Bear a Brain, or Better Late Than Never

Thomas Dekker (1599)

Historical Records


To playwrights in Philip Henslowe's diary

Fol. 63 (Greg I.110)

Lent vnto Robart shawe the 1 of aguste }
1599 to paye mr deckers for a boocke }
                         beare a braine }
called [bettr latte then never] the some } iijli
of xxxxs in fulle payment lent vnto mr }
deckers at that time xxs so all is . . . . . . . }

Theatrical Provenance

"Bear a Brain," apparently initially called "Better Late than Never," was acquired by the Admiral's men in the summer of 1599, as the Globe was being built across Maid Lane.

Probable Genre(s)

Comedy (Harbage)

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

Beyond the clue in the proverbial title (even if originally "Better Late than Never"), nothing is known of the story materials behind this play.

References to the Play

None known.

Critical Commentary

Fleay, BCED listed "Bear a Brain" among Thomas Dekker's work but considered it "an old play of doubtful authorship" (1.125). He then asked, "Can it be that this title was discarded for Look About You (LAY)," which he had already "attributed to [Anthony] Wadson." In support of the conjecture, Fleay called attention to one instance of the phrase, "bear a brain," in LAY. In the entry on Wadeson, Fleay linked "The Honourable Life of the Humorous Earl of Gloster with his Conquest of Portugal" ("Gloster"), which is certainly by Wadeson, with LAY through the character of the Earl, who appears in the extant LAY (2.266-67). He considered "Gloster" a sequel to LAY.

Greg II was enthusiastic about Dekker's authorship of "Bear a Brain" but less so about that authorship if "Bear a Brain" was masquerading in the diary as Look About You. Greg was rather insistent that LAY was not written by Dekker. He granted that the phrase, "bear a brain," could mean "look about you" (also "have a care"), but saw nothing that suggested the several instances of "look about you" in the text of LAY had been edited from "bear a brain." He considered the authorship by Wadeson and implied assent by agreeing that "Gloster" makes a suitable sequel to LAY. Loathe to let "Bear a Brain" be a discrete play, Greg toyed with the possibility that its title phrase could once have been an alternate for Gentle Craft and therefore The Shoemakers' Holiday, but he cannot find sufficient reason to do so (#179, p. 204).

Knutson concurs with Fleay that the payment of 60s. for "Bear a Brain," 20s. of which was designated by Henslowe as a loan, indicates that the play was secondhand (p. 119). She considers the play purchased due to the language of the entry ("... in fulle payment ...").

Gurr repeats Greg's fanciful association of "Bear a Brain" with The Shoemaker's Holiday but, having decided that "Disguises" was LAY, he does not comment on Greg's musings on LAY (p. 245, n97).

Wiggins, Catalogue considers several explanations for the apparent double title of "Bear a Brain," but not the possibility that either title is a mask for an extant play such as Look About You or The Shoemakers' Holiday (#1190). Not considering the possibility that "Bear a Brain" was a secondhand play, he suggests that "Dekker had presumably already received" payment "without Henslowe's financial involvement" (#1190).

For What It's Worth

See "Disguises" for another lost-play candidate as the Henslowe title of LAY.

Works Cited

Gurr, Andrew. Shakespeare's Opposites: The Admiral's Company 1594-1625. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Knutson, Roslyn L. "The Commercial Significance of the Payments for Playtexts in Henslowe's Diary, 1597-1603." Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, 5 (1991): 117-63.

Site created and maintained by Roslyn L. Knutson, Professor Emerita, University of Arkansas at Little Rock; updated 6 February 2012.