Imagine the unexpected discovery of anonymous 16th century play which is at once moving, inspiring, many-faceted, entertaining, funny, tear-jerking, scholarly, streetwise, profound. A play which is at once tragic and comic, classical and Christian, humanist and low-life: a universal play, which reminds its watchers what it is to be human. If you were to ask anyone whether such a play might have been written by Lyly, Greene, Peele, Kyd, Marlowe or Shakespeare, the answer will be immediate – it must be Shakespeare. It is not just genius which sets him apart from his immediate contemporaries – it is his distinctively complex, multi-layered blueprint.
What has been sidelined for centuries, however, is the possibility that this blueprint was conceived, not by Shakespeare himself, certainly not by his English predecessors, but by the acknowledged educators of Europe – the Jesuits. Central to the revolutionary Jesuit system of education was drama, and that drama had certain qualities. It had to have a high moral purpose – to win spectators ‘from worldly vanity’. But it was far from pious. Its intended audience was often influential and mainly secular, and included both Protestant and Catholic, nobleman and artisan, an eager audience as it turned out who from the mid 16th to the mid 18th century packed the burgeoning Jesuit theatres across Europe from Prague to Messina, constantly demanding more, and pouring money into ever more lavish productions. The Jesuit mission was not simply to entertain, it was to instill a ‘world-friendly spirituality’ into ordinary people as well as emperors, in pursuit of the common good and a better society. They used the best writers they could find, ideally actors, and deployed them throughout their network of theatres to spread their winning method, incorporating both profane and spiritual into their work along with music and dance in order to promote the common good and what Ignatius called ‘the help of souls’.
If thousands of these plays were written, why do we know so little about them? Partly because, though some vernacular was used, on the whole they were written in the lingua franca, Latin; and partly because, rather like cinema today, these performances were seen as multi-sensory events, in which music, acting, scenery and direction were as important as the script, which was often discarded. In London however, where the precarious public theatre was viewed with suspicion and dislike by the Puritan authorities, a full, portable, self-explanatory and above all vernacular script was a lifeline to the survival of a play. It might seem extraordinary that Shakespeare’s works have never been connected with their natural source, the Jesuit school of drama, were it not for the later demonization, in England in particular, of everything to do with Ignatius. Literature scholars have always had difficulty relating Shakespeare’s fully formed dramatic virtuosity with the limited works of his predecessors. Their strengths are largely poetic, and have none of Shakespeare’s 3D technical skill and decisive moral purpose and depth.
The discovery of a first folio left behind by the Jesuit school at St Omer, annotated for performance, should not surprise us: though forged in the crucible of the English predicament, it was to the breadth, scope and experienced professionalism of the international Jesuit school of drama that it probably owed its existence in the first place .