Falsehood' purportedly underwent revisions and adaptations from a lost Shakespearean play, 'The History of Cardenio.' The intriguing narrative weaves through time, as the author claimed to have acquired three early manuscripts of 'The History of Cardenio,' stored at the theatre where it was performed. However, this account remains unverified, as a devastating fire in 1808 engulfed the theatre and its library, leaving questions lingering in the absence of concrete evidence.

The plot of 'The History of Cardenio' remains shrouded in mystery, with limited knowledge available today. Drawing inspiration from the title and Elizabethan-era styles, experts speculate that it may have drawn heavily from the Spanish novel 'Don Quixote,' translated into English just a year before Shakespeare's performance for King James I. However, a persistent question haunts scholars: is 'Double Falsehood' genuinely rooted in Shakespearean origins, or is it an elaborate imitation?

Gary Taylor, a professor of English at Florida State University, delves into the complexities of 'Double Falsehood,' acknowledging 18th-century additions while identifying older or more distinctly Shakespearean elements. Notably, Taylor points to lines like "Not but itself can be in parallel," deeming them too absurd to be penned by anyone other than Shakespeare. Over two decades, Taylor has dedicated his career to meticulously reconstructing Shakespeare's version, excising elements that seem incongruous.

Though Taylor acknowledges that much of the original play is likely lost, its afterlife is marked by numerous reincarnations. In 2012, his version of 'Double Falsehood' graced the stage, breathing life into a play that had vanished for centuries. However, the scale of loss takes a different dimension with 'Love's Labour's Won.' The void surrounding Shakespeare's most mysterious play extends beyond its title – fundamental details such as the plot, characters, songs, or surprising twists remain elusive.

As Gary Taylor aptly describes it, the quest for 'Love's Labour's Won' is akin to navigating a vast vacuum, a profound exploration into the unknown realms of Shakespeare's literary legacy."

"Love's Labour's Won: Unraveling the Enigma of Shakespeare's Missing Sequel

While the notion of 'Love's Labour's Won' as a lost play gained momentum in the 1950s, its first mention traces back many centuries. In 1598, a clergyman and schoolmaster, born just a year before Shakespeare, included it in his list of recommended comedies. This intriguing historical tidbit suggests that 'Love's Labour's Won' likely emerged in the mid-1590s, potentially gracing the stage at The Theatre, an Elizabethan playhouse preceding the famous Globe Theatre built by Shakespeare's acting company.

Speculation about the play being a logical sequel to 'Love's Labour's Lost,' a comedy about young men swearing off women only to fall in love inadvertently, adds a layer of intrigue. Gary Taylor, a professor of English at Florida State University, emphasizes the importance of considering Shakespeare's era as the dawn of the modern entertainment industry's commercial entity. Concepts like sequels to popular dramas, rooted in late-16th-century England's theatre business, were already in vogue, often loosely connected to the original except for the title.

The stationer selling 'Love's Labour's Won' also featured plays by other authors on his list, such as "A Knack to Know a Knave" and "A Knack to Know an Honest Man." While the authors remain unknown, the former, performed in 1593, gained immense popularity, and the latter, though dissimilar, attempted to capitalize on its success a year later. According to Taylor, the disappearance of certain plays doesn't necessarily reflect their quality, and one theory posits that well-liked printed copies of 'Love's Labour's Won' may have been read to pieces.

In contrast, repeat performances of 'The History of Cardenio' at King James I's royal court suggest its success. Shakespeare's association with The King's Men, formerly the Lord Chamberlain's Men, adds to the intrigue surrounding these lost plays. As the quest to uncover Shakespeare's missing sequel continues, the historical and theatrical landscapes of Elizabethan England unfold, revealing the enduring mystery of 'Love's Labour's Won.'"

"Debating the Phantom: Unraveling the Mysteries Surrounding Love's Labour's Won

The discovery of parchment referencing Love's Labour's Won by Solomon Pottesman triggered a spirited academic debate, igniting discussions about the potential existence of this elusive play. While many scholars concurred that it likely represented a lost work, an opposing viewpoint emerged, proposing that Love's Labour's Won might be a phantom – a creation of pure accident, never truly existing. One theory posited that the title might have been coined as an alternative for the comedy 'Much Ado About Nothing,' either due to the thematic fit or the aesthetic symmetry of having a sequel to Love's Labour's Lost.

Amidst these speculations, the tantalizing question looms: If Love's Labour's Won did exist and was once printed, could it resurface one day? The realm of possibility finds an unexpected parallel in the serendipitous rediscovery of Shakespeare's bloodiest play, 'Titus Andronicus.' Thought to be lost for centuries, the first edition of Titus Andronicus, published in 1594, emerged in a surprising twist of fate. Bound into a book with 18th-century lottery adverts, it was unearthed by a postal clerk in Malmö, Sweden, in 1904, providing a beacon of hope for the potential rediscovery of other rare Shakespearean works.

Gary Taylor, a professor of English at Florida State University, draws inspiration from such fortuitous breakthroughs, fostering optimism for the reappearance of Love's Labour's Won. If one rare Shakespeare book could remain undiscovered in someone's home for centuries, there lies the possibility that history might repeat itself. Taylor's belief in the likelihood of such a discovery adds a layer of anticipation to the ongoing quest for Shakespeare's lost sequel, underscoring the enduring allure of literary mysteries across time."

"In the perpetual quest for literary treasures, Gary Taylor asserts, 'We're constantly finding new stuff in private collections, libraries that haven't been fully catalogued.' The recent revelation of a Tudor warrant book in the British National Archives, uncovering chilling instructions for Anne Boleyn's execution, exemplifies the ongoing discoveries in historical archives. Even figures as extensively chronicled as Anne Boleyn continue to yield fresh insights, emphasizing the perpetual evolution of historical narratives.

Considering the potential existence of Love's Labour's Won, Taylor highlights its extraordinary nature if printed, questioning the absence of any discovered copies to date. Emma Smith echoes this sentiment, expressing anticipation for the day when a tattered old book bearing the title 'Love's Labour's Won, a comedy by William Shakespeare' emerges from obscurity. The trio, comprising Taylor, Smith, and Cait Coker, envisions a future moment when someone, somewhere, stumbles upon this literary gem – be it in a forgotten corner of a museum or a mysterious attic trunk.

In their collective expectation, the discovery of this elusive play becomes a tantalizing possibility, a testament to the resilience of historical mysteries waiting to be unraveled. Until that moment arrives, the literary world remains in a state of anticipation, echoing the sentiment that, in the words of Smith, 'we can only wait.'"

"In the enduring pursuit of lost literary treasures, the search for Shakespeare's elusive 'Love's Labour's Won' stands as a testament to the perpetual allure of historical mysteries. The revelations from Anne Boleyn's warrant book underscore the ongoing potential for unexpected discoveries in overlooked archives and private collections. As scholars like Gary Taylor, Emma Smith, and Cait Coker anticipate the day when a tattered book bearing the title 'Love's Labour's Won' emerges, the narrative of literary history remains dynamic and open-ended.

The analogy to the serendipitous rediscovery of 'Titus Andronicus' serves as a beacon of hope, suggesting that even rare Shakespearean works may lie hidden in plain sight, waiting to be uncovered by future generations. In the realm of historical exploration, the essence lies not only in what we know but in the anticipation of what remains to be unveiled.

As we wait for that moment when someone, somewhere, stumbles upon Shakespeare's lost comedy, the journey becomes as significant as the destination. The ongoing narrative of discovery, fueled by the resilience of historical artifacts, underscores the timeless fascination with unearthing the past. Until then, the literary world remains poised for the eventual revelation, embracing the intrinsic curiosity that drives the exploration of Shakespeare's literary legacy."