Have We Finally Found the “Lost” Shakespeare?

When William Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors and authors published his collected plays in 1623, 7 years after the Bard shuffled off this mortal coil, that book, now known as the First Folio, established what was and was not to be officially “Shakespeare.” Yet, as with any other great artist, Shakespeare left us wanting more. The search for “lost” Shakespeare has spanned centuries, spilling plenty of critical ink along the way. William Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, uses the latest computer technology paired with old school critical connoisseurship not to end the debate once and for all, but to cooly lay out all the arguments free of the heat of Bardology beside the very texts in question. If there truly is “lost” Shakespeare waiting to be found, it awaits somewhere in these pages. And if these works be the stuff of Shakespeare, play on.


As anyone who grudgingly plowed through Romeo and Juliet or Julius Caesar in high school remembers, modern audiences know Shakespeare mainly through the written texts handed down to us, most often originating from that First Folio. But Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have known Will’s work more from the stage than from the page. Only 18 of Shakespeare’s plays appeared in print before 1623. The First Folio provides the first written text for 18 more and often provides more reliable text for those previously published. Of the plays considered canonical Shakespeare, only Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen fail to appear in the First Folio. The First Folio might not have appeared at all without the efforts of Shakespeare’s fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell and the urging of fellow playwright Ben Jonson, who had published his own collected works. Jonson’s preface to the First Folio, in which he calls Shakespeare “not of an age, but for all time,” reveals how he hoped the publication of the plays would win Will (and other authors, such as himself) a lasting legacy rather than the fleeting fame previous, unpublished playwrights suffered. But of that rescue mission, how many works were left behind?

The very title of William Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays might take many readers aback. Wasn’t Shakespeare the mighty, head and shoulders above the crowd lone genius that never erased a line? The truth of the Elizabethan theater Shakespeare worked in is much messier than the myth. Even within the canon, critics agree that Shakespeare collaborated on two of his last plays, Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, with John Fletcher, who became the King's Men’s in-house playwright after Shakespeare retired. Shakespeare first made his mark as a “fixer” of the plays of others, sprucing them up for staging by his troupe. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, publishers would sometimes connect his name (or a tantalizing “W.S.”) to anonymous plays to make them sell better. With all of these complications in mind, Bate asks, “Where do we draw the borders of the Shakespeare ‘canon’?” Those borders might never be unblurred, but at least these works offer a slightly clearer picture.

Will Sharpe’s essay on authorship and attribution of the plays in question points out the obvious draw of finding “lost” Shakespeare. “Remaking Shakespeare is big business,” Sharpe writes, “and the commodity is revelation.” But the biggest revelations the book offers probably aren’t the answers most casual Shakespeare fans want. The authorship question—the idea that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays we know and love—now, according to Sharpe’s count, includes 70 possible candidates. But this different authorship question—the idea that Shakespeare didn’t write alone—offers, for Sharpe, “the flip side of the same coin.” Sharpe sees both authorship questions as “founded on love,” specifically the passionate faith “that we have not yet sounded the full depths of Shakespeare’s creativity.” That faith in the existence of more Shakespeare, Bate contends, requires two more acts of faith: one, “a renewed willingness to approach Shakespeare as a working man of the theatre and a collaborative author, not a solitary genius”; and two, an equal willingness that modern technology such as computer-based stylometry, known to some as “linguistic fingerprinting,” can actually finger the Bard’s hand even in the midst of the work of others.

But how does stylometry claim to find “lost” Shakespeare? Experts feed texts from the time in search of an author into a database, which is then searched for linguistic patterns such as the use of contractions, favored phrases, allusions, metrical patterns, etc. A program then compares those patterns with those found in canonical Shakespeare. Because Shakespeare’s style is a “moving target”—shifting from period to period as he developed as an artist—the approximate age of the text is taken into consideration during the comparison. Finally, human connoisseurship comes into the picture as literary critics ponder whether the statistics match their “gut” feeling. In addition to the textual critics, today’s performers of Shakespeare’s works respond in a series of interviews with Peter Kirwan as to whether the questioned plays “feel” like Shakespeare on the stage. Actress Caroline Faber felt “excited to ‘test’ the attribution [of Edward III] [her]self” during performance, while director Terry Hands’ experience with Arden of Faversham left him convinced it was decidedly “unShakespearean.”

Between all this critical verbiage rests the works themselves. The stylometric analysis ranks the questioned plays as “almost certain to very likely” (Sir Thomas More, Edward III, Arden of Faversham, The Spanish Tragedy [Shakespeare’s additions to Thomas Kyd’s original], and Double Falsehood [in Lewis Theobald’s 18th century claimed adaption of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s lost play Cardenio]), “worth considering” (Mucedorus), or “highly unlikely to almost impossible” (A Yorkshire Tragedy, The London Prodigal, Locrine, and Thomas Lord Cromwell). The only surviving manuscript page believed to be written in Shakespeare’s own hand comes from Sir Thomas More (detail shown above), which was written by multiple collaborators and wasn’t printer or performed during Shakespeare’s day due to the political climate, so dismissing these works before reading them robs you of seeing a possible different side of Shakespeare.

Of all the plays, Arden of Faversham struck me as the most Shakespearean. “Love is a god and marriage is but words,” proclaims the title character’s adulterous wife with Lady Macbeth-like confidence. “So we that are the poets’ favorites/ Must have a love,” gently speaks a love-struck artist. “Ay, love is the painter’s Muse.” The range of humanity and wit shouted out “Shakespeare” to me throughout, but was that reality or “Will”-ful wishing? “Whoever wrote Arden of Faversham was one of the most innovative and daring talents the Renaissance theatre ever saw,” Sharpe adds, “and yet no contemporary record links this watershed work, written in or around 1590, to any author… It wasn’t just made in England, it was England, bringing action into local places, into the here and now, and giving for the first time a voice to ordinary people in a new kind of domestic setting.” Although stylometric analysis makes a good case for Shakespeare as the author of Arden, there are also strong arguments against that center primarily around the dating of the play versus where Shakespeare was in his artistic development at that time. Nevertheless, the editors “offer it to readers of this volume as one of the finest plays that a young Shakespeare, possible, never wrote.”  

“Why can we not celebrate [Arden of Faversham as] a remarkable play by a remarkable author who, to our loss, and for whatever reason, wrote nothing else?” Terry Hands asks in his unShakespearing of the play. Ultimately, that sentiment is the real revelation of William Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays. As Shakespeare himself wrote, “The play’s the thing.” “Whether or not some or all of them were indeed part-written or ‘newly set forth’ or ‘overseen’ by Shakespeare,” Bate concludes, “the reading of them cannot fail to illuminate his theatrical world.” Jonson called Shakespeare “not of an age, but for all time,” but that timelessness comes precisely because he was “of an age” that included Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker, and many others remembered in footnotes or not at all. (Shakespeare scholar Stanley WellsShakespeare & Co. is a quick, accessible entry into this fascinating chapter of literary history.) The public mania for Elizabethan theater created a template for our own modern entertainment madness as those “early moderns” of Shakespeare’s day increasingly looked and acted more and more like we do today. The Shakespeare in William Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays will pull in readers initially, but you’ll come away with a greater respect and interest in those “Others” than you ever imagined. Shakespeare isn’t less because he worked in this collaborative world. In many ways, he’s much, much more.

[Image: Detail of manuscript page of Sir Thomas More by “Hand D,” believed to be that of William Shakespeare. Image source.]

[Many thanks to Palgrave Macmillan for providing me with a review copy of William Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen with Jan Sewell and Will Sharpe, associate editors Peter Kirwan and Sarah Stewart.]

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