William Shakespeare and Others – Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen

Scholars can get very giddy about a new edition of Renaissance drama. They like to prod and poke these tomes, especially when it comes to a new edition of Shakespeare’s plays. The field of editing is fraught with contention. One slip of the pen, one gloss too many and the edition will be doomed to endless mockery and denigration in the so-called “peer review”. Many of you will not know that the politics of editing is a serious business in the Ivory Tower. There is debate over the exactitudes of texts, mainly written before the 20th century these questions usually go as follows: when was it written? How many “versions” of a text are there? Are there any variants? And most importantly, who wrote it? Every text travels a long journey before you or I pick it up Waterstones. In the case of Shakespeare’s plays the results are often texts he would not recognise as his own.

Take the most famous line in Shakespeare: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” It may be surprising to find that in a rival text of “Hamlet” this line reads “to be or not to be, ay there’s the point.” Both of these texts were published within Shakespeare’s lifetime. Which  one can claim to be the definitive text? These are very different lines and completely change the way we understand the most famous soliloquy delivered by the most famous character from the most famous play of all time. Although the academy’s playing out of these endless disputes is beyond parody for many of us who just like to get on with the play at hand, the weighing up of textual evidence is an important part of deciding what actors say and what words readers will be faced with when they open their £5.99 edition. It is also a noble methodology, aiming to accurately reproduce the finest plays in world literature.

So, Jonathan Bate presents seven new, or apocryphal plays in his volume “The Collaborative Plays of William Shakespeare.” It is the first collection of the collaborative plays in one hundred years. Although this edition may seem to have some pot-stirring intent behind it, it is not as radical as you might think. The editors who worked on this, primarily Bate and Rasmussen with the aid of Will Sharpe do well to contextualise the scholarly tradition of the plays that are often excluded from the Shakespearian canon. These critics are honest about the plausibility of Shakespeare’s involvement, admitting that when he is unlikely to have had a major shaping influence in a particular play, or where the evidence leaves the question wide open. Will Sharpe’s long essay placed at the end of the volume is particularly illuminating as a fair sketch of what we know and what we can never know about the authorship question. No, this is not a radical edition compared to other recent attempts to redefine the Bard’s career. This is a serious and much-needed book that gives the readers, actors and students an easy to read, reliable text supported with unobtrusive glosses and an even-handed critical apparatus.

Compared with Gary Taylor’s doorstopper, “The Oxford Shakespeare” and his “Complete Words of Thomas Middleton” Bate delivers a modest proposal. Taylor’s “Middleton” drives through a federal editing ideology which means that every play is edited by a different scholar, each working in different sociological traditions. This practice obfuscated many plays that are without alternative editions on the market, and are unlikely to see print again. Taylor also rocked the boat by including many of Shakespeare’s plays in the edition; he selects Macbeth as an example of co-authorship. I can’t help feeling that he’s set out to stoke the fire rather than to produce a good reading edition of Middleton’s plays. Bate on the other hand has left the folio texts well alone.

Bate and Rasmussen make clear than this isn’t an edition of second-rate plays – many have original qualities that make them worth reading whether they are by Shakespeare or not. “The Spanish Tragedy” and “Arden of Faversham” are truly great plays and certainly influenced Shakespeare’s later work, even if his involvement in these plays is indefinite. Sharpe argues persuasively for the Bard’s hand in these works, but concedes, like Stephen Greenblatt before him, that we can never really know.

Other merits of this edition and the essay (for it feels like a standalone piece tacked onto the edition) is the discussion of stylometric criticism pioneered by Cyrus Hoy in the fifties and sixties. By technically analysing the repeated use of words or phrases one can start to see patterns or trends that help identify the fingerprint of a particular author. With the recent leap forward in computer technology this process now takes a matter of seconds. The results are astonishing, and certainly support many of the arguments for Shakespeare-as-collaborator. In recent times, these methods have caused a high-profile scholarly spat between Sir Brian Vickers and Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith which shows just how contentious scholarship can be.

Bard-related disputes aside, this is a great edition, if only to give us readable copies of a group of plays which have previously been scattered across time and space in various arcane and inaccessible editions. Whether they are by Shakespeare or not, this book gives a flavour of his contemporary writing. With Bate’s even-handed notes, I recommend this to any ready wishing to expand their range of Renaissance drama.