Professor follows The Bard’s words in new directions

Adela Talbot // Western News

English and Writing Studies professor James Purkis’ book, Shakespeare and Manuscript Drama: Canon, Collaboration and Text, has been shortlisted for the prestigious Shakespeare’s Globe Book Award, which seeks to celebrate new scholarship and help to extend readership of Shakespeare.

As James Purkis sees it, he is in “the geeky corner of Shakespeare studies.”

More than two decades ago, the English and Writing Studies professor dove into his doctoral work on The Bard by way of theoretical and historical questions regarding collaboration. At the time, the idea of singular authorship, as it relates to William Shakespeare, was waning and Purkis found himself at the forefront of an emerging field of study.

Today, his book, Shakespeare and Manuscript Drama: Canon, Collaboration and Text, has been shortlisted for the prestigious Shakespeare’s Globe Book Award, which seeks to celebrate new scholarship and help to extend readership of Shakespeare.

Examining previously discounted evidence from manuscripts used in early modern playhouses, Purkis looks at how Shakespeare wrote plays and how they were revised as they made their way to the stage. Considering collaboration and theatre practice, his book explores manuscript plays by Anthony Munday, Thomas Middleton, and Thomas Heywood to establish new accounts of theatrical revision that challenge formerly dominant ideas in Shakespearean textual studies.

“By looking at these, we get an idea of how people wrote for the stage and what they were required to write, how their words got revised,” Purkis said.

“We are always wondering, when we see a text, what’s written by Shakespeare, what’s added by actors, what’s taken away, what happened to the text in the playhouse and how were these things performed. Looking at these manuscript playbooks, we have the documents that were used backstage, so we get an idea of whether the author’s lines are sometimes crossed out, or lines from one character have been moved to another, and so on.”

For many years, scholars simply assumed how texts evolved in a playhouse, he added. Diving into playhouse manuscript – texts that were often incomplete or attributed to amateur playwrights – for evidence is a relatively new movement and one that opens up a number of questions when studying Shakespeare, Purkis explained.

“You get rid of this crazy idea of Shakespeare being kind of next to the Christian god, in terms of this extraordinary authority figure who just presents remarkable things, and you start to think – it’s more than just one genius writing this stuff. He obviously co-wrote some of his texts, as well,” Purkis said.

But it is not just about the texts traditionally regarded as part of the Shakespeare canon. Shakespeare’s hand was present in texts not attributed to him, as well. Purkis’ book also reappraises Shakespeare’s supposed part in a Sir Thomas More manuscript by analyzing the palaeographic, orthographic, and stylistic arguments for Shakespeare’s authorship of three of the manuscript’s pages.

Offering a new account of manuscript writing that avoids conventional narrative forms, Purkis argues for a Shakespeare who is a full participant in a manuscript’s collaborative process, demanding a reconsideration of his dramatic canon.

“Once we say, ‘Here is Shakespeare, writing this little fragment,’ what’s his canon going to look like? Attribution studies are doing things with statistics and computers that may or may not be good, but they are finding Shakespeare all over the place now. They’re finding his hand in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, in 1602-03 editions, which people are saying might be by Shakespeare,” he noted.

“People are finding bits of Shakespeare elsewhere as well as more chunks of other writers in Shakespeare’s drama. So, the question now is, what does the Shakespeare canon look like? Do you just reproduce 10 lines form another play? Do you bring in a whole play into the canon because he may have written 15 lines or a couple of passages, or do you just start qualifying other plays that have been attributed to him because you are finding him more and more?”

This is the direction of Purkis’ next project as he hopes to grapple with the reconvening of the Shakespearean canon. There is no straightforward answer to the above questions, he said, and considering The Bard’s “apocryphal” texts as part of the canon is something that requires a look at the evidence, going back to early manuscripts to sharpen ideas and evidence.

“Why did he write something? How did he write it? This might be interesting to consider in deciding what the canon looks like. It’s the things around the edges that have the potential to be most interesting sometimes,” he added.

The winner of the Shakespeare’s Globe Book Award will receive £3,000 and present a public lecture in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for their first monograph, which the judges determine has made a significant contribution to the understanding of early modern plays and playhouses. The winning title will be announced July 30.