All entries for March 2009

March 30, 2009

Mark Dominik's 'Shakespeare–Middleton Collaborations

2 out of 5 stars

As I picked on Mark Dominik's book rather meanly yesterday, I thought I'd continue where I left off with its predecessor, which argues for Shakespeare's hand in The Puritan and A Yorkshire Tragedy.

The book actually starts considerably more promisingly. He argues that the First Folio is considered anachronistically authoritative, using comparisons with the Jonson and Beaumont/Fletcher folios, and argues that Shakespeare is given special treatment in authorship studies owing to the Bardolatry of later centuries. So far, so good. Starting with Timon, he argues that the two apocryphal plays represent a period of extended collaboration between the two authors.

He sums up the 'features' of Middleton's hand (as identified in Timon of Athens) worryingly briefly, leaving himself an extremely general and vague base test for Middleton's hand elsewhere (such as "the intermixture of rhyme and blank verse" and "roughness of versification" (15)).

Sadly, once Dominik begins exampling his internal evidence for Shakespeare's hand in the two plays, he again resorts to an eclectic and impressionistic methodology. He entirely fails to perform negative checks, going instead for the approach that such-and-such a word is near this other word in the play, and the same is also true in a Shakespeare play, therefore both must be Shakespearean. One of his arguments for Scene 4 of Yorkshire Tragedy being Shakespearean is that "it concludes with what is for Shakespeare an ultimate horror, a murder between father and son" (19). I hardly need to explain how ludicrous this is as a measure of authorship. He is better, however, when discussing links that are both contextual and verbal; however, the instances he cites are few and general enough to not convince. Particularly irritatingly, he falls into traps such as citing links with Timon as proof of Shakespearean authorship, without identifying which parts of Timon are Shakespearean and which are Middletonian.

While Dominik purports to investigate multiple features, he in actuality restricts himself to similarities of vocabulary and proximity of repeated words to other repeated words. Without the support of technology, this is a necessarily restricted and impressionistic view. It's not dissimilar to the methodology being used by the Kyd/Ford team in London, but they are using computer softward to a) objectively pull up all links automatically and b) perform a simultaneous negative check against the entire extant corpus of contemporary early modern drama. Their results can be quantified and qualified with some degree of authority. Dominik's method simply allows him to point out similarities, but he is unable to demonstrate the quality of the similarity.

The bulk of the book is given over to The Puritan. Dominik's agenda is set out by his initial statement that "granting the presence of Middleton, I will not give too much attention to the evidence of his hand - it is the presence of Shakespeare that I wish to establish" (42). He falls into the trap of all amateur authorship scholars by setting out to look for a specific hand: if not providing a wide search for authors, he should at least be attempting to reinforce the Middletonian presence throughout. Because he is looking for Shakespeare, he finds Shakespeare everywhere, again focussing only on positive links and failing to perform negative checks. He admits himself that the strength of his evidence varies hugely - his most important one is a series of thematic verbal links between Puritan I.ii and Lear Again, though, his failure to provide the appropriate evidence or statistics to qualify his evidence remains his biggest weakness - his arguments do not command attention because the reader is compelled to go and check for themselves whether or not these links are even valid.

And then, the book is over with little fanfare. It's certainly better than the Oldcastle study, showing more interesting engagement with canonical problems. However, Dominik's methods are quick and fail to usefully contribute to the debate.

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.

March 26, 2009

The True Tragedy of Richard III

I've just read the anonymous The True Tragedy of Richard III, and am quite amazed that no-one's made me read it before. Granted, it's relatively unavailable - I had to read it in the Malone Society reprint. However, it's a fascinating read for light it sheds on Shakespeare's writing of his Richard III, almost certainly a few years after the anonymous play. Here are some of the most interesting connections:

  • The presence of several minor plot points in Richard III is far better explained once placed in relation to the other play. Aspects I'm thinking of include: the reports of Mistress Shore's influence, the dilemma Stanley is placed in by Richard keeping his son George hostage, the reconcilement of Hastings and Buckingham with the Queen's faction, and the marriage of Richmond to Elizabeth's daughter. All of these things get lip service in Shakespeare's play, but are relatively minor to the main plot. However, all of these play major roles in the anonymous play; in particular, Mistress Shore gets an entire scene depicting her descent to begging on the streets, with the citizens forbidden on pain of death to relieve her. In many ways, the earlier play is actually richer in terms of its characters: Richard himself is less dominant, allowing several other characters to have their moments in a more generously ensemble piece.

  • Shakespeare's rewriting of the play takes into account his work on the Henry VI trilogy, and there is much work done to tie it in to the earlier pieces. Most obvious is the addition of Margaret, reappearing from the earlier plays to curse Richard. More subtly, Clarence (who only appears as a wordless ghost in the earlier play) is given a major role by Shakespeare, including speeches which hearken back to characters such as Warwick. Henry VI's funeral isn't present in the earlier play - its addition by Shakespeare is another link to the earlier trilogy.

  • The earlier play has a more traditional comic role in a Page who follows the action throughout, commenting on it for the audience's benefit. This role is completely omitted from Shakespeare. To enhance the central role, Shakespeare's play also reduces the role of Catesby, who is more dominant in the earlier play. Buckingham's role, however, is enhanced, as are those of Hastings, Rivers and Grey. Shakespeare's focus is Richard himself, and those conflicts which bolster Richard's role are given full weight.

  • Shore aside, women are mostly absent from the earlier play. Elizabeth has some stage time, as does her daughter, but otherwise it is a man's world. The addition of Margaret, the Duchess of York and Anne to Shakespeare's play, coupled with the enormous expansion of Elizabeth's role, is one of the most notable differences between the two.

  • The earlier play finishes with the actors stepping out of character and running through the line of Tudor monarchs (even Mary), finishing with explicit praise of Elizabeth and prayers that she will live forever. With this perspective, it is quite clear that the 'Tudor Myth' was being fully exploited in the earlier play, yet Shakespeare's is far less explicit about this aspect of the history.

  • One of the murderers employed by Tyrell to kill the princes is Black Will - a shock to anyone who knows Arden of Faversham! Considering the theory that Black Will was an early Shakespeare role, this reappearance of essentially the same character is hugely interesting.

  • Lastly, Shakespeare knows what's worth dramatising. In the earlier play, Richard merely reports his dream before the battle: in Shakespeare, it is fully dramatised and extended to include Richmond too. Likewise, key scenes such as the appearance of Richard with two priests before the crowd, the murder of Clarence and Richard's early days in power are only reported in the earlier play, scenes which Shakespeare makes good use of.

It's a hugely interesting play, and I highly recommend seeking it out if you're interested in Shakespeare's play. It's clearly (so it seems to me) a source, and shows us a great deal about the way Shakespeare reused material.

March 25, 2009

The Repertory

Just a quick post as a shout-out about the reading I'm doing at the moment. The first section of my new chapter is concerned with reconstructing the original circumstances of performance for the apocryphal plays: company, date etc. From there, I'll be able to comment on what they offered to the repertory at large. Considering the academic interest over the last few years in studying the repertory, I'm slightly surprised that the apocrypha continue to be ignored, as it's my belief that several of them shed fascinating light on company practices, regardless of authorship.

As part of this, I've been continuing my reading of early modern drama, and placing each play once it's read in a table to build up a rough chronology of plays which, hopefully, will be a useful tool in establishing the relationship of plays to each other. You can see the list here.

March 04, 2009

The Face and Figure of Shakespeare (Iain Mackintosh)

Writing about web page

The HRC lecture series at Warwick has been fascinating this year, and this evening's talk was no exception, being particularly relevant to my own research. Iain Mackintosh, a theatre designer (he designed the Cottesloe!) is curating an exhibition opening in April at the Orleans House Gallery entitled The Face and Figure of Shakespeare, which for the first time will be bringing together most of the major sculptures, frontispieces and illustrations of Shakespeare during the 18th century, creating a narrative showing Shakespeare being recast as the national hero.

The talk itself was illuminating, particularly in the context of what I've been hearing (Stuart Sillars etc.) and reading (Jonathan Bate, Gary Taylor, Michael Dobson et. al.) this year so far. The issue of illustration, artistic representation and other visual incarnations of Shakespeare keeps recurring in my investigations into Bardolatry and the rise of Shakespeare as national/cultural icon in the eighteenth century. Yet I'm painfully aware that, as exciting and rich as this area is, it can only be a footnote to my main concern, the apocrypha.

However, the exhibition sounds wonderful. If you go on a Sunday, they are running free shuttle buses to Garrick's Tempe to Shakespeare at Hampton, so you can catch both exhibition and the original sight of Garrick's specially commissioned Roubiliac statue in the same day. Catch it if you can, it runs April 18th - June 7th.

March 01, 2009

Thomas Middleton's 'A Game at Chess' Symposium

Thomas Middleton is one of the most important dramatists for my studies, being author or part-author of several plays that have, at one time or another, been part of the Shakespeare Apocrypha. While there is no dispute about the authorship of his final play, A Game at Chess (we even, rarely, have a manuscript of the play in his hand), a symposium on this play is still of significant interest, particularly when it aims to combine academic scholarship with theatre practice.

A team of eighteen actors had worked for two weeks prior to the symposium on A Game at Chess, each taking multiple roles and working with directors from an academic background. While there are hopes for a future production, the rehearsals were specifically geared towards presenting a variety of stagings at this symposium for discussion and experimentation. Actors and academics could then use their respective experiences to discuss the options and further understanding of the play.

It's the kind of work that I've become fairly used to at Warwick, and I fully appreciate its value. However, many of the academics and actors were less used to this kind of collaboration, and much of the event was geared towards showing how the two 'sides' can mutually benefit each other, to no small success. The hope is that this kind of forum can be repeated with other plays, which would be a wonderful thing and I only hope it can work.

The problem, if one can call it that, is that a few hours only lets you scratch the surface of this kind of work. It's something I expressed at one point in the discussion: that what would be particularly fantastic as an academic is to be in the rehearsal room from start to finish. Not to interfere or advise (for that necessarily impacts on the actors' rehearsal process, rarely for the better), but simply to watch and understand the various processes, the experiments with and rejections of various readings, the sheer volume of could-have-beens which are simply not available to an academic who sees only the final performance. The symposium offered a variety of alternatives for selected scenes; what would be truly useful, though, would be to see how the final decisions are made. I had experience of this with Cheek by Jowl's Cymbeline: we were in for a few days at the very start of rehearsals and then, months later, saw the final performance - but we lost the processses that had taken them from one to the other, and thus could never know the decisions that were taken and the things that were laid aside, only the ultimate effects.

This is, however, an inherent limitation of this kind of day: and for many reasons (not least practical) it's simply not possible to follow an entire process. However, even these few hours brought out many fascinating aspects of the play, which I'll try and briefly encapsulate.

  • Watching actors work intensely on short dialogue scenes brings out the fact that A Game at Chess is, at its heart, a deeply emotional and human play. Criticism and evaluation of the play is swamped by allegory and historical resonance, which is all extremely interesting but often serves to overshadow the heartbreaking individual stories within the play. This was especially true of watching the 'mirror' scene played over and over, as the stories and emotions of the Black Queen's Pawn and White Queen's Pawn were fleshed out and brought to painful life. Theirs is a story of betrayal, lost love, manipulation and carefully balanced risk, as intense as anything in The Changeling or Women Beware Women, and poses fascinating opportunities for actors.
  • Still on the historical note, I felt that there's a danger in the new speech prefixes used by Gary Taylor in the Oxford edition used for the symposium. He 'names' the characters (e.g. Black Knight Gondomar, Jesuitess Black Queen's Pawn etc.). This inevitably led to the actors referring to their characters as the historical figures, e.g. when asked what their purpose was in the final scene, the actors playing the White Knight and White Duke stated that they had come to woo the Infanta. Tying the play in to its historical allegory does make for a rich reading, but also presents the danger of trying to act two different things. I don't feel that you need to preserve the original allusions to make a successful production of this play, and in some ways the anonymity of the characters (Black Knight etc.), while making the play more difficult to read, allows for a variety of different allusions to be placed on it. Alternatively, does a modern production need the allegory at all? If you concentrate on the stories of the individual characters, and use the chess symbolism simply as a way to up the dramatic stakes (for chess is an inherently dramatic device in and of itself), can that not work in its own right? In many ways, what the symposium brought out for me is that you don't need to find allegorical significance to make the play powerful; the power is in the language and internal situations of Middleton's writing.
  • The staging adopted for the workshop turned the stage into a large-scale chessboard on which the characters moved. One thing that we didn't see much of but seemed fascinating was the idea of staging key moments as chess scenes; thus, in the final scene, the White Knight and White Duke actually manouvere themselves into the actual chess positions needed to establish checkmate. I'd love to see this developed further, though remain sceptical about whether this can be done in a way that is clear enough to the audience to make an impact. What definitely worked, though, was having characters move in ways evocative of their piece - so the knights hopped about and moved freely, the dukes and bishops moved in powerful lines, the pawns shuffled forward a bit at a time. If fully realised in production, there could be a wealth of interest come out of this idea.
  • The 'firking' scene, played between three men, made for the most hysterically homoerotic sequence I've ever seen on a stage, and yet also hinted at darkness. This black comedy ran throughout much of the workshop, and I'd suggest that this is one of the most compelling reasons to take this work on to a full production.
  • Themes that kept recurring through the various scenes were power and manipulation, and the experiments with status in the different versions of scenes were hugely effective. As the Black Knight and Fat Bishop manipulated the Black Knight's Pawn, the relationship between Knight and Bishop shifted enormously; when the Knight was powerful, the Bishop became a rather dull character, but when given authority the Bishop became hugely dangerous and more than a match for his rival.
  • Finally, the bag. While I'd naturally imagined a trap being used for the bag of hell into which the black pieces are finally condemned (I'd love to see, in an expensive production, the entire chess board collapsing into it), here members of the company contorted themselves into a writhing, hissing mass of bodies that engulfed the pieces. This image of shifting bodies worked particularly well; however, it hinted at a thoroughly more physical production than the symposium had time to go into. To bring in that level of physicality to a production would be hugely interesting, and perhaps work well with the overarching sense of manipulation that comes with any chess game - for, of course, there is always someone moving the pieces.

The symposium was certainly of use and interest in helping visualise and bring out the strengths of A Game at Chess. It seems a shame for the work to end here, and a full production seems the next natural step. It's the kind of work that funding bodies need to support, and one can only hope that a fuller academic/theatrical collaborative project might be born from this. In itself, though, a lovely event.


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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