William Shakespeare & Others: Book ReviewDecember 4, 2013
A review by Darren Freebury-Jones.
The first thing that strikes me about this edition is the duplicitous title: William Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays. One might expect a series of plays that have, due to a number of authorship tests, been assigned with confidence to Shakespeare as collaborative works: Titus Andronicus, Henry VI Part One, Edward III, Sir Thomas More, Timon of Athens, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen and the 1602 fourth quarto version of The Spanish Tragedy (the latter, like Sir Thomas More and Henry VI Part One, is not considered an ‘orthodox’ collaboration, but rather a revised text). How wonderful it would have been for such a volume, accompanied with essays exploring the differences between imitation, influence and authorship, the impact collaboration could have on staging (a director might consider the symmetrically patterned staging involved in Peele’s opening act of Titus Andronicus, or inconsistencies in character due to different dramatists’ hands) and a sensible overview of attribution studies and its development. Instead we get a volume in which Jonathan Bate, previously reluctant to acknowledge Shakespearean collaboration, compiles apocryphal plays.[i]
The blurb (and publicity surrounding this book) states confidently that Shakespeare’s hand can be detected in Arden of Faversham. I myself have analysed the famous quarrel scene in this play and detected numerous distinct collocation matches with Thomas Kyd’s accepted works, as well as plays in Brian Vickers’ ‘extended’ canon.[ii] Vickers’ results, however, are frequently snubbed in this edition, as insecurely attributed. Vickers’ methodology of collecting ‘partly idiosyncratic formations’, encompassing verbal and semantic patterns, often in the context of verse structure, is the most advanced and reliable authorship test currently available I feel (a view, I realise, that conflicts with exponents of the status quo ante bellum), and it would have been nice if his findings had been explicated here. Nevertheless, the edition never really takes sides when you delve inside anyway. Will Sharpe touches upon MacDonald P. Jackson’s views[iii] in his essay within the book, ‘Authorship and Attribution’ but concludes, frustratingly, that the domestic tragedy can be deemed ‘one of the finest plays that a young Shakespeare, possibly, never wrote’.[iv] This extent of ambiguity and an unwillingness to expand properly upon opposing scholarly arguments leaves one to ponder what the real purpose of compiling these plays was in the first place. Why works such as Thomas Middleton’s A Yorkshire Tragedy are included, and The Merry Devil of Edmonton is patently rejected, is anybody’s guess.
Redeeming features include emboldened text demonstrating additions to The Spanish Tragedy and Mucedorus. Sir Thomas More makes for an enjoyable reading experience that isn’t disrupted by attempts to replicate the extant manuscript copy, as can be seen in the Oxford Complete Works, second edition. Sir Thomas More is presented as a unified piece of theatre, which is, of course, the fundamental objective of collaboration, and that is commendable. Furthermore (whether by Shakespeare or Kyd), Arden of Faversham deserves to be read and The Spanish Tragedy has every right to be added to the canon as a Shakespearean revision. The presentation of all the plays is excellent and suitably edited for performance, while the interviews by Peter Kirwan give the reader a refreshing insight into the staging of frequently neglected plays.[v]
Unfortunately, from a scholarly perspective, William Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays provides an unsatisfying exploration of models of authorship, while its publication and the way in which its compositors have promoted themselves with talk of fingerprints and decisive evidence (surely confusing for the general public, caught in the cross-fire of affirmation and rejection) cannot be deemed healthy for modern attribution studies.
Darren Freebury-Jones is a PhD candidate at Cardiff University specialising in imitation and collaboration in Shakespeare’s early plays.