All entries for October 2009

October 29, 2009

Returning to the repertory

This blog has been relatively quiet recently, and bizarrely that's actually because I've been working harder on my PhD than usual. It's far easier to post tangential pieces when I'm procrastinating than try and sum up the work which is going directly into a chapter.

My current work is focussing on the five apocryphal plays that are (relatively) indisputably attached to the Chamberlain's/King's Men during the period that Shakespeare was an active member of that company: Thomas Lord Cromwell, Mucedorus, The London Prodigal, The Merry Devil of Edmonton and A Yorkshire Tragedy. Taking each of these plays in turn, I'm looking at its place in the company's repertory and the ways in which it might be usefully considered "Shakespearean" - not in the literal sense of penmanship, but in the sense of a discursive influence and authorship that shapes and is re-shaped by these plays.

Each play provides a different way into the question. Mucedorus, for example, is most interesting to me for the textual differences in its early editions, and how those changes reflect what was happening in the company during the early years of James' reign; while A Yorkshire Tragedy raises issues of censorship. However, the aspect which keeps cropping up is how the plays intersect with experiments in genre. It's increasingly my belief that all of the above plays fit into a narrative of generic development within the company, at the heart of which sits the company's resident dramatist.

The First Folio conditions us to think of Shakespeare's writing in terms of comedies, histories and tragedies, a set of definitions which can be reductive and unhelpful. Scholarship in recent years, in getting away from a Shakespeare-centric model, has been extremely productive in looking at the wider narratives of genre within the early modern theatrical companies, with key events such as Beaumont and Fletcher's move to the King's Men instigating that company's development of the tragicomic form. My contribution to this line of thought is to resituate the "apocryphal" plays within the company's repertory and show how they are involved in pushing the boundaries of genre within the company, in turn provoking responses among the better-known plays. They also raise interesting possibilities for what "Shakespeare" may imply; was the name associated with - or used to authorise - generic experimentation?

It's an interesting piece to work on, anyway. Once this model is set up, I'll then cast my eye over the other key apocryphal plays which aren't necessarily associated with the Shakespeare company, and see if they too have anything to say in this regard.

October 15, 2009

Kyd comes out

Writing about web page

Brian Vickers has gone public with his claims about Edward III being co-authored by Shakespeare and Kyd. The story's been picked up by the usual agencies and is doing the rounds of the world media.

So, expect the following: the conspiracy nuts using it as a platform to point out that "Shakespeare" didn't actually write any of his plays; 'enthusiasts' getting all sweaty at the idea that Shakespeare ever collaborated; academics complaining about whether research of this kind actually means anything; and grand claims about a "400 year old mystery being solved". In fact, most of these can be found in the Times' own article and comments already.

Depressingly, note how no-one will actually talk about the play itself. And almost certainly, despite the fact that the announcement is actually about Kyd, I'll lay a wager that none of the follow-up coverage will talk any further about him.

From my research, it seems that these announcements about authorship, whether within the academy or in the wider public sphere, all end up being treated in the same way, with the same core positions essentially unchanged each time. It's hugely frustrating, and I'd really like to see the findings develop instead into a public discussion on the implications of the research, and maybe take advantage of the Shakespeare connection to bring the play itself to greater attention.

Finally, the announcements invite a rhetoric of certainty that bothers me. This isn't "proof". This kind of research never proves anything. It simply - and in my mind, this is quite sufficient - provides a "best fit" of author to play. We will never know if there were other playwrights whose work has not survived who might have provided an even better fit. All we've got are working assumptions about a field where our knowledge is, frankly, quite limited.

I'm quite prepared to accept Kyd and Shakespeare as probable co-authors of Edward III, but I'd like to keep a sceptical eye half-open at all times, same as I do with Hand D of Thomas More. Establishing a name for a section of writing isn't the 'solution' to this 400 year old problem; it's rather a starting-point from which to start asking the far more complex questions about the forms that early modern authorship took. Did Kyd and Shakespeare work together? Did one revise the other's work? Did either take responsibility for 'plotting'? How does the writing fit into the narrative of other history plays? And so on. These are the questions I want to explore, and I suppose I'm always left a bit frustrated after reading these articles, which remind me that the world-at-large is still going to be bound by reductive and largely unhelpful conceptions of authorship which drag back real progress in authorship studies. Vickers has done some sterling work, yet the interesting questions it presents just aren't what the media is interested in.


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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