(Dalya Alberge’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/7/2024; A 1610 portrait of William Shakespeare. Darren Freebury-Jones said that Shakespeare, ‘being a genius, takes another dramatist’s feathers and transforms them into a peacock’. Photograph: Akademie/Alamy.)

Exclusive: lecturer finds ‘striking similarities’ between lines in Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour and later Shakespeare works

He was an actor, as well as the greatest dramatist of all time, but no one has been able to name with certainty a single role that William Shakespeare performed himself.

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

Dr Darren Freebury-Jones, a lecturer in Shakespeare studies at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, has discovered “striking similarities” between phrases recited by Thorello in Every Man in His Humour and those in Shakespeare’s Othello, Hamlet and Twelfth Night – all written between 1600 and 1603.

He told the Guardian: “What I’ve found are some really interesting connections in terms of language, which suggest that Shakespeare was, perhaps unconsciously, remembering his own lines.”

Elizabethan actors generally did not have copies of an entire play. Instead, their scripts were limited to their particular lines and their cues – just the last few words of preceding speeches.

Freebury-Jones said: “Players like Shakespeare would therefore need to be alert during performance, relying heavily on their aural understanding. So there was a real emphasis on listening during the period …

“The grammatical patterning and likenesses of thought between his lines and those of Thorello – renamed Kitely in Jonson’s revision – suggest that Shakespeare was intimately familiar with that role. But Shakespeare, being a genius, takes another dramatist’s feathers and transforms them into a peacock.”

Singling out examples, Freebury-Jones said: “In Jonson’s play, you’ve got Bianca, unfortunate wife of the jealous Thorello, who suspects she’s having an affair. She says: ‘For God’s sake, sweetheart, come in out of the air,’ to which Thorello responds with an aside: ‘How simple and how subtle are her answers?’

“In Hamlet, Polonius asks: ‘Will you walk out of the air, my lord?’, to which Hamlet responds: ‘Into my grave.’ Polonius says: ‘Indeed, that is out o’th’ air.’ He then offers an aside: ‘How pregnant sometimes his replies are.’ The corresponding structures and similarities in context are striking. Is this a case of Shakespeare remembering one of his cue-lines and an aside?”

He added: “Shakespeare seems to have recalled another of Thorello’s asides: ‘Spite of the devil, how they sting my heart,’ for Maria’s speech in Twelfth Night: ‘La you, an you speak ill of the devil, how he takes it at heart.’

“The grammatical structure is very similar and the unique word string, ‘of the devil how’, embraces the noun ‘heart’. Are we witnessing Shakespeare’s recall of lines he delivered on stage here?

A 1834 drawing of Polonius and Hamlet by the French artist Eugène Delacroix. Photograph: Heritage Art/Getty Images

“Shakespeare also remembered Thorello’s line: ‘They would give out, because my wife is fair,’ when he depicted Othello’s destructive jealousy: ‘’Tis not to make me jealous / To say my wife is fair.’ Shakespeare inverts Thorello’s comic jealousy in his similarly named tragic protagonist Othello.”

Freebury-Jones found that other comparative phrases were “nowhere near as contextually interesting as those shared with Thorello”.

He observed that scholars had not been certain of any particular roles that Shakespeare took as an actor: “There’s oral traditions connecting him to the role of the ghost of Hamlet’s father and an old man named Adam in As You Like It.

“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.

“We also know he acted in two plays by Jonson, as a cast list printed in the 1616 Jonson Folio shows that Shakespeare was one of the principal players in Every Man in His Humour and that he was also listed among the principal tragedians in Sejanus [His Fall]. But again the documentary evidence does not specify roles.”

He said: “I can’t say that Shakespeare definitely played Thorello, but this is new evidence. No one’s ever discovered it before. I think it makes an interesting, quite compelling case.

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