Play about the Duke of Florence (BL Add MS 88878)

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Anon. (Webster?) (1630s)

Historical Records

BL Add MS 88878 (images)

This manuscript play fragment exists only as a single sheet of paper (2 folios / 4 pages) in length. The first page features a number at the top (2) and begins part-way through a scene, implying that the surviving sheet was at least conceived of as part of a series, whether or not the play was continued. (BL Add MS 88878):

BL Add MS 88878 1r.jpg BL Add MS 88878 1v.jpg
BL Add MS 88878, fol.1r. BL Add MS 88878, fol.1v.
BL Add MS 88878 2r.jpg BL Add MS 88878 2v.jpg
BL Add MS 88878, fol.2r. BL Add MS 88878, fol.2v.

All images (c) British Library. Reproduced by permission.

NB. The above images have been cropped into pages to display the text in order. The following openings illustrate the sheet of paper itself:

BL Add MS 88878 2v-1r.jpg BL Add MS 88878 1v-2r.jpg
BL Add MS 88878, fol.2v-1r. BL Add MS 88878, fol.1v-2r.

BL Add MS 88878 (transcription)

Theatrical Provenance

There is no recorded evidence of a performance of a play corresponding to this fragment of text. Nevertheless, it bears similarities to Act 2, Scene 1 of James Shirley’s play The Traitor, which was written in 1630, licensed for performance on May 4, 1631, and probably first performed by Queen Henrietta Maria’s company before being taken over by Beeston’s Boys (Bentley 1:226). Since the language of the manuscript ties it quite definitively to 1630–35, the precise period when The Traitor was written, performed, and published (Smith 2017), we must assume that the texts were at least contemporary with one another if not more closely connected. It is possible, but by no means definite, that the Melbourne Manuscript is a foul-paper (draft) version of The Traitor 2.1.

Probable Genre(s)

Tragedy, though the dramatic writing is interspersed with humour and bawdy jokes.

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The scene recorded in the manuscript presents the historical Duke of Florence, Alessandro de’ Medici (1510–1537), here called Prince Alexander, and his cousin Lorenzino de’ Medici (1514–1548), here Lorenzo. The manuscript depicts a scene in which Alexander, having received a letter from a political exile, Castruccio, accusing Lorenzo of treason, dismisses his courtiers before confronting Lorenzo himself. Alexander makes Lorenzo read the letter to find out whether there is any foundation for this severe allegation. Lorenzo jokes about the letter’s style but admits the allegations are true. He then reminds Alexander of his previous loyalty and claims he was acting as a double agent in order to infiltrate enemy circles. The real-life Alessandro de’ Medici was in fact murdered by Lorenzino, who subsequently claimed he had acted in the civic interest by assassinating a tyrant, so we can might assume that Prince Alexander was eventually to be assassinated.

The most credible likely inspiration for Melbourne’s author is Paolo Giovio’s History of His Own Times (Latin edition 1550–52): a chronicle of the Italian Wars of 1494 to 1559. Although Carter points to Marguerite of Navarre’s Heptameron as a more likely source for Shirley’s equivalent play, Bawcutt discovered in the plots of both texts many more detailed similarities with Giovio’s History; specifically, the historical moment they dramatize is absent from Navarre’s version of the story, but present in Giovio’s. Smith (2017) accepted Bawcutt’s narrative as most persuasive in his 2017 edition of the Melbourne MS.

References to the Play

Aside from the thematic similarities tying Melbourne to Shirley’s Traitor, there do not seem to be any contemporary references to this play. Where Webster’s authorship has been considered, his dedicatory epistle in The Devil’s Law Case, addressed to Sir Thomas Finch, has been cited:
“Some of my other Works, as The white Deuill, The Dutchesse of Malfi, Guise, and others, you haue formerly seene” (Berger and Massai 1; Greg 388)
Guise”, now lost, was probably written c.1615. Although references to Guise imply it is a tragedy, no evidence supports any link to the Melbourne MS.

Critical Commentary

The text in the manuscript has received literary critical attention from Pryor, Hammond and Del Vecchio, and Smith (2017). Each comments on the richness of the drama, the comedy, characterisation, and the use of language, with Pryor describing the manuscript as “a richly worked, subtly ironic, dense piece of literary composition” and Smith asserting that “[t]he play, had it ever been completed, would have stood comparison with any of the great Jacobean or Caroline tragedies” (612).

Despite the text’s literary significance, the debate that has dominated academic discussion of this manuscript to date is one of authorship. The manuscript may have been composed by an otherwise unknown amateur author, albeit one of considerable skill, or one of the professional playwrights whose entire corpus is now lost. Modern academic discussions have pointed to only two serious contenders, John Webster and James Shirley.

Shapiro claimed the author must have been James Shirley on the basis of disputed palaeographical evidence. When Hammond and Del Vecchio examined the document in 1988, they concluded that Webster was the more likely candidate based on stylistic interpretations. Jackson significantly updated scholarship on the authorship question in 2006, producing stylometric conclusions that pointed to Shirley not just over Webster but over all other known contemporary dramatists. Although Webster is now out of favour and Shirley is currently considered the most likely candidate, the fragment’s authorship remains unknown; Beal’s CELM lists the manuscript among Shirley’s works, but with the caveat that “the matter remains unresolved”. Smith (2017) while acknowledging the stronger claims for Shirley, ultimately averred. Based on his reading of the palaeographical evidence, he suggested that Melbourne might have been “written by two hands”, and could thus constitute evidence of literary collaboration – necessarily muddying attempts to assign authorship through stylometrics.

A further critical discussion prompted by the manuscript’s discovery considers its bibliographical status: the Melbourne MS preserves ambiguous but illuminating evidence about a rarely witnessed stage in the production of early modern dramatic texts, the draft. Displaying evidence of deletions, corrections, and marginal additions, it is possible that the manuscript is a so-called “foul paper”, whether of Shirley’s Traitor or not. The term “foul paper” has been defined by The Oxford Companion to the Book as “a draft MS of a work” (Suarez and Woudhuysen), but contemporary writers used the term to mean a range of similar but not identical things, including “dirty, scrappy, or befouled paper” and “loose, ad hoc, careless, or confused notes”. Prompted by the manuscript, Smith investigates this term in a companion piece to his edition (Smith 2016). He concludes that Melbourne is a particular kind of draft or foul paper, one which was rejected or otherwise abandoned for some reason, and its survival enables us to add an unstated but bibliographically implicit definition of “foul paper” to the list: that of a discarded draft, repurposed as scrap or waste paper. It therefore illuminates rejection as a rarely glimpsed aspect of the process of textual production.

Rather than use Melbourne uncritically as an exemplar for all early modern theatrical drafts, Smith urges that we should be careful to define its precise bibliographical nature as a discarded and repurposed manuscript, whose value was seen in its function as scrap paper rather than in its literary merit. This “found” manuscript can therefore help conceptualise the many dramatic documents now lost, but without which no play is possible.

For What It's Worth

The Melbourne Manuscript was discovered by Edward Saunders in 1985 at Melbourne Hall, Derbyshire. It had been used to wrap a packet of letters in the custody of Sir John Coke (1563–1644), a principal secretary of state under Charles I. Pryor explains that “When the archive was listed for the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts at the end of the last century it was docketed ‘Packet 3,’ and for some reason passed over in silence. It ended up in a box containing plans for the garden.” There is some uncertainty as to the exact nature of Packet 3’s contents. Pryor notes that the packet contained “correspondence by Coke dating between 1601 and 1630, and Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke’s household accounts for 1602–03”, but Smith – secretly hoping for a connection to the papers of Coke’s fellow Secretary of State, Edward Conway – found no evidence in the records of Coke’s correspondence that might offer more specific information. Given that Saunders found such miscellaneous material within the packet, the manuscript was probably used to wrap documents already within the Coke household, rather than deliberately grouped items being sent to Coke. As such, it seems unlikely that the contents of the packet would cast light on the manuscript’s provenance.

Some attendees at Smith’s paper on the MS at the Cambridge Early Modern Interdisciplinary Seminar, were skeptical of the two-hands claim.

Works Cited

Bawcutt, N.W. “The Assassination of Alessandro De’ Medici in Early Seventeenth-Century English Drama.” The Review of English Studies 56/225 (2005): 412–23.

Beal, Peter, “James Shirley (1596–1666)”, CELM. Accessed September 22, 2019. 

Beal, Peter, “Papers Most Foul: A Lost Tragedy by John Webster?”, unpublished article commissioned by the Times Literary Supplement.

Bentley, G.E. The Jacobean and Caroline Stage, 7 vols (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1941–68).

Berger, Thomas L., and Sonia Massai (eds), Paratexts in English Printed Drama to 1642, 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Carter, John Stewart (ed.), James Shirley, The Traitor (London: Edward Arnold, 1965)

Hammond, Anthony and Doreen Del Vecchio. “The Melbourne Manuscript and John Webster: A Reproduction and Transcript.” Studies in Bibliography 41 (1988): 1–32.

Jackson, MacDonald P. “John Webster, James Shirley, and the Melbourne Manuscript.” In Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, edited by S. P. Cerasano, 21–44. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 2006. 

Pryor, Felix. “From Packet 3 to ‘The Duke of Florence’.” The Spectator, June 13, 1986.

Shapiro, I.A. “letter.” Times Literary Supplement, July 4, 1986, 735.

Smith, Daniel Starza. “Unvolving the Mysteries of the Melbourne Manuscript.” Huntingdon Library Quarterly 79, no.4 (2017): 1–43.

Smith, Daniel Starza. “Papers Most Foul: The Melbourne Manuscript and the ‘Foul Papers’ Debate.” In James Shirley and the Early Modern Theatre: New Critical Perspectives, edited by Barbara Ravelhofer, 124–138. London and New York: Routledge, 2016.

Suarez, Michael F., and H. R. Woudhuysen (eds), The Oxford Companion to the Book, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019). 

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