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Abstract and Keywords

This article examines the different kinds of authorship in relation to William Shakespeare; who wrote Shakespeare; what kind of author Shakespeare was; and the Shakespeare canon. It is hard to exaggerate the cultural prestige that is invested in Shakespeare as an author. His works are invoked to guarantee the richness of the resources of the English language, to anchor English national pride, and as a touchstones for the power of literature itself. They are read, performed, and studied to a degree that makes him outstanding, even among the select band of national poets. As a creator, Shakespeare is both exceptional and representative. Defining him either as an independent author, or as essentially a member of a theatrical collective, affects the picture of literary creation in general.

Keywords: William Shakespeare, Shakespeare canon, English national pride, national poet

I. Kinds of Authorship

Authorship’ in relation to Shakespeare can mean a number of things. There is, first of all, the question of whether the William Shakespeare who was christened in Stratford in April 1564, and whose death was recorded there in April 1616, in fact wrote the plays and poems we group together as ‘Shakespeare’. While most of the people who go to ‘Shakespeare’ plays and read ‘Shakespeare’ works accept that William Shakespeare wrote them, as do almost all the scholars who are professionally concerned with these texts, there are some who doubt the connection and argue that some other person or persons is responsible. For these people this is the Shakespeare authorship question.

Then there is a second set of questions, focused more on ‘authorship’ than on Shakespeare: what does authorship mean in general, and what does it mean at any particular time and in any particular literary system? This has been the focus of a good deal of scholarly work and discussion. A range of views is current, from a traditional view that authorship is essentially the domain of an individual working independently to more recent conceptions that authorship is in its nature collaborative, driven more by social, technological, and institutional networks, and closely constrained by the mentalité of the era and by language itself. Then we need to consider local and historical factors. Plays, like film scripts, need a host of material resources and creative inputs before they can be realized in performance: in the theatre, the written text is just one input among many. In Shakespeare's time the playbook once bought by the theatre company was theirs to use, change, or dispose of, as they saw fit. Given these conditions, should Shakespeare be regarded as an ‘author’ at all? Plays were, of course, printed and sold as books as well as performed in Shakespeare's lifetime. How important was this alternative form of publication to Shakespeare? Should we think of him as writing plays for readers as well as playgoers?

A third area of authorship enquiry relates to the Shakespeare canon. Which of the works sometimes attributed to Shakespeare are apocryphal? Which plays are in fact (p. 16) collaborations? Which sections of plays outside the canon were in fact written by Shakespeare? How many works can be attributed to Shakespeare as sole author? Work in this area began in the eighteenth century and continues apace.

II. Who Wrote Shakespeare?

The idea that ‘Shakespeare’ was written by someone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford was first advanced, in print at least, in the nineteenth century. The favoured candidate was Francis Bacon, Viscount St Albans (1561–1626). The idea was pursued by an American, Delia Bacon, whose book on the subject was published in 1857. She scorned the notion that a lowly‐born provincial man who had not been to university could have the knowledge of the law and of politics which is demonstrated in the plays. She found parallels in ‘Shakespeare’ to Bacon's other writings, and a match between the amplitude of the work and the achievements of Bacon's life.1 In 1920 J. Thomas Looney presented a case for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550–1604), as the writer of the plays. Looney's evidence included parallels between Oxford's life experience and events depicted in the plays, and Oxford's activities as a poet. Looney was convinced that the true author of ‘Shakespeare’ must be, like Oxford, an aristocrat with a classical education. He suggested that the ‘Shakespeare’ plays usually dated after Oxford's death were in fact written before.2

The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, was converted to a belief in Oxford's authorship of ‘Shakespeare’ by reading Looney's book, and saw parallels between Oxford as a father of three daughters and King Lear, and between Oxford's marital experiences and Othello's. Freud found it ‘inconceivable’ that the writer had merely invented the powerful emotions in Shakespeare characters and felt that the parallels between Oxford's life experience and the preoccupations of Shakespeare's plays were overwhelming.3

Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) was proposed as the author of ‘Shakespeare’ by Calvin Hoffman in 1955.4 Hoffman put up a large prize, still unclaimed, to be awarded to the researcher who can prove conclusively that Marlowe is ‘Shakespeare’.5 Alden Brooks in Will Shakspere and the Dyer's Hand (1943) suggested that Sir Edward Dyer (1543–1607) wrote ‘Shakespeare’. The cultured and well‐travelled Roger Manners, 5th Earl of Rutland (1576–1612), has also had proponents.6 A further recent candidate is Sir Henry Neville (1564–1615). Brenda James and William Rubinstein, writing in 2005, (p. 17) contended that Neville's experiences, such as travel on the Continent and imprisonment in the Tower, correspond with uncanny exactness to the materials of the plays and their order. Not all candidates are men. John Hudson has recently proposed that Aemilia Lanyer (1569–1645) was in fact the author. He sees an extraordinary number of connections linking Lanyer's life and interests with the contents of the plays.7 Two books, by Robin P. Williams and Fred Faulkes (2006), put forward Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, née Mary Sidney (1561–1621), as the true author of ‘Shakespeare’.

The main bulwark against scepticism about the Stratford Shakespeare's responsibility for the plays and poems we know as ‘Shakespeare’ is the 1623 Folio. A folio volume is an imposing physical object, and was associated with works of reference and authority. The title of the 1623 example is Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. The dedication, the preface, and five commendatory poems mention Shakespeare as author by name. It was a notable public assertion of Shakespeare's authorship, which would seem to leave little reason to doubt that the thirty‐six plays included were the work of the same William Shakespeare who had been the editors' fellow‐shareholder in the King's Men theatre company, and who had been the friend and rival of the poet and playwright Ben Jonson, who signed two of the commendatory poems. In addition, the name William Shakespeare is attached to many early printed versions of Shakespeare works. Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) were each published with a dedication signed ‘William Shakespeare’. Quarto editions of the plays from 1598 frequently have Shakespeare's name on the title‐page.

In many respects attribution studies proceed independently of the debate about who wrote ‘Shakespeare’. The main tool for the attribution of a disputed passage to Shakespeare is comparison with well‐accepted Shakespeare works, and the same procedures would operate whoever is assumed to be actually holding the pen. But in one case there is a convergence. A manuscript ‘playbook’ of the play Sir Thomas More survives. A series of essays in a landmark volume from the 1920s edited by Alfred W. Pollard distinguished various hands at work in the manuscript. One of them, known as ‘Hand D’, resembles Shakespeare's signature, which is the only known handwriting of his that survives. On a stylistic side, strong evidence from spelling and shared words and phrases links the linguistic content of this part of the play to Shakespeare. If these two bodies of evidence can be sustained, then the Hand D passages provide for once a link between ‘Shakespeare’ texts and William Shakespeare of Stratford.8

There is, then, a consistent and solidly substantiated network of evidence that connects ‘Shakespeare’ to the actor, theatre shareholder and property‐owner William (p. 18) Shakespeare. It would appear that it is the exceptional nature of the achievement that the plays and poems represent, rather than anything in the authorship facts themselves, which fuels the idea that someone other than the obvious and well‐attested candidate wrote ‘Shakespeare’. To some, it would seem, the towering edifice of the works requires a matching authorship romance. By necessity this narrative involves an extraordinary conspiracy, and requires its proponents to dismiss powerful external evidence and to contradict predecessors who were equally positive about some other candidate. It generally depends on a series of dubious coincidences and clues allegedly hidden within the poems and plays. The evidence produced is frequently of less interest than the motives of the advocates, such as a wish to deny the achievement represented by the Shakespeare canon to a commoner without a university education, and the assumptions underlying many of the arguments, like the conviction that literary work must always reflect the life of the writer.

III. What Kind of an Author was Shakespeare?

The idea of an author is necessarily many‐layered. Thinking about the origins of literary works is fundamental to any theory of literature. The classicizing Renaissance promoted the notion of the author as an exceptional individual, creating works as much for posterity as for an audience of their own time, a law‐giver and a landmark in a universal and transcendent shared literary enterprise. The Enlightenment sought to link a stable, well‐defined author with a well‐established and precisely defined oeuvre in print. The Romantic era added notions of aberrant, isolated, tortured, and gifted individuality. The mass print culture of the nineteenth century bound the idea of an author to the ultimate sole copyright and responsibility for a commercial object, the printed book. In the post‐structuralist era beginning in the 1960s this composite and perhaps internally fractured notion that literary production was entirely dominated by the individual creator was challenged. A literary system based on a separate, unique, perceiving, and creating subject was duly replaced with a doctrine according to which social, historical, and institutional forces were paramount.

This changed idea of the author had special force for scholars working in the early modern period, Shakespeare's period, and in the drama, Shakespeare's main medium. Proponents argued that authorship in the modern sense did not come into being until literary work was established as personal property and incurred personal liability, in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Thus for Shakespeare in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries a far less defined and much more collaborative idea of literary creation prevailed. In drama individual authorship was especially discounted. Putting on a play is inevitably a collective enterprise. In the London theatre of Shakespeare's day, it was argued, the performance came first, and any printed (p. 19) publication a distant second. In the overall economy of the Shakespearean theatre the author was only one among many contributors.

This would make Shakespeare not an author in the usual modern sense but one of a collective, providing a written ‘playbook’, which was one input among many others and which might then itself be trimmed or altered into a prompt book, or abandoned altogether for comic improvisation, for instance. This picture of a collaborative, rather than individualistic, mode of production has an attractively iconoclastic force, and is a stimulating alternative to the perhaps sometimes suffocating focus on a single point of origin for Shakespeare plays.

The ideas of collaborative production and the primacy of performance have consequences for the way Shakespeare's text is regarded. Margreta de Grazia has argued persuasively that it was Edmond Malone's Shakespeare edition of 1790 that was decisive in founding nineteenth‐ and twentieth‐century Shakespeare studies, with its quest for authentic works and texts and for a biography based on reliable documents. Malone's edition also constructed for the first time a stable textual Shakespeare, which could be understood by way of a thinking, feeling author revealing himself to readers in the Sonnets.9 While earlier commentators celebrated Malone's endeavour to produce a definitive text on consistent principles, de Grazia argues that Malone's enterprise was inevitably compromised by the fact that Shakespeare's texts were in their origins ‘unfixed and unstable’ in everything from spelling to the text of documents introduced in the course of the action.10 To resolve the illogicality Malone had to construct an imagined exactly finished Shakespearean original manuscript, and an ‘autonomous and entitled’ creator.11 This he did through his apparatus, with a chronology allowing the works to be seen in terms of development, through interconnecting the feelings and observations expressed by the speaker of the Sonnets with the dramatic works, and through the ‘authentic’ biographical materials offered. De Grazia says that the edition's apparatus hid from subsequent generations the reality of the ‘erratic fecundity’ and ‘intractable deviations’ in the Shakespeare text.12

It is worth returning from this picture of a labile and essentially unfixed text, and a collaborative author, to what contemporaries said about Shakespeare, and the views about authorship we can glean from his own work. There are some important surviving documents. In 1598, the clergyman Francis Meres published a collection of quotations and personal observations called Palladis Tamia. Shakespeare is mentioned many times in the section titled ‘A comparative discourse of our English poets, with the Greek, Latin, and Italian poets’.13 In these pages Shakespeare is certainly an author in the full sense, one of eight moderns mentioned as refining the English language as (p. 20) Homer and his successors enriched Greek, and Vergil and others Latin. ‘[S]weet witty Ovid’ lives on in Shakespeare the poet, judging by the English poet's Venus and Adonis, Rape of Lucrece, and his as yet unpublished Sonnets. Plautus and Seneca excel in Latin for comedy and tragedy; in the same way Shakespeare is ‘the most excellent’ in the two genres in English, and Meres lists six Shakespeare comedies and six tragedies as evidence. There is no doubt that Meres aims to establish English writers as authors in the mode of Vergil and Ovid, places Shakespeare as an individual writer as high as any of his contemporaries, and attributes Shakespeare's prestige as much to his plays as to his poems.

In the Sonnets Shakespeare himself invokes the classical idea of an author whose works will live on beyond his own lifetime. For us the obvious vehicle for this persistence would be the printed book, but Shakespeare does not make this connection between immortality and publication in print. Sonnet 17, which anticipates a readership ‘in time to come’, talks of the physical form in which the lines will survive as ‘papers, yellowed with their age’. This sounds like a manuscript rather than a printed book. Sonnets 77 and 122 refer to ‘table‐books’, that is, blank manuscript books. In the plays Shakespeare characters rarely refer to print, and when they do the references are generally disparaging, connecting print with cheap popular ballads (The Winter's Tale 4.4.258–9) or with mechanically reproduced love letters (The Merry Wives of Windsor 2.1.71–6). In Shakespeare's dialogue the book is mostly something to write in with a pen, or a metaphorical Book of Life.

This indifference to print fits with the idea that Shakespeare took no interest in the printing of his plays, an idea that was well entrenched in Shakespeare studies until recently. Lukas Erne has argued against this view. He shows that ten of what seem to be the first twelve plays Shakespeare wrote for the Lord Chamberlain's Men were in print by 1602, following what looks like a calculated publication strategy.14 This revision to the traditional account is now widely accepted.15 One must also reckon with the dearth of later Shakespeare plays that were published in his lifetime, however. Of the sixteen Folio plays usually dated to 1600 or after, only three, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, and King Lear, had been printed when Shakespeare died in 1616. Many of the plays that we think of as central to Shakespeare's achievement, like Twelfth Night, Macbeth, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and The Tempest, were available to Shakespeare's contemporaries only in performance. There is no direct evidence to suggest that Shakespeare concerned himself, as Jonson and Middleton did, with the way his plays appeared in print, or indeed with whether they appeared in print at all. While, as Erne points out, most of the plays Shakespeare wrote in the 1590s were printed, this was sometimes in forms so haphazard and garbled that he cannot possibly have been involved in supervising their passage through the press. Eighteen plays appear first in the 1623 Folio, and so would very likely have been entirely (p. 21) unknown today but for Heminges and Condell's editorial labours. The Sonnets themselves were printed in 1609, but the consensus view is that this publication was not authorized by Shakespeare. Theatrical performance, which seems so ephemeral to us today, may well have been such an intense and all‐consuming mode of presentation, and so gratifying in terms of audience response and commercial reward, that it satisfied Shakespeare's appetite for recognition, where others like Ben Jonson looked to readers of his printed works, in the present, and into a long and clearly imagined posterity.

Shakespeare is thus clearly not an author in the modern sense of someone who vests their artistic identity in a set of printed works, and maintains strict artistic and commercial control over them in everything from proofreading to contract negotiations. On the other hand, the collaborative Shakespeare in vogue in the 1980s and 1990s does not fit the facts very well either. This model made ‘Shakespeare’ merely a cipher under which to collect a certain body of work, and regarded the man himself as insignificant as a creator of meaning.

What is meant by Shakespeare as an author has of course been revised and reformulated since the era when he was a contemporary writer of plays and poems with an evolving career. Whatever the state of affairs during his active participation with the London theatrical world, from the time Shakespeare retired to Stratford, around 1612–13, the survival of his dramatic work necessarily depended more and more on the written form. Actors' memories and theatrical traditions no doubt provided some continuity beyond what was written down in playbooks and printed plays, but these informal connections suffered a major disruption with the closure of the theatres in 1642 and the dispersal of theatre companies that followed.

The outlines of ‘Shakespeare’ were reasonably clearly visible in the First Folio of 1623. Its editors were close friends and colleagues and are still our best witnesses to Shakespeare's authorship, in the sense of what he was and was not responsible for in the drama of the time, and the literary system he himself knew and his role in it as seen by contemporaries. Successive editions in many ways blurred these outlines, and editors and readers showed less interest in establishing the boundaries. Charles I read Shakespeare, as we know, but in the less careful Second Folio of 1632. London theatres reopened in 1660, and Shakespeare plays were a mainstay of productions, but the current Shakespeare was the Third Folio, whose second impression (1664) added six plays, none of them as we now think by Shakespeare, and these remained in the Fourth Folio of 1685. The Sonnets were read in the John Benson edition of 1640, which changed many of the pronouns of the 1609 edition to make the love object resolutely female. Adaptations of the plays, adding characters and songs, and even a happy ending to King Lear, were common. Accounts of Shakespeare's life revolved around a series of colourful incidents whose connections with actual events are now impossible to verify. Alexander Pope's edition, published from 1725, marks the outer limits of fluidity and plasticity in Shakespeare texts. Understanding the texts he inherited to be thoroughly corrupt, and trusting in his intuitions about which sections were Shakespeare's and (p. 22) which were not, he freely deleted and modified, and put sections he felt must be interpolations by others into footnotes.16

Pope's edition was controversial and a countervailing movement in favour of the ‘restoration’ of Shakespeare guided subsequent eighteenth‐century editions, culminating in Malone's of 1790. De Grazia's view that Malone ushered in a new era of Shakespeare authorship, revolving around a fixed text and a single clearly defined originating consciousness, has already been mentioned. De Grazia highlights some of the paradoxes of Malone's endeavour to create a definitive Shakespeare out of shifting, inherently unstable texts and records. It is also possible that Malone's approach restored some of the overall shape and textual stability which seemed desirable to the Folio editors.

IV. The Shakespeare Canon

Shakespeare as author can also be defined purely by reference to his language. At the simplest level this is a network of preferences in vocabulary and grammatical constructions. Then there are characteristic expressions, figures of speech, and images. Shakespeare shared a common language with his contemporaries—necessarily so, if he was to communicate at all—but within this, like any writer, indeed like any user of the language, he made choices, as much unconsciously as consciously. We know from contemporary references that audiences recognized and discussed aspects of these individual styles. Examples are Marlowe's ‘mighty line’, cited in Jonson's poem to Shakespeare in the Folio, Jonson's own fidelity to real‐life speech, alluded to scornfully in a satirical play of the period,17 and Shakespeare's seductive eloquence, lauded in Meres's Palladis Tamia (quoted earlier).

All readers and listeners have the experience of hearing an authorial voice in a phrase, or in a favourite unusual word, or in a characteristic transition from one idea to another. It turns out that this kind of linguistic innovation is so marked and persistent that its traces in frequencies and distributions of individual words can be modelled statistically.18 This allows us to compare our intuitions as readers about the authorship of speeches and scenes with an objective set of measures. It also shows that authorial style, in the sense of highly individualized and consistent language use, is a reality, and not a romantic or sentimental fiction. To illustrate: a Shakespeare passage is twice as likely to include the words gentle and beseech as a passage by one of his contemporaries. (p. 23) Wealth, pride, and lust, on the other hand, are half as likely to turn up in a Shakespeare passage as in the rest.19

‘Shakespeare’ is a very large collection of plays by the standards of his contemporaries, as well as a respectably large collection of non‐dramatic verse. There is good reason to think that Shakespeare was involved in the writing of forty‐four plays. He may have been occasionally exceeded in sheer output by his peers—Thomas Heywood claimed in the preface to The English Traveller to have had ‘either an entire hand, or at least the main finger’ in 220 plays, though at the most generous estimate we have records of only forty‐two of these, and surviving copies of only twenty‐five20—but Shakespeare's is the largest surviving canon. The next largest is Middleton, whom the recent Oxford edition associates with thirty‐one plays, as sole or joint author. The next after that is Jonson, with seventeen sole‐author plays. Probably two factors are at work in this metric: Shakespeare was indeed exceptionally productive; and an unusual proportion of his dramatic work survives, because his plays were frequently printed in quarto editions before 1600, and it happened that his later plays were collected and printed after his death in the First Folio.

We need to make distinctions among the forty‐four plays. A core group of twenty‐eight surviving plays are widely accepted as entirely by his hand, if not entirely without challenge.21 Beyond this, Love's Labour's Won seems to have been a single‐author play but is lost. Another set of six plays seem to be collaborations in the straightforward sense that in them Shakespeare worked with another dramatist on a joint effort. Thus it is very likely that George Peele wrote part of Titus Andronicus, George Wilkins part of Pericles, Thomas Middleton part of Timon of Athens, and John Fletcher parts of Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen. A third likely collaboration with Fletcher, Cardenio, is lost. With five plays we believe Shakespeare to have written a portion, but are uncertain of the number or identity of his collaborators.22 Measure for Measure and Macbeth seem to be Shakespeare single‐author texts with additions or revisions by Middleton. Finally, there is reason to believe there are two surviving plays to which Shakespeare added passages some time after their original performance: The Spanish Tragedy, more speculatively, and Sir Thomas More, now beyond reasonable doubt.

(p. 24) This estimate of the Shakespeare canon rests on centuries of work by an extraordinary band of interested individuals. In Shakespeare's lifetime, as has already been mentioned, his works existed primarily as a large collection of play-scripts belonging to his theatre company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, later the King's Men, some of which had been printed in various degrees of care and accuracy, and as a smaller assortment of printed and manuscript poems. The first attempt at collecting the plays was in 1619, when Thomas Pavier and William Jagger, printers and stationers put ten plays into a common format so that they could be bound together as a single volume, or sold separately.23 This set included two plays now thought to be by others and several to which Pavier and Jagger did not in fact own publishing rights. Four years later two of Shakespeare's fellow‐actors and shareholders, John Heminges and Henry Condell, published the First Folio, presenting thirty‐six plays, eighteen never before published, and many of the others in new versions. In their dedication, and again in the preface, they say that since Shakespeare did not live to publish his writings himself, the task of collecting the plays and putting them in print has fallen to them as his friends. Heminges and Condell thus present themselves as Shakespeare's literary executors, and this strong connection is supported by Shakespeare's bequest to them, along with Richard Burbage, of money for funeral rings. None of the plays in their collection has been excluded from the modern canon, though scholars now agree that several of them contain work by other writers.

Over the last two and a quarter centuries, since, say, the founding of the New Shakspere Society in 1874, two broad tendencies have been evident in work on Shakespeare's canon. One of them is to confirm the integrity of the thirty‐six plays in the Folio, to see a single authorial controlling influence through this stable set of dramatic works, and a largely uniform progress through time with each play as a milestone, surviving more or less intact from the moment of its first creation. Schoenbaum calls the proponents of this view the ‘fundamentalists’.24

The other tendency is to see the Folio canon as a more arbitrary and questionable collection. Adherents of this second view argue that the volume may include sections, or at least layers, of work by others, beyond the well‐attested collaborations, like Henry VIII, which do appear within its covers. These scholars were famously labelled ‘disintegrators’ by E. K. Chambers in his British Academy Shakespeare Lecture of 1924. Chambers identified some key beliefs, which lay behind their willingness to attribute parts of the canon to other authors. One was the notion that any departure from a fancied standard of Shakespearean greatness, and any local variation from regular patterns of metrical practice, necessarily indicated another hand at work.25 The other was a ‘doctrine of continuous copy’ under which the Shakespeare texts that survive are (p. 25) regarded as the product of revision by various hands and thus only imperfectly and indirectly related to a pure Shakespearean source.26 Chambers declared that he was not arguing for ‘the literal inspiration of the Folio’, and he conceded that some of the plays in it may well not be entirely Shakespeare's, but he was determined to defend ‘the structural outlines’ of ‘[t]he rock of Shakespeare's reputation’.27 Chambers’s weighty defence of a largely unitary and unadulterated canon was widely influential28 and pushed arguments extending the ambit of Shakespearean collaboration and revision to the fringes of Shakespeare discourse for several decades.

A related controversy in studies of the canon is between those who give credence to internal, stylistic evidence and those who do not. Schoenbaum gives the first two and a half decades of the twentieth century the somewhat ironical title of the ‘Golden Age’ of attribution based on style rather than documentary evidence.29 Too often, as he shows, the tables of statistics of metrical patterns and the lists of rare words, parallel passages, and image clusters were merely ‘impressionism rationalised’.30 ‘[T]he deadly parallel’, as Oliphant called it in 1923, was in disrepute as early as 1887, when A. H. Bullen compared it to handwriting evidence in a jury trial: ‘it is always expected, it is always produced, and it is seldom regarded’.31 Often enthusiasts failed to carry out what M. St C. Byrne called the ‘negative check’ to see if a phrase or wording was really characteristic and not a commonplace. She points out, too, that they often overlooked the fact that if a parallel might be a sign of common authorship, it might also be a plagiarism or a coincidence.32

On the other hand, as Schoenbaum acknowledges, the book edited by Alfred Pollard had succeeded in bringing the ‘Hand D’ passages from Sir Thomas More into the canon purely on the basis of internal evidence.33 Brian Vickers has demonstrated how often scholarly work going back to the middle of the nineteenth century arrived at what now seem to be accurate divisions of collaborative plays between Shakespeare and other authors.34 With searchable text provided by collections like Literature Online and Early English Books Online, present‐day scholars have something like comprehensive coverage of surviving plays, so that negative controls can be watertight. Countable electronic text, allowing a statistical approach to word frequencies, offers a further step forward. With these resources it should be possible at last to pursue authorship questions ‘upon a general and disinterested method, rather than along the casual lines (p. 26) of advance opened up by the pursuit of an author for this or that suspected or anonymous play’.35

Looking in more detail at some of the outstanding problems in the canon, we can start with doubts about works usually printed in a collected edition. A Lover's Complaint is a case in point. There is strong external evidence connecting this poem with Shakespeare. It was published with the Sonnets, and is attributed to ‘William Shakespeare’ on its own separate title‐page. On the other hand, if it is by Shakespeare, it is a departure from his regular style. Colin Burrow, editing the poems in 2002 for the Oxford edition, declared that studies by Kenneth Muir and MacDonald P. Jackson in the 1960s had concluded the attribution debate in favour of Shakespeare.36 However, another eminent figure in Shakespeare authorship studies, Brian Vickers, has recently argued for John Davies of Hereford as the more likely author. In one section of his book on the topic Vickers sets out to show that the poem is distinct from Shakespeare in its vocabulary, its syntax, its verse, and in its use of some rhetorical figures and metaphor. He argues that the Lover's Complaint poet is much less skilful than Shakespeare in most of these areas.37 A statistical study by Ward Elliott and Robert J.Valenza, applying a series of empirical tests to the poem, also declares the poem to be outside the range of Shakespeare's practice.38 The debate is thus unresolved. Shakespeare studies in general seems able to tolerate this uncertainty. Complete Shakespeare editions almost invariably include the poem, and critical studies continue to declare confidently that ‘Shakespeare’ includes five printed poems, the two narrative poems, the Sonnets, The Phoenix and the Turtle, and A Lover's Complaint,39 but only the occasional critical enterprise could be said to depend on the attribution for its validity.40

If Lover's Complaint illustrates that areas of doubt in Shakespeare attribution remain, even after the application of the most sophisticated and modern methods, then another area, dramatic collaboration, shows how some long‐standing debates can reach closure. In his book Shakespeare, Co‐Author Vickers deals with the five collaborations already mentioned—one each with Peele, Wilkins, and Middleton, and two with Fletcher—and, in the spirit of a medical metastudy, reviews previous studies, and adds new ones to show a convergence of differing approaches to a consensus not only on the partnerships involved, but on the divisions of the plays between the collaborators.

(p. 27) The most straightforward cases of collaboration involve Shakespeare's younger contemporary John Fletcher (1579–1625). The title‐page of the 1634 Quarto of Two Noble Kinsmen says the play was ‘Written by the memorable Worthies of their time Mr John Fletcher and Mr William Shakespeare Gent[lemen]’. The play does not appear in the First Folio. A series of tests such as metre, the use of contractions, and vocabulary converge on a division of the play agreed on by modern scholars.41 There is also general agreement that Henry VIII is a collaboration between the two playwrights; the division of the play proposed by Spedding in 1850 stands up well to modern testing.42 The relative ease with which the divisions are established suggests that the two men generally worked on separate sections of the play, rather than jointly writing scenes or acts. It seems likely that there was a third Shakespeare–Fletcher collaboration, Cardenio, based on an episode from Don Quixote, which was published in an English translation in 1612. A play of this name was performed twice at court in 1613, although there is no evidence of publication.43

It now seems clear that Shakespeare worked as an anonymous collaborator on plays early in his career. He may well have contributed a section, but only a section, to The Raigne of Edward III, which was printed in 1595 but seems to have been performed earlier. Timothy Irish Watt has recently summed up and augmented the case for Shakespeare's part‐authorship.44 The three parts of Henry VI are dated to this period also. Confusion surrounds their authorship, however, and even the order in which they were written. Versions of part 2 and part 3 were published, without any indication of authorship, in 1594 and 1595. All three were included in the First Folio, so there is a prima facie case that Shakespeare was involved, but there is no agreement on how much, or about who his collaborators were, though Kyd, Marlowe, Peele, and Greene are most often mentioned by scholars.

Since the middle of the seventeenth century there has been a persistent strand of commentary linking Shakespeare with the anonymous play Arden of Faversham, first printed in 1592. Claims that the play is entirely by Shakespeare have been refined to suggestions that only some sections are his. There is by no means consensus—other candidates like Kyd continue to be put forward—but there are some strong connections with known Shakespeare in terms of style and imagery, confirmed by quantitative work in stylistics.45

(p. 28) Shakespeare may well have written the series of additions to Thomas Kyd's pioneering revenge play The Spanish Tragedy which were published in the 1602 edition of the play. In this case the external evidence points to Ben Jonson as the writer. Payments to Jonson for revisions to the play are listed in the diary of the theatre manager Philip Henslowe in 1601, but the additions include speeches of whimsical, ironical mental instability quite unlike anything in Jonson. Coleridge thought they were Shakespeare's work, and they share a number of unusual words and phrases with Shakespeare plays and poems.46 A statistical analysis of patterns of word use, both function words and lexical words, supports the attribution to Shakespeare.47

In the late 1990s the claim that ‘Shakespeare’ should be extended to include a 1612 funeral elegy for William Peter, a little‐known Devonshire gentleman, renewed the debate about the role of internal evidence in attribution. Donald W. Foster, the main proponent of the attribution, presented extensive data in a 1989 book showing that the poem fitted well within the ‘Shakespeare’ range on a number of linguistic markers such as the frequency of some common words and the frequency of some figures of speech. Foster says in fact that he was unable to find a Shakespeare test that the Elegy could not pass.48 He summed up the case thus: the poem ‘belongs hereafter with Shakespeare's poems and plays…because it is formed from textual and linguistic fabric indistinguishable from that of canonical Shakespeare’.49 The only external evidence of any substance was the appearance of the initials ‘W. S.’ on the dedication to the poem. Most readers, meanwhile, agreed that the poem was laboured and dull, and saw no obvious connections with ‘Shakespeare’ in style, theme, or artistic stance. Richard Abrams, a second proponent of the attribution, responded that given the strength of the evidence for the inclusion of the poem in the canon, the rest of Shakespeare's works would just have to be read differently from now on.50

Doubters had had to rely on their impressions that the Elegy's style was ‘un‐ Shakespearean’, and these were increasingly discounted. The poem began to appear in authoritative American Shakespeare editions like the Norton and the Riverside. The momentum was abruptly reversed in 2002, however, when G. D. Monsarrat published strong evidence in favour of another candidate, John Ford—mainly words and phrases in common with Ford poems written about the same time.51 Foster and Abrams conceded shortly afterwards. The case illustrates some important methodological (p. 29) considerations. Where an attribution relies on internal evidence, and connections are relative and comparative, one author may be the most likely candidate from those tested, but there is always the possibility of a new author from outside the set being stronger still. Once that author is included, or just taken seriously—Ford was in Foster's original control set, but not given anything like the same attention as Shakespeare—the claims of the first author look much less conclusive. Further, the lure of a Shakespeare discovery can lead to a gold rush mentality, which can tempt researchers into arranging tests to ensure the right result.52

There was a precursor to the Elegy episode in a controversy over a much shorter untitled poem beginning ‘Shall I die? shall I fly?’. Gary Taylor, one of the editors of The Oxford Shakespeare, found the poem in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. The catalogue attributed the poem to Shakespeare. The poem was included in the 1987 Oxford edition, but its evident clumsiness and derivativeness and the paucity of persuasive parallels to ‘Shakespeare’ kept it out of the canon in any more general sense. Thomas A. Pendleton's collection of words that are used in the poem and in ‘Shakespeare’, but in different senses, is damaging for the attribution.53

A considerable number of anonymous and even well‐attributed plays have been proposed for inclusion in the Shakespeare canon as wholly or partly by him. Like the apocryphal books of the Bible, they form a penumbra to the canonical works. One instance is Edmond Ironside, a late sixteenth‐century history play which has survived in manuscript. E. B. Everitt put a case for Shakespeare's authorship in a 1954 book, mainly on the basis of verbal parallels with early canonical Shakespeare, and subsequently Eric Sams made his own arguments for the idea in a book and series of articles in the 1980s, again on the basis of internal evidence from vocabulary. Most other scholars reject the attribution.54

V. Conclusion

It is hard to exaggerate the cultural prestige that is invested in Shakespeare as an author. His works are invoked to guarantee the richness of the resources of the English language, to anchor English national pride, and as touchstones for the power of literature itself. They are read, performed, and studied to a degree that makes him outstanding even among the select band of national poets. A poem that is accepted as Shakespeare's is analysed with unparalleled intensity; the same poem, no longer (p. 30) attributed to Shakespeare, instantly loses its lustre. As a creator Shakespeare is both exceptional and representative. Defining him either as an independent author, or as essentially a member of a theatrical collective, affects the picture of literary creation in general. For many beyond the academy, questions about his identity, his moral character, and his politics must be resolved in a satisfactory direction to sustain general beliefs about humanity and culture.

Because so much is at stake, Shakespeare authorship throws the methods for arriving at the truth in a range of questions into extraordinary relief. These questions range from the attribution of a brief passage of dialogue to the nature of authorship itself. The cut and thrust of debate is intriguing, and there is no doubt that some fine intellects have given their best efforts in the quest to resolve some of the perplexing problems that arise. It is also remarkable how hard it is to rule out even wildly improbable hypotheses, and how far interpreters will go in building elaborate structures on uncertain foundations in attribution; and it is dismaying that doubts about what might seem to be obvious facts persist.

It is also worth noting that after several centuries of endeavour there has really been not so very much added, nor much taken away, from the first monument of Shakespeare authorship—the Folio volume of 1623, with its thirty‐six plays presented as the work of a fondly remembered friend and colleague dead seven years before. No one has succeeded in ruling any of the Folio plays out of a collected Shakespeare: our best understanding is that he was involved in the majority of them as sole playwright, and in a minority as collaborator, or as the author of an earlier version later revised or supplemented by another. No whole play has been added to the canon, though there are a series of parts of other plays that can now be attributed to him, from the near‐certain to the confidently ascribed. There is no equivalent to the Folio for the poems, but we can say that two long poems, a sonnet sequence, and a shorter poem stand clearly within the canon, and A Lover's Complaint, with some short poems published in a brief anthology, stand on the threshold; despite some urgent pleas for admission, no other poem has qualified.

The Folio also remains the best guide to Shakespeare authorship in terms of the identity of the author, and the idea of authorship itself. William Shakespeare is in the title, is presented throughout as the author, and is identified through the dedication, preface and commendatory poems with William Shakespeare the actor and King's Men shareholder, born in Stratford‐upon‐Avon. No challenge to these straightforward links between this individual and these works has been sustained. In the Folio volume Shakespeare appears neither as a solitary genius creating in isolation, nor as a mere functionary in a larger productive enterprise. He is presented simply as an exceptional theatre professional, admired by his peers both for his collegial ties and for his extraordinary talent.


(1) S. Schoenbaum, Shakespeare's Lives (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 389–90.

(2) Schoenbaum, Shakespeare's Lives, 431–4.

(3) Schoenbaum, Shakespeare's Lives, 442–4 and 442n.

(4) Schoenbaum, Shakespeare's Lives, 445–7.

(5) The Marlowe Society, ‘The Hoffman Prize’, www.marlowe‐

(6) Ilya Gililov, The Shakespeare Game: The Mystery of the Great Phoenix (New York: Algora, 2003).

(7) Discussed in Michael Posner, ‘Rethinking Shakespeare’, Queen's Quarterly 115 (2008), 247–59.

(8) Alfred W. Pollard (ed.), Shakespeare's Hand in the Play of ‘Sir Thomas More’: Papers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923); MacDonald P. Jackson, ‘The Date and Authorship of Hand D's Contribution to Sir Thomas More: Evidence from “Literature Online”’, Shakespeare Survey 59 (2006), 69–78; Timothy Irish Watt, ‘The Authorship of the Hand‐D Addition to The Book of Sir Thomas More’, in Hugh Craig and Arthur F. Kinney (eds.), Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 134–61.

(9) Margreta de Grazia, Shakespeare Verbatim: The Reproduction of Authenticity and the 1790 Apparatus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 132–76.

(10) De Grazia, 222–3.

(11) De Grazia, 226.

(12) De Grazia, 223–5.

(13) Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury (London, 1598), sigs. Nn7r–Oo7r. The quotations in the rest of the paragraph all come from this section.

(14) Lukas Erne, Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 79–100.

(15) See, e.g., Patrick Cheney, Shakespeare's Literary Authorship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 8–10.

(16) Details of the Restoration and eighteenth‐century reception of Shakespeare in this paragraph are from Gary Taylor, Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History, from the Restoration to the Present (New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989), 9–99.

(17) Anonymous, The Returne from Pernassus: Or the Scourge of Simony (London, 1606), sig. B2v.

(18) Craig and Kinney (eds.), Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship, 1–39.

(19) These calculations are based on word counts in twenty‐eight Shakespeare plays and ninety‐one well‐attributed single‐author plays by others from the years 1580–1619.

(20) This is the tally of plays associated with Heywood in Alfred Harbage and S. Schoenbaum, Annals of English Drama 975–1700 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964), leaving aside pageants, ‘classical legends’, and the like.

(21) These are, in the order of composition given in Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987): Two Gentlemen of Verona, Taming of the Shrew, Richard III, Comedy of Errors, Love's Labour's Lost, Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, King John, Merchant of Venice, Henry IV Part 1, Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry IV Part 2, Much Ado about Nothing, Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, All's Well That Ends Well, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, and Tempest.

(22) These are the three parts of Henry VI, Arden of Faversham, and Edward III.

(23) The ten plays are Henry V, Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, King Lear, Merchant of Venice, Merry Wives of Windsor, Midsummer Night's Dream, Pericles, Sir John Oldcastle, and Yorkshire Tragedy.

(24) S. Schoenbaum, Internal Evidence and Elizabethan Dramatic Authorship: An Essay in Literary History and Method (London: Edward Arnold, 1966), 137.

(25) E. K. Chambers, The Disintegration of Shakespeare (London: Oxford University Press, 1924), 10–13.

(26) Chambers, 17–22.

(27) Chambers, 15–16, 3.

(28) Schoenbaum, Internal Evidence, 108.

(29) Schoenbaum, Internal Evidence, 62.

(30) Schoenbaum, Internal Evidence, 75.

(31) E. H. C. Oliphant, ‘How Not to Play the Game of Parallels’, JEGP 28 (1929), 13; Bullen is quoted in Schoenbaum, Internal Evidence, 89.

(32) M. St C. Byrne, ‘Bibliographical Clues in Collaborate Plays’, The Library, 4th series, 13 (1932), 24.

(33) Schoenbaum, Internal Evidence, 107.

(34) Brian Vickers, Shakespeare, Co‐Author: A Historical Study of Five Collaborative Plays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

(35) Chambers, The Disintegration of Shakespeare, 13.

(36) Colin Burrow (ed.), Shakespeare: The Complete Sonnets and Poems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 139.

(37) Brian Vickers, Shakespeare, ‘A Lover's Complaint’, and John Davies of Hereford (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 121–203.

(38) Ward Elliott and Robert J. Valenza, ‘Did Shakespeare Write A Lover's Complaint? The Jackson Ascription Revisited’, in Brian Boyd (ed.), Words That Count: Essays on Early Modern Authorship in Honor of MacDonald P. Jackson (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2004), 117–39.

(39) E.g., Cheney, Shakespeare's Literary Authorship, 19, 34.

(40) Examples are John Kerrigan (ed.), Motives of Woe: Shakespeare and the ‘Female Complaint’: A Critical Anthology (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991), and Shirley Sharon‐Zisser (ed.), Critical Essays on Shakespeare's ‘A Lover's Complaint’: Suffering Ecstasy (London: Ashgate, 2006).

(41) Brian Vickers, Shakespeare, Co‐Author, 402–32.

(42) Vickers, Shakespeare, Co‐Author, 332–402.

(43) G. Harold Metz (ed.), Sources of Four Plays Ascribed to Shakespeare (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1989), 257–83.

(44) Timothy Irish Watt, ‘The Authorship of The Raigne of Edward the Third’, in Craig and Kinney (eds.), Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship, 116–32.

(45) Brian Vickers, ‘Thomas Kyd, Secret Sharer’, Times Literary Supplement, 18 April 2008, 13–15; MacDonald P. Jackson, ‘Shakespeare and the Quarrel Scene in Arden of Faversham’, Shakespeare Quarterly 57.3 (2006), 249–93; and Arthur F. Kinney, ‘Authoring Arden of Faversham’, in Craig and Kinney (eds.), 78–99.

(46) Warren Stevenson, Shakespeare's Additions to Thomas Kyd's ‘The Spanish Tragedy’: A Fresh Look at the Evidence Regarding the 1602 Additions (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 2008).

(47) Hugh Craig, ‘The 1602 Additions to The Spanish Tragedy’, in Craig and Kinney (eds.), 162–80.

(48) Donald W. Foster, Elegy by W. S.: A Study in Attribution (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989), 147.

(49) Donald W. Foster, ‘A Funeral Elegy: W[illiam] S[hakespeare]'s “Best‐Speaking Witnesses” ’, PMLA 111 (1996), 1082.

(50) Richard Abrams, ‘Breaching the Canon: Elegy by W. S.: The State of the Argument’, The Shakespeare Newsletter (1995), 54.

(51) G. D. Monsarrat, ‘A Funeral Elegy: Ford, W.S., and Shakespeare’, Review of English Studies 53 (2002), 186–203.

(52) Hugh Craig, ‘Common‐Words Frequencies, Shakespeare's Style, and the Elegy by W. S.’, Early Modern Literary Studies 8 (2002),

(53) Thomas A. Pendleton, ‘The Non‐Shakespearian Language of “Shall I Die?” ’, Review of English Studies 40 (1989), 323–51.

(54) For a discussion of Everitt and Sams, and a review of this authorship problem, see Philip S. Palmer, ‘Edmond Ironside and the Question of Shakespearean Authorship’, in Craig and Kinney (eds.), 100–15.