The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 27.318 Wednesday, 28 September 2016
Date: Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Subject: From TLS: Shakespeare’s kind of play?
Shakespeare’s kind of play?
Negotiating the boundaries of the dramatic canon
257pp. Cambridge University Press. £54 (US $95).
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William Shakespeare comes into this story in 1664, when Philip Chetwind reissued the third Folio and opportunistically “added seven Playes, never before Printed in Folio”. Previously published as single-play quartos, they included one genuine claimant, Pericles, co-authored with George Wilkins, two plays now ascribed to Thomas Middleton (A Yorkshire Tragedy and The Puritan), and Sir John Oldcastle – for which, as Edmond Malone discovered in the manuscripts kept at Dulwich, Philip Henslowe had paid Michael Drayton, Anthony Munday, Richard Hathway and Robert Wilson in 1599. The remaining three were an odd jumble: The History of Thomas Lord Cromwell, The Tragedy of Locrine, and The London Prodigall. What they have in common is that the original publishers adorned them with the initials “W. S.”, or in one case gave Shakespeare’s full name.
All seven were included in the Fourth Folio (1684) and in Nicholas Rowe’s first modern edition (1709), but Pope described them as “wretched plays”, omitting them from his edition (1725), as did Theobald from his (1733). Apart from rival editions by Jacob Tonson and Robert Walker at the lower end of the publishing market, the “doubtful” plays ascribed to Shakespeare were generally discredited, as we see from an essay in The Adventurer (1753) – not by John Duncombe, as Peter Kirwan thinks, but by George Colman, as I showed in Shakespeare, The Critical Heritage, Volume IV (1976). Colman describes a vision in which writers ancient and modern were summoned by Fame to “sacrifice upon the altar in this temple those parts of their works which have hitherto been preserved to their infamy, that their names may descend spotless and unsullied to posterity”:
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Peter Kirwan’s book, Shakespeare and the Idea of Apocrypha, a revision of his 2011 Warwick doctoral thesis, takes issue with any criticism of these plays, not always successfully. In the passage just quoted Kirwan misreads the term “natural parents” as if it “suggested a blemish in Shakespeare’s exemplary moral reputation”, linking him with “discourses of illegitimacy”. But while the word “natural”, when applied to children, designates bastards, “natural parents” are not bastards (well, they could be but that would be a different issue). Kirwan devotes most of a page to this misreading, not seeing that Malone, applying eighteenth-century expectations that authorship would be acknowledged, thought the actual writers of these plays had “disowned” them, not Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s parentage was “imputed” by the publishers who claimed that they were “by W. S.”, another topic where Kirwan’s scholarship is somewhat lacking.
Sixty years ago Baldwin Maxwell showed that “never did the initials ‘W. S.’ appear on authentic work by Shakespeare”, a judgement recently endorsed and expanded by Lukas Erne, who made the same observation concerning the spurious signature “W. Sh.”. Kirwan thinks that the mere presence of these initials on a title page constitutes “external evidence” or “information” about Shakespeare’s authorship. He includes in this category The Birth of Merlin, published by Francis Kirkman in 1662 as by “William Shakespear and William Rowley”, and thinks that it might be included in “a notional Complete Works of Shakespeare based on rigid bibliographic principles”, along with Middleton’s Yorkshire Tragedy and George Peele’s Troublesome Reign of King John. Kirwan seems unaware of Nigel Bawcutt’s discovery in 1996 that The Birth of Merlin was licensed in 1622, six years after Shakespeare’s death. In these and other invocations of “bibliographic” criteria Kirwan is confusing two different categories. A strict bibliography will indeed list under the author’s name all publications attributed to him: so Donald Wing’s Short Title Catalogue lists several spurious works attributed to Francis Bacon without comment. But Kirwan is a literary critic, not a strict bibliographer, and cannot have it both ways.
Kirwan’s stated aim is to rehabilitate the apocryphal plays, as his subtitle puts it, by “negotiating the boundaries” of the canon – perhaps “beating the boundaries” would have been more appropriate. His book “is not concerned to establish the authorship of these plays . . . but rather to establish what is at stake in the arguments”. This is to limit yourself from the outset to shadow-boxing, or air guitar. Kirwan complains that in evaluating the apocryphal works “internal evidence” plays the predominant role (how can it not?) and he attacks anyone who judges the apocryphal plays to be “qualitatively inferior” or who makes “subjective aesthetic judgments”, a fault of which he is never guilty. Although the scholars who work in the field of authorship attribution have closely studied the plays’ dramaturgy (plot structure, characterization, staging) and language (vocabulary, rhetoric, phraseology, prosody), Kirwan claims that the division into authentic and inauthentic does not conform to “modern scholarly standards” (where “modern” means “those who think like me”). His modern arguments include the clichés of yesteryear: “the indeterminacy of the canon”, “the unstable nature of the text”, “authenticity itself . . . an unstable concept”. He says that he has “argued for the historical and theoretical spaces of ambiguity”, with some success, praising the “oppositional critical movements [that] interrogate and attack the concept of the canon itself”. But it is hard to know what they would replace it with. John Jowett proposes that “the dichotomy of ‘canon’ and ‘apocrypha’ can be replaced with a gradualist model”, recognizing that any play “is susceptible to minor modifications on the part of . . . actors, playbook annotators, scribes, stationers, and compositors”. It is true that all those agents affected the text, but that is a long way from creating an apocryphal play, and there can hardly be a continuum between the authentic and the inauthentic. A woman can’t be a bit pregnant.
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Kirwan’s wish to boost the apocryphal plays will, I fear, have the opposite effect. The book’s unrelenting tone of complaint is accompanied by repetitive and obvious comments, such as “The establishment of an identity not only involves defining oneself positively according to one’s own distinctive characteristics, but also defining oneself ‘negatively’: that is, by what one is not”, or “The question is now whether it is reasonable, or even desirable, to continue to extract individual authorial contributions from an historically and theoretically socialised text”. Kirwan’s word choice is not always felicitous. He describes the Chamberlain’s Men as the first professional company that “employed an embedded playwright”, as if Shakespeare had joined an advanced US position in Iraq. He writes “Critical Biography” when he means “Bibliography”. He strives for authenticity by reproducing title pages using the long “ſ” form, which results in such solecisms as the “Moſt Pleasſant Co-medie” of Mucedorus, including “The merie conceits of Mouſe”, as if the text had a lisp. He adds an appendix listing all the plays that have “borne an attribution (however speculative) to Shakespeare”, some of which he has taken from Ludwig Tieck, who suggested in 1821 that the canon be extended to sixty-seven plays, and some from A Note on the Shakespeare Apocrypha by Lindley Williams Hubbell, published in Japan. Kirwan is “indebted” to this slim pamphlet, listing seventy-three titles, although he finds it “riddled with errors”.
What he doesn’t disclose is Hubbell’s motive for compiling what he called a “monument to human folly”: “In the bright nimbus of lunacy that surrounds the head of the gentle Shakespeare, the attribution to him of plays he could not possibly have written has proliferated no less than the ascription to others of plays that he did write”. That may seem a harsh judgement but some modern scholars have made some wild attributions to him, while others – to use a coinage by Pat Rogers – are trying to “de-attribute” large parts of the Henry VI plays. With major editions from Norton and Oxford in production, Shakespeareans are in the position of the old sheriff in No Country for Old Men, wondering what’s coming down the line to us next.