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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Shakespeare's Banned Play?

Shakespeare's company, The King's Men, performed a play The Tragedy of Gowrie twice in December 1604.

The play was banned, and no copies of the text survive.


What was so subversive about it that the play would all but vanish from history? Did Shakespeare write this play?

The story of the Gowrie conspiracy was well known at the time, as it was based on real events.

On 5 August, 1600 King James IV of Scotland (not yet James I of England) went hunting with some of his men.

He met Alexander Ruthven, who told him about a foreigner he had trapped, and who was carrying large amounts of money. He invited James to interrogate this man, back at the nearby Gowrie House in Perth.

James accepted the invitation. James went up to the turret, without his men, where he was captured by Alexander.

James's men were told that he had left already, and as they were about to ride off, they heard cries of "Treason!" from the turret above.

They fought their way up to the turret where they found James fighting with Alexander.

One of James's men killed Alexander with blows to the face and neck. Alexander's brother John was also killed in the fighting.

This incident was disputed by many, and some believed that this entire story was fabricated, a cover for the murders of Alexander and John.

In any event, King James's playing company, The King's Men decided to re-create these events on stage.

Did Shakespeare's leading man, Richard Burbage, play King James?

It is important to remember that James had only been king of England since March of the year before. I think to many in London, and England in general, he was still an unknown quantity.

I can easily imagine that Shakespeare and his actors would have wanted to excite their audiences with a thriller about their king, where the king defeats his enemies -- a good versus evil story where the king is the hero!

Obviously, the depiction of the character of James would have made him strong and heroic -- and I wouldn't be surprised if James was the one who landed the killing blow on Alexander in the play -- and by the end there would be some sort of celebration for the survival of James, the king of Scotland, now the king of England.

King James

Also, Queen Elizabeth had long ago prohibited the staging of political events or people. This was why playwrights, like Shakespeare, had to write of Verona and Venice, when they were really talking about London.

The Tragedy of Gowrie therefore would have been very controversial and risky -- it was dealing directly with King James himself and events that had happened only 4 years before.

There is no evidence that Shakespeare wrote this play himself. But if the subject of the play was King James, and since this would have been one of the very first plays performed by the King's Men, I find it hard to imagine that anyone else would have written it.

I think Shakespeare was the only playwright who could have gotten away with writing a play about the king himself.

Well, from what we know, the play only had two performances and was done.

Shakespeare obviously wasn't killed or imprisoned for this play, like Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kyd for example, but it was never to be seen again.

Around the same time that this was happening, another playwright, Samuel Daniel performed a play called Philotas. The sympathetic hero of the play resembled the Earl of Essex, who had led a failed rebellion against Queen Elizabeth in 1601, and was executed.

For whatever reason, Samuel Daniel had offended the king and queen. His career as a playwright was over. He was done.

How could Shakespeare write about Essex in his Hamlet play and get away with it, while Daniel's career was finished?

I explored the Essex Rebellion and the significance it played in my version of Hamlet, and while I do think that Shakespeare did get into trouble for writing it, he may have been the one (and only) writer who could not be suppressed.

I think perhaps he was too successful and too popular to be quieted, and have his career ended.

But that doesn't mean that his plays would continue, as in the case of The Tragedy of Gowrie.

Was this a play by Shakespeare that was banned?

We may never know for sure.

But it seems rather convincing.


David B. Schajer

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