The Manuscript of The Telltale - MSS 20

MSS 20 (MSS-20/01r and following)

R. A. Foakes, Peter Beal, and Grace Ioppolo

The early history of the manuscript of The Telltale is not known, but the manuscript is mentioned by Edmond Malone in his Supplement to the Edition of Shakespeare’s Plays published in 1778 (printed in 1780), volume I, p. 61, only because it was then wrapped in the ‘plot’ of The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins. It perhaps still lay in this cover in 1821, when an account of the ‘plot’ was printed in Boswell’s expansion of Malone’s edition of The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, volume III, p. 350, but the ‘plot’ and the play were listed as separate items in the sale catalogue of Boswell’s library in 1825. According to a note by Thomas Jenyns Smith now bound with the play, both items were claimed by the College authorities and restored to them before the sale. Some time after this happened the play was bound as a separate volume, most likely by George Warner when he catalogued the archive in the 1880's.

This volume has a modern foliation inserted in pencil, but Folio 1 is a leaf which clearly has nothing to do with the play. It is of a different paper from the rest, is inscribed ‘The Booke and platt of the Second part of the 7 deadly sinns’ in the same hand in which the rest of the ‘plot’ is written, and as W. W. Greg argued in his Dramatic Documents from the Elizabethan Playhouses (1931), p. 106, very probably formed part of this at one time. The play occupies twelve sheets of paper, folded once to give a page measuring up to 12 ¼ by nearly 8 inches. The manuscript is in very good condition and is affected by damage only at the inner top corner of the first page. The text is written in one hand, a clear and fairly neat English hand with some admixture of Italian forms. The play is divided into acts, but there is no heading for Act I; scenes are not indicated in the original. Act-headings and many stage-directions are centred; other directions are usually written in the right margin, but there are a few in the left margin.

There are four points of special interest about the manuscript. First, in the left margin, opposite the first speech assigned to the Duke of Florence, is written in a large hand and enclosed in rules the word mine. George F. Warner suggested in his Catalogue of the Manuscripts and Muniments of Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift at Dulwich (1881) that the manuscript may at one time have belonged to an actor who played the Duke, but this is unlikely for numerous reasons, an obvious one being that the text is incomplete.

A second point of interest is a gap of some length in the text of Act IV; the break apparently occurs in the middle of line 1818, and the writer resumed in the middle of a scene. He seems not to have known, or perhaps did not bother to estimate accurately, the extent of the missing material, for he resumed at the head of a fresh sheet without numbering it. Well over 2 ½ pages of Sheet 9 are left blank. As Greg observed, the lacuna, and the scribe’s ignorance of its extent, suggest a copyist rather than the author. There are other small indications that the manuscript is a copy: the most important of these is the number of anticipations of words or even lines.

A third point of interest is the presence of the unusual stage direction "Exiturus" = "making as if to leave" at line 567. This direction occurs in five plays by George Chapman, one by Nathaniel Field, one by Thomas Middleton and John Webster, and one by John Clavell, the earliest of these being Chapman's May Day (1602).[1]

Lastly, at the end of the text, next to the word ffinis is a monogram containing the letters ‘NLcos’ which would perhaps make up the name NICHOLAS. This monogram is certainly that of the scribe rather than the author. Professional scribes and notaries, particularly members of the Society of Scriveners, would sometimes sign their work in this way, or with paraphs or other devices. Yet it is unusual to find freelance scribes, such as those employed by playhouses, ever identifying themselves in this period (Ralph Crane, who copied some of Shakespeare’s plays for the First Folio, is a notable exception). ‘Nicholas’ offers us another, this time puzzling, exception, and other manuscripts in his fairly distinctive secretary hand, dating perhaps as late as the 1630s, have yet to come to light.

In the lack of further evidence, the play must be recorded as of unknown authorship and of uncertain date. The general tone of the play, and its imitation of a Fletcherian manner, for instance in the treatment of the soldiers, point to a latish date, well after 1605. Some time about this year suggests itself as an absolute terminus a quo in view of the apparent imitation in The Telltale of themes used in plays written between 1600 and 1605, firstly the purging of Garullo, which seems to echo Poetaster, and secondly the theme of the ruler who leaves his state on an excuse, and returns in disguise to inspect it, which is reminiscent of plays such as Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, Middleton’s The Phoenix, Marston’s The Malcontent, most of all perhaps John Day’s Law Tricks. One small point might be used as evidence of multiple authorship: there are changes of spelling in the names of two characters, Hortensio (folios 1-6), who becomes Hortenza(sa) on his entry at line 804 and Hortenzo from line 1718, and Garullo, who becomes Garettzo or Garettzi at line 781 but Garullo again from line 1251 onwards.

How the manuscript came to Dulwich College is not clear, as the play does not appear to have a known connection with Edward Alleyn, although it may have been in the repertory of one of his companies or performed at the Fortune theatre. It is possible that the manuscript was bequeathed to Dulwich College by the Stuart and Restoration actor, company manager, and bibliophile William Cartwright the younger, son of one of Alleyn’s acting colleagues and close friends. According to the terms of his 1685 will, Cartwright’s estate included ‘about 100 Manu Scripts of plaies’, which along with his folios, quartos and other books had been appraised by William Brook and Rowland Reynolds for £37 15s (the equivalent of £5588 in today’s money) on January 14, 1686, and which were to be left to Dulwich College.

Cartwright’s portraits of early modern and Restoration actors formed the basis for the Dulwich Picture Gallery and can still be found there. However, his collection of printed and manuscript plays appears to have been dispersed in the 18th and 19th centuries to visitors to Dulwich College such as David Garrick, George Steevens, Edmond Malone, John Payne Collier and James Orchard Halliwell-Phillips, all of whom borrowed from the library, and often did not return, documents and books which offered them some insight into the ‘Shakespearean’ age of drama. As noted above, it was only because the manuscript of The Telltale was bound up with the plot of The Second Part of the Seven Deadly Sins that it was returned to the College from an auction of the library of Boswell (and thus of Malone, for whom Boswell was literary executor). At least one other pre-1640 play manuscript, The Wizard (British Library Additional 10306), carries a note that it was removed from Dulwich College by David Garrick. How many others Garrick removed is not yet known, but it is likely that nearly all of the one hundred play manuscripts donated to Dulwich College by Cartwright were eventually, and indirectly, donated or auctioned to public and private libraries throughout the UK and the USA, where they remain.


1.On such directions, see Alan C. Dessen and Leslie Thomson, A Dictionary of Stage Directions in English Drama, 1580-1642. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). Back to context...