Shakespeare Quarterly 54.4 (2004) 458-461
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Shakespeare, Co-Author: A Historical Study of Five Collaborative Plays. By Brian Vickers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Illus. Pp. xviii + 558. $95.00 cloth.
Jane Goodall once reported a respected fellow scientist telling her that even if she was discovering individuality in chimpanzees, it might be better to sweep such knowledge under the carpet. Something similar has happened in Shakespeare studies. As Shakespeare, Co-Author shows, evidence has been accumulating steadily for almost two hundred years that Shakespeare wrote five of the now-canonical plays with the help of collaborators. The evidence is so consistent that everyone who has considered it closely agrees on which parts of each play were written by Shakespeare and which by the collaborator, and on who the collaborator in each case was: George Peele in Titus Andronicus, Thomas Middleton in Timon of Athens, George Wilkins in Pericles, and John Fletcher in Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Yet most critics and even most editors of these plays pay as little attention as they can to the evidence in order to keep claiming the plays for Shakespeare. Shakespeare, Co-Author confirms the painstaking evidence and measured arguments of successive generations of scholars that some plays attributed to Shakespeare are partly not by him, a scholarly tradition that has been overlooked even by Shakespeareans, including the editors of these very plays.
This is particularly curious at a time when bardolatry is the one sin that every Shakespearean wants to be considered innocent of. Many inclined to dismiss the evidence for Shakespeare as occasional coauthor assume that the motivation for claiming that he is not the sole author of some of the plays in the canon must be a desire to exonerate him from responsibility for the inferior parts of these plays. There is indeed a long tradition of denying that Shakespeare could have written this passage or that play on the grounds that it did not satisfy the would-be expunger's intuitive standards for Shakespearean quality. But no one has been able to agree on what to excise from the canon or able to justify an excision with anything more substantial than an assertion that the passage or play in question was incompatible with Shakespeare's genius.
The tradition that Brian Vickers sums up so compendiously and compellingly operates otherwise. Readers in thistradition have begun with a sense that parts of a play differ from the rest of the drama, and have then examined the play in terms of independent, objective, quantifiable measures that demonstrate the differences between parts of the play as well as the similarity of some passages to contemporaneous work of Shakespeare's and of other passages to the known solo work of another playwright.
As Vickers notes, the result is less "disintegration" of the Shakespeare canon than long-overdue integration of the canons of others. That Middleton wrote a number of scenes in Timon of Athens, as well as several plays, such as The Revenger's Tragedy and The Second Maiden's Tragedy, assigned to him by modern attribution studies integrates his canon and further elevates his stature. That Peele wrote a third of Titus Andronicus has [End Page 458] important implications for his reputation as a playwright. Seeing the hand of Peele or Middleton or Fletcher in the plays on which they collaborated with Shakespeare enables us to discern the quality of their contributions to certain "Shakespeare" plays, as well as the tensions that make these plays less unified than Shakespeare's solo work and, for that very reason, fascinating in revealing new ways.
It is the Shakespeare conservators' resistance to the detailed and converging evidence for Shakespeare as an occasional collaborator, rather than the evidence itself, that has its roots in bardolatry. Vickers assembles a wide range of historical documents and subsequent analyses to demonstrate the frequency and nature (but not the primacy) of theatrical coauthorship in the period: all other major dramatists of Shakespeare's time, from Marlowe through Jonson and Middleton to Webster, sometimes wrote plays collaboratively. Resistance...