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  • Shakespeare and the Idea of Apocrypha: Negotiating the Boundaries of the Dramatic Canon by Peter Kirwan
  • Michael M. Wagoner
Shakespeare and the Idea of Apocrypha: Negotiating the Boundaries of the Dramatic Canon. By Peter Kirwan. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015. Pp. xii + 258. $95 (hardback).

Peter Kirwan’s book on the status of the Shakespeare Apocrypha breaks down the binary of canon/apocrypha by investigating the broadly defined category of apocryphal plays and employs a variety of approaches from historicizing their authorial designations to considering their performative value in the contemporary theater. He moves beyond canonical designations, questioning the validity of such categories. As he states, the goal of this endeavor is to help “the dissolution of the boundaries that segregate an ‘exceptional’ Shakespeare from the rest of the early modern dramatic canon” (208). His approach melds historicism, textual studies, editorial theory, attribution studies, and performance reviews, creating a multidimensional approach to the texts. Through such multivalent considerations, these plays demonstrate their importance to the other works in the Shakespearean “canon.”

The role of “Shakespeare” and the positioning of the apocryphal plays next to him as author occupy much of Kirwan’s introduction. He insists that this “deeply problematic group on the fringe of Shakespeare Studies” connects Shakespeare “to a range of collaborators, genres, themes and sensibilities that pollute the purity of the approved canon” (5). His examination stems from his contributions to William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). Kirwan’s book supplements and theorizes the texts of the ten plays from that edition. In fact, having it on hand proved helpful. Looking at all of the apocryphal plays, he ultimately theorizes that we should treat “authorship as a negotiation between socially constructed text and the individual ‘hand’” (14). Through this dual understanding, Kirwan offers that we can “dissolve” the “notional divisions between Canon and Apocrypha,” allowing for the exploration of Shakespeare’s various connections to these plays (14). To examine this understanding of authorship, he breaks down his study into four chapters: the history of apocrypha; the apocrypha in repertory; attribution of the apocrypha; and, finally, completeness and the apocrypha. These four broad ideas allow Kirwan to infuse the individual chapters with multiple texts and support his commitment not to focus solely on questions of authorship (as in who wrote what) but also to explore these neglected texts through multiple lenses. [End Page 754]

Kirwan’s first chapter, “Canonising the Apocrypha,” gives a thorough examination of the status of the many plays connected to Shakespeare beyond those in the First Folio. By moving historically from the 1664 Third Folio’s inclusion of seven new plays to C. F. Tucker Brooke’s 1908 book The Shakespeare Apocrypha, Kirwan lays out the historical considerations of these plays and the debates about their inclusion in the Shakespeare canon. This history serves as an important introduction to the status of these plays while also exploring the significance of whether a play is in or out. Also, throughout this chapter, he lays out evidence for several of the plays and their connection to Shakespeare.

Overall, the chapter reinforces the notion that the canon itself is arbitrary and historically fixed as a construct, and what is in and what is out is not consistent, even as it is treated as either in or out. One important aspect of this history is the discussion of Edmund Malone’s Supplements, which “created a new space in which [the plays] could be read without impacting on the canon” (54). Such an approach brings to mind William Shakespeare and Others as it too allows for access to these plays, while not impinging on the purity of a canonical complete works. Perhaps this safe space, adjacent to the complete works, is the best these plays can achieve.

The following chapter, “The Apocrypha in Rep,” moves beyond textual and editorial evidence to consider how the apocryphal plays can be better understood if we examine them through theater history. By placing the plays within their original context, Kirwan argues that these works are not odd but fitting within the culture. He employs the work of Roslyn Knutson, Scott McMillin, and Sally...


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