Following today’s piece in The Observer, discussion will no doubt be starting about the claims being made by the new edition entitled Collaborative Plays by William Shakespeare and Others. The article, which highlights the claim of Shakespeare’s ‘fingerprints’ being ‘found’, conflates the actual research done with the normal media-friendly subheadings designed to catch an audience, so it’s understandable that there may well be excitement on one hand (“new Shakespeare!”) and disdain on the other (“publicity move”).
I’m one of the two Associate Editors on this volume, which started as a major AHRC-funded project that funded my PhD research, so the existence of and rationale for this volume is also responsible for allowing me to train as an academic. While this means my investment in the finished product is hardly disinterested, however, I do hope that the way in which the edition’s claims are reported in the media doesn’t detract from what could, I hope, be a significant intervention into understandings of early modern dramatic authorship.
The Shakespearean monolith dominates our field, unfairly and unhistorically, to a point that overshadows other kinds of work. This has resulted in all kinds of frustrating bias, overlooking of significant works and a prioritisation of one writer in a time and genre that rather subsumed authors to the collaborative project. ‘Shakespeare studies’ puts a skew on ‘early modern drama studies’ that is difficult to overcome. One of the most significant effects of this, I would argue, is the creation of the ‘Shakespeare Apocrypha’. In order to have a monolith, one needs to be able to distinguish the figure from the others that surround him. For the last century of scholarship, Shakespeare’s works have been divided, consciously and unconsciously, into two groups, ‘canon’ and ‘apocrypha’, the authorised and the spurious. The latter group includes plays attributed to Shakespeare in his lifetime but not included in the Folio; anonymous plays subsequently attributed to Shakespeare; and plays belonging to the King’s Men which have at some point been revised or expanded.
The division of works associated with Shakespeare into two groups in this way is pretty much unique in early modern drama to Shakespeare. The question of what is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of this particular club has unusual resonance because of the cultural investment in the figure of the Bard, in a way that the multiple collaborative, revised, plotted or partial works that figure in the canons of, say, Middleton, Dekker, Heywood, even Jonson don’t have to worry about. The whole existence of a ‘Shakespeare Apocrypha’ is, I argue, a means of providing a buffer zone between Shakespeare – the transcendent and contained author – and the fluid, messy, gloriously complex world of early modern playwriting.
But over the last thirty years or so, the shift to treat Shakespeare as a collaborative author has put strain on this model. Collaboration in Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen has been accepted for a long time, suggesting that these two plays which were excluded from the Folio may have been excluded on that basis; they are, perhaps, the exceptions that prove the rule. Collaboration has also, for centuries, been used as a get-out clause for suggesting that plays of a perceived lesser quality may be relieved from Shakespeare’s conscience – Titus, of course, being the prime example.
In recent decades, though, we’ve progressed a lot in our understanding of early modern dramatic authorship. The maligned/celebrated (delete as appropriate) computer-aided testing of plays to distinguish the hands of collaborators has brought some measure of scientific evidence to the idea that plays previously thought of as sole-authored documents contain multiple ‘hands’ (a phrasing I detest, but is common usage). Poststructuralist approaches to authorship, particularly tied in to manuscript and print culture and an understanding of the discursive circulation of texts, has made it very difficult to imagine any author working in perfect isolation, as the number of agents involved in creating a book has become ever more clear. And the fascinating moves in repertory studies towards understanding the ‘authorship’ of plays as geared in large part by the actors, playhouse, company’s interests, stock figures and motifs etc. throws any idea of independent artistic vision into chaos. To treat an authorial canon in isolation appears, in the light of these movements, to be deeply problematic.
Thus, partly prompted by the Oxford Shakespeare (1986) and by these various movements, the boundaries of the Shakespeare canon have begun dissolving. Depending on who you talk to, anything from a quarter to a third of the Shakespeare canon is now accepted as collaborative: Edward III, Henry VI, Macbeth, Measure for Measure, Pericles, Thomas More, Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus, The Two Noble Kinsmen, Double Falsehood– editions of Shakespeare are full of non-Shakespearean contributors. Personally, I’d like to go even further than this. It seems to me that the idea of author as monolith is restrictive. I prefer to see early modern dramatic authors either as memes – recurring throughout a disparate group of plays as linking figures or motifs, treating the author through the lens of genre theory – or as loci, radial points to which works tend more or less closely, and where there are no clear distinctions. Every time we see a play like Richard II (as ‘sole-authored’ as it gets) responding to Marlowe, or a play like The Winter’s Tale drawing on the sudden 1610 interest in bears that also influenced the revisers of Mucedorus and Jonson’s masque of Oberon, the Fairy Prince, we complicate our notions of authorship.
My one concern for the new edition would be that it would be seen to be trying to expand the Shakespeare canon by pulling more plays in. This is a risk. I hope it’s a risk that is mitigated by this volume’s clear distinction from the RSC Complete Works; this is very obviously a different book. But more importantly, I hope readers look past the publicity claims to see the multiple models of authorship that, I hope, go some way towards dispelling the notion of Shakespeare as monolith and instead situate him more closely in the collaborative textual and theatrical practices that we know were standard for early modern drama. In the bid to democratise study of the early modern dramatic canon, that is, I hope this edition points out how unexceptional Shakespeare was.
The plays we’ve included are, I think, a fascinating bunch, and many haven’t been edited decently for over a century. The claims should not shock anyone who’s been following authorship studies in this area over recent years. Thomas More, Edward III and Double Falsehood have all been included in major editions of Shakespeare already, and the ‘new’ claims in the Observer piece about Arden of Faversham, The Spanish Tragedy and Mucedorus are consolidated here rather than made for the first time (as Will Sharpe’s magisterial essay makes clear). Even in these six plays, it’s already established that you’re unlikely to find any discrete lines by Shakespeare in Double Falsehood, and the claims about Arden will – I hope – continue to be debated. But these are all plays that a substantial number of scholars believe reflect an authorial component by Shakespeare, and by editing them in full rather than by excerpting selected chunks, they purport to situate Shakespeare as a minor contributor within others’ works, a role which theatre historians are keen to assert was likely but of which they are often reluctant to propose examples.
The other four plays speak to Shakespeare’s early presence as a circulating name. The London Prodigal and A Yorkshire Tragedy were both published in Shakespeare’s lifetime, as played by Shakespeare’s company, with Shakespeare’s name on the title page from their first appearance. Locrine and Thomas Lord Cromwell were more ambiguously attributed to ‘W.S.’, but were definitely being treated as Shakespeare’s by the 1660s and 1630s respectively, and all four were part of Shakespeare’s complete works from 1664 until Alexander Pope’s edition of 1725, with many sporadic appearances thereafter. From a book history point of view alone, their circulation alongside the more established plays has been disrupted in accounts by the in/out binary division, which is unfortunate. Three of these plays were also part of Shakespeare’s company and clear influences on/influenced by his work, and in the case of Locrine there are legitimate arguments that Shakespeare may have written the epilogue, as recently argued by Sonia Massai among others. In only one of these cases, Yorkshire Tragedy, has another author been confidently attributed (Middleton), but as I argue in a recent piece in Literature Compass, a model of overlapping canons is preferable to an idea of uncrossable boundaries.
It’s clear, and I don’t think anyone would deny it, that ‘Shakespeare’ is the point of interest for this edition, and it may be inevitable that the media wants to focus on the question of which bits are his. That would be an enormous disappointment. Whether or not Shakespeare wrote or contributed to any of these plays is less important to me than the picture these plays present of a Shakespeare who appears (whether textually, allusively, as a contributor or influence, as a reader or performer) embedded in the works of others, in the same way that these other authors appear embedded throughout his more established works. If we can reorient our picture of early modern drama to treat Shakespeare as part of this environment rather than as an exception to it, hopefully that will go some way towards redressing the balance in the field, and destabilising an ahistorical idea of a fixed canon seems to me a valuable part of that project. I hope people enjoy the plays, and I’m looking forward to seeing how the edition goes down. Hopefully it will also help push me towards finally completing the monograph which provides the basis of what I’ve said here.
Come for the Shakespeare. Stay for the collaboration.
[Thanks to the Twitterati who gave me the inspiration to write this]
Edit: Here’s Jonathan’s own blog post on Mucedorus.