For a long time, a fierce completist instinct determined my musical purchases. Elliott Smith played on a Birddog album? Thom Yorke sings on Unkle’s Psyence Fiction?
Better buy them.
In the days before iTunes, tracking down The Damned’s Turkey Song proved to be a grail quest that finally ended, with an accompanying (almost) tearful and spiritual moment, in a second-hand record shop in Cambridge. Following this course, I discovered some wonderful material, some of which pushed the boundaries of my musical taste and led me to discover new aspects of my favourite artists’ work. I also experienced immense, if not unforeseeable, disappointments.
Listening to the aptly named Turkey Song, for one.
On such occasions, I found myself asking what it was that I hoped to get from some of my acquisitions. Did owning the Mike Watt album on which Krist Novoselic played the Farfisa organ on one song really add to my understanding of Nirvana? Would my appreciation of The Pixies be less complete or nuanced if I didn’t possess Frank Black’s brief vocal contribution to the same album? I still don’t know, but I do have some doubts.
I have now grown to something approaching middle age and the completist instinct and its attendant questions no longer trouble my audible entertainment, much. Through my recent research on Shakespeare, though, they have re-emerged. I have been working on a play called Sir Thomas More that exists in manuscript. What interests scholars most about this play is the possibility that three pages may be in Shakespeare’s hand. While the identification of the hand was first proposed in 1871, and by the 1920s something like a critical consensus in support of the attribution was developing, only one 20th-century edition of Shakespeare’s complete works prints the whole play. Despite most scholars (correctly or not) taking part of the play to be by Shakespeare, it plainly was not considered Shakespearean enough. It remained an unsettling exception, not really or fully part of the canon.
One way in which the troubling bit of writing in More has been accommodated by editors is through the reproduction of only the Shakespearean passage in editions of his works. The passage in question calls for the tolerant, hospitable welcome of asylum-seeking ‘strangers’ that is in some ways at odds with the otherwise jingoistic representation of the anti-alien riots of 1517 found in the rest of the play. The Shakespearean part may thus be construed as possessing an ethical grace distinct from the rest of the play, which matches the elevated status of its poetry in the otherwise rather workmanlike drama. Many Shakespeareans have been quick to embrace this sense of the Shakespearean passage’s distinctness, even arguing that Shakespeare knew nothing of the rest of the play. Discussions of the passage commonly tend to extract the passage from its dramatic context or emphasize only its connections to other Shakespearean works.
More recent scholarship has begun to resist this tendency. The production of early-modern drama is now recognized as a thoroughly collaborative enterprise. Pairs of authors, such as the celebrated coupling of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, and even small teams of writers, would often be responsible for the writing of plays. At times, as is the case with More, writers other than the original authors were called in to make revisions if a play didn’t get past the censor first time, were in need of improvement, or a revival of an older play was planned. To exempt Shakespeare from the practicalities of professional play-making, to see him as an isolated genius who writes untouched by such mundane considerations, requires some difficult maneuvering that depends on notions of poetic inspiration and originality inherited from the 18th century. It is to concentrate on his metaphorical Farfisa organ part, in other words, without attending to the rest of the song to which it contributes.
This shift in emphasis towards a Shakespeare who is not an isolated genius (but perhaps another sort of genius, nevertheless) is given further urgency by developments in attribution studies. Over the past couple of decades, computer-assisted methods have made increasingly confident claims to identify the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Long-held suspicions about the authorship of some of the plays traditionally part of the Shakespeare canon have been supported, with plays such as Titus Andronicus, Henry VIII, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, and Pericles now held to include the work of other authors alongside that of Shakespeare. Similarly, Shakespeare’s pen has been spotted in action beyond the usual bounds of his established works and More. Shakespeare may have contributed a little over a scene to the anonymous Arden of Faversham, a disorderly but brilliant dramatization of a well-known murder in Kent. He has been identified as the reviser of Thomas Kyd’s influential Spanish Tragedy. The third series of the Arden Shakespeare includes Double Falsehood, an adaptation of the lost play Cardenio, written by Shakespeare and Fletcher. The Royal Shakespeare Company have produced a volume of Collaborative Plays by ‘William Shakespeare and Others’ that consists of ten plays that have with varying plausibility been attributed to Shakespeare.
With the excitement of new engagements with plays that take on a novel Shakespearean interest, I feel drawn back to my earlier completist self, seeking out the further flung works of my favourite artists. Critical engagements with plays traditionally beyond the canon potentially broaden our understanding of Shakespeare as a dramatic poet. For instance, The Two Noble Kinsmen, a collaboration between Shakespeare and Fletcher that only established itself within the Shakespeare canon at the end of the last century, begins at the moment of the nuptials of Theseus and Hippolita. The play’s representation of an intense male friendship that transforms, seemingly inevitably, into a mortal rivalry when the titular kinsmen fall in love with the same woman, cannot but darken our view of the love stories that begin at precisely the same dramatic moment in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and which are only resolved by one of the lovers, through intervention of fairy magic, marrying a woman for whom he has professed hatred.
Yet as these new attributions and connections begin to reshape how we see Shakespeare’s canonical drama, they come too with the more uneasy questions that troubled my earlier fervour as a snapper-up of over-considered trifles: the uncertainty of what ‘completeness’ is and what the acquisition of the most minor instances of an artist’s work entails.
If Shakespeare contributed a scene, a passage, or some short additions to a play, does it become Shakespearean? Should the play now be reprinted and taught as canonical Shakespeare? The next few years should see some interesting discussion about what Shakespeare’s ‘complete works’ means.
James Purkis is an English and Writing Studies professor.