The Dering Manuscript
The earliest manuscript of Shakespeare’s plays
By John Jowett. Presented by The Folger Shakespeare Library
Sir Edward Dering’s 1623 manuscript entitled “The History of Henrie the fourth” is the earliest surviving play manuscript based on Shakespeare’s dramatic works.
Dering reshaped the two parts of Henry IV into one. In this website his planned production will be placed in the context of his interests in seeing plays in the London theatres, and his efforts to build an impressive personal library that included as many editions of plays as Dering could obtain.
Dering planned a private household performance of Shakespeare at his rural manor in late Jacobean Kent. The manuscript is an exceptional example of plays from the professional theatre companies finding new performance conditions outside London.
Dering’s adaptation also has singular significance in terms of the life of its originator, and in terms of the cultural politics of the late Jacobean period. We will explore the tension between the allurements of private life and the call of public duty as a theme reflected in Dering’s own public and political career.
The manuscript richly illuminates our understanding of the cultural and political uses of Shakespeare in the early 1620s, a period witnessing intensive political polarization along lines of religious affiliation as the Thirty Years’ War began to take its toll in mainland Europe.
The manuscript shows in fine-grained detail a collaboration between Dering and a Kentish vicar who acted as his scribe.
Above all, this project will put the manuscript itself under the microscope, presenting “The History of Henrie the fourth” as a document that tells a story about its own making.
Explore the Manuscript
The attribution to Shakespeare reflects his authorship of 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV, but what you see is Edward Dering’s adaptation in the hands of his scribe Carington and Dering himself.
An Early Adaptation of Shakespeare
Dering’s “The History of King Henrie the fourth” is the first textual conjunction of the two parts of Henry IV, and the first adaptation to conflate and redact any two Shakespeare plays. It also has singular significance in terms of the life of its originator, and in terms of the cultural politics of the late Jacobean period. This project will introduce Dering as the figure mainly responsible for the reshaping of Shakespeare’s two plays into one, and will place his planned production in the context of his interests in the London theatre and in the collection of books. It will also reflect on the play’s concern with the tension between the allurements of private life and the call of public duty as a theme reflected in Dering’s own public and political career. It emerges as a document that significantly illuminates our understanding of the cultural and political uses of Shakespeare in the early 1620s, a period witnessing intensive political polarization along lines of religious affiliation as the Thirty Years’ War began to take its toll in mainland Europe. But above all, this project will put the manuscript itself under the microscope, presenting “The History of Henrie the fourth” as a document that tells a story about its own making, and about its role in planning a private household performance of Shakespeare at a rural manor in late Jacobean Kent.
The manuscript reduces Shakespeare’s two parts into a single play of 3401 lines. Dering cuts about 11% of 1 Henry IV, and adds scenes mainly from the political plot of 2 Henry IV that amount to about 25% of that play.1 The idea of making a seamless single play out of two was, as far as we can tell, that of Dering himself. There are no other known examples of such a conflation of a two-part play before the Restoration, when it became an accepted technique for adapting Shakespeare to the new theatrical environment, as seen in plays such as William Davenant’s 1662 Law Against Lovers, which is a mash-up of Measure for Measure and Much Ado About Nothing, or Aphra Behn’s The Counterfeit Bridegroom (1677), which is based largely on scenes from Thomas Middleton’s No Wit/Help Like a Woman’s and his More Dissemblers Besides Women
In print, Shakespeare’s history plays had remained popular in the Jacobean period.2 Publishers such as Andrew Wise and Thomas Millington had been publishing two or more serial Shakespeare history plays for some years.3 In a new development, Thomas Pavier, with William Jaggard, had issued the plays we now know as the second and third parts of Henry VI under the joint title of The Whole Contention between the Two Famous Houses Lancaster and York in 1619. This venture may have given Dering food for thought, though the two plays remain presented as separate works, and they are a constituent part of a larger 1619 collection of Shakespeare quartos. Similarly, the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays puts all the English history plays in a single sequence in a single sequence by the date of the events, and publishes the two parts of Henry IV as a sub-sequence under their now-familiar names. The Folio was published more than six months after Dering’s adaptation, but it is at least possible that Dering had known about the plans for the volume.
Dering’s Henry IV therefore belongs to a new phase in the collocation of Shakespeare’s history plays that is seen elsewhere in the realm of print. Nevertheless, Dering’s initiative in combining the two parts of the duology into one play, in other words one unit of performance, is without precedent. It is also without a known later analogy before F.U.L. Schröder’s German adaptation Heinrich der Vierte of 1782.4
The present project is an exercise in presenting and interpreting a document that few people have commented on and even fewer have seen at first hand. Housed in the Folger Shakespeare Library, it is a restricted item, meaning that it requires special permission to inspect it. This high level of protection acknowledges the significance of the document. The provision of digital resources acts as a conservation measure because it makes inspection of the original unnecessary for all but the most specialist of purposes. High quality page-by-page images of the entire manuscript are available in Folger Digital Images. The present project examines the manuscript selectively, providing images that illustrate the various topics that come under review. As an act of interpretation and commentary it complements the Folger’s image set. Users of this project are therefore encouraged to explore the full set of images. Meanwhile, the present digital resource will show as well as tell, and interpret as well as display.
NEXT: Learn about Sir Edward Dering and the history of the Dering Manuscript.