Murder mystery of Shakespeare and the play that got away

With this week marking the anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, Martin Hickes dusts down a literary mystery.

THE Broad Acres might traditionally seem to be as remote from the Bard as the Globe Theatre is from Stratford.

However, for decades Shakespeare devotees have been puzzling as to whether A Yorkshire Tragedy, published by a W Shakespeare exactly 400 years ago in 1608, should be accepted into the lesser fringes of the great man's literary canon or whether it was more likely written by the hand of a contemporary playwright, Thomas Middleton.

The bloody events of the play, which recount the true history of a desperate man's murder of his two sons and attack upon his wife at Yorkshire's Calverley Old Hall in the 1600s, form the basis of one of the best and puzzling literary mysteries from the period.

While relatively little is still known about the glover's son from Stratford, who died in 1616, it's largely – but not wholly – accepted now that Shakespeare penned the 38 plays which form the First Folio, originals of which are now worth more than $6m at auction.

However, outside this traditional canon lie a range of genuinely "lost" plays – those which are broadly believed to be by Shakespeare, and which were performed at least once in theatres in Elizabethan England.

The little known Cardenio, which became the elusive subject of JL Carrell's Da Vinci Code-style film Shakespeare's Secret, along with Love's Labours Won would fetch millions on the open market if ever found in real life. But even beyond this literary fringe are a number of apocryphal plays, among them A Yorkshire Tragedy, which may tantalisingly exhibit the words of the language's greatest literary genius alongside collaborative playwrights.

"A Yorkshire Tragedy recounts the bloody goings on at Calverley Hall in Yorkshire 1605," says Professor Lisa Hopkins, from the English faculty of Sheffield Hallam University. "On April 23, Walter Calverley killed his two elder sons, aged four and about 18 months, and seriously wounded his wife. He then rode off to where his youngest son was being wet-nursed to kill him too but was arrested en route.

"He initially claimed that he thought his wife was having an affair but at the actual trial at York Castle he refused to plead so was pressed to death. There was some sense to this because if you died without pleading guilty your estate was not forfeit, and his surviving son did indeed inherit.

"The crimes were a well-known scandal of the day and the murders were also dramatised in a play titled The Miseries of Enforced Marriage by George Wilkins who probably knew Shakespeare and who may have worked with him on Pericles.

"While some early critics allowed the possibility of Shakespeare's authorship, most, have doubted the attribution. The modern critical consensus favours the view that the play was written by Thomas Middleton, a well known playwright of the time.

"In theory it should be easy to say what Shakespeare did and didn't write because seven years after his death, his fellow actors Heminges and Condell put together a collection of his complete plays – the First Folio. However, we're only just coming to understand the extent to which he sometimes worked collaboratively on plays, so there's still a lot of scholarly debate."

While the grisly 17th century activities at Calverley Hall are not in doubt, there is debate about how far and how quickly the news would have spread.

"The thriving print industry in London would regularly produce sensational accounts of this kind of 'news' from the provinces," says Dr Christopher Burlinson, an expert in drama from the period, at University of Cambridge. "A story like this would certainly end up being talked about on the streets of London.

"Scholars have been trying to use electronic means to discover 'the hand of Shakespeare' for a number of years: using computers to search for patterns of language and literary style that might provide evidence.

"It's not impossible that these means will increasingly help us to answer questions about the authorship of these para-Shakespearean texts although ironically they're also being used to dispute the Shakespearean status of some texts that had naturally been assumed to be his."

While Prof Hopkins remains to be convinced of Shakespeare's involvement in A Yorkshire Tragedy, the mystery will no doubt continue. Not least because Sir Walter's ghost is still said to haunt Calverley Old Hall brandishing a bloodstained knife – and his tortured spirit reportedly continues to be seen on horseback in the surrounding countryside.