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From left, Madelaine Hodges, Michael Man, Emilio Vieira and Kate Martin in the Shakespeare Bash’d production of The Two Noble Kinsmen.Kyle Purcell/Supplied

On a Thursday night late this January, I stepped out of The Two Noble Kinsmen, performed by Toronto theatre company Shakespeare Bash’d, and ordered a glass of bubbly in the lobby.

With this last of the Bard’s bromances-turned-sour checked off in a clear, crisp production, I had finally completed the complete works of William Shakespeare.

By that I mean I have seen live performances of all 38 comedies, histories, tragedies and romances listed in the table of contents of my heavy, hardcover, fifth edition of The Complete Works of Shakespeare edited by David Bevington.

See J. Kelly Nestruck's five favourite Shakespeare plays in production (and his three least favourite)

I achieved this audience milestone attending productions in Canada, the United States and Europe – and, in one case, cyberspace.

The three Henry VIs, it is true, I saw in Dutch and in very abridged form as part of a marathon production. But there’s no official body that verifies Shakespeare spectatorship, so I felt comfortable certifying myself a completist.

Nevertheless, my celebration was tempered (just one flute, not a full bottle) by the realization that by the time I’d finally seen all of what was in my Bevington (published in 2004), what counted as “all” of Shakespeare had changed radically.

Indeed, when it comes to Shakespeare the notion of a complete works is more unsettled than it has ever been.

Not that his canon has ever really settled for long. One of the main things you learn about Shakespeare by engaging with him deeply as a theatregoer is that his contemporary, Ben Jonson, was wrong in writing: “He was not of an age but for all time.” Shakespeare is for all time, but also reinvented, redefined and reindexed in each new age.

Until the middle of the 20th century, I would have toasted myself for completing the canon earlier – when I finally ticked Troilus and Cressida off my list. (That’s the one I saw live-streamed, with end-of-the-world enthusiasm by Edmonton troupe Tiger’s Hearts Collective, during the pandemic.)

Kinsmen is nowhere to be found in the first The Complete Works of Shakespeare I owned – a 37-play, tiny-print People’s Standard Library single volume my Irish grandmother purchased while studying nursing in London and inscribed “Katherine Kelleher, 1938.″ It somehow survived the war she then served in, her immigration to Canada, and another half-century of sticky-fingered children before it was gifted to me on my 16th birthday in 1997.

Curious why Kinsmen – unlike Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, another collaboration with John Fletcher – was not in that edition, I called up Holger Syme, a professor of early modern drama at the University of Toronto who recently published Theatre History, Attribution Studies, and the Question of Evidence.

Syme walked me through what has and has not been considered part of Shakespeare’s canon since 36 of his plays were first posthumously published together in 1623 as Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies – the famous “First Folio.”

The Bard of Avon’s collected works has ballooned, then shrunk, and then grown again as methods of attribution have changed over centuries.

When the so-called Third Folio was published in 1664, Pericles: Prince of Tyre – a seafaring adventure most now believe was co-written with George Wilkins, and which I saw in 2015 at the Stratford Festival – was rightly added. But so too were Locrine, The London Prodigal, Sir John Oldcastle, Thomas Lord Cromwell, The Puritan and A Yorkshire Tragedy. Those six are part of the suspected but never proven Shakespeare scripts known as the apocrypha.

That mistake carried on into the 18th century, when a playwright named Nicholas Rowe included them in his six volumes of Shakespeare and kicked off the tradition of editing the works for publication in a way readers would recognize today (standardizing act breaks, adding in stage directions and penning a blustery preface). “If you’re a reader in the 1730s, those plays are simply by Shakespeare,” Syme says.

As others took up the task of editing Shakespeare, questionable plays disappeared and reappeared until, according to Syme, a consensus settled on the Bard’s complete works as the First Folio plus Pericles in the 19th century.

It then took about another century for another play to join their ranks, with Kinsmen sneaking into complete works only in the 1970s and 1980s. “There was a growing consensus that emerged in the mid-century that Shakespeare, probably, yes, did have a hand in this,” Syme says.

As for being able to not just read all of Shakespeare’s plays, but see them staged, the feat likely only became possible, and certainly only became desirable, in the mid-20th century as ideas surrounding authorship shifted. Shakespeare began to be touted as a singular genius whose plays were not to be altered (as in the happy-ending Lear that dominated at theatres from 1681 to 1838) and were all worth putting on (even gruesome, jejune Titus Andronicus).

“Completism” itself is a concept of that era – the word coming out of science-fiction fan jargon and not initially with a positive connotation. (J.B. Speer’s Fancyclopedia in 1944 was the first to define a completist, as “a dope who tries to have a complete collection in some line.”)

Theatre companies seem to have fully given over to a completist fandom-like fervour regarding Shakespeare as the 20th century tipped into the 21st. The Stratford Festival, Canada’s main venue for the Bard, was founded in 1952 but its first artistic director to try to produce all of Shakespeare was Richard Monette, who completed that task – 38 plays including Kinsmen – between 1994 and 2005.

A year later, England’s Royal Shakespeare Company – located in the other Stratford (that is, Shakespeare’s birthplace) – one-upped everyone on that front by producing a Collected Works festival that saw all of his plays staged in a single year.

In 2015, current Stratford Festival artistic director Antoni Cimolino announced plans to film productions of 38 of Shakespeare’s plays over 10 years, in what would be a first for a North American arts organization.

Flash forward a decade and, one pandemic and several cultural reckonings later, it’s easy to understand why that project will not meet that original deadline.

The Shakespeare fever that built from the mid-20th century into the 21st seems to have broken a bit, and Stratford, quite reasonably, is less single minded. For its streaming service it now also records new and contemporary Canadian plays, such as Women of the Fur Trade, a Louis Riel-inspired romp by playwright Frances Koncan. In modern Canadian classrooms, that Indigenous-led production is more in demand than any Titus Andronicus.

“We’re finding that being responsible to our mission is an evolving thing,” Cimolino says.

Still, Cimolino, who is planning for the 2026 season to be his last, says he probably would have gotten to all of Shakespeare’s plays if it weren’t for the pesky pandemic. Still unprogrammed by him: Troilus and Cressida, the Henry VI plays, Titus Andronicus, The Winter’s Tale, The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Two Noble Kinsmen.

But that’s not counting other collaborative plays (Edward III, Sir Thomas More) that started to be included in Shakespeare collections such as Oxford’s The Complete Works during Monette’s tenure – or any of the plays in which computers have recently detected the playwright’s hand.

Indeed, just as the compulsion toward Shakespeare completism has started to recede, his canon has been growing again owing to increasingly sophisticated digitally based analyses of texts that have helped early modern scholars better understand how deep collaborative playwriting was back then.

“Determining authorship no longer has to do with someone reading a lot of plays and thinking, this sounds a lot like Shakespeare,” Syme says. “These modern techniques really depend on habits of writing that are so granular, that you can’t mimic them and you can’t really notice them as a human being.”

If Shakespeare’s presence can be detected in a play by treating dialogue as data, that raises the possibility that artificial intelligence could reverse engineer the algorithm and pen new “Shakespeare” plays.

Canadian journalist and author Stephen Marche has experimented with just that by plugging the complete works – well, a complete works – into an AI platform and asking Shakespeare-the-algorithm to expound, in one instance, on Donald Trump’s hair. The result:

Behind the undone chignon, the back of Donald Trump is covered in white lank.

The wig was tailor-made. It took as long as a full night to knit.

O brave new world that has such Shakespeare in it!

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