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September 16, 2008
Brian Vickers is one of the foremost writers on Shakespearean authorship. Just thought I'd share this quick quote from his Shakespeare, Co-Author (OUP, 2002):
The Witch of Edmonton: A known true Story. Composed into A Tragi-comedy By divers well-esteemed poets; William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, John Ford, etc. (1658) - scholars could have done without the 'etc'.
His drollness did raise a laugh, but it also demonstrates one of the key problems facing anyone trying to investigate the authorship of Renaissance drama. The 'author' as a concept was only just starting to come into prominence. Published quartos would usually have the theatre company, and often the venue at which it was performed, but the author himself was something of an optional extra. It seems alien to us in an age where the author is usually the most important part of any kind of publication, in an age of intellectual copyright and our obsession with oeuvres of work. It's refreshing to imagine a time when the play was indeed 'the thing', rather than the man or men behind it, and it's particularly heartening to think of Shakespeare as just one of several of these men. However, it's also deeply frustrating to be confronted repeatedly with the blank slate of "etc", if even that.
We're in the business of reconstructing a time and place that are long and far distant. It's a foreign country, as they say - they do things differently there. We've got enough to go on to make a decent crack at working out what happened, and who was responsible for what, but at some level we will always be reliant on best guesses and educated conjectures. I think, though, that's part of the reason that this field holds so much fascination for me and for others. I'm intrigued and challenged by the mystery of the 'etcs.', the fact that we will never know with 100% certainty exactly who they were.