The recent media furore surrounding the publication of new findings about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works reassures us of one thing: people care about Shakespeare. Or, perhaps better stated, people care about caring about Shakespeare. A momentary venture into the ‘comments’ section to any of these news stories (a risky move at the best of times) reveals at least three camps of commentators: those who care about Shakespeare, the Stratford-born author; those who care about ‘Shakespeare’, the imagined mastermind of conspiracy theorists who ‘really’ wrote the plays (De Vere, Bacon, et. al.); and those who protest that they do not care at all about Shakespeare, but still took the time to comment. This short post is for those in the first and third camps. For the first, I want to briefly outline what is new. For both groups, I want to suggest why any of this matters.
Christopher Marlowe was and remains box office. Though one of the more shadowy figures of the period—much more has been speculated about his extra-literary activities (espionage, homosexual affairs, smoking tobacco) than is known—his astonishing retinue of plays (Doctor Faustus, Jew of Malta, Edward II, Tamburlaine) assure his place at the centre of teaching and research canons in early modern drama. His plays are often performed. His creative genius, and his murder at the age of twenty-nine, makes us wish that more of his work survived. But such wishing has no place in modern attribution research. No-one undertaking an analysis of the three Henry VI plays, for example, should begin with a desire to supplement the canon of Marlowe or Kyd or any other writer. Any such approach risks bias. So, too, skepticism is a must in the ways in which people interested in Shakespeare receive this news. Just because Marlowe’s name is printed on the title-page to these three plays in the New Oxford Shakespeare does not mean, of course, that readers must accept this unwittingly. Many won’t. But before dismissing it as a novelty, perhaps readers should cast an eye on the new research about this (Hugh Craig, John Burrows, John V. Nance, Gary Taylor). Or look over the summary of previous scholarship on the authorship of these plays in the Authorship Companion’s ‘Canon and Chronology’ essay. The new attribution of scenes and passages to Marlowe may not convince everyone, but the case for his hand in these plays has been built slowly, cumulatively, and cautiously.
The Marlowe news, box office as he is, buried another remarkable disclosure. Drawing upon the pioneering work of MacDonald P. Jackson, the New Oxford Shakespeare is the first edition to include Arden of Faversham in a Complete Works of Shakespeare. In his 2014 book, Determining the Shakespeare Canon, Jackson persuasively argued that Shakespeare as the author of scenes 4-9. These findings are supplemented further in the Companion by Jackson, Jack Elliott and Brett D. Hirsch. (Notably, the same modern attribution techniques that confirmed Marlowe’s presence in the Henry VI plays have disproven conjectures that Marlowe is present in this play.) Arden of Faversham is a brilliant ‘domestic tragedy’, dramatizing an infamous Kent scandal about a cheating wife, hired assassins, and a murdered husband. The Shakespeare canon is infinitely richer for its inclusion: its emotional depth, memorable if not necessarily likeable characters, tight-knit plotting, and one of the period’s longest and most complex female roles, mean it can be astonishingly effective in performance. The 2014 RSC production was praised as ‘comically sublime’ and noted that its ‘mixture of lust, greed and dark humour has a distinctly contemporary edge.’ The 2014 Indianapolis production, directed by Terri Bourus—was praised for affirming the ‘value of theatrical performance in scholarly debates about attribution.’ This play needs to been seen, heard, read, performed, and taught; its new status will surely encourage further productions and further interest.
But while we might care (or not care) about Shakespeare, why does any of this new attribution work matter? Why, in this sense, does authorship matter? It is easy, perhaps even reasonable, to be weary of the application of ‘Big Data’ to studies of Shakespeare. His plays are still taught and performed not because we can measure his distinctive use of ‘function words’ and ‘n-grams’. But if we disavow an interest in authorship, we teeter perilously on the edge of two traps. One, if we think the work stands alone, regardless of the contexts, conditions, and contingencies of its authorial provenance and transmission from script to print, we are deliberately, consciously, choosing to know less about how these masterpieces came into being. Two, if we think the authorship debate is irrelevant and choose to think of the work as Shakespeare’s alone regardless (as many undoubtedly will for the Henry VI plays), then we are in fact making a stand on authorship but just not explicitly stating it. This matters on a literary and theatrical level of analysis because if a critic identifies a thematic pattern or motif running through a co-authored play, then in fact what they have noticed is either a feature decided upon by the play’s collaborators, or it is one co-author picking up on what another author has already done. Such findings do not (necessarily) invalidate previous critical readings; rather, they add nuance, texture, and complication. But, perhaps most of all, these new findings matter because they disabuse the notion of Shakespeare as an always-solitary genius.
In our modern times, when so much work is collaborative and network-driven, surely this is an idea we can all get behind. Shakespeare’s genius is hardly in question, and he is the sole author of most of the plays and poems in the Complete Works (including his most famous texts). But such new analyses of his works demonstrate emphatically that he was a man of his time, despite Ben Jonson’s hyperbolic assertion that his peer was ‘not of an age’—like his contemporaries in the theatre trade, Shakespeare relied on the collaborative work of co-authors, companies, censors, performers, audiences, printers, and publishers. Jonson, who would have known the toil of a working playwright as well as any, probably recognized no contradiction in saying that Shakespeare was also ‘for all time.’
Featured image credit: King Henry VI, part III, act II, scene III, Warwick, Edward, and Richard at the Battle of Towton (adjusted) by Jappalang. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.