Death is no excuse for writer’s block: Fans demand more. Despite recurrent intimations of authorial mortality, we don’t want to believe that Seamus Heaney has stopped writing, that Christopher Hitchens has stopped talking. There must be more, somewhere.
Publishers happily feed our death-denying addictions. Additions to the posthumous 1623 collection of Shakespeare’s “Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies” began appearing in the 1630s, and the gas cloud has continued slowly expanding over the intervening centuries. Macmillan’s RSC Shakespeare edition of “The Complete Works” (2007) included 39 plays. Six years later, editors Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen are back with “William Shakespeare & Others.” This handsome, illustrated supplementary volume, also stamped with the RSC brand, gives us complete, modernized texts of 10 more plays, with introductions, commentaries and an appendix of fascinating interviews with actors and directors.
Ten more Shakespeare plays? In six years? Incredulous eyebrows rise. In a TV interview, Rasmussen has explained that he and Bate, emerging from a BBC studio during the PR blitz for their 2007 book, went to a nearby pub, brainstormed over a couple of beers and “jotted down on a napkin” the plan for this second volume. Not an anecdote that inspires scholarly confidence.
Nevertheless, the book does popularize one of the most interesting developments in the past 30 years of Shakespeare scholarship. We have always known that, like television and film today, the early modern entertainment industry often worked from co-written scripts. The explosive growth of computer databases, combined with new forensic technologies, has revolutionized our ability to identify empirically, with high levels of probability, who wrote what. Digital humanist Hugh Craig, in his essay on “Authorship” in the 2011 “Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare,” summarizes the emergent consensus that Shakespeare was part-author of as many as 15 plays, including 10 already printed in the RSC’s “Complete Works” and many other modern editions.
Five more co-written plays, worth reading and performing, are in this volume: “Arden of Faversham,” “Edward III,” “Double Falsehood (‘Cardenio’),” “Sir Thomas More” and “The Spanish Tragedy.” But these five are already widely available elsewhere. It would be interesting to produce a two-volume set of Shakespeare’s works, where one volume consisted entirely of 29 plays written by “Shakespeare Only,” and another volume of 15 collaborative plays by “Shakespeare and Others.” But that is not what Macmillan and the RSC have given us. Instead, they confusingly mix and mislabel the two categories.
Worse, this volume mixes the five genuine additional plays with obviously spurious ones. In an excellent survey of “Authorship and Attribution, ” contributing editor Will Sharpe admits that four plays in this volume don’t belong here: It is “highly unlikely to almost impossible” that Shakespeare wrote anything in “A Yorkshire Tragedy,” “The London Prodigal,” “Locrine” or “Thomas Lord Cromwell.”
Then why include them? Bate explains that they were “among the plays ascribed to [Shakespeare] in print in his own lifetime,” which “makes the plays worth reading.” Really? But this volume excludes other plays, like “The Puritan” and “Sir John Oldcastle,” that qualify by those same criteria. It will not satisfy anyone seeking a complete collection of “Plays Falsely Ascribed to Shakespeare.”
Bate acknowledges that “No reputable scholar thinks there is a remote possibility of [“Thomas Lord Cromwell”] actually being by Shakespeare,” but it was performed by the acting company to which Shakespeare belonged, and Bate therefore holds it up as “an exemplar of the kind of journeyman theatre in which he and his fellow-actors were participating” at the time when Shakespeare wrote “Julius Caesar,” “Hamlet” and “Twelfth Night.” But this is not an edition of “The Repertoire of Shakespeare’s Acting Company” — which included plenty of masterpieces by Middleton, Jonson, Webster and Fletcher. And if you want a fictional account of Thomas Cromwell’s life, Hilary Mantel’s novels are immeasurably more rewarding (and more accurate).
Unlike the insightful introductions that Bate wrote for the RSC “Complete Works,” his critical commentary here is uninspired: He has not been reading, teaching and pondering these plays for decades. The poorly proofread text contains embarrassing errors (“Rainham Down down,” “attemptme”). And among the “Key Facts” are such howlers as the claim that a play called “Cardenna/Cardenno” was “attributed to Shakespeare in 1613.” (It was indeed performed by Shakespeare’s acting company in 1613, but if it had been attributed to Shakespeare himself in those early documents, there would be no controversy about it, and no reason to include it among “Collaborative Plays.”)
The directors and actors quoted in the appendix are more reliable than the scholars: “Locrine,” they tell us, is “really not very good,” but “the destruction of the prayer-book [in ‘Arden of Faversham’] is more daring than even Marlowe’s burning of the Qu’ran in ‘Tamburlaine.’ ”
You’ll get more from this book if you read only half of it, beginning at the back.
Taylor, a professor of English at Florida State University, has written or edited more than 20 books, including most recently “The Creation and Re-creation of Cardenio: Performing Shakespeare, Transforming Cervantes.”
Edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen
782 pp. $39.95