March 29, 2009

Mark Dominik's 'A Shakespearean Anomaly'

1 out of 5 stars

Mark Dominik's A Shakespearean Anomaly begins with a fair question. If Shakespeare collaborated with dramatists based at Henslowe's Rose on Thomas More, why might he not have also collaborated on other plays outside of those belonging to the Chamberlain's/King's Men? It's a good question, explored in literature Dominik seems unaware of by Carol A. Chillington ("Playwrights at Work") and the contributors to Howard-Hill's 1989 volume on Thomas More. Engagement with these works would have been hugely beneficial to Dominik in construcing his argument, which proceeds from this sensible start to utter ridiculousness.

Dominik's contention is that Shakespeare contributed to 1 Sir John Oldcastle, the play attributed to him by a 1619 title page. Dominik is quick to dismiss as unreliable the external evidence which usually rules out this possibility - the records in Henslowe's diary of payments to Munday, Drayton, Hathway and Wilson for the play. Dominik has formed his conclusions on the basis of internal evidence, and decides that, despite the record of any payment to Shakespeare, Shakespeare contributed to the play as part-penance for his indiscretion in naming the gluttonous knight of 1 Henry IV John Oldcastle. Interestingly, Dominik notes that Shakespeare's name was first attached to the play just after the death of Lord Cobham, the descendant of Oldcastle who originally caused the name to be changed. The implication is that Shakespeare was finally able, as a tribue to the dead lord, to acknowledge his contribution to the play written to appease him.

To overturn such strong critical opinion and persuasive external evidence (which S. Schoenbaum reminds us, of course, must take precedence over internal evidence) requires an impressive argument, which Dominik entirely fails to provide. His method is to prove that the play is more stylistically similar to the known works of Shakespeare than those of Munday. Owing to the absence of dramatic canons for Drayton, Hathway or Wilson, he dismisses them almost entirely from the discussion. The logic of this decision is impenetrable: all he could ever hope to prove from this is that parts of the play are more like Shakespeare than like one of the four named authors.

His stylistic evidence is based on general likeness and unlikeness to the two authors, and fails to be convincing in any way. Demonstrating a general likeness is not an argument for authorship without a substantive negative check, which he purports to provide. What texts does he choose for this negative check? The plays of Marlowe and the poems of Donne, Jonson and Spenser. He selects these canons for the availability of concordances, which is the laziest form of negative check imaginable. A negative check needs to be against relevant material: the dramatic canons of contemporary writers. Again, all Dominik proves is that neither Marlowe (dead), Spenser (a poet, and at the end of his life), Donne (another poet, and pre-career) nor Jonson the poet are likely to have contributed to the play. I need no concordance to tell you that.

Another complaint, particularly pertinent to this kind of play, is that he doesn't even consider the possibility of shared sources to explain similarities. One of his 'strongest' bits of evidence is the similarity of the chronicle-style explanation of the royal genealogy to those in 1 and 2 Henry VI (themselves arguably Shakespearean, but let that pass). He assumes that this is inherently Shakespearean, but doesn't even acknowledge that it is largely taken from the sources in Stow, Hall and Holinshed.

Dominik therefore essentially shows the following with his book:

1) Parts of the play show a greater resemblance to Shakespeare than they do to one of the play's four authors.

2) Shakespeare is more likely to have contributed to the play than Marlowe, Jonson, Spenser or Donne.

3) That there is no effective means to test for Drayton's, Hathway's or Wilson's contributions.

Essentially, then, the book is pointless. It's a shame, for Dominik provides some useful initial study of what is known of the relevant dramatists and asks some interesting questions. His methodology, though, is thoroughly amateurish and useless. To fly in the face of overwhelming external evidence requires a solid and well thought-out argument, and this is not it.

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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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