Albertus Magnus: The Lost Play – or – Finding a Place for Shakespeare’s Catholic Wizard
  Up Late    April 1, 2016     Eric Larkin




I think it was John Barton – the great Bard guru – who said Shakespeare is for actors not for scholars. But it was scholars who unearthed this hitherto unknown play and have spent the last few years arguing for and against its authenticity, in journals and in proverbial – maybe literal – smoky back rooms. Now that the matter seems settled (in a fairly universal “for” direction), it remains for actors (and other theater types) to help Albertus Magnus find its light, so to speak. It needs to be seen to be appreciated.


Back in my days as an actor, I remember trawling thru the more obscure plays, looking for scenes and speeches I hadn’t already seen a billion times. I mean, if anyone is repeatable, it’s ol’ Bill; there is always a new depth, an unlooked for clue, a fresh insight you’d missed, but still…. You can only hear “Is this a dagger” in acting classes so many times before wanting to fall on one. At one point I resorted to doing Hamlet speeches in Klingon, just to get away from the familiar vocal cadences that had been squished into my aural crannies by pop over-usages. I’m not saying it worked; I’m saying I was that desperate. (Actually, it was an interesting exercise.) So, to have brand new Shakespeare, top flight stuff by all accounts, is like discovering… well, it’s the kind of superlatively amazeballs discovery other discoveries would be compared to. Finding a new Beatles album, a new Van Gogh, a new Frank Lloyd Wright (“Wait… has this building always been here?”) should be like finding new Shakespeare. So to what do we compare finding new Shakespeare? No idea, but at least I can stop pacing my living room, spitting “taH pagh taHbe’!”


Historically, Albertus Magnus was a Dominican bishop, later sainted, famous for several reasons: he was St. Thomas Aquinas’ teacher, he did extensive work with Greek & Muslim philosophy (mostly Aristotle), and he was later – mostly incorrectly – viewed as an alchemist, and therefore a sort of magician/wizard/warlock. The play takes place in Germany, where Albert spent most of his career, and is the story of a fictitious incident wherein a corrupt local merchant accuses him of sorcery, so he can extract revenge on Albert for encouraging his son to be a scholar, rather than follow in the family business. Also, he wants the land upon which Albert’s “school” sits. A subplot follows one of Albert’s pupils (possibly a disguised Thomas Aquinas) who falls in love with the merchant’s daughter – etc.. It has characteristics you would expect from Shakespeare, but also a few odd features. These include: a setting in Germany, a relatively large amount of religious and philosophical content, and most importantly, highly sympathetic Catholic characters. Also, Albert is a bit wizardy, while not being a fantastical character, like Prospero. For instance, at one point he speaks with the famous “brazen head“, in what is reportedly a really funny scene.


Like with the portrayal of a monarch, you had to be extremely careful in dealing with religious subjects during Shakespeare’s time. England was Protestant; Catholics were jailed or killed. So, you could have Catholic characters, but best to locate them somewhere and sometime else (Italy worked, or in this case, pre-Reformation Germany). And you’d better not be too detailed or extensive about the doctrines. If you have a Catholic character, he can be sympathetic, but not overly important, like say Friar Lawrence in Romeo & Juliet – means well, bit of a meddler, bit of a bungler.


Now, it’s interesting to note that, though not proven, Shakespeare may have been a closet Catholic.  Thus, he may have had some motivation to tell stories about great men of the Church. Initially, there was some thought that the play could have been written by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, specifically Webster, Dekker or even Ben Johnson, but the Catholic inclinations and the language, which compares well to works from about 1599 – 1605, make it difficult to attribute it to anyone but Shakespeare. If it quacketh like a duck…. [groan]


Globe Theatre photo Alison Sanfacon

Globe Theatre photo Alison Sanfacon

How Shakespeare tries to get away with turning a hugely important Catholic figure into a protagonist, without getting his head doffed from his shoulders, is to emphasize Albert’s philosophical work (both the classical Greek philosophy and “natural philosophy” which was the medieval version of science) over any theology. When any theology does come up, he kinda pushes it over against the wizardry. So, the great philosopher’s tragic flaw would be his Catholicism/witchcraft. Ta-da! Plausible deniability. (Of course, medieval natural philosophy (science) looks an awful lot like magick – eg alchemy – to us, so it is a pretty subtle effect, from our point of view.) He may not have been happy about having to do this, but certainly it was better than being lit on fire. Perhaps he wrote this play to test the waters, with bigger, even more daring ideas in the back of his head. Sometimes just the act of doing theater at all could get you in trouble, so anyone in theatre had a predilection for taking risks. But it seems this was not enough, and this may be why the play was buried. There is almost no distinct mention of it anywhere. Let’s imagine he floats it out for his company, and the response is not great, so he shelves it – and it just never gets produced.


In any case, these days we are free from being lit on fire for our Catholic or non-Catholic practices (at least for the moment), so Albertus Magnus can ride either the “Holy cow – new Shakes” wave or the “anything with wizards” wave – or both – to a nice cozy place in the canon. And, if we’re lucky, we’ll get a whole mess of new, high quality Shakespeare productions. And – thank God and all the Saints – new scenes and speeches for our young acting students.


Albertus Magnus


[interactive copyright notice]
Dwarf + Giant