William Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen.

Oh the apocrypha, the elusive teasing Shakespeare apocrypha, plays which somewhere along the line, either because a publisher ambiguously slapped some initials on a title page or wedged new texts into a reprint of the Folio edition and may, or is most often the case, may not contain the words of one of literature’s great geniuses. Or the anonymous plays which critical and theatrical tradition has been suggested to have a glancing connection with him. Or the works, solidly attributed to someone else, but which may still contain his hand in later additions. It’s got to the point where you can’t definitely say how many plays are in Shakespeare’s canon any more.

Which is the point of the multiple authored William Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays. Having produced their sumptuous “complete works” a few years ago based on the First Folio, the RSC in a companion volume, turns its attention towards everything else, the list of plays that show signs of Shakespeare attention, in a couple of speeches, odd scenes or through later adaptation, once again highlighting that he wasn’t a man who worked alone and utilising centuries of literary criticism attempts an arbitration as to what should be considered canonical and what has been simple wishful thinking and then producing properly edited versions of those considered worthy enough.

Jonathan Bates’s general introduction introduces the concept of Shakespeare’s canon and then offers a brief history of the apocrypha which is in general the result of the good faith of critics desperate to increase Shakespeare’s canon and printers who in bad faith and greed were desperate to do the same. Literary criticism has changed markedly over time. In the past, whole texts would be dismissed as being unworthy of Shakespeare with little regard for outside evidence especially if they were collaborative and only relatively recently has the “problem” been considered more scientifically or dispassionately, with a more evidentiary approach to these works relying heavily on biographical knowledge and textual comparison.

The majority of the volume contains the selected plays and there are a few surprises or at least seem so until Will Sharpe’s section on Authorship and Attribution explains some of their workings out. The proof copy I was sent to review only contains Arden of Faversham, The Spanish Tragedy and Sir Thomas Moore, all of which are now pretty much assumed to have had Shakespeare’s hand in them somehow, however minimally and all are treated with the same care and attention in the complete works with an introduction covering the play’s themes and key facts boxes containing a synopsis, summary of authorship, creation date, sources and publication history followed by textual notes.

But undoubtedly the most compelling section of the volume is Sharpe’s as the methodology of textual analysis is investigated before explanations are given for the inclusion of each of the plays in the volume, with justifications for omissions included as an epilogue. In what must have been a superhuman task, the writer must have read through dozens of volumes, acres of print as forces for an against passages and plays fought with each other across time, usually directly criticising each other’s ignorance about what constitutes Shakespeare and whether a play under consideration fits within their criteria. Speeches, lines, even individual words have been scrutinised to the point where the dramatic elements of these dramas almost becomes beside the point.

Of those chosen, some plays feel like a given: Arden of Faversham, Edward III, Sir Thomas Moore and most lately The Spanish Tragedy 1602 and Double Falsehood. Locrine with its teasing W.S. on its printed title page is included because there simply isn’t enough evidence that those initials don’t mean William Shakespeare. Thomas Lord Cromwell is utilised as an example of the collaborative nature of theatre companies, Shakespeare possibly having been in the room when it was written. The London Prodigal and A Yorkshire Tragedy are both atypical but contain passages of a literary complexity, which might betray his presence. The new outlier is Mucedorus which computer analysis has thrust into the limelight after years of dismissal.

Between the lines, the background theme, and this is especially true of the omitted plays, is that once a work, especially an anonymous work, has been thrown out of Shakespeare’s orbit, there’s little appetite in discovering who the author actually might be, which is another example of the inbuilt snobbery which overhangs Shakespeare’s contemporaries whose work has become eclipsed by Shakespeare across the years. No serious textual analysis has been done on Thomas Lord Cromwell other than to disprove Shakespeare’s involvement and though it’s not widely considered to be a “great” play, it could be an important part of another author’s story, but because the world’s not interested in other author’s stories, we might not ever know.

This is frustrating. If there’s a greatest theme to the book it is that Shakespeare should never be viewed in isolation and that, because he did collaborate with is contemporaries, it’s important to pay attention to the great worth of those contemporaries. The shift in complexity in his plays in the Jacobian period wasn’t some whim but a reaction to the changing tastes of the market with the likes of Measure for Measure his attempt to create his own version of the city dramas being produced by Dekker, Fletcher, Jonson and the rest. But their work is so little produced (because of a self-perpetuating disinterest) that someone approaching these aspects of Shakespeare’s career for the first time will find them someone alien (as I did at school).

The volume ends with Peter Kirwan interviewing theatre professionals about the challenges of producing these plays and the extent to which Shakespeare’s potential authorship effects their work. For the most part the answer is simply that it doesn’t, that it’s about serving the story and characters and themes and that it’s generally left to the marketing department to decide on the extent to which they want to highlight the connection. But there is some recognition that they’re pioneers because most of the audience will be seeing these plays for the first time unaware of the story and characters and themes. Perhaps the best legacy for this volume would be for that to change.

William Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays. Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen. Published by Palgrave Macmillan. RRP: £25.00. ISBN-13: 978-1137271440. Out now. Review copy supplied.

1 comment:

  1. Nice to read comment on Peter Kirwan's contribution - he's here at Nottingham and having met him I can confirm he's a really lovely scholar to have around.