Did William Shakespeare write the works of Shakespeare? There is a legitimate authorship question surrounding plays such as Timon of Athens and Titus Andronicus – it's just that it has absolutely nothing to do with earls or queens locking themselves away in their studies to write the canon in secret.
While conspiracy theories about Shakespeare's identity have captured the public and Hollywood's imagination of late, Early Modern scholars have increasingly been looking at the world's best-known playwright – as Oxford professor Jonathan Bate puts it in the new collection of plays, Shakespeare and Others – as "a collaborative author, not a solitary genius."
Shakespeare's plays Pericles (written with George Wilkins) and The Two Noble Kinsmen (co-authored by John Fletcher) have long been acknowledged as co-creations, but now they're being viewed less as an exception than the rule.
Computerized analysis of digital databases of Elizabethan and Jacobean scripts has recently led researchers to detect Shakespeare's authorial fingerprints on plays that don't appear in the official canon, as well as other hands in plays we've traditionally thought of as his alone. As Wes Folkerth, an English professor at McGill University, puts it: "It's a new way of thinking about authorship in that period – less along Romantic lines, more along the lines of Michelangelo's atelier."
This fall, the flurry of activity around Shakespeare as a rewriter, reviser and collaborator has started to move from university libraries into mainstream bookstores, and from the seminar room to the stage.
Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays, edited by Bate with the University of Nevada's Eric Rasmussen, was published earlier this month bringing little-known plays such as the romance Mucedorus and the domestic tragedy Arden of Faverham to wider attention. Most of the 10 works in the volume have long been suspected to have been reworked or written in part by the Bard of Avon as house dramatist for his theatre company (known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men during Elizabeth I's reign, then the King's Men under James I). But now the case is stronger thanks to computer-assisted analysis.
Mucedorus – which was the most popular play of the period, going through a record 17 printings by 1668 – is this week getting what may be its first production in modern times at the University of Toronto, while next season, the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon is set to stage Arden of Faversham.
Why are these long-lost plays, once known as "Shakespeare apocrypha," attracting more attention now than they have in a century?
Justin Blum, who is directing Mucedorus at University of Toronto, suggests it is no coincidence that interest has been revived at a time when the idea of individual authorship has been challenged by online cut-and-paste culture and the remixes and mash-ups that dominate in popular music – and when critical love is largely lavished on prestige cable dramas such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men that are the products of collaborative writers' rooms.
"We're starting to see how to a certain extent the originality that we thought was the highest value in theatre and literature has kind of always been a fiction," says Blum, an English instructor at the university.
Take Mucudorus, an anonymous tragicomedy that predates Shakespeare romances such as The Winter's Tale, but will remind audiences of that better-known play thanks to its fairy-tale plot, a prince in disguise as a shepherd, and a familiar stage direction where characters are "pursued with a bear." A 1610 version of Mucedorus, likely reworked by Shakespeare for performance for James I during Lenten festivities, appears in Bate and Rasmussen's collection – but who inspired who is an open question.
As Blum points out to me, both Shakespeare's era and our own are times of revolutionary change in communications. Just as we're going through a transition from a print culture to a digital one, Elizabethan England was going through a transition from an oral and manuscript culture to a print culture.
The idea of playwright as "author" that is being complicated today only really emerged over the course of Shakespeare's career – with Ben Jonson being, according to Bate, "the first dramatist to have been seriously interested in publishing his own plays, and distinguishing between his own work and that of his collaborators." Jacobethan audiences certainly didn't care who – or how many whos – wrote the plays they flocked to at theatres such as the Globe; no author's name seems to have appeared on a playbill until 1693. (If that seems strange, ask yourself who wrote your favourite episode of Mad Men.)
As neatly summarized in Bate's introduction to Shakespeare and Others, Shakespeare, the fellow from Stratford-upon-Avon, probably began his career as a "fixer-up" of other writers' plays; now there is a general consensus that much of early play Henry VI, Part I is by Thomas Nashe and that the first act of Titus Andronicus is by George Peele.
Thoughout his career, Shakespeare probably brushed up and rewrote many other texts for performance at his theatre company, just as after his death, his contemporary Thomas Middleton would go on revise Macbeth and Measure for Measure for new productions. Indeed, these plays, along with Timon of Athens, appear in the latest edition of Middleton's collected works.
If the larger-than-life myth of William Shakepeare – the genius son of a glover, the greatest writer of all time – has often strained belief, it's only because of misunderstandings about the intensely collaborative culture he worked in (a culture that makes theories that Shakespeare was a secret pseudonym seem more absurd than ever). "He starts to make more sense if we think of him in relationship to the other people who are around him at that time," says Folkerth, who has taught Mucedorus and calls Arden of Faversham "an incredible play."
"Part of what makes him special," Folkerth says, "is when you see what other people are doing in the period – the way he's copying them, and the way he's one-upping them."
Mucedorus continues at the Glen Morris Studio Theatre in Toronto through Sunday. For tickets, visit dramacentre.utoronto.ca.
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