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The Lamentable Tragedy of the Duke of Palermo

Henry Chettle and William Shakespeare, discovered and transcribed by Homer R. Winslow, presented by Edmund Wilson


Professor Winslow’s living room at Hillsdale, a small New England college. A door at stage right of the back wall leads to the central hallway and the front door, and a door in the side wall at stage left leads to the Professor’s study, into which, though we do not see it, another door from the corridor gives access. The door into the hall is open. A fireplace in the center of the back wall. The room has been furnished in very good taste by the late Mrs. Winslow, a portrait of whom as a young girl hangs over the fireplace. On the table, in a silver frame, is a large photograph of her. The Professor’s nineteen-year-old daughter Fran is lounging in an arm-chair reading Mad magazine, with one shoe dangling from her toe. Chuck Chambers, a young instructor, enters from the door to the corridor. He looks more like a student than an instructor: corduroys, sneakers, a jersey, a bristling crew haircut.

FRAN (looking up but not rising or changing her position): Why didn’t you ring?

CHUCK: Your father’s always glad to see me.

FRAN: How do you know I am?

CHUCK: That doesn’t influence me. (Handling her a copy of Liberation.) If you can tear yourself away from that garbage, you might care to look at this. It’s got a firsthand account of Alabama. I suppose that we ought to have gone.

FRAN (taking the magazine): I see you’ve stopped cleaning your nails?

CHUCK: They’d just get dirty again.

FRAN: You’ve got more blackheads around your nose. You’re the most disgusting object on the campus.

CHUCK: That’s why I haven’t been around lately. I didn’t want to disgust you. Do you think I’m more disgusting than Spooky Simms?

FRAN: He at least wears a clean shirt.

CHUCK: Is that why you see so much of him?

FRAN: I don’t.

CHUCK: You went to the Middlebury game with him.

FRAN: I don’t want to get him against me. He’s trying to downgrade Father.

CHUCK: How can he? Your father’s got life tenure.

FRAN: They want him to teach Freshmen courses and give up his regular lectures.

CHUCK: Your father’s an institution. He’s been giving that Shakespeare course for years.

FRAN: But Spooky Simms is the head of the department, and he can dictate to most of the others.

CHUCK: I suppose they can’t stand having your father put on a successful show and divert attention from their goddam explications. I know that they think he’s a ham, and so in a way he is. But I can’t help respecting the old boy. Your father doesn’t give a damn about how much of a fool he makes of himself so long as he can put over good literature. When he used to give us Shelley’s Skylark, he’d flap his arms like this so you’d expect him to soar off the platform. (He demonstrates.)

Hail to thee, blithe spirit!
Bird thou never wert”…

He’d act out every character in Shakespeare from lago to Sir Toby Belch. As Ophelia, he was absolutely priceless. When he read that last poem of Browning’s about greeting the Unseen with a cheer, half the class gave the Hillsdale yell.

FRAN: That never happened.

CHUCK: They also say he used to do a morris dance with bells on his ankles.

FRAN: That’s another legend.

CHUCK: It’s finding that unknown Elizabethan play that’s made them all furious. You think it’s genuine?

FRAN: He thinks so.

CHUCK: Were you with him when he found it?

FRAN: No. I was staying in London. He was off on a hike by himself.

CHUCK: Why hasn’t he shown it to anybody?

FRAN: He wants to edit it himself—and he wants to have it acted first.

CHUCK: Of course: he wants to wow them. He’s playing the Duke himself, I understand. Well, if it is authentic, they’ll never forgive him; and if it isn’t, they can say he’s nuts. It’s a pity that the first production has to depend on the talents of Hillsdale!

Professor Winslow enters stage right. Bone spectacles, an old-fashioned Van Dyck beard, a green velvet waistcoat, an orange silk necktie secured by a ring. He is radiant; at fifty-four, still full of almost boyish enthusiasm.

WINSLOW: Well, I think I’ve made out a good case!

CHUCK: You mean about the authorship?

WINSLOW: I think there can be no doubt that the play is by Henry Chettle! There’s nothing about it in Henslowe’s diary, but all the plays weren’t commissioned by Henslowe.

CHUCK: But Chettle was just a hack, and you say that the play is brilliant.

WINSLOW: Now, look: suppose that nothing survived except the weaker plays of John Webster, that we knew nothing about his great tragedies. Who could possibly imagine their somber magnificence—like a catafalque of rich brocade? Who could imagine from the pinchbeck of the worst of John Ford his alembicated lyric pathos? Should we not have thought of both of these writers as hacks?

CHUCK: There’s a good lyric in The Devil’s Law Case:

Vain the ambition of kings,
Who seek by trophies and dead things
To leave a living name behind,
And weave but nets to catch the wind.”

He reads poetry well, not at all in the tone of his conversation.

WINSLOW: A few good passages,—but there are good things in Chettle, too—and why should not Chettle as well have written a masterpiece. We have, after all, only one play of his that’s not a collaboration: a tragedy of revenge, Hoffman, and it’s not unlike the one I’ve discovered—the same imagery, the same mannerisms of style.

CHUCK: How would you date your play?

WINSLOW: A reference to Queen Elizabeth as still alive shows that it must be earlier than 1603—and Chettle must have died at some point between 1603 and 1607. And the play is so much superior to Chettle’s other productions that it may well be the last thing he wrote and the culminating work of his life. (With deliberate smiling slyness, as if he were lecturing to a class.) But that’s not the whole story. I don’t think that Chettle was alone in the authorship of this play. There are passages that must come from another hand, and I don’t think it could have been anyone so relatively inferior as Middleton or Dekker or Rowley. (He pauses, but Chuck does not encourage him by asking who he thinks this collaborator might be.) Now, we know on positive evidence that Chettle had a hand in Sir Thomas More—which was also discovered in manuscript—and you know who else had a hand. The handwriting shows it conclusively.

CHUCK: You mean Shakespeare.

WINSLOW: You’ll tell me what you think when you’ve seen it. There are certain scenes in the play that, it seems to me, could only have been written by Shakespeare.

CHUCK: Where do you see the resemblance?

WINSLOW: Well, you know Shakespeare’s marvelous nocturnes: the ghost on the battlements at the beginning of Hamlet, Iachimo in Imogen’s bedchamber. There’s a hair-raising night scene at the beginning of the play. And then there’s a scene with the clown that seems to me unmistakable. It’s just the kind of thing that Shakespeare wrote for his favorite comic actor Will Kempe.

CHUCK: Who’s your clown?

WINSLOW: Terry Moran.

CHUCK: You’re running an awful risk. I hope that he turns up sober.

WINSLOW: Oh, Terry’s a glorious clown. I always had him do the comics when we read the plays aloud in class, and he had everybody in stitches.

CHUCK: And Spooky Simms is your villain, I understand.

WINSLOW: Not exactly the villain—a spy.

CHUCK: Aren’t you carrying type-casting a little too far? How did you get him to play it?

FRAN: He doesn’t want to be left out of anything, and he wants to propitiate Father.

The doorbell rings, and Fran goes to answer it.

WINSLOW: Oh, Ned’s not so bad as that. And he has one superb speech—one of the best in the play. He does have a real love of literature—in spite of what I can’t help feeling is a rather pedantic tendency to pick at texts and attempt to find all kinds of things in them that the author couldn’t possibly have put there. That’s a fashion that will soon pass. The voice of the great poets will always drown out their analysts!

Fran comes back with Spooky Simms. He is pale and blond, in his late thirties. Correct collegecampus garb: white buttoned-down shirt, conservative tie, trousers and jacket of different materials. He has earned his college nickname by a certain slightly creepy quality.

WINSLOW: Hello, Ned. I’ve just made what I think are some interesting discoveries about our play. And you, I understand, have been doing some very exciting work on Yeats.

Spooky salutes Chuck and Fran, but Chuck does not respond.

SPOOKY: I’ve cracked The Wild Swans at Coole!

WINSLOW (smiling): Not irreparably, I hope.

SPOOKY: I started off on the wrong track: I was looking for symbols of the Mass.

CHUCK: Yeats was a Protestant with a leaning toward Theosophy. He was all against Catholic Ireland.

SPOOKY: That was only incidental criticism. I think there can be no question that he was always a crypto-Catholic. I could show it to you in poem after poem: Kiltartan Cross in the Airman, the Nativity in Among School Children. But that’s not what’s important here—it’s the homosexual thing.

CHUCK: What homosexual thing?

SPOOKY: Oh, my dear boy, it’s all there! The poem is crammed with homosexual allusions. The wild swans—Wilde—remember that Yeats knew Oscar—we don’t know how well. And swans—that refers to Proust. Swann’s Way had come out in 1919—just six years before the poem.

CHUCK: Yeats didn’t read French.

SPOOKY: He had his ways: Arthur Symons.

WINSLOW: There’s the phone. (It has not been heard.) Excuse me, Ned. Rehearsal tomorrow, remember.

SPOOKY: I’ll be there.

Winslow goes into the study, closing the door.

CHUCK: That’s all a lot of crap, Spooky.

SPOOKY: Well, give it a close reading. Are the wild swans really swans? There’s no mention of any females—nothing about eggs or cygnets? (He reads flatly, with no regard for the poetry.)

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cool
Companionable streams or climb the air.”

Lover by lover,” you notice.

Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?”

Delight men’s eyes.” You see. The swans are, of course, young men, and Yeats is quite specific about them. He tells us that there are “nine and fifty swans”—that is, fifty-nine young men. This is of great biographical interest. And then, of course, the wild swans of Hans Christian Andersen, who were all, you remember, young princes. And Andersen himself was a homosexual.

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