(Dalya Alberge’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/23.)
An almost unknown sonnet in the playbook or script of a 1603 play by Ben Jonson could be a “lost” work by William Shakespeare, according to two leading scholars.
Beyond “compelling” stylistic evidence, the sonnet, titled To the Deserving Author, is signed with the mysterious pseudonym Cygnus, after the mythical figure who was turned into a swan – evoking Jonson’s very own tribute to Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon as the “Sweet Swan of Avon”.
Dr Chris Laoutaris, an associate professor of Shakespeare and early modern drama at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, told the Guardian: “This is how Jonson referred to him in his long poem in honour of the playwright in the first folio mourning Shakespeare’s ‘flight’ as the swan, whose living presence shall never again grace England’s stages.”
The sonnet is within the playbook of Jonson’s Sejanus: His Fall, a tragic play set in ancient Rome, in which Shakespeare had acted.
It shares a page with a ditty by Hugh Holland, who also dedicated a commemorative verse to Shakespeare in the first folio.
Laoutaris said that while both sonnets paid tribute to Jonson, they were “very different”. For example, Holland addresses Jonson with the more formal “you” throughout, whereas Cygnus uses the informal “thou”, the form favoured by Shakespeare in his sonnets.
He said: “It’s tantalising. There are so many parallels with Shakespeare’s style that it must surely make even the most hardened sceptic pause and think.”