The Radical Argument of the New Oxford Shakespeare

From The New Yorker:

In 1989, a young professor named Gary Taylor published “Reinventing Shakespeare,” in which he argued that Shakespeare’s unrivalled literary status derives less from the sheer greatness of his plays than from the cultural institutions that have mythologized the Bard, elevating him above equally talented Renaissance playwrights. “Shakespeare was a star, but never the only one in our galaxy,” Taylor wrote. The book was his second major attempt to counter the view of Shakespeare as a singular genius; a few years earlier, he had served as one of two general editors of the Oxford Shakespeare, which credited co-authors for five of Shakespeare’s plays. In “Reinventing Shakespeare,” Taylor wrote that the Oxford Shakespeare “repeatedly shocks its readers, and knows that it will.”

Late last year, Taylor shocked readers once again. The New Oxford Shakespeare, for which Taylor serves as lead general editor, is the first edition of the plays to credit Christopher Marlowe as a co-author of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI,” Parts 1, 2, and 3. It lists co-authors for fourteen other plays as well, ushering a host of playwrights—Thomas Nashe, George Peele, Thomas Heywood, Ben Jonson, George Wilkins, Thomas Middleton, and John Fletcher, along with Marlowe—into the big tent of the complete works. This past fall, headlines around the world trumpeted the Marlowe-Shakespeare connection, and spotlighted the editors’ methodology: computer-aided analysis of linguistic patterns across databases of early modern plays. “Shakespeare has now fully entered the era of Big Data,” Taylor announced in a press release.

It’s no longer controversial to give other authors a share in Shakespeare’s plays—not because he was a front for an aristocrat, as conspiracy theorists since the Victorian era have proposed, but because scholars have come to recognize that writing a play in the sixteenth century was a bit like writing a screenplay today, with many hands revising a company’s product. The New Oxford Shakespeare claims that its algorithms can tease out the work of individual hands—a possibility, although there are reasons to challenge its computational methods. But there is a deeper argument made by the edition that is both less definitive and more interesting. It’s not just that Shakespeare collaborated with other playwrights, and it’s not just that Shakespeare was one of a number of great Renaissance writers whose fame he outstripped in the ensuing centuries. It’s that the canonization of Shakespeare has made his way of telling stories—especially his monarch-centered view of history—seem like the norm to us, when there are other ways of telling stories, and other ways of staging history, that other playwrights did better. If Shakespeare worshippers have told one story in order to discredit his contemporary rivals, the New Oxford is telling a story that aims to give the credit back.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

21 thoughts on “The Radical Argument of the New Oxford Shakespeare”

  1. in a world of truly shocking behaviors of the ordered bloodshed of innocents and all accompanying inhumanity by more than a few at the top of various cultures across the world, this breathless saying oh my how shocking re marlowe and whomever, doesnt even cause the arm to tip even slightly re ‘shocking’ anything.

    I think of Shylock, I think of Juliet and her so very young lover Romeo [whose names most seem to mispronounce], and I think of the deep psychological truths in shakespeare’s work. And yes, of the illness of heart and soul of the kings and princes and queens of that time, that still, still, still are played out by some who think themselves queens and princes and kings today… and the old insights into greed, pawing to be ‘important’, incredibly bloodthirsty and stupid at the same time in some, still hold.

    Because of the falsification, hiding of the true sources by the Brothers Grimm, the christianizing of old tales done by the brothers with their moral certitudes which stripped the old tales, and the tellers’ names from them… I can imagine that some have fiddled with Shakespeare, after he wrote.

    But, to think that amongst men/artists of shakespeare’s time, there would be ‘sharing’ in the ways proposed by this fellow who seems more intent on trying to do twee ‘shocking’ than providing any smoking gun facts,seems like airy smoke without the guns as proofs. Science based evidence isnt that x speaks like y. Science based evidence would test literally thousands and thousands of authors for say, syntax, and develop a baseline about how many of that time, and times prior and current are ‘like’ in several point-specific and measurable ways… to Shakespeare.

    Frankly I’d rather watch or be in The Tempest and its reality and dream, than in some speculation about who might have been, done, whatever in the writing of it.

    • It’s the problem with history USAF. It doesn’t really change that much, but every few years you have someone coming along trying to gin up some controversy. Gotta make it sexy and interesting again!

      Revision should happen when new evidence pops up but the cycle happens far more frequently.

      • In a publish or perish world, you have to come up with a new thesis now and then if you want to get your degree (or your post doc, or your next grant).

    • A fellow like Taylor has to make a living and he is free to choose what he likes. But I am puzzled. I’ve never paid attention to Shakespeare conspiracy theories and I am not particularly interested in Elizabethan life and times, but I’ve read and seen many of Shakespeare’s plays. I even once had a part in an outdoor production of The Tempest. These activities have all been most pleasant. It seems so obvious to me that Shakespeare’s language, characters, and plots are treasures to study and enjoy. It seems obvious that Shakespeare has profoundly influenced later literature, history, even politics. The influence comes from the works, not the circumstances surrounding the writing.

      So I simply wonder why someone who has immersed himself in Shakespeare in the depth that Professor Taylor has done, waste his time asking such dull and ultimately unanswerable questions like “Who were Shakespeare’s collaborators?” Really. Who cares?

      • Well we don’t care, but you’d be SHOCKED how many people love this sort of minutia. Or maybe you wouldn’t. Maybe the question is “why care?”

        I dunno.

        I can draw the Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) world, with all major cities and fortresses and which family owns what. I can even draw most of the house banners. I can draw the family trees in great detail. All from memory. Ha!

        I imagine it’s something silly like that. Fandom.

        • Well, I’m not easily shocked by the number of folks who disagree with me, but I am still surprised when someone is fascinated by something that bores me. Shakespeare’s works are so compelling to me, I can’t imagine dwelling on the periphery. But that’s my taste and you certainly have a right to yours. If you love any of Shakespeare’s works, we have something important in common.

          • Hamlet has the best ending to any story ever. EVER. Sometimes when I’m reading a story or watching a movie I think to myself, “What if there were a Hamlet ending?”

              • Maybe not but you know a nice ‘and then everyone died’ ending would make quite a few romances better.

                I think if everyone died at the end of the movie “Train Wreck” in an actual train wreck it would probably be my favorite movie.

      • “So I simply wonder why someone who has immersed himself in Shakespeare in the depth that Professor Taylor has done, waste his time asking such dull and ultimately unanswerable questions like “Who were Shakespeare’s collaborators?””

        Maybe because that’s what historians are wont to do, including historians of literature?

  2. Big data analysis may identify patterns, but patterns are not facts. Further evidence is necessary to turn a supposition based on a pattern into actual evidence. Put another way, my whole writing group has input on my stories, but only ONE person is writing the story…and that person is me.

    By the way, I’m an IT big data guy for my day job…

    • This quote from the article seems apt:

      For Emma Smith, a professor … Taylor’s attachment to Big Data is part of a larger attempt to claim the prestige of science for Shakespeare scholarship.

      “We have always wanted English studies to look more scientific and more objective,” she told me. “But there are really just stories we tell, and some are more convincing than others.”

  3. The NYer links to Taylor’s evidence, but you have to have a subscription to Shakespeare Quarterly. Maybe I missed it, but the NYer hasn’t revealed any of the footprints and bloodstains that lead to the smoking gun that would be in SQ.

    I’m not convinced there was any “collaboration” in the sense a writer would mean it: “I write this chapter, you do the fight scenes, etc.” How does Taylor know that Shakespeare’s contemporaries weren’t mere beta readers? How does he know any “echoes” he sees of one playwright’s hand wasn’t a tribute or a homage or even a throw down?

    I’ve never read/watched the Henry play they write about, but the part where they attribute a “badly written” scene to another playwright — how do they know it wasn’t a George Lucas situation, where he loses his best editor (Marcia Lucas) during the creation of the play (Return of the Jedi).

    If we’re to believe another playwright deserves a byline on Shakespeare’s plays I want to see them answer these questions. The big data part seems like a red herring more than anything.

    • Henry the Sixth was some of Shakespeare’s earliest work, written at a time when he was a struggling young playwright and Marlowe was a literary lion. If it reads like Marlowe, that doesn’t mean it was written by Marlowe. The minimum explanation is that Shakespeare was imitating Marlowe when he wrote it; and this explanation has been good enough for serious Shakespeare scholars for the last four hundred years.

      Again and again, when self-styled researchers try to do this kind of sleuthwork on a modern book or play, their guesses are not only wrong but impossible. We have no reason to suppose that their track record would be any better with texts written centuries ago; it’s just that the authors are no longer around to contradict them.

      For a sound treatment of this phenomenon and the bad scholarship it leads to, see C. S. Lewis’s ‘Fern-Seed and Elephants’. Excerpt:

      Many reviewers suggested that the Ring in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was suggested by the atom bomb. What could be more plausible. Here is a book published when everyone was preoccupied by that sinister invention; here in the centre of the book is a weapon which is seems madness to throw away yet fatal to use. Yet in fact, the chronology of the book’s composition makes the theory impossible. Only the other week a reviewer said that a fairy-tale by my friend Roger Lancelyn Green was influenced by fairy-tales of mine. Nothing could be more probable. I have an imaginary country with a beneficent lion in it; Green, one with a beneficent tiger. Green and I can be proved to read one another’s works; to be indeed in various ways closely associated. The case for an affiliation is far stronger than many which we accept as conclusive when dead authors are concerned. But it’s all untrue nevertheless. I know the genesis of that Tiger and that Lion and they are quite independent.

      Now this surely ought to give us pause. The reconstruction of the history of a text, when the text is ancient, sounds very convincing. But one is after all sailing by dead reckoning; the results cannot be checked by fact. In order to decide how reliable the method is, what more could you ask for than to be shown an instance where the same method is at work and we have facts to check it by? Well, that is what I have done. And we find, that when this check is available, the results are either always, or else nearly always, wrong. The ‘assured results of modern scholarship’ as to the was in which an old book was written, are ‘assured’, we may conclude, only because the men who know the facts are dead and can’t blow the gaff. The huge essays in my own field which reconstruct the history of Piers Plowman or The Faerie Queen are most unlikely to be anything but sheer illusions.

    • As for the idea that any bad scenes in Shakespeare must be the work of collaborators, Will Durant disposed of this summarily in The Age of Reason Begins:

      Reverent critics have laboured to burden collaborators with part or all of the responsibility for this slaughter, on the mistaken theory that Shakespeare could not write nonsense. He wrote reams of it.

      Durant here is talking about Titus Andronicus, but the same could be said for most of Shakespeare’s early work.

      When you come down to it, if Shakespeare had a collaborator, it was the whole of European literature in his time. You must remember that there was no copyright law then. He was perfectly free to borrow plots (as he usually did), characters, motifs, tropes, turns of phrase; no law could stop him from writing homages, pastiches, imitations, parodies, lampoons, or topsy-turvy alternative ‘takes’ – and he indulged, I believe, in all these amusements and labour-saving devices. None of that makes him any less the author of the works attributed to him.

      If a play written in the early 1590s were shown by Big Data to be perfectly consistent in style and diction with the great tragedies written by the mature Shakespeare after 1600, I would know that Big Data was wrong. Nobody could imitate Shakespeare’s perfected style before he perfected it; especially not Shakespeare himself.

      • Thanks, particularly for the CS Lewis link.

        So, reading the first post, I’m astounded that the fact that Henry VI was Shakespeare’s earliest works isn’t enough to answer the question as to why it was rough. I don’t see any reason another playwright should be “blamed” for it. The observation regarding Marlowe being famous while Shakespeare was just beginning (and likely to borrow or imitate from Marlowe) makes sense, too.

        I suspected Taylor might be ignorant about writers and the development of writers, and now I’m convinced.

        PS, your post about John Cleese and creativity helped me out of a mental block. So thanks for that, too.

Comments are closed.