Thursday, October 27, 2016

Authors, Authors

If you want to start a discussion among theatre scholars, just speculate on who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays.  It’s been a running argument since he shuffled off this mortal coil, but now scholars at Oxford are saying they have deduced that at least some of them were co-authored by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe.

The New Oxford Shakespeare edition of the playwright’s works — which will be published by Oxford University Press online ahead of a worldwide print release — lists Christopher Marlowe as Shakespeare’s co-author on the three “Henry VI” plays, parts 1, 2 and 3.

It’s the first time that a major edition of Shakespeare’s works has listed Shakespeare’s colleague and rival as a co-author on these works, the volume’s general editor, Gary Taylor, said in a phone interview.

“No one has had the confidence to put the name actually on the title page,” Mr. Taylor said. “Which is perfectly reasonable because the only reason that we can do it now is because Shakespeare has entered the world of big data.”

The “Henry VI” plays have long been believed to be the work of more than one author. Names floated by scholars in addition to Marlowe’s include Robert Greene and George Peele.

As a theatre scholar — albeit more of modern American (post-World War II) drama — we used to discuss this all the time back in grad school, and the possibility of Marlowe as a collaborator was more or less a given. Were it not for copyright and the staunch support of the Dramatists Guild today that protects a playwright’s work, a lot of people could lay claim to authorship. Playwriting is inherently collaborative. Input from the director, the designers, even the actors, can change or refocus a script, but we playwrights are the ones who get stiffed on the royalties.

Four hundred years ago, it would be an event if a play went up strictly as written. For one thing, a lot of the actors couldn’t even read. There was no such thing as a director; that’s a 20th century concept evolving out of the actor/manager persona. So what we see in the folios probably wasn’t what the audience was hearing anyway.

In the larger scheme of things, it really doesn’t matter to me if there was more than one author of Shakespeare’s work or if he didn’t write them at all.  The works speak for themselves.