Elizabeth brought my attention to this article, Christopher Marlowe Officially Credited as Co-Author of Three Shakespeare Plays. The plays in question are the three parts of Henry VI. And the official source is The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition. This is interesting, but hardly surprising.
One of the editors The New Oxford Shakespeare is my favorite Shakespeare scholar, Gary Taylor. And Taylor has been trying to take the air out of “the bard” for most of his careers. In his book Reinventing Shakespeare, he spends a chapter mocking the idea that Shakespeare is a singularity — “The greatest writer of all time!” And he implies that Shakespeare may not even deserve being called great. (When pressed on the issue, he generally concedes — probably just because it is a silly question to argue about.)
Artists in Perspective
But this is all welcome after a couple of centuries of bardolatry. And what we see is that even minor plays of Shakespeare get lots of performances, while major works are ignored just because they were written by people like Marlowe, Jonson, Webster, Beaumont & Fletcher, Middleton, and on and on. And what we’ve learned over the past few decades is that Elizabethan theater was very much a muddle.
A good example of both the muddle and the tendency to over-praise individual writers is Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. There are two versions of it. There is a short version and there is a longer version that contains humorous bits, mostly involving Faustus’ servant. When the shorter version was considered the better one (broadly 19th century), it was assumed that it was the true Marlowe creation. Then, when people noticed that the comic bits added to the overall theme of the play, people decided that it was the true Marlowe creation. As much as I admire Marlowe, I’ve always felt that the short version was his. He never showed much in the way of comedic talent.
And it isn’t just in the theater. Scholars spent roughly two centuries trying to figure out just what part of Mozart’s Requiem Mass was by the master and what part had been polluted by his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr after Mozart’s death. Eventually, they decided that they couldn’t tweeze out the pure Mozart. The piece is what it is. And it is one of the great works of musical art. That’s all that really matters.
The Power of Collaboration
But we rebel against the idea of collaboration. We want to believe in the Great Artist creating Perfection Itself. But art never works like that. Even my beloved Don Quixote could definitely have been improved with a few collaborators — and an editor!
This is what we now know about Elizabethan theater: there was great collaboration. Plays weren’t owned by their writers. They were written for particular theaters that then owned them. So if a play seemed a little slow, another playwright might come in and punch it up. There were other times when plays seem to have been written in tandem: where some scenes were written by one playwright and others by another. What’s more, comedic scenes may have been improvised and later set down on paper.
Now you may be wondering how we can tell that a play was a collaboration. There are many ways this is determined. One of the oldest is to look at the spelling of words. There were no dictionaries so each writer had their own idiosyncratic spellings. The research that led up to this most recent conclusion is based upon the vocabulary used. One of the papers was co-written by a teach of mathematicians. (Hooray math!)
Did Marlowe Soil Shakespeare?!
Anyway, I’m sure there will be lots of people complaining about this. It still amazes me how much people make a fetish out of Shakespeare’s supposed unequaled greatness. I mean: have they not read Hamlet?! Or The Tempest? Really: any of Shakespeare’s plays? The best ones have much of admire. But they also have at least a fair amount to dislike, which is why the best modern productions savagely cut them.
None of this is a slight against Shakespeare. He was a top Elizabethan playwright. But none of them thought they were creating art; they all knew they were making money. And they produced good and even great work. But I don’t think we can say more than that. I don’t think anyone really needs to see Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet yet again. The more we know about the diversity of Elizabethan theater, the more likely we are to see plays that we haven’t seen before. And that’s a good thing.