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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  1. In the same article, incidentally, Vickers takes editors of 1 Henry VI to task over ignoring the possibility of multiple authorship in the play. In this he includes Edward Burns’s recent Arden edition:

    “[The New Penguin Shakespeare] refused to accept any theory of its “being a product of multiple authorship,” a refusal duplicated in the Arden 3 edition by Edward Burns.” (349)

    I can only assume Vickers didn’t read Burns’s edition, as this is simply wrong. Pages 73-84 of Burns’s edition discuss the practicalities and history of co-authorship in some length, and conclude that 1 Henry VI is certainly collaborative. He refers to the “dramatists” of the play throughout his introduction, and accepts that “Harry the Sixth, by Shakespeare, Nashe and others” would be an ideal title for the play (84), although commercial conventions dictate the format of the Arden Shakespeare.

    It’s just one more example of collaboration being far more accepted than Vickers portrays, which seems to be a real shame. His work has been a massive contributory factor in establishing co-authorship as commonplace within the Shakespeare canon; surely it would make sense to acknowledge the victory by representing allied work correctly!

    29 Jul 2010, 10:15

  2. Edmund King

    It’s interesting how quickly and decisively the scholarly consensus has shifted over the last 10 or so years. I remember when I did an MA paper on attribution studies with Mac Jackson in the late ‘90s, collaboration in the Shakespeare canon still seemed like a bit like forbidden knowledge. The New Critical emphasis on “organic unity” in play criticism was (it seemed) still very much in evidence, allied with (what seemed at the time) an immovable post-structuralist scepticism about authorship and authorship studies in general. So on one hand, you had mainstream criticism that routinely treated all Shakespearean plays as sole-authored, and on the other, scholars like Jeff Masten, who were massively critical of the attribution project in general on historico-theoretical grounds. This is the scholarly climate that Vickers’s “Shakespeare, Co-Author” came out into, but you’re right about how quickly things subsequently changed.

    Which would be the last major Shakespeare edition that corresponds roughly to the attitude Vickers is talking about, do you think? The 1998 New Cambridge “Pericles,” perhaps?

    29 Jul 2010, 11:09

  3. Yeah, I think so, that Pericles is the one he singles out as particularly anti-collaboration.

    It’s an interesting position for me to be in, as I only started my English BA in the year Vickers’s Co-Author came out, so I am aware I’m part of the generation that’s grown up with collaboration as a relatively understood concept. In some ways, reading Vickers now, it seems as if he’s unaware of how pivotal his book actually was – he really lays into editors of the mid-90s, forgetting (as Jonathan reminds me) that the questions were far muddier at that point, and that it was Vickers’s work that clarified much of the authorship scholarship that, until then, had never been consolidated and properly reviewed. It’s really noticable in this article that so few of Vickers’s examples are from the 21st century, which is partly why I’m arguing here that his arguments need to develop in response to the developments that he’s occasioned.

    On the post-structuralist side, I really think there’s so much more conversation to be had between that field and attribution studies. Vickers is in an interesting middle-ground – on the one hand, attacking those who attempt to preserve single authorship; and, on the other hand, attacking theory that treats authorship as even more endemically collaborative than his model. He seems to thus try to flip the theory round to match the single-authorship position – his comments on McMullan in this article are lumped in with those on deniers of collaboration in Henry VIII, suggesting that McMullan is supporting a single-author position by eliding distinctions of authorship, yet McMullan’s edition embraces collaboration wholeheartedly, breaks down which scene is by which author and so forth. I really dislike the deliberate opposing of “theory” and “history”; they don’t seem to me to be incompatible. Though I imagine, from what you’re saying about the 90s, that this was more of a felt opposition back then?

    29 Jul 2010, 11:24

  4. Edmund King

    Totally. Theory and history aren’t incompatible, but in the ‘90s a lot scholarship was still hung up over the time-schemes that Foucault sketched out in “What Is an Author?” The work of scholars like Masten, Margreta de Grazia, and Mark Rose suggested that individual authorship could only be perceived of as a post-Enlightenment phenomenon, and thus attributing portions of early modern plays to one playwright or another was some kind of historical category error. (Woodmansee’s and Jaszi’s “Construction of Authorship” [1994] was probably the locus classicus of this line of thinking.)

    I think you’re right that there’s a lot more of that conversation to be had. My sense is that the parties have simply stopped talking to each other, or moved onto other things. And there was also the problem that Masten et al., in their discussions of “distributed” authorship, were way too ideal and unspecific in their thinking. There was never much talk of how plays actually got made (although there was a lot of useful discussion of the social contexts and spaces of authorial production). Now that we’ve had a materialist intervention in early modern theatre studies (thanks to the work of Stern and Kathman, among others), it’s perhaps time to return to this exchange. Rather than just talking about, say, the dispersal of authorial agency in purely theoretical terms (as Masten does), you can now ally it to recent thinking about the material specifics of early modern authorship—stage manuscript practices; “plotting” vs. play-writing, and so on. So you can unify the perspectives—early modern dramatic authorship was distributed, as Masten et al. suggest, and here’s how it actually may have happened in material, rather than simply theoretical, terms.

    29 Jul 2010, 13:40

  5. I think your last sentence is really key there. I’m very sympathetic to the theoretical approaches of Masten et al., but he in particular leaves himself open to the anti-historical charges that Vickers takes him to town over. Your whole second paragraph quite nicely (and much better than I ever manage to do!) sums up the ideological approach that’s informing my thesis: with the revived interest in the material object, there’s an opportunity for us to take the theories of discursive, inherently collaborative work and look at how individual dramatists operated within this network and culture.

    One of the reasons I began thinking that these two approaches need to be in much more productive conversation is that so much of the kind of reading Masten does seems to help the position of those who champion concepts of individual authorship. Vickers spends his “Theory vs. History” chapter of Co-Author on classical examples; but the paratextual readings that Masten carries out are surely some of our most key pieces of evidence for authors having a sense of their own writing – Jonson’s prologues especially. It’s here, I think, that the individual mind within the social environment is best glimpsed.

    30 Jul 2010, 10:19

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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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