June 07, 2011

A quick methodological note on Peele's authorship of King John

I'm currently working my way through Charles R. Forker's excellent and timely new edition of The Troublesome Reign of John, King of England. This hugely important play has been long overdue a good, scholarly edition, and Forker's is, from my first few dips into it, shaping up to be just that.

Troublesome Reign

I just wanted to flag up a methodological note that screams out at me from the very first page though. Specifically, in Forker's preface, where he acknowledges Brian Vickers's support on the question of authorship. He cites Vickers's article on the play's authorship in the collection Words that Count (2004) which is, I feel, one of Vickers's strongest pieces of attribution scholarship for its nuance and dramatic/literary sensitivity. I'm very happy to accept the claims of both Forker and Vickers that the play is by George Peele, which seems to fit with my (limited) knowledge of both Peele's work and the wider contexts in which the play seems to have been born.

My caution is with the reportage of a new set of collocations created by Vickers using the Pl@giarism software that has been central to his recent work. I quote from Forker:

He [Vickers] generously shared with me his as yet unpublished reflections on Peele's dramaturgy, a document from which I have borrowed freely. Most important of all is his graciousness in letting me present for the first time in print (as Appendix 2) his list of 219 verbal collocations between this play and other works by Peele - collocations of three identical consecutive words, in each case unique to The Troublesome Reign and plays already established as Peele's. Sir Brian isolated these impressive matches in 2009 by means of a computer program in a way that, in my judgement, not only establishes the attribution beyond cavil but that holds rich promise of further such discoveries in the study of anonymous Elizabethan plays. (xiii, my emphases)

The collocations are duly reprinted in the appendix, 335-56. They are thoroughly interesting - some are relatively commonplace - which makes it all the more surprising that they are unique - while others are very idiosyncratic. I particularly liked the find of "I, poor I" as a shared collocation between Troublesome Reign and The Arraignment of Paris for example, which is a peculiarly emphatic and deliberate usage.

While these are interesting, however, there is a glaring omission in the reportage of these results that could potentially undo the effectiveness of these results. It's the same one flagged up by MacD. Jackson in his critique of Vickers's work on Kyd in Research Opportunities in Medieval and Renaissance Drama. I'll apologise for the liberal use of bold emphasis in the paragraph that follows:

As it stands, this appendix represents a mere accumulation of parallels between Peele's work and the play in question. It has established 219 interesting links, which are unique and give us valid data. However, this number is meaningless in isolation. In order to establish the power of these results, we need to know how many unique links were shared between Troublesome Reign and the canons of other writers.

So, if we know that Shakespeare's early plays have 21 unique collocations with Troublesome Reign, Marlowe has 60, Greene has 85 and Kyd has 3, for example (and I'm making these numbers up), then we can say with confidence that Peele is an extremely likely candidate. However, for all we know from these results, Marlowe could have 170 different unique links with Troublesome Reign; Greene could have 350 etc; in which case, the 219 links with Peele suddenly look less impressive.

An accumulation of parallels in favour of one author is of no real quantitative value unless those parallels are compared on a like basis with parallels accumulated in favour of other authors.

Even though I'm sure that Vickers has done this (it is, after all his Shakespeare Co-Author that taught me these principles), we need to see this in reportage. Forker's edition is going to be fundamental in consolidating the authorship of the play by Peele, and yet Forker has apparently uncritically accepted the sheer weight of numbers without seeking to contextualise what those numbers actually represent. This is troubling from a methodological point of view, as non-specialists reading the edition will assume that this is standard practice and then, turning to Eric Sams's Edmond Ironside or Michael Egan's Thomas of Woodstock, find the exact same one-sided accumulation of parallels supporting Shakespeare's authorship of those plays.

I stress again - I am ASSUMING that Vickers has done this research and that the unique collocations between Peele's work and Troublesome Reign outweigh in both quality and quantity the unique collocations between TR and Greene, TR and Marlowe, TR and Shakespeare etc. But for the credibility of authorship studies, we need to have these comparisons upfront, so that lay readers have a frame of reference for understanding the strength of the claims. Scholars turning to the "Authorship and Date" section of the introduction will find Forker's excellent analysis, heavily dependent on Vickers's more nuanced work, which in my mind clinches the case for authorship. But if the use of collocations is going to be so heavily foregrounded, literally bookending the scholarship on the play, then it needs to be properly and responsibly reported.


- 4 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Jonathan Bate

    Haven’t seen the edition yet … does it have new evidence on date? And does it in any sense resolve the question of relation to WS’s King John? If KJ is Shakespeare using a Peele play as “source” for his own play, doesn’t that suggest that Titus is more likely to be WS reworking an old Peele play rather than being an active collaboration? And of course if Leir is Peele, that would be another example …

    13 Jun 2011, 11:31

  2. Jonathan – no new evidence on date, but it very much takes the line that it’s the precursor to Shakespeare’s play, and that Shakespeare used it as a source. Again, on this question, the references are primarily to Vickers’s article. In terms of if it provides a model for Titus, I imagine this certainly is a possibility, but Forker is keen to stress that these are two separate plays, as opposed to the reworking/revision model that Titus impiles.

    13 Jun 2011, 15:52

  3. Andrew

    Thanks for this review. I had not been aware that a new edition was out. Can you tell me if it is a print on demand, or a good old fashioned offset version with legible type? This is important to me, as I refuse to pay 55 pounds for a print on demand book.

    29 Jun 2011, 02:02

  4. Andrew – it’s a commercial edition, the Revels Play series published by Manchester University Press, and can even be found on bookshelves (if you’re in the right shop). I don’t know if it’ll sell well enough to reach paperback, so 55 quid may well be the only official price we have for a while.

    29 Jun 2011, 10:57


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I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.


Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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