November 28, 2008

Shakespeare & Co.

Shakespeare really gets in the way sometimes.

The overwhelming attention given to this one dramatist, and the importance placed on his canon, can often lead to an uncomfortable bias in articles on authorship. In saying this, I'm particularly thinking of articles which attempt to ascertain the authorship of apocryphal plays. The emphasis is almost always on establishing whether a section of text is 'Shakespeare' or 'Not-Shakespeare', unless the Shakespearean portions have been settled and they're explicitly looking at the other sections. It's quite rare I find an article that, with one of the more obscure plays, attempts to make a positive case for another dramatist.

The case of The London Prodigal, one of my favourite of the apocryphal plays, is a particularly good example. This one is quite difficult to find any articles on; Shakespeare's authorship of it is generally dismissed as a given nowadays. This in itself is quite disappointing, as Prodigal has some of the strongest external evidence supporting Shakespearean authorship: a stationer's register entry giving Shakespeare's name, a quarto in Shakespeare's lifetime giving Shakespeare's name, a confirmed place in the repertory of the King's Men, and inclusion in the 1664 Folio. I've yet to find the serious scholarship that absolutely excludes Shakespeare's hand in the play - I'm sure it exists, but I suspect that much of it may have been coloured by the given assumption that it's not Shakespearean on aesthetic grounds. In any case, that's beside the point until I start that section of my research.

No, what here interests me more is that, as far as I can tell, no-one has made a serious positive bid for any other author for the play. This is true of a surprising amount of the apocryphal plays. Gary Taylor's team working on the Oxford Middleton project 'reclaimed' The Yorkshire Tragedy, The Puritan and The Second Maiden's Tragedy for Middleton, but several of the other apocryphal plays remain in the Shakespeare-or-Not-Shakespeare limbo, adrift and unwanted.

One of the most difficult things about working on a project called 'The Shakespeare Apocrypha' is the impression that it gives that I, too, am engaging solely with the presence or non-presence of Shakespeare's hand in these plays. That's not true, though unfortunately the weight of scholarship given to that simple split makes it difficult to avoid. I intend to gain a good familiarity with as many dramatists as possible whose hands may be present in the plays, and pay particular attention to those plays where another playwright has been claimed. Thomas Merriam, for example, has been making claims for some years that Marlowe's hand is in Edward III. Middleton, obviously, pervades the apocrypha. Munday is undoubtedly a significant contributor to Thomas More, and Brian Vickers has recently strengthened the case for Kyd's authorship of Arden of Faversham. Quite frankly, I don't understand how a serious study of the apocrypha can rely simply on Shakespeare; there's got to be engagement with the whole community of dramatists in order to understood collaborative writing.

So, I'm ploughing through Marlowe's oeuvre. Then it's on to Kyd, Jonson, Middleton, Munday, Peele, Greene, Fletcher, Massinger, Beaumont, Wilkins, Webster, Drayton, Dekker, Rowley, Shirley....... Should be fun!

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  1. Duncan

    I notice that Arden is about to launch an Early Modern series in 2009 as well as an edition of Double Falsehood in its Shakespeare series. Will these be of any use to you?

    29 Nov 2008, 12:53

  2. Oh yeah, absolutely. They announced AEMD a couple of years ago, since which time I’ve met a couple of the general editors and lobbied unsuccessfully for them to commission some of the apocryphal plays – no such luck! It’ll be really good, though, to have so many early plays edited properly and, most importantly, affordably.

    Never trust Amazon for information on Arden – they almost never have the date right, and often not the editor either! Information elsewhere says it’s Michael Dobson editing Double Falsehood, and it probably won’t be out until 2010. Before then we’ll have John Jowett’s Thomas More and an Arden Edward III if all goes well, all of which I’m extremely pleased about! The general editor of the Arden, Richard Proudfoot, was for a long time going to be doing an edition of the apocrypha (they’re something of a specialism for him), but I believe that now he’s more interested in getting out these good, scholarly editions of the ones which are actually likely to have some relation to Shakespeare instead!

    30 Nov 2008, 11:47

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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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