In December 1692, the actor William Mountfort was walking home to London when he ran into two young men trying to kidnap a famous stage actress, who was also a close associate. The young actor bravely tried to intervene, but was brutally run through with a sword and died.
The murder led to a trial that caused a sensation among the public, especially since it intertwined the fates of a group of actors representing the work of William Shakespeare. Othello, but also because the real-life drama had haunting echoes of the play.
Now a version of othello from 1655 has come to light and includes, for the first time, the list of the unfortunate cast among its pages. Only about eight copies of this version, minus the cast list, are known to exist in the UK. All are in collections of the British Library and rarely come on the market. The last time one appeared was at auction at Sotheby’s in 1950.
That copy was bought for £170 by the Birmingham Public Library. The latest edition, purchased by rare book dealer Peter Harrington, is priced at £125,000.
“The court case is absolutely fascinating, with strong echoes of the plot of othellosaid Adam Douglas, a senior specialist at Peter Harrington. “Cast lists like this shed a powerful light not only on the productions themselves, but also on the complex interrelationships that developed between the actors.”
The real-life plot began when Anne Bracegirdle, one of the first ladies of the English stage, was walking home on London’s Strand after dinner. She had attracted the unwanted attentions of Captain Richard Hill, an army officer at the tender age of 16. With her accomplice Charles Mohun, 4th Baron Mohun, who was 17 years old, Hill tried to put Bracegirdle into a carriage, planning to take her away. and make it yours.
The plot was foiled when Mountfort stumbled upon the scene, but not without bloodshed. Mountfort not only knew Bracegirdle well; they were actors together in the same company acting othello in Drury Lane. She took on the role of Desdemona, Othello’s doomed wife, while Mountfort played Cassio, her loyal lieutenant.
The jealous Hill was convinced that Mountfort and Bracegirdle were in a relationship, and when the actor tried to intervene in the kidnapping, Hill killed him with his sword.
Hill fled first to the Isle of Wight to escape justice and then to France, leaving Mohun to stand trial before the House of Lords. His connections and his young age resulted in an acquittal, prompting the arrest of a journalist for writing that the evidence against him was “strong enough to hang a commoner.”
This rare edition of othello it dates from the interregnum, the period in history from the execution of Charles I in 1649 to the restoration of Charles II in 1660, when Oliver Cromwell, who led the Parliamentarian army in the English Civil War, banned all theater and drama.
The copy of the play survived until the 1690s, when the cast list of the United Company production was pasted onto it. The title role of Othello, the troublesome Moorish general who is persuaded to murder his beloved wife Desdemona by his malevolent ensign Iago, is taken by Thomas Betterton, the famous actor and manager who later made the role of “the Moor of Venice” his own. . .
The supporting role of Rodrigo, Othello’s rival for Desdemona’s attentions, was played by John Verbruggen, using the stage name Mr. Alexander, while Frances Maria Knight played Iago’s wife Emilia.
“On this previously unrecorded list of actors, we have several people involved in the murder case and the trial to follow,” Douglas said. “First, there’s Anne Bracegirdle, the central character in the kidnapping attempt, and of course, William Mountfort, the murdered actor who played the role of Cassio.”
In the play, Cassius is ambushed and nearly killed by Iago. In real life, Mountfort became the object of the killer’s jealousy.
“Then there is Frances Maria Knight, a witness to the murder, who gave evidence at the trial; and John Verbruggen, under his stage name Mr. Alexander, who later married Mountfort’s widow, playing Roderigo. He participates in the ambush and assassination attempt on Yago.
It was not until the Restoration in 1660 that the theater returned. this edition of othello it is believed to have been produced for theater-goers and was probably used in a clandestine production.
Douglas said: “Only three Shakespeare plays were published during the interregnum: The merchant of Venice, king lear and othello.
“Each one was published as a single playbook in quarter format. This small format was intended for theatergoers, so it’s interesting that they came out in a period when all theaters were closed by government order.
“It suggests that clandestine performances were taking place, with enough people seeing them to create a demand for the text. othello it was one of the first works publicly performed after the Restoration, so it also suggests its continued popularity.
This copy of the work is inscribed by a previous owner, M Raper, believed to be of the silk-trading Raper family, whose members in the late 17th century included brothers who were directors of the Bank of England. Douglas said: “We bought the book through the trade. It was initially purchased from a descendant of the family that held the volume together.”