Petronius Maximus

Shakespeare, William (attrib.) (1821)

NB: Although taken seriously by sources including Harbage and Bentley, this supposed lost play is in fact a nineteenth-century hoax. It requires mention here, hopefully to head off any further confusion.

Historical Records


Theatrical Provenance


Probable Genre(s)


Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues


References to the Play


Critical Commentary

In 1821, an article signed "T" appeared in the Edinburgh Magazine, purporting to describe a printed play in the author's personal collection:

The Famouse Historie of Petronius Maximus, with the tragicall Deathe of Aetius, the Roman General, and the Misdeeds of Valentinian, the Western Emperour, now attempted in blanke verse by W. S. London: Printed by William Brent for Nathaniel Butter, and sold by him at his shop in Paule's Church Yarde, 1619.

"T" proceeded to give a long plot summary and three blank verse extracts from the supposed play, a tragedy dramatizing the same story as Fletcher's Valentinian.

On the basis of the article, Harbage lists The Famous History of Petronius Maximus among the lost plays of Supplementary List II of Annals of English Drama (212). It is also listed by Bentley, who comments that "Besides the obvious great example, the initials would fit William Strode and William Sampson among Jacobean and Caroline dramatists". Bentley adds:

It seems odd that no one else seems to have seen this play. Could it be a hoax? The phrase on the title-page, "now attempted in blank verse", sounds curious. (Bentley, 5.1036-7).

Bentley is right to be sceptical. Painstaking work by Arthur and Janet Ing Freeman, published in 1993, establishes that "T" can be identified as James Crossley (1800–1883) and William Harrison Ainsworth (1805–1882), two literary enthusiasts from Manchester with a track record, at this date, of publishing pastiche imitations of seventeenth-century texts. Crossley himself, in a later publication in Notes and Queries, described the play as a fraud, and then rather mischievously tried to blame J. P. Collier for it. The Freemans' article seems decisively to rule out any possibility that this really is a lost, printed, play of the period. It is a hoax, and the "W.S." of the title-page is therefore a hoaxer's attribution to Shakespeare himself.

For What It's Worth

Although the question is rendered academic by the Freemans' work, it is worth observing that Bentley's suspicion about the title-page was well-founded. The Database of Early English Playbooks records no other English playbook whose title-page mentions "blank verse". What's more, EEBO-TCP currently finds no pre-1700 book-titles, of any sort, that contain the words "blank verse". These facts would not, of course, make it impossible that a hitherto unknown playbook should mention blank verse on its title-page, but in a context where suspicion has already been raised, they offer elegant confirmation of the grounds of the suspicion.

Works Cited

DEEP: Database of Early English Playbooks. Ed. Alan B. Farmer and Zachary Lesser. Created 2007. Accessed 4 May 2012.
Freeman, Arthur, and Janet Ing Freeman, "Scholarship, Forgery, and Fictive Invention: John Payne Collier Before 1831", Library 15.1 (1993): 1-23.
T., "Some account of the Famouse Historie of Petronius Maximus: a rare tragedy", The Edinburgh Magazine 9 (July, 1821): 3-8.

Site created and maintained by Matthew Steggle, Sheffield Hallam University; updated 4 May 2012.