Shakespeare acted in the 1598 play Ben Jonson, scholar's analysis finds | William Shakespeare

He was an actor and one of the greatest playwrights of all time, but no one can definitively name a role played by William Shakespeare himself.

A leading scholar has now concluded from a linguistic analysis that Shakespeare played an obsessively jealous husband in a 1598 play by fellow playwright Ben Jonson.

Dr Darren Freebury-Jones, lecturer in Shakespearean studies at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford, has found „striking similarities” between phrases recited by Thorello in his comedy Everyman and phrases in Shakespeare's Othello, Hamlet and the Twelve. – All written between 1600 and 1603.

He told the Guardian: „What I found were very interesting connections in terms of language, which suggest that Shakespeare, perhaps unconsciously, remembered his own lines.”

Ben Jonson depicted in an oil painting. Photo: InCameraStock/Alamy

Elizabethan actors usually did not have copies of an entire play. Instead, their scripts are limited to their specific lines and their notes—only the last few words of earlier texts.

Freebury-Jones said: „Players like Shakespeare had to be alert during performance, relying heavily on their auditory understanding. So there was a real importance to listening in that period…

„The grammatical patterns and similarities of thought between his lines and those of Thorello, renamed Keightley in Jonson's revision, suggest that Shakespeare was familiar with the character. But Shakespeare, being a genius, takes another playwright's feathers and turns them into a peacock.

Citing examples, Freebury-Jones said: “In Jonson's play, you have Bianca, the unfortunate wife of a jealous Thorello, who suspects he is having an affair. She says: 'For God's sake, love, come out of the air,' to which Thorello quips: 'How simple and how subtle are her answers?'

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„In Hamlet, Polonius asks: 'Will you, my lord, out of the air?', to which Hamlet replies: 'Into my grave.' Polonius says: 'Truly, it is out of the air.' Then he makes an aside: 'How pregnant are sometimes his answers.' The similarities in relational structures and context are striking.Would this be Shakespeare's recollection of one of his lines, let alone one?

He added: „Shakespeare recalls another of Thorello's refrains: 'In spite of the devil, how they bite my heart,' to Maria's speech in Twelfth Night: 'La you, you speak ill of the devil, how he takes it. In the heart.'

„The grammatical structure is very similar and the unique word string, 'devil how', embraces the noun 'heart.'” Do we see Shakespeare here recalling lines delivered on stage?

An 1834 painting of Polonius and Hamlet by the French artist Eugène Delacroix. Photo: Heritage Art/Getty Images

Shakespeare also recalls Thorello's lines: 'Because my wife is fair, they will give out,' when he depicts Othello's destructive jealousy: „It is not to envy me / To say my wife is fair.” Shakespeare transforms Thorello's comedic jealousy into his tragic hero of the same name, Othello.

Freebury-Jones finds other comparative phrases „nowhere near as contextually interesting as those shared with Thorello”.

He observes that scholars are not sure which specific roles Shakespeare took on as an actor: “In As You Like It there are oral traditions that connect him with the role of Hamlet's father and the ghost of an old man named Adam.

„We know he acted in his own plays because the 1623 First Folio tells us, but it does not confirm any specific role he took.

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„We also know that he acted in two of Jonson's plays from a cast list printed in the 1616 Jonson Folio. [His Fall]. But again documentary evidence does not specify roles.

He said: „I can't say for sure that Shakespeare played Thorello, but this is new evidence. No one has ever found it. I think it makes an interesting, very compelling case.

“It is a pleasure to draw attention to Shakespeare as an actor and a playwright. Acting was absolutely crucial to his literary career.

His findings will be featured in his forthcoming book titled Shakespeare's Borrowed Feathers: How Early Modern Playwrights Shaped the World's Greatest Author, to be published by Manchester University Press in October. It explores Shakespeare's relationships with other playwrights, their influences and collaborations.

The research involved an electronic database called „colloquials and n-grams,” which compared the texts of more than 500 plays from 1552 to 1657 to show whether certain phrases were rare or unique.

For example, Fribury-Jones established that Jonson and Shakespeare were „out of the air … how” in that database.

Modern technology can transport us to the past, perhaps „Shakespeare treading the boards,” he said.

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