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A Tale of William Shakespeare and the Cleverness of Crowds

November 22, 2011

James Boswell, the acclaimed diarist and biographer of Dr. Samuel Johnson, reportedly dropped to his knees and kissed the play. Henry James Pye, the Poet Laureate, wrote a prologue for it, as did the noted poet James Bland Burgess. It was championed by the critic and classical scholar, Joseph Warton, and Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan purchased the rights to its first production at London’s Drury Lane Theatre, for the princely sum of 300 pounds. The play was called ‘Vortigern and Rowena’, and was proclaimed as a lost work of William Shakespeare. With sceptics in the minority, chief among them being Shakespearean scholar, Edmond Malone, the play opened to a packed, enthusiastic audience on April 2, 1796. The part of Vortigern himself was played by no less a light than the fine Shakespearean actor, John Philip Kemble, brother of the legendary Sarah Siddons. He was also the manager of the Drury Lane Theatre. The widespread excitement and anticipation among the audience soon turned, however, to bemusement and then literal disbelief, so that by the time Kemble was drawn to hint at his own opinion, repeating with emphasis Vortigern’s line “and when this solemn mockery is o’er”, the catcalls of the audience told its own story. The play ends with the entrance of the Fool, who admits that the play is not very tragic, as “none save bad do fall, which draws no tear.” In fact, there were tears, but these were tears of laughter from those members of the audience charitable enough not to boo it off the stage. The real author, William Henry Ireland, soon admitted to the hoax and promptly left for France. So here we have a ‘lost play’ by Shakespeare examined by notables of the day, most of whom were convinced of its authenticity, or at least willing to put their name to that belief. One performance before a crowd of ordinary theatregoers, however, was enough to kill off that notion and indeed kill off the play. Indeed, it was not to see the stage again for over 200 years, when it experienced a so-called ‘comedic revival’ on November 19, 2008, by the Pembroke Players at the Pembroke College New Cellars in Cambridge. So what we can learn here about the ‘wisdom of crowds’? Was it perhaps the case that Shakespeare is to be played, not read, and the 18th century experts who examined it simply took it on trust that it would appear better when played than read? Could it be that they were not so expert as they were given credit for? Could it be that the real experts were the performers who had played much of the canon of the authentic William Shakespeare, and that their sceptical performances tipped the wink to the theatre-going crowd? Or could it be that the crowd simply is as wise as many give it credit for, especially when it has paid hard-earned money to get through the doors. More than 200 years on, we can’t be sure what the ‘Vortigern’ fiasco tells us. But of one thing we can be sure. One crowd was enough. ‘Vortigern and Rowena’ didn’t open for a second day.

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