All entries for November 2008

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!

November 12, 2008

Words of Wisdom

Since reading Margreta de Grazia's article in Appropriations of Shakespeare entitled "Shakespeare in Quotation Marks" (1991, ed. Jean I. Marsden), I've been having some interesting thoughts about the canon and what the implications are of adding to or taking away from it.

de Grazia's article discusses the phenomenon of the Shakespeare 'quotation book', the publication that takes quotes from Shakespeare out of context and reproduces them as stand-alone sententiae. Within these books, the quotes are generally decontextualised, presented as statements and often grouped thematically (so, for example, you can go to a single page and see all of Shakespeare's important comments on love).

What this does, effectively, is present these quotes as the personal wisdom and viewpoints of Shakespeare the man. The importance of this can't be over-stressed; these books purport to offer a direct insight into Shakespeare's mind. Thus, Polonius' advice to his son becomes Shakespeare's own advice as a father; Romeo's declarations of Juliet's beauty become Shakespeare's own outpourings of love for an unknown other; King Harry's encouragement of his troops becomes Shakespeare inciting his countrymen to war. This idea is confirmed in the titles of these books published as late as the early 20th century, e.g. The Wisdom of Shakespeare (1909).

In terms of questioning the canon, this strain of Bardolatrous culture is very important. Effectively, if you change the works from which Shakespeare's 'mind' has been constructed, then you change that mind. If, say, Locrine features a different stance or take on war, suddenly in this context one has to question Shakespeare's own views on war. It strikes me that, consciously or unconsciously, this is an important part of the resistance, particularly in the 19th century, to the attribution of new works to Shakespeare; the man himself was held in such high esteem that the idea of changing him, of crediting to him works that were less decorous or voiced unpolitic sentiments, was unthinkable.

While we've obviously moved on, quotation books are still with us and we still act against the weight of a received Shakespeare who has 'opinions' which have been derived from his texts. This could be a productive line of inquiry.


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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