The plays included in William Shakespeare and Others may fall outside the bard’s official canon, but many of them display the virtuoso hallmarks of the great man
The new regulations for GCSE English Literature, just published by Michael Gove, make study of Shakespeare (along with one or two other areas, such as Romantic poetry) compulsory. But to what exactly does that regulation commit us? It may seem too obvious a question to ask. After all, if you go into any serious bookshop there is likely to be a Shakespeare section. So for practical purposes it appears to be easy enough to decide what is by Shakespeare, and what is not.
But this practical clarity is misleading. What falls within and what lies outside the Shakespearean canon has fluctuated, if not wildly, then beyond question much more than trivially, over the centuries since Shakespeare’s death in 1616.
The crucial event in the formation of the Shakespearean canon was the publication of the First Folio in 1623. This collection of 36 plays assembled by fellow members of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (the company for which Shakespeare wrote, and in which he was a shareholder) included a number which had not been previously published in the smaller quarto format used for individual plays. Without the First Folio, we would not have texts of, for example, The Taming of the Shrew, The Life and Death of King John, Coriolanus, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, or As You Like It, since these plays survive uniquely in the First Folio. As Jonathan Bate notes, in his helpful introduction to William Shakespeare & Others, the emergence of the First Folio from those close to Shakespeare, and their undoubted access to texts which otherwise do not survive, has given the First Folio an exceptional authority when it comes to deciding what is and what is not in the canon:
The general assumption is that in the case of any play included in the First Folio the burden of proof is on the sceptic to show that it is not by Shakespeare, whereas in the case of any play excluded from the First Folio the burden of proof is on the collaborationist to prove that it is, albeit partly, by Shakespeare. No play outside the First Folio has gained widespread acceptance as being wholly by Shakespeare.
And yet Hemings and Condell, the compilers of the First Folio, may not have known every detail of Shakespeare’s career as a writer for the stage, particularly before 1594 and the formation of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. There is good reason to think that Shakespeare began as a playwright by working over or “improving” already existing plays, or collaborating in the composition of plays written by teams of playwrights. Indeed, the habit of working over an already existing play remained with Shakespeare into his maturity. Both Henry V and King Lear are brilliant, powerful revisals of earlier plays on the same subjects.
It is these considerations that make the ten plays collected in William Shakespeare & Others worth serious attention, however uneven in quality some of them may seem. For these are all plays which, although they were excluded from the First Folio, were nevertheless either associated with Shakespeare in his lifetime, or have a retrospective claim to include some Shakespearean writing. Some, such as The London Prodigal and A Yorkshire Tragedy, were actually published with the name W. Shakespeare or William Shakespeare on the title page. Others, such as Locrine and The True Chronicle History of Thomas Lord Cromwell were published under the initials W.S. Whether or not Shakespeare wrote these plays in their entirety (very doubtful) or whether he simply added touches to them or composed particular scenes (more likely, but still hard to put beyond reasonable doubt), the fact that his contemporaries were prepared to accept them as his makes them worth pondering.
Bate and Rasmussen have also included other plays in which there are grounds for thinking that Shakespeare had a part. In the case of The Book of Sir Thomas More, which survives only as a manuscript in seven different hands, that involvement is attested by the fact that a portion of the manuscript has been identified as written by Shakespeare after comparison with his signatures on legal documents. In the case of other plays, such as Edward III, the detection of a Shakespearean presence rests on stylometric analysis, a technique which in recent years and with the advent of large machine-searchable corpora has become much more sophisticated (if not therefore necessarily more reliable).
This is not the first time these plays have been published. In 1908 C.F. Tucker Brooke published 14 plays “which have been ascribed to Shakespeare” under the title of The Shakespeare Apocrypha — a title with biblical connotations very expressive of “Shakespeare worship”. This was an old-spelling edition, and has long been out of print. It has had a good run for its money, but it has been handsomely superseded by William Shakespeare & Others, which gives us most of the “doubtful” Shakespearean plays in modernised texts, presented with succinct annotation, helpful introductions, and some useful ancillary textual apparatus. Those interested in pursuing the outer reaches of the authorship attribution question will find much guidance in Will Sharpe’s elegant and clever essay, “Authorship and Attribution”. Another appendix gives transcriptions of interviews with those who have acted in these plays.
It is difficult to imagine anyone seriously interested in Shakespeare who would not want also to read these plays, which Shakespeare’s contemporaries — at least some of them — were happy to accept as his. Bate and Rasmussen deserve our gratitude for re-presenting these fascinating dramas so handsomely and conveniently for today’s readership.
But will any school be brave enough, I wonder, to try to satisfy the Shakespeare requirement for GCSE by having its pupils study Edward III?