Elizabeth Jordan, our ASC Theatre Camp Session 1 dramaturg, is a graduate of the University of Houston and holds a BFA in Theatre Dramaturgy. Elizabeth worked as the Literary Associate for the Landing Theatre Company and has completed dramaturgical work for the Houston Shakespeare Festival and the Classical Theatre Company. She also served as the New Play Coordinator for the Dorset Theatre Festival. Elizabeth is currently working on all three of our Session 1 plays, including Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, The Tempest, and the anonymous play, Fair Em. Elizabeth shares some intriguing information about Fair Em in her post below. Stayed tuned for more posts from our camp dramaturgs about our other 2014 camp shows.
- Kim Newton, Camp Director
Why isn’t Fair Em in my Shakespeare anthology? Who is ‘Anonymous’?
You’re excited about Session 1 and want to get a sneak peek on the upcoming plays, yet every time you Google “Shakespeare’s Fair Em,” nothing sufficient pops up. That is because Fair Em is an anonymous play, likely written in 1590 or 1591. Scholars have tried to pinpoint a single author of Fair Em, but due to its elusive history, no certain evidence exists about the play’s authorship. What we do know is that Fair Em was originally performed by a prominent Elizabethan acting troupe called the Lord Strange’s Men (1576-1594).1 In the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, companies of performers produced plays, under the license of royal or noble patrons. The actors worked collaboratively on blocking and other staging considerations, and the company would often have only a few days to rehearse before performing at the public playhouses or at the royal court. In the early 1590s, at the time of Fair Em‘s composition, Shakespeare was a member of Lord Strange’s Men, and he later became a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.1 Scholars have also suggested other playwrights who might have written Fair Em, including Robert Wilson and Anthony Munday.
Source Material for Fair Em
The source for Fair Em is “The Blind Beggar’s Daughter of Bednall-Green,” a ballad that was popular during the reign of Queen Elizabeth.2 The ballad tells the story of Bessie, an innocent young woman of poor parentage who leaves home. On her own, she gains four suitors of varying social statuses. Bessie chooses the most faithful of the lovers and brings him home to gain the blessing of her father, a blind beggar. In the second part of the ballad, Bessie has her wedding feast among the nobles of the country. Her father disguises himself and reveals at the party that Bessie is actually of noble birth. Lord Strange’s Men revived these characters from the ballad in the story of Fair Em.
The script we are performing at the ASC Theatre Camp this summer has many more twists and turns. Fair Em contains a split plot with the main story focusing on William the Conqueror’s quest for love in the Danish court. William’s character is based off of the historical William the Conqueror, the first Norman King of England. William travels to the court of King Zweno in pursuit of the princess Blanch. William instead becomes enamored of Mariana, a Swedish princess who is already betrothed to the Marques of Lubeck. Together, Blanch and Mariana devise a plan to trick William, and he ends up taking the wrong princess back to England.
Meanwhile, three suitors, Valingford, Mountney, and Manvile, pursue Em, the beautiful daughter of the Miller of Manchester. Preferring Manvile, she pretends blindness to evade Valingford and deafness to avoid Mountney. Ultimately, Manvile proves unfaithful to Em, then loses both of the other women he pursues. Em marries Valingford, the one of the three who has remained true to her.
In the end, the Miller of Manchester reveals himself as Sir Thomas Goddard; both he and Em are of the gentry class. The two plots come together as William recognizes that Goddard’s banishment was unjust and revokes it. Em makes William realize that the world does contain virtuous women, which helps to reconcile him with Blanch.
What records do we have?
The story of Fair Em has been largely overlooked for over 400 years. Originally, this play was found in the libraries of King Charles I and King Charles II, bound in a book called Shakespeare Vol. I along with several other plays wrongly attributed to Shakespeare, including Mucedorus and The Merry Devil of Edmonton. Later, Shakespeare Vol. I. fell into the hands of David Garrick, a famous Shakespearean actor and director of the 18th century. By 1840, the volume was split up when transferred to the British Museum.3
Scholars now recognize that Shakespeare had an active role in writing plays not found in the 1623 First Folio of his works. Popular opinion groups these co-authored plays together with others of curious attribution, known collectively as the Shakespeare Apocrypha. Several of these early plays, including Fair Em, can be considered Romance Histories, a genre that incorporates historical personages in entirely imaginary and comic frameworks.4 Even though we do not have enough evidence to identify its true author, Fair Em reveals much about the theatrical world in which Shakespeare lived and wrote, and its study encourages many intriguing questions as to how we keep and record the history of plays. I cannot wait to see this rarely produced play on its feet!
- Thaler, Alwin. “Faire Em (And Shakspere’s Company?) in Lancashire.” PMLA 46.3 (1931): 647-58. JSTOR. Web. 11 Mar. 2014. Published by: Modern Language Association.
- Mannel, George W. “The Source of the Immediate Plot of Faire Em.” Modern Language Notes 28.3 (1913): 80-82. JSTOR. Web. 11 Mar. 2014. Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Kirwan, Peter. “The First Collected “Shakespeare Apocrypha”” Shakespeare Quarterly 62.4 (2011): 594-601. JSTOR. Web. 11 Mar. 2014. Published by Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University.
- Dean, Paul. “Shakespeare’s Henry VI Trilogy and Elizabethan “Romance” Histories: The Origins of a Genre.” Shakespeare Quarterly 33.1 (1982): 34-48.JSTOR. Web. 11 Mar. 2014. Published by Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University.