The first in our series from the MA Students, examining and sometimes overturning common myths about Shakespeare.
Imagine Shakespeare writing. There’s a good chance you see a man, probably a quill in his hand, sitting alone at a desk. Perhaps there is an open book close by – an Italian novel or Holinshed’s chronicles – and scattered papers. The genius, aloof, alone with his muse.
The Romantics loved this idea. But, as I’ve been learning, this isn’t quite how it was.
The evidence suggests that from first to last Shakespeare was a collaborative author, co-writing with others, revising their work and having his plays revised in turn.
Shakespeare probably started as an actor. Writing was a job for university-educated poets, scornful of any lowly actor aspiring to match them. Despite this, Shakespeare hustled work collaborating on the sprawling, multi-authored Henry VI plays. Competition was fierce. Literally. Shakespeare was attacked in print as an ‘upstart crow’ by the volatile, underworld-connected Robert Greene. Perhaps insults and snobbery pushed Shakespeare towards working alone. Perhaps he sensed that he could do better.
Soon, Greene was dead and Shakespeare was chief dramatist of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. With a string of masterpieces to his name, Hamlet included, surely he no longer needed other writers’ help? But even at the height of his powers, in plays including Macbeth, scholars have detected the hand of the brilliant, prolific Thomas Middleton.
More mysteriously, Shakespeare co-authored Pericles with a violent brothel keeper, George Wilkins. The critical practice of determining Shakespeare’s lines in a co-authored play by deciding which are ‘best’ is thankfully out of fashion. But anyone who knows Pericles must have felt relief around the beginning of act three, where Shakespeare almost audibly seems to snatch the quill with a terse ‘I’ll take it from here, thanks George’.
In the years before he died, after several solo-authored works, Shakespeare wrote three plays with John Fletcher. We’ll never know why he returned to collaboration. Anthony Dawson suggests that Shakespeare’s colleagues asked Fletcher to step in and help make Shakespeare’s new writing ‘acceptable to their increasingly perplexed audiences’. If you’ve ever tried to tease out the meaning from some of Two Noble Kinsmen’s denser passages, this could seem plausible.
Back to those colleagues – we should remember that Shakespeare’s closest collaborators were the actors, Burbage, Heminges and the rest, with whom he shared his art and livelihood. He shaped his characters to suit performers whose talents and style he knew intimately, as seen in the shift from bawdy comedy to sly humour when the clown Will Kemp was replaced by the more urbane Robert Armin. And the actors in turn would doubtless have interjected, suggesting (or loudly insisting upon) cuts and alterations, their visions mingling.
‘I am myself alone,’ Shakespeare has Richard of Gloucester say, at the outset of both their extraordinary careers. Perhaps Richard was alone, but Shakespeare wasn’t. It was a crowded theatre scene, where authors constantly forged (perhaps uneasy) alliances, and we should be glad that the Romantic ideal of the isolated genius is a myth. Had he stayed hunched over his desk, rather than flinging himself into this anarchic world, perhaps Shakespeare would never have been able to say, with Prince Hal, ‘I know you all’.
Kim Gilchrist, MA in Shakespeare Studies