Shakespeare, collaboration and the apocryphal plays

Title page of the Third Folio

Title page of the Third Folio

The question “how many plays did Shakespeare write?” is not an easy one to answer. The First Folio includes 36 plays, but I’ve always been intrigued by the list of additional plays on the title page of the Third Folio from 1664: it includes seven extra plays, one of which, Pericles, has long accepted as containing a high proportion of Shakespeare’s writing and is included in all editions. But the other six, The London Prodigal, Thomas Lord Cromwell, Sir John Oldcastle, The Puritan Widow, A Yorkshire Tragedy, and Locrine, were usually dismissed as mere fillers added in order to increase sales of this new edition.

In 1908 C. F. Tucker Brooke, in his book The Shakespeare Apocrypha, listed forty-two plays conceivably attributable to Shakespeare, many in his own lifetime, but dismissed the majority, printing only the fourteen which “alone appear entitled, on grounds either of reason or of custom, to a place among The Shakespeare apocrypha.”.

Then came computerised versions of the plays, and the possibility this gave of examining the texts statistically in what came to be called stylometry. By comparing vocabulary, spelling and grammatical constructions it was said that each writer’s work could be identified. But stylometry wasn’t accepted, perhaps because unreliable results came out of the earliest computer analysis.

Nowadays attribution studies is a subject all of its own. and over the past few years it’s become accepted that Elizabethan and Jacobean playwriting was very often collaborative. No wonder examining sections of plays taking a model section and comparing other to it had been fraught with problems: more and more plays once confidently assumed to be entirely by one author are now thought to be by more than one person. A Shakespeare Apocrypha website lists 46 plays and includes information about when they were attributed and whether there’s a modern printed or online edition.

collaborativeSo the new book William Shakespeare and others: Collaborative Plays, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, promises an answer to the question about which plays Shakespeare collaborated on, and which bits he wrote. It’s designed as a companion volume to the RSC edition of Shakespeare’s Works, published in 2007, which includes both Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen as well as the 36 plays of the First Folio. Both are collaborations, but then so are a few of the plays in the Folio such as Henry VIII. Jonathan Bate indicates in his introduction to the Complete Works that he already had the answers: “We know an immense amount about how plays were put together collaboratively and a whole battery of stylometric tests has enabled us to work out which playwright wrote which scenes”.

The new book, though, doesn’t quite satisfy the expectations raised by the earlier volume. It gives us the full text of just ten plays: Arden of Faversham, Locrine, Edward III, The Spanish Tragedy, Thomas Lord Cromwell, Sir Thomas More, The London Prodigal, A Yorkshire Tragedy, Mucedorus, and The Double Falsehood. It includes a general introduction which goes into the history of the subject and the reason for each play being chosen, as well as an introduction for each play. There’s also a 90-page section written by Will Sharpe entitled Authorship and Attribution which explores the subject further and includes a clear and measured judgement about the claims of each play. Finally there’s a series of interviews By Peter Kirwan with directors and actors who have been involved in productions.

The Sir Thomas More manuscript, kept at the British Library

The Sir Thomas More manuscript, kept at the British Library

It’s not unreasonable to expect that the the plays selected all contain at least some Shakespeare, and the book goes over the now well-trodden ground of the evidence surrounding the manuscript of Sir Thomas More. But the editors themselves strangely eliminate at least two of their selected ten. In the introduction to A Yorkshire Tragedy Bate states “The entire play is almost universally attributed to Thomas Middleton”, and for Thomas Lord Cromwell  “The Shakespeare attribution has been universally rejected on grounds of style”.

Perhaps it’s only to be expected that a book published under the title The RSC Shakespeare would concentrate on the plays that work well in the theatre. The book declares that it will “help you to understand Shakespeare’s plays as they were originally intended – as living theatre to be enjoyed and performed”.  There’s a review here. The RSC have performed several of the plays in this collection (Arden of Faversham, Edward III, Sir Thomas More and The Double Falsehood (Cardenio), and will be giving another production of Arden of Faversham in 2014. The RSC Shakespeare edition  attempted to reclaim the First Folio as a collection of essentially theatrical texts, and these 10 plays have perhaps also been chosen more because of their potential for performance than for their Shakespearian content.  The Double Falsehood (Cardenio) is a case in point as the version staged by the RSC was very much a reconstructed text – undoubtedly theatre-worthy, but making few claims to be authentically Shakespearean.

At the same time some interesting conclusions are drawn. The Spanish Tragedy is printed complete with 1602 additions, and  the scene between Alice and Mosby in Arden of Faversham is confirmed as being by Shakespeare. The plays are indeed, “fascinatingly varied” in subject matter, performance and publication history.

This book won’t answer all the questions you might have about exactly what Shakespeare wrote, or about how playwrights worked in his time, but it certainly provides lots of information and whet the appetite for seeing these plays on the stage. A recent student production of  Mucedorus at the University of Toronto described it as: “A princess in distress, a prince in disguise, a jealous lover, a clown named Mouse, a cannibal wild man, and a BEAR!  What more could you want in a fairy tale romance?” It was the most popular drama of the age: let’s hope it isn’t long before it’s given a full professional production.

William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays
Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, with Jan Sewell and Will Sharpe
Palgrave Macmillan, 816pp, £25


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