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September 10, 2011

Shakespeare Club

Writing about web page

On Tuesday, I'll be addressing the Shakespeare Club of Stratford-upon-Avon, with the title "Chasing Windmills: Where Next for Cardenio?" This lecture will discuss the aftermath of both Brean Hammond's edition of Double Falsehood and the RSC's recent production of Cardenio. If the play is now part of the canon, what are we to expect for it next?

Shakespeare Institute, Mason Croft, Church Street, Stratford-upon-Avon. 7:45pm.

June 14, 2011

Cardenio in Conversation

Writing about web page

The wonderful people at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust have made a talk that I attended on Saturday available online. This was a conversation between Tiffany Stern and Greg Doran on the subject of Cardenio, chaired by Paul Edmondson of this parish.

It was a wonderful discussion, with Greg talking in detail about the history of his relationship with the play and adaptation, and Tiffany eloquently stating her case for scepticism over Double Falsehood. Happily, I don't need to report further, because you can listen for yourself:

Cardenio in Conversation

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 30, 2010

The early modern Shakespeare fan

As an experiment, imagine that Shakespeare had at least one really committed literary fan in his lifetime. This fan (similar to the modern record collector) wants to gather together everything that's been published in his idol's name, to put together his own "complete works" on the available evidence. What does it look like? Here's the library he would end up with:

  • Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598)
  • Richard II (1598)
  • Richard III (1598)
  • 1 Henry IV (1599)
  • The Passionate Pilgrim (1599)
  • 2 Henry IV (1600)
  • The Merchant of Venice (1600)
  • A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600)
  • Much Ado about Nothing (1600)
  • The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602)
  • Hamlet (1603)
  • The London Prodigal (1605)
  • King Lear (1608)
  • A Yorkshire Tragedy (1608)
  • Pericles (1609)
  • Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609)
  • Troilus and Cressida (1609)

If he was particularly geeky, he would also have picked up:

  • Locrine (1595, attributed to W.S.)
  • Thomas Lord Cromwell (1602, attributed to W.S.)
  • The Puritan (1607, attributed to W.S.)
  • The Troublesome Reign of King John (1611, attributed to W.Sh.)

He would almost certainly also own Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, confirming the popular rumours about their authorship when he found Shakespeare's name attached to their dedicatory addresses. Doubtless, he would also have picked up later quartos of some of the plays.

This is obviously a very different Complete Works, and while it's most unlikely that any reader would have pursued Shakespeare's name in print with this kind of fervour, it's worth taking a moment to appreciate how varied Shakespeare's literary presence was in his own lifetime. I'm always surprised, reading back down that list, to be reminded that even Henry V wasn't attributed to Shakespeare on bookshelves, nor the ever-popuar Romeo and Juliet. Yet, of course, everyone knew that these were Shakespeare's. Francis Meres's list alone shows that several plays not even printed, let alone attributed to Shakespeare in print, were known to be his, including Titus, Comedy of Errors and Two Gentlemen.

This is illustrative of a wider question: how much importance should we place on title pages and printed attributions? In a heavily social culture, where did people get their information from? This is a significant question. It's a standard academic argument that playgoers would have not known - or perhaps even cared - who the dramatist of the play they were attending was, an argument based on e.g. the lack of authors on title pages in the 1580s and 90s, and the possibility that these title pages reflect advertising material for the plays. I can't help but wonder, though, based on the allusions in Meres, the Parnassus plays and so on - is part of the reason for the lack of printed attributions that everyone knew who wrote them anyway? That it was too obvious and mundane a piece of information to include? Or, more to the point, would the writer's name be advertised differently, or a topic of casual conversation? Obviously, as the professional theatre developed and more writers emerge, there's a growing kudos attached to authorial attributions, and dramatists become literary authors. But this doesn't mean that the authors were unknown and unnoticed earlier in the period; the various testimonies we have are evidence of that.

This is why, in the section of my chapter from which this list is drawn, I'm careful to articulate that this is Shakespeare's literary presence, his presence on bookshelves. That is distinct, in my mind, from his public presence, from what people knew he had written. One can't quantify what that public presence may have been, but I'm inclined to believe that it was much more significant than narratives focussing on merely his printed appearances, or biographical narratives suggesting he was a recluse, imply.

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.

June 13, 2010

The Anti–Stratfordian Question

Over the last month or so, I've been increasingly contacted by anti-Stratfordian researchers wanting to share with me their latest theories or books, or to defend their position.

I'd like to make it absolutely clear at this point that I am extremely uninterested in arguments and theories over who wrote the plays of William Shakespeare, for the following reasons:

1) Shakespeare wrote them.

2) Anti-Stratfordian arguments rely on a set of principles which I believe are fundamentally flawed, particularly ones that believe that the author's life can be read in the work.

3) Too much of what I've read has been blinkered, badly researched and/or woefully misrepresentative of historical data. There is no, in my opinion, fundamental premise for this question to even be asked.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

What I AM interested in are the meta-issues thrown up by the very existence of an authorship question: the unique cultural status of Shakespeare; the literary and cultural investment in ideologies of authorship; the importance placed on these fictional works as containing transcendent messages of historical "truth"; the light it sheds on issues in mainstream academia caused by Bardolatrous attitudes etc. The discourses, debates, assumptions and rhetoric that surround this kind of argument are of immense interest to me, but the actual content of the conversations is not.

So on that basis, I'm not going to mention or critique anyone's "new" claims for their preferred candidate, I just don't have the time or the interest. Sorry.

March 17, 2010

The Arden Double Falsehood: Brean Hammond and Carol Rutter on The Today Programme

In case you didn't catch it yesterday, here's Brean Hammond and Carol Rutter discussing the new Arden edition of Double Falsehood, which was officially released yesterday.


It's an unfortunately short section, and necessarily reductive in the time they've got. There are some interesting questions, though, about the nature of the Arden Shakespeare imprint and what it should be doing. By printing the play as part of this series, Arden have given it "the stamp of the approval, it's now part of the canon", and the interviewer comments that it should only be plays that Shakespeare had a substantial hand in, not things knocked together for a Friday night.

What ARE we interested in? What do we WANT from a "Complete Works"? I'm increasingly bemused and frustrated by this question. Do we want the actual words, an exhaustive list of the specific words that Shakespeare the man specifically chose? Or are we interested in those plays that, in however corrupt a form, were ones that he took a substantive role in devising and shaping for the stage? In that sense, imagine if King Lear hadn't survived. Would we accept Nahum Tate's Lear, with its happy ending, in its place? Would that contain enough of "Shakespeare" to still be considered "worth" something, for what it does preserve of the Immortal Bard?

I'm interested by Carol's assertion that Double Falsehood should be under the "Arden Early Modern Drama" imprint, rather than the "Arden Shakespeare". I don't necessarily argue this. However, I would like to ask - where is the cut-off point? Where does the Arden "Shakespeare" end, and the rest of "Early Modern Drama" begin? Prior to yesterday, the Arden Shakespeare contained only plays with a solid external attribution to Shakespeare: they were either in the First Folio or published in an early Quarto with his name on. Following Double Falsehood, though, the Arden Shakespeare will also be publishing editions of Edward III and Thomas More, both of which have an element of Shakespearean collaboration.

So, how Shakespearean does something have to be to be in the Arden Shakespeare? The editor of the Arden 1 Henry VI expressly admits he doesn't think that there's much Shakespeare in it. The best comparison, though, might be between Double Falsehood (never granted table space before) and Thomas More (increasingly appearing both as the Shakespeare addition and in a full text, such as in the Oxford Complete Works). What is more "Shakespearean"? A play for which Shakespeare wrote a single addition, almost certainly entirely independently of the creation of the rest of the play, yet for which we have evidence of his unique hand writing identifiable lines? Or a play in which probably very few Shakespearean lines remain following adaptation, yet which preserves a lost drama which Shakespeare and Fletcher created together and which Shakespeare may well have been involved in the overall planning of? Where do we draw the line? Do we want our Complete Works to be an anthology of all the words Shakespeare wrote, or a canon of drama which Shakespeare helped create? There's a distinct ideological difference between these two conceptions of "completeness", and I'd argue that this is exactly what is at stake here.

More on the edition once I've had a chance to read it. Provisionally, though, I'm sympathetic towards Arden's wider-reaching conception of canonicity. I'm just interested to see how they present it.

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.

February 01, 2010

Set texts

From Martin Wiggins' Shakespeare and the Drama of his Time (OUP, 2000):

Though Roman plays [in the Elizabethan drama] ranged widely from the last days of the Tarquins in The Rape of Lucrece (Heywood, 1607) to the dissolute later emperors in Heliogabalus (anonymous, 1594, lost) and Valentinian (Fletcher, 1614), the greatest concentration of attention was on the middle to late republic, and in particular on the Punic Wars, the conspiracy of Catiline, and the career of Julius Caesar, the single most dramatized historical figure in the English Renaissance. Unsurprisingly, these were also the subjects covered by the three Latin historians most often studied in the Elizabethan grammar schools, Livy, Sallust, and Caesar; and while the playwrights generally did not use these school texts as sources, the familiarity of the events and characters must have been a key factor in the selection of subject matter (21).

I wrote a piece for the Guardian a while back, expressing frustration that the same Shakespeare plays kept coming round, catering to perceived educational needs. While I knew what Wiggins says here, however, it's the way he phrases it which caught my attention just now. In a sense, this is the same problem that's been with us since the earliest days of modern English drama: the familiarity of stories ensures their constant re-presentation in various forms. One wonders if early modern audiences ever got fed up: "Oh no, not bloody Caesar again, I hated Latin class..."

January 25, 2010

Criticism of palaeography

I've been working on Thomas More recently, re-reading some of the standard works on its authorship attribution, and there are a few things that have really stood out for me in terms of how we "read" evidence of the sort that has become essential, in Thomas More, to Shakespeare Studies as a whole.

Firstly, I'm entirely happy to believe that the additional passage designated by Greg as in the writing of "Hand D" are a genuine Shakespeare autograph. However, I want to emphasise that word "believe". Because it strikes me that, when it comes to palaeographical evidence, this case necessarily hinges on a willingness to accept a possibility, rather than anything approaching fact.

This was brought home to me by my attempts to read E.Maunde Thompson's "The Handwriting of the Three Pages Attributed to Shakespeare Compared with his Signatures" in Alfred W. Pollard (ed.)., Shakespeare's Hand in the Play of Sir Thomas More (CUP, 1923, pp. 57-112). Now, despite having taken an introductory course in Elizabethan palaeography, I am no expert in handwriting. Even were I, however, Maunde Thompson's article is dense, detailed and highly informed. One of the most skilled palaeographers of his day - perhaps of all time -, his results demonstrated an authority and certainty that are entirely convincing.

The problem here, as I see it, is that too few Shakespearean critics are expert enough in palaeography to actually mount a serious and informed challenge to Thompson's results. There have been a few, but Thompson's double-barrelled argument (this essay following an earlier 1916 piece) lent to the New Bibliographers intent on proving Shakespeare's hand the necessary technical palaeographic support for their other searches. Once canonised in Pollard's volume, Thompson's argument became dogma, and it is still his case which is referred to today, ie: for the palaeographic argument for Shakespeare as Hand D, see Thompson in Pollard (1923).

I can't challenge Thompson. I doubt many Shakespearean critics can. I read Thompson's results, his observations on letter forms, unique curls and particular types of flourish, and I simply have to trust that he's giving an unbiased, objective account of the similarities. Yet I'm simultaneously aware that Thompson's essay is part of an edited collection designed explicitly to bring together the most authoritative voices in Shakespearean criticism in order to consolidate a case for Hand D being a Shakespeare autograph. The agenda of this book is to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that Hand D is Shakespeare. This makes me uneasy: I cannot objectively assess the validity of the volume's key piece of evidence. Further, when looking at the other essays in the volume, I find Greg and Pollard's historical theories somewhat out of date (based, understandably, on less evidence than we now have), R.W. Chambers' account of parallels of idea extremely unconvincing, and John Dover Wilson's bibliographic links fascinating but of questionable value when negative checks are not performed. Thompson's essay, thus, remains the key piece of unquestionable evidence, and my critical mind objects strongly to my inability to assess its strength.

This doesn't mean that no-one has criticised Thompson, of course. What it means is that very few people have questioned him on his own terms. Instead of challenging the specifics of his parallels and links, sceptical critics have instead cast doubt on the fundamental premise of his work. To wit: how can six extant signatures constitute a sample of Shakespeare's handwriting of acceptable enough size to extrapolate information about his handwriting habits? Particularly when several of those signatures date some ten-to-twenty years (itself a hotly contested matter) after the supposed date of Hand D's contribution. Can a palaeographic argument be considered to have any worth when the 'control' is so negligible?

In 1987, Scott McMillin reminded us of the argument that Hand D is in fact identical with "Hand C" - the supposed playhouse scribe, assumed to be a mere copyist. This argument has been contested, but never completely dispelled. In 2007, Gerald Downs usefully restated this case with a different slant, arguing that mistakes in Hand D are typically scribal and suggesting that Hand C and Hand D may well be separate, but that their similarities may be explained by the idea that both are (separately) scribal. I don't necessarily agree with Downs - again, I lack the skill to have any objective opinion on palaeographic matters -, but his note of caution seems a timely and reasonable one.

Greg, Pollard and co. achieved their goal. They established Hand D as authoritatively Shakespearean in a way which forestalled future argument and shaped critical opinion of the play. The subsequent work of generations of scholars has, for the most part, agreed with them and used a variety of criteria and methodologies to strengthen the case - though, it has to be said, never unanimously. It's a cumulative case that, as I stated at the beginning of this blog, I am content to buy into, to claim a belief in. But I feel it only responsible to make clear that it is a belief,  based on my willingness to accept a palaeographic argument that I lack the means to confirm, and with due caution that my core texts for this belief were constructed with a deliberate agenda to enforce that belief in less informed minds. I also believe that the Shakespearean attribution has seriously damaged, as well as enabled, scholarship on Thomas More - for, in the flurry of activity to ascertain Shakespeare's authorship (or otherwise), the play itself has remained criminally overlooked, and evidence relating to company and date has been forced to yield if that evidence doesn't neatly comply with Shakespeare's opportunity to contribute.


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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