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March 27, 2011

Reviewing Shakespeare – Special Journal Issue

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Volume Six of Shakespeare has just been published in hard-form. This volume includes 6.3, the special issue on "Reviewing Shakespearean Theatre: The State of the Art", to which I contributed an essay. It's not an outstanding piece, just a position paper on the use of tense in reviewing, but I'm happy with it, and I'm in prestigious company among scholars whose work I love: Michael Billington, Eleanor Collins, Peter Holland, Elinor Parsons, Stephen Purcell, Stanley Wells and a host of others. The essays are uniformly great, and there are several format-pushing experiments, including a "collective review" of a production and a selection of different approaches to the processes of gathering audience response.

It's also great, after years of relentless blogging, to finally have an academic context for "The Bardathon". Without wishing to be self-aggrandising, I was genuinely touched to have the blog mentioned by a couple of the other papers, and to be a part of the extremely important debate over the role of multiple viewpoints and new media in the future of Shakespearean reviewing. I'm not quite sure what the next steps are in this discussion, but I'm very much hoping to return to the question of performance criticism once I've put the Apocrypha to bed.

Many thanks to Pete Smith, Paul Prescott and Paul Edmondson for a wonderful conference, and for organising a very fun launch dinner last night for the authors!

February 05, 2011

Top Ten

I'm hugely pleased and privileged to have been asked to contribute a chapter to an edited collection coming out with Ashgate in 2012. Entitled The Elizabethan Top Ten: Defining Print Popularity in Early Modern England, and edited by Andy Kesson and Emma Smith, this is a hugely exciting project that will interrogate the idea of "popularity" in the early modern book trade. How do we measure and define what was popular? Is it a question of number of publications; of number of references; or of perceived literary quality? It's an important question - the battle between the popular and the prestige is eternally present, and much of our thinking about early modern texts is pre-conditioned by our perception of the kinds of audiences that books could have reached.

My contribution will be one of ten short essays, each dealing with a specific genre or phenomenon. I'm taking responsibility for "Drama" with an essay on Mucedorus, the anonymous play whose known number of reprints dwarves any other from the period. Most of the criticism on the play is bound up with attempting to explain how a play of variable quality (but high popular excitement) came to be published so frequently. I'm interested in looking at this body of criticism, and the play itself, and determining how we pigeonhole ideas of the popular in relation to drama, which was a necessarily popular form. Why has a play that, apparently, could have been one of the most successful plays of its time (if, indeed, we believe that this can be measured by numbers), fallen into obscurity and neglect? How does popularity and fitness to a time and genre shift? And how do we redefine the popular under the cultural weight of the prestige - in this case, to separate the play from its only early attributed author, Shakespeare?

Very much looking forward to writing this article. The colloquium is in September, which follows my PhD submission date frustratingly closely, but that just gives me more of a reason to get cracking!

August 27, 2010

More Publications

It's been a very good week for publications. Firstly, a special issue of Shakespeare has just been published, entitled "Reviewing Shakespearean Theatre: The State of the Art", which includes an edited version of the paper I gave at the the conference of the same name last year. My paper, " "What's Past is Prologue: Negotiating the Authority of Tense in Reviewing Shakespeare", interrogates the implications of the chosen tense in theatre reviews, and makes a case for the informed use of the past tense in most cases.

Unfortunately, the journal issue itself is rather expensive, and Warwick doesn't subscribe to this journal, so I'm hoping for a free copy, especially because there are other papers - particularly that of Jeremy Lopez, which appears from the abstract to tackle a similar issue to mine, perhaps from an opposing perspective - that I haven't seen or heard before.

Today, meanwhile, I noticed that the next batch of RSC Shakespeare single editions are out, including two more for which I've contributed the performance histories, Troilus and Cressida and Richard II. As ever, the performance histories are necessarily brief, but I think they're okay given the remit and space, and it's certainly a confidence boost to see stuff I've written on bookshelves, even if it's right at the end of the book!

Richard II Troilus and Cressida

(NB the Troilus image is different to the one I picked up today. I'm guessing this is an old rejected cover - note the quote from As You Like It which shows it was never a final draft. The new one uses "Power into will, Will into appetite")

August 24, 2010

Knowing Will Too Well

I recently wrote a very short piece for the Warwick "Knowledge Centre" on that old chestnut, the Shakespeare Authorship Question. I think you need to be a current or former member of the University to view it, but the piece is here, entitled "Knowing Will Too Well". I don't have space to go into the specifics of the authorship argument, but point out the most basic flawed principles upon which anti-Stratfordian arguments rely. I then point out that the question persists because orthodox Shakespearean biography uses a similarly imaginative approach, thus legitimising the methodology used by conspiracy theorists. Only by understanding Shakespeare in his collaborative, theatrical context is this question ever going to be resolved.

August 10, 2010


I've been reading about bears all day, and come across the wonderful term "Bearist" as used by Helen Cooper and Teresa Grant in correspondence in the London Review of Books. I'm not really concerned with the specifics of the use of animals, though a middle ground between two extreme points seems to make sense: the use of bears for court performances of Mucedorus and The Winter's Tale seems to me to be entirely probable and in keeping with the spirit of the occasion; when the plays were performed on the public stage, however, Cooper's arguments that bear costumes would have been employed make sense. What's important to me is the implication - one I think is justified - that Mucedorus was revived in 1610 to capitalise on the availability of two polar bear cubs, and that the additional business with Mouse early in the play (one of the few additions not to be concerned with emphasising the prince's true identity) takes explicit advantage of this.

I'm tickled, though, by Cooper's description of Grant, Anne Barton and others as "bearists." A Bearist would then  presumably be an aherent to Bearism? Does that make Cooper an anti-Bearist? Or a Bearnostic? More seriously, is a belief that bears were utilised on the early modern stage worthy of a specific label? It seems that Cooper's implicit division of critical positions into "Bearist" and "non-Bearist" is perhaps taking categorisation too far. Or is there a real schism here in animal-based literary studies? The idea of what Chris Holmes refers to as a "cabal of zealous bear theorists holed up and busily engaged in impassioned debate", frankly, scares me a little bit.

July 28, 2010

Is there really a case against collaboration?

Brian Vickers, in the opening of his article "Incomplete Shakespeare; or, Denying Co-Authorship in 1 Henry VI" (Shakespeare Quarterly 58:3 (2007), 311-52) outlines a subtitle for the Shakespeare canon based on the last twenty years of attribution studies. “Assisted by Thomas Nashe, George Peele, Thomas Middleton, George Wilkins, John Fletcher, John Davies of Hereford, and Others.” (311) As in Shakespeare, Co-Author (Oxford, 2002), he directs his argument forcefully at those who deny the presence of these authors within the Shakespeare canon.

He then makes this attack explicit:

Some readers will have read my opening paragraph with approval, others with dismay or indignation. The latter group, those who categorically deny the presence of any other hand than Shakespeare’s in the canon of 38 plays, are in fact setting him on an illusory pedestal, as a genius who never needed assistance. (312)

Vickers doesn't, however, provide any references or examples of those who will view this with dismay.

My genuine question, then, is this: who are these people who deny co-authorship? I have a suspicion that Vickers is now offering something of a "straw man" argument, assuming a position of ignorance that he sets up in order to destroy. Of course there are local grievances, most recently that between Vickers and Gary Taylor over the attribution of sections of Macbeth to Middleton. Yet is there anybody out there in the academic community who honestly believes that Shakespeare wrote the whole of The Two Noble Kinsmen? Who denies Middleton's role in Timon of Athens? Who thinks Fletcher played no role in Henry VIII, or that Pericles is sole-authored? Not to mention, of course, that everybody accepts Shakespeare contributed to the collaborative Thomas More, and almost everybody recognises he collaborated on Edward III.

I'm not criticising Vickers's work here, because he's done more than anyone else to champion the cause of co-authorship. Yet this article, only a couple of years old, still sets Vickers up as the sole champion of Shakespeare as a collaborator, twenty years after the Oxford Shakespeare canonised the hands of Fletcher, Wilkins and Middleton in the plays. Despite what the 2007 article appears to suggest, Vickers is no longer fighting a one-man fight against the notion of collaboration, which an overwhelming majority of scholars accept unquestioningly; the debate now is about the specifics of collaboration. It is testament to the massive shift in opinions that, in the most recent dispute, Vickers is the one championing sole authorship of Macbeth against others who have found collaboration.

I don't dispute the correctness of Vickers's claims here, merely point out that there is no longer an ideological dispute over whether Shakespeare deigned to work with others, except in the loony fringes of authorship scholarship (eg the work of Eric Sams). When it comes to individual and highly-contested cases such as 1 Henry VI or even Titus, let's not confuse genuine innocence of authorship scholarship with wilful Bardolatry - it helps no-one. I spoke to people at a recent conference who were unaware of the work making the case for Peele's hand in Titus; these people are not attempting to actively preserve a sole-authored canon, they simply didn't know the specifics of recent arguments. The "others" of Vickers's remark who wilfully deny collaboration per se are, for the most part, no longer there to be shouted down.

February 03, 2010

A Man Named Harris

This one's just too good to let pass.

The late Eric Sams, infamous among Shakespearean authorship scholars for his vitriolic, dogmatic and wild claims that Shakespeare wrote a great many unattributed plays, commits many basic errors in his methodologies. One is that he looks for positive parallels only, without checking against other plays to make sure that the parallel does not apply to other dramatists as well as Shakespeare. So, if Edmond Ironside and Julius Caesar share the phrase "Get out of here" (they don't), you have to make sure that no other plays also have the phrase "Get out of here", otherwise the parallel is meaningless. Basic common sense.

This is Sams in his introduction to "Shakespeare's" Edmond Ironside, justifying his refusal to search for negative evidence:

You have to meet in a crowd a Mr. Harris, hitherto unknown to you, but who, you are informed, has red hair, wears a monocle and walks with a limp. You address with some confidence a stranger possessing these characteristics; and if he responds to the name of Harris, you would accept the identification, without brooding over the fact that there are nearly a thousand Harrises in the London telephone directory alone. (2).

MacDonald P. Jackson, reviewing Sams' book, feels that the defining authorial characteristics of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama are, however, slightly less firm evidence than a limp and a monocle.

Stand Harris beside any man in the street and the pair will turn out to have any of their innumerable characteristics in common, over and above those that declare them to be human: both wear black shoes, are left-handed, have moustaches, carry umbrellas, are six feet tall and answer to 'Hey, you!' We might even reckon probabilities - one in ten men is left-handed, one in eight wears a moustache, and so on - and enlarge the list to the point where multiplying the separate odds would produce a billion-to-one coincidence. Harris must have met his doppelganger! No, the passer-by is a stout Caucasian and Harris is a slim West Indian. The total absence of constraints on our search for resemblances renders the calculations meaningless. (225)

One of the more eloquent cases for the importance of negative checks that I've found.


Jackson, MacDonald P. "Editions and Textual Studies." Shakespeare Survey 40. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. 224-36.

Sams, Eric (ed.). Shakespeare's Lost Play: Edmond Ironside. London: Fourth Estate, 1985.

October 15, 2009

Kyd comes out

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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.

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.

October 08, 2008

Neural networks

I felt the need to quickly put a thought down before I get swamped in material. I'm currently working through articles on Edward III by Thomas Merriam, a rather clever gentleman who has published several articles outlining a case for Marlowe's involvement in (either as writer, collaborator or the original writer of source material adapted by Shakespeare) scenes of that play.

These articles mark my first tentative steps out of the relatively safe and familiar world of historical investigation into the decidedly unfamiliar world of stylometric testing. Specifically, I'm just powering through an article detailing the creation of a particular neural network that Merriam and his colleague developed which can distinguish with (according to them!) a high level of accuracy between the writings of Marlowe and Shakespeare, using a select number of function-word ratios.

It's mind-boggling stuff for a literature boy. Yet it's also incredibly exciting. Throughout all of the studies I've read so far on the use of modern stylometrics, there's an iterated concern for the application of simple common sense to these tests, which have been used to great and damaging effect by many literary scholars who simply didn't understand the basic scientific/mathematical rules which needed to be followed in order to provide meaningful results. It's the kind of basic error which leads people to, for example, calculate ratios based on the number of function words per line in a given play, yet doesn't take into account the length of a line, whether a line is verse or prose, whether the texts are standardised with each other and so on.

I'm excited because, so far,I get it. Not just the common sense bits, but the technical data. I'm not saying I could design these tests myself (give me time), but I'm picking up how to read them and, more importantly, how to interrogate them. One of the main problems with this field, as Merriam himself points out in a 2002 article, is that the level of detail needed to make a thorough case is so massive in any particular investigation that it renders itself unreadable to anyone who isn't a specialist. By contrast, if you don't put it in the detail, clarity comes at the expense of accuracy and devalues the research. Therefore, for anyone seriously considering studying authorship, it's imperative to gain a solid understanding of how to read this stuff, how to interpret and respond to it. Otherwise, you just have to take people's word for it; or, alternatively, dismiss it out of hand as many scholars do.

This is a massive challenge for me, but one I'm really excited about. It's nice to be doing something interdisciplinary (though I won't be at a stage where I can hold meaningful conversations about this with Computer Science PhDs for quite some time), and it's nice to be taking on an area which puts off so many literary academics. Bring it on!


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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