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Collaborative Shakespeare

September 19, 2018


I really don’t have time for this.  But having been subjected elsewhere to that particularly distasteful sniping style of unfocused tit-for-tat technique common to our modern computer keyboard commando, I am compelled to clarify a premise on this forum.

People love to argue about William Shakespeare; the person, the writer, the authenticity, the works.  I am not one of those people.  Deep down, I really don’t care who wrote the works that are today attributed to William Shakespeare.  But as a scientist (one course away from completing a degree in chemistry when I switched to music, a move I sometimes question), I care about things like logic and reality.  Likewise, I care about truth, and it is a well established fact that the public is prone to believe myths and untruths they are fed, whether handed down as folklore or deliberately funneled through the sewerpipe to a gullible public for whatever reason.

If you are reading this, you should pause for a moment and check out the book by Edward Bernays, Propaganda (1928).  This short book is available in modern edition (complete with the many original typos) with a brilliant foreword by Mark Crispin Miller that sets the context.  In a nutshell, Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud, was truly the architect of the modern science of propaganda, and he understood very well that the public could be sold any idea if packaged effectively.

The idea of selling the public a popular myth is not new.  Elizabeth I created an image that was effectively packaged and sold to her subjects as the Virgin Queen, and they bought it wholesale.  John Dowland created and sold a public persona as Jo : Dolandi di Lachrimæ, with his musical display of tears and sighs, and his motto “Semper Dowland, semper dolens”.  The truth is that it’s unverifiable but seriously questionable whether Elizabeth remained chaste her entire life, and Dowland was described in The History of the Worthies of England by Thomas Fuller as follows: “A cheerful person he was, passing his days in lawful merriment…”.  These myths were harmless bits of propaganda that in the first case pacified the public and in the second case prevented a lutenist-composer from starving.  But propaganda nevertheless.

So why do we buy the image of Shakespeare the lone genius who churned out reams of perfect poetry and plays that are of an astounding depth?  It’s an inspiring story, but it seems there is such scant evidence of the man’s actual life that it’s no wonder some question the man and the myth.  In Is Shakespeare Dead?, Mark Twain aptly observed, “How curious and interesting is the parallel—as far as poverty of biographical details is concerned—between Satan and Shakespeare…They are the best-known unknown persons that have ever drawn breath upon the planet.”

The first printed references that appear to connect William Shakespeare the player to William Shakespeare the playwright appeared in the First Folio, published in 1623—seven years after his reported death.  For the published collection, texts were collated and edited by John Heminge and Henry Condell, who have been identified as Shakespeare’s fellow players.  Eighteen of the 36 plays in the First Folio were printed in separate individual editions prior to 1623.  In The Real Shakespeare: Retrieving the Early Years, 1564-1594, Yale University Press (1997), Eric Sams confronts the assumption that the playwright produced finished plays that needed no revision, and the silly idea that the sainted Shakespeare had nothing to do with the earlier “bad” quartos.  Like any writer, Shakespeare, whoever he was, very likely revised his plays—and he very likely had help.

From an objective point of view, we have very little that connects the material in the First Folio with our deceased author, other than editorial sales talk.  To observe the editorial evolution of Shakespeare’s work, one need only take a gander at examples and extracts from earlier printed versions.

Perhaps the façade is beginning to craze just a little because The New Oxford Shakespeare now lists Christopher Marlowe (1564 – 1593) as the co-author of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III.  Another presumed collaborator is the brilliant lexicographer and translator John Florio (c. 1553 – 1625), who appears to have had a hand in editing the First Folio:

“Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Florio’s possible involvement with the Folio is that we may never know its true extent. As Othello says in lines added to the Folio: “I thinke my Wife be honest, and thinke she is not.” While with plays such as Hamlet, Othello and King Lear we can compare the Folio against the quarto, for other plays – such as Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest and Macbeth – we cannot. Half of Shakespeare’s works were published for the first time in the Folio; the question remains whether they were subject to Florio’s “wary correction”. Our knowledge of changes made to the quartos, as well as Florio’s treatment of Boccaccio and Montaigne, suggests that there is a strong chance that they were. And yet we have no sure way of knowing. We cannot tell for certain whether the words were written by John Florio or by William Shakespeare.”

– Saul Frampton, “Who edited Shakespeare?”, The Guardian, Friday 12 Jul 2013.

Florio translated the Essais of Michel de Montaigne into truly engaging prose that rivals the originals, and we constantly refer to his Italian-English dictionary, A Worlde of Wordes, published in 1598.

Other specialists are beginning to acknowledge that works for the theater are collaborative and the end result is a staged play that breathes life into words that otherwise lay lifeless on the page, no matter who wrote them.  Mark Lawson seems slightly uneasy to report that it has been proposed that author Thomas Middleton wrote significant sections of All’s Well That End’s Well.

“The work of Taylor and Lavagnino and of James Shapiro, in his brilliant book Contested Will, has radically changed my attitude to Shakespeare on page and stage, and seems to me to raise significant questions about the approaches of the educational and theatrical industries in Britain. As Shapiro sets out in the final chapter of his book, the point is not that Oxford, Bacon or Elizabeth I secretly wrote the plays of Shakespeare, but that Elizabethan theatre was fundamentally collaborative in a way that the sole focus on Shakespeare has left most professors and producers reluctant to acknowledge.”

– Mark Lawson, “Let’s face it: Shakespeare had help”, The Guardian, Tuesday 1 May 2012.

Shakespeare enthusiasts tend to get hot under the collar whenever the orthodox narrative is questioned for any reason, and we count many Shakespeare specialists among our friends.  But like trumpeting one’s politics or religious beliefs, we usually avoid discussion of the topic, or at least regarding the details.  Whatever story you choose to believe, it is quite likely that the collected works attributed to William Shakespeare were written by and refined over time by many hands.  That’s all.

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