This quarto of Fair Em, a comedy about William the Conqueror and a miller’s daughter, was printed in 1631. Like other plays recently featured, Fair Em falls in the category of Shakespearean “apocrypha,” plays once thought to be Shakespeare’s but now comfortably deemed to be not—or not as much as other plays, like Hamlet or King Lear, are deemed to be Shakespeare’s. Such plays are interesting and significant for the ways they prompt us to think about what we mean when we talk about Shakespeare—what we enlist that name, author, and cultural icon to represent for us today.
Equally interesting, though, are the unpredictably diverging histories, tracing a path from printing houses to personal libraries and back, in some cases, to printing houses, that lead such plays as Fair Em, Arden of Faversham, and Thomas Lord Cromwell to the edge of attribution. In this, Fair Em is especially remarkable; it, along with two other plays we will look at, Mucedorus and The Merry Devil of Edmonton, was discovered in the personal library of King Charles II, bound in a single volume upon which was written “Shakespeare Vol. 1.”