All entries for Wednesday 28 July 2010

July 28, 2010

Is there really a case against collaboration?

Brian Vickers, in the opening of his article "Incomplete Shakespeare; or, Denying Co-Authorship in 1 Henry VI" (Shakespeare Quarterly 58:3 (2007), 311-52) outlines a subtitle for the Shakespeare canon based on the last twenty years of attribution studies. “Assisted by Thomas Nashe, George Peele, Thomas Middleton, George Wilkins, John Fletcher, John Davies of Hereford, and Others.” (311) As in Shakespeare, Co-Author (Oxford, 2002), he directs his argument forcefully at those who deny the presence of these authors within the Shakespeare canon.

He then makes this attack explicit:

Some readers will have read my opening paragraph with approval, others with dismay or indignation. The latter group, those who categorically deny the presence of any other hand than Shakespeare’s in the canon of 38 plays, are in fact setting him on an illusory pedestal, as a genius who never needed assistance. (312)

Vickers doesn't, however, provide any references or examples of those who will view this with dismay.

My genuine question, then, is this: who are these people who deny co-authorship? I have a suspicion that Vickers is now offering something of a "straw man" argument, assuming a position of ignorance that he sets up in order to destroy. Of course there are local grievances, most recently that between Vickers and Gary Taylor over the attribution of sections of Macbeth to Middleton. Yet is there anybody out there in the academic community who honestly believes that Shakespeare wrote the whole of The Two Noble Kinsmen? Who denies Middleton's role in Timon of Athens? Who thinks Fletcher played no role in Henry VIII, or that Pericles is sole-authored? Not to mention, of course, that everybody accepts Shakespeare contributed to the collaborative Thomas More, and almost everybody recognises he collaborated on Edward III.

I'm not criticising Vickers's work here, because he's done more than anyone else to champion the cause of co-authorship. Yet this article, only a couple of years old, still sets Vickers up as the sole champion of Shakespeare as a collaborator, twenty years after the Oxford Shakespeare canonised the hands of Fletcher, Wilkins and Middleton in the plays. Despite what the 2007 article appears to suggest, Vickers is no longer fighting a one-man fight against the notion of collaboration, which an overwhelming majority of scholars accept unquestioningly; the debate now is about the specifics of collaboration. It is testament to the massive shift in opinions that, in the most recent dispute, Vickers is the one championing sole authorship of Macbeth against others who have found collaboration.

I don't dispute the correctness of Vickers's claims here, merely point out that there is no longer an ideological dispute over whether Shakespeare deigned to work with others, except in the loony fringes of authorship scholarship (eg the work of Eric Sams). When it comes to individual and highly-contested cases such as 1 Henry VI or even Titus, let's not confuse genuine innocence of authorship scholarship with wilful Bardolatry - it helps no-one. I spoke to people at a recent conference who were unaware of the work making the case for Peele's hand in Titus; these people are not attempting to actively preserve a sole-authored canon, they simply didn't know the specifics of recent arguments. The "others" of Vickers's remark who wilfully deny collaboration per se are, for the most part, no longer there to be shouted down.


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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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