The problem with The Shakespeare Authorship Question is not the terrible answers it produces, but the question itself. As scholars have been saying for some time, there is little point in asking “Who actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays?” since that only allows for variations on two responses: “Shakespeare, as it happens” or “The Duke of Buccleugh, but it was all hushed up (quite possibly by the Catholic Church)!” A more helpful Shakespeare Authorship Question would be “What did Shakespeare write?” with less snappy follow-up enquiry as to “What parts of those writings which have traditionally associated with Shakespeare’s name do we need to reconsider in light of our understanding of the processes of textual production in the Early Modern period, along with the notions of authorship which were current then?” William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, could go quite some way to rephrasing the Authorship Question in public discussions, and provide a splendid edition of a number of good Early Modern plays into the bargain.
The volume is a counterpart to the Royal Shakespeare Company Complete Works which Bate and Rasmussen published five years ago, and contains modern-spelling texts of ten plays, with glosses, notes and useful boxes of “key facts”: Arden of Faversham, Locrine, Edward III, The Spanish Tragedy, Thomas Lord Cromwell, Sir Thomas More, The London Prodigal, A Yorkshire Tragedy, Mucedorus, and Double Falsehood. Only about six hundred of those pages are taken up with the plays: twenty pages are occupied by Jonathan Bates’ introduction to conditions under which the Shakespeare canon emerged and a quick history of the Apocrypha, another thirty by a series of interviews carried out by Peter Kirwan with theatre artists who have performed and directed these plays, and a hefty ninety pages by Will Sharpe’s extended essay on authorship and attribution. Sharpe meticulously goes through criteria for inclusion, and surveys each case individually, explaining the situation which led a work to be associated with the Shakespeare canon, listing the critics who have argued for and against, and informing us why the play in question made it into the volume. He details the various kinds of internal and external evidence available, and weighs up which provide the strongest cases.
These conclusions lead to a variety of positions on the question “what did Shakespeare write?” Edward III is described as a having “multiple authors, and…Shakespeare is highly likely to be among them” though “How, why and when Shakespeare came to be involved in the play, when it was written, or whom it was first performed, and who the co-authors/s was/were” are unknowable from the current evidence. The ambiguous ascription to “W.S.” on Thomas Lord Cromwell may indicate that the person who caused those letters to be placed on the edition knew it to be by Shakespeare, or indeed “Perhaps they also knew that he had not written it, and wanted to hide behind the relative safety they hoped the ambiguous attribution would afford”, and Sharpe concludes that “[Shakespeare] probably attended rehearsals, overlooked the script, conversed with or advised the author, and spoke some of the play aloud in performance. But he did not write it.” Whoever wrote The London Prodigal “produced a fine comedy that does not deserve to be overshadowed by the question of Shakespeare’s involvement”, whilst “for those seeking certainty about the authorship of the plays herein then, A Yorkshire Tragedy might be among the most satisfying, unless you wish to think it the work of Shakespeare”.
As these quotations demonstrate, the edition presents a collection of texts with radically different relationships to the only author whose name stands on the title page. Those relationships point to the complexity of the notion of a Shakespeare canon, since this is a collection of avowedly non-canonical works which are being gathered into format with the canon. Some are potentially by Shakespeare, or have been thought so, so they are canonically “Shakesjacent” but not regarded as canonically his, some are part of his company’s canon but not his personal one, some are there by virtue of past mistakes in attribution which the editors wish to reject whilst still presenting the play’s text to the reader. The authority which Shakespeare’s name (not to mention that of the RSC) lends to a volume is being leveraged to widen the scope of questions about the authorship and transmission of the texts. In some cases this has almost the quality of a bait and switch: the London Prodigal is not by Shakespeare, but it will be good for readers (who bought a book with Shakespeare’s name on the titlepage) to encounter it and perhaps understand Shakespeare better after the experience.
That leverage calls attention to the way that this volume sits within two broad tendencies that appear in modern work on Shakespeare, which might be called the “liberal” and “critical”. The former seeks to enlarge the Early Modern texts which receive scholarly and popular attention, or indeed stage productions. The “Read Not Dead” programme at Shakespeare’s Globe would be a good example, or the Oxford Middleton, or the one-man John Lyly industry constituted by Andy Kesson. They all make an implicit (or at times highly explicit) argument for widening the focus of our engagement with the dramatic literature of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, based on its potential value and interest for us today. This tendency suggests that the literary, dramatic and aesthetic qualities of other writers like Beaumont, Dekker, Webster and Lyly are not so totally obscured by Shakespeare’s talent that it makes sense to completely ignore them and avoid exploring their stage potential in favour of another King Lear (the eighteenth so far this year.)
The “critical” tendency focuses on Shakespeare’s production and reception history, also seeking to undercut the rhetoric of universality and ultimacy which often surrounds the subject, but by casting light on the contingency, the inherent contradictions and the ideological aspects of what we call “Shakespeare”. Michael Dobson’s The Making of the National Poet and Gary Taylor’s Reinventing Shakespeare are the two most obvious examples, but a whole slew of other names spring to mind including Emma Smith, Jonathan Dollimore, or Michael Bristol. Concentrating attention on the historical processes and contemporary institutional practices, which bring “Shakespeare” into existence and sustain it as a marker of cultural value, this critical mode prises the term away from both the historical individual who bore the name at the turn of the seventeenth century and the near-metaphysical claims to power and timelessness which surrounds the texts collected under that name.
Despite the different angles I have sketched, both tendencies frequently appear in the work of the same critic, or indeed in the same book. They are both associated at times with social and political critiques of the status quo: widening the canon has obvious associations with the projects of (certain strains of) feminist and postcolonial criticism, whilst examining the ideological construction of Shakespeare serves to reveal the dominant power structures which co-opt his cultural authority. As the scholars I have mentioned have frequently pointed out, both tendencies can also become unstable and risk collapsing into incoherence or even bolstering that cultural authority which they seek to question. After all, arguing that other writers have some of the aesthetic qualities whose pre-eminence was established by reference to Shakespeare is vulnerable to the response that by coincidence Shakespeare is even more Shakespearean than Webster, whilst poring over the production history of a Shakespeare play, adding a footnote to a new edition of a Shakespeare play and presenting a paper at a Shakespeare conference can appear odd strategies for the dismantling of the Shakesindustrial complex.
William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays moves between these critical modes, and seems to act as a pivot at times for transferring attention between them. Tracing “Shakespeare” through texts not securely identified with that name involves serious investigation of those works, which may reveal them to be of significant value even if they are not gathered into the Shakespeare canon as a result. Likewise the discussion of Early Modern theatrical and print culture which this entails may enrich the reader’s appreciation of the processes which created “Shakespeare” and the historical contingency of that process, providing a more critical sense of “Shakespeare” in our own time which might be then applied to reading the RSC’s Complete Works volume. These movements are also subject to the kind of risks I outlined above, as both may be compromised or foreclosed by the fact that “Shakespeare” is being used as a criterion of value to start the process, both as the spur to undertaking analysis and calling the reader’s attention to this as a book worth adding to their library. They are also potentially enormously valuable.
In response to the public controversy over William Shakespeare and Others, Peter Kirwan wrote a generous and incisive essay on Bardathon, outlining his hopes for the book and how it would affect approaches to Shakespeare. Kirwan suggests that the works collected here “purport to situate Shakespeare as a minor contributor within others’ works”, and demonstrate “how unexceptional he was” in terms of the theatrical and literary practices of the period. Rather than dragging more and more plays into the in-group of the canon, after an adjudication of what percentage of the magic Shakespeare essence they contain, he appears to be urging a diffusion of the Shakespeare authorial icon. This would produce a Shakespeare who can be seen in the work of others without this constituting a claim that the plays in question should be taken away from those authors and brought into the citadel of the pure.
Such a centrifugal shift would go a long way to resolving (rather than solving) The Shakespeare Authorship Question. It would also rectify the main problem I had with William Shakespeare and Others: the apparently simplistic notion of canonicity which totally identified it with authorial ascription, and led to a couple of serious blunders in how it handled the very notion of a canon. The line of scholarship which Kirwan proposes will hopefully be developed and elaborated fully in his forthcoming Shakespeare and the Idea of Apocrypha, which should provide a fascinating companion and challenge to the Shakespeare editions of the last few decades, as well as reconfiguring future approaches. In the meantime, William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays provides a splendid edition of a range of plays which deserve more attention, an exhaustive investigation of the controversies which have raged over their authorship, and will hopefully start a whole warren of hares running about what we mean by “Shakespeare”.
William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays. eds. Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, contrib. Will Sharpe and Peter Kirwan. (Palgrave Macmillan: 2003. ISBN: 978-1137271440, £25.00). I am grateful to Palgrave Macmillan for providing a review copy of the volume.