Recently two books came out dealing with a similar subject–a series of plays attributed to William Shakespeare that are now seen as inauthentic for one reason or another. The books are The Apocryphal William Shakespeare, by Sabrina Feldman, and North of Shakespeare, by Dennis McCarthy. Though the authors have very different styles and take very different approaches to their subject matter, they both come up with a similar solution to the problem posed by these plays. I find their thesis fascinating and highly plausible. In this rather long post I’ll try to sketch it in, making due allowance for the complexity of the subject.
To understand this controversy, it’s necessary to know something about the publication of plays attributed to William Shakespeare prior to the 1623 appearance of the First Folio. The First Folio stands as the first complete, or nearly complete, collection, but for years prior to its publication, plays attributed to Shakespeare had appeared in quarto versions. A quarto was a cheap publication, essentially a pamphlet, corresponding roughly to a magazine or supermarket paperback book today. The First Folio was aimed at a wealthy, sophisticated readership; the book was hugely expensive, far out of reach of most people. Quartos, on the other hand, were inexpensive, disposable products that the average literate person could afford.
There were three sorts of quartos attributed to William Shakespeare prior to the First Folio:
- So-called “good quartos.” These are versions of Shakespeare’s plays that are substantially the same as the Folio versions. There are 8 good quartos.
- So-called “bad quartos.” These are versions of Shakespeare’s plays that are noticeably inferior to the Folio versions. They are typically shorter, lacking key scenes, and featuring compressed and degraded dialogue. There are 12 bad quartos.
- So-called “Shakespeare apocrypha.” These are plays attributed to “William Shakespeare,” or to “W. Sh.” or “W.S.,” which have no parallels in the First Folio and are not considered to be authentically Shakespearean works. Some of these plays were published in later editions of the Folio (the Second Folio, Third Folio, etc.). Even so, they are generally dismissed from the canon today because their style, themes, and overall quality make them unacceptable as products of Shakespeare’s distinctive genius. The so-called apocrypha include such obscure works as The London Prodigal, A Yorkshire Tragedy, and Locrine. There are 11 quartos in this category, more or less (the contemporary attribution of authorship to some titles is disputed).
Now, what we have here is a rather unusual situation. We have two bodies of work both attributed to the same author. One body of work–the collection of plays that constitutes the First Folio–consists of acknowledged masterpieces of English literature. The other body of work–the bad quartos and apocrypha–consists of plays that scarcely rise above the level of hackwork.
This odd situation does not pertain to other authors of the same era. We are not faced with a collection of bad quartos and apocrypha attributed to Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, or other popular playwrights. Only in Shakespeare’s case do we face the dilemma of deciding between good and bad versions of the same play, or between authentic and inauthentic contributions to the author's oeuvre.
How to account for this state of affairs? The standard response goes as follows. The bad quartos were pirated editions produced by unscrupulous actors or by thieving audience members. If it was the actors, they retained portions of the script and filled in gaps from memory. If it was an audience member, he was taking down the play in shorthand as it was performed. In either case, the printer and publisher must have known they were putting out a bootleg edition that was not authorized by the author or by whoever actually owned the playscript.
The apocryphal quartos, on the other hand, were plays written by some less successful, less popular playwright than Shakespeare. The printers and publishers of those quartos simply put Shakespeare’s name (or initials) on the title page for its commercial value. They believe that a quarto published under the name of “William Shakespeare”–or even under the initials “W.S.”–would sell better than one published under the real author’s name.
So what the conventional view amounts to is a conspiracy–or more exactly, a whole series of conspiracies–among actors who were betraying their acting companies for cash, auditors who took down the dialogue in shorthand, and unscrupulous publishers and printers who put out pirated editions of some plays and deliberately misattributed the authorship of others. And all these conspiracies continued for years, while William Shakespeare himself never objected, never fought back, never had the offending quartos removed from circulation, and while the authors whose plays had been unjustly credited to Shakespeare never voiced a peep of protest. The printers and publishers, despite their criminal practices, never suffered any penalty for these bad and apocryphal quartos. Indeed, they must have found the whole business quite profitable, while apparently Shakespeare himself, though known as a skinflint who pursued his debtors through the courts for repayment of trivial sums, was unconcerned with this substantial loss of income.
And all of these shenanigans were carried out at the expense of just one playwright, William Shakespeare, and never at the expense of any others.
Now, orthodox scholars often criticize those who are skeptical of Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays attributed to him on two grounds: first, that these anti-Stratfordian theories are nothing but conspiracy theories, which are inherently implausible; and second, that our best textual evidence is the title pages of the published works themselves, which clearly credit the works to William Shakespeare.
But note: the orthodox position is vulnerable to exactly the same two lines of attack. It too assumes a conspiracy–in fact, many separate conspiracies–whose purpose was to muddle the authorship of the works. It also assumes that the title pages of the published works are not reliable, since it rejects the prima facie evidence of the title pages of the apocryphal works.
In other words, both sides advance the idea of a conspiracy that uniquely revolved around William Shakespeare, and both sides question the accuracy of the title pages. Of course, the two sides differ in the specifics of which title pages they question and why, and what kind of conspiracy was perpetrated and by whom. But neither side can maintain its position without assuming some kind of conspiracy and some degree of inaccuracy–in fact, dishonesty–in the title pages.
Is there a way out of this conundrum? Feldman and McCarthy, arguing in separate books with different styles and emphases, say there is. At the risk of oversimplifying a complicated thesis, I’ll summarize this alternative approach below. Where possible, I’ll include quotes from contemporary (typically veiled and satirical) references to Shakespeare or from remembrances offered within the lifetime of some who knew him.
Let’s say that William Shakespeare of Stratford was talented and ambitious young man, educated only at the grammar school level, but with a natural wit, a sense of showmanship, and the ability to produce entertaining rhymes extemporaneously. (“When he killed a calf he would do it in a high style, and make a speech.") Finding Stratford too confining, he left town, deserting his wife and child, and toured the countryside as a maker of morality plays and a puppeteer. (“[He] can serve to make a pretty speech, for [he] was a country author, passing at a moral, for twas [he] that penned the Moral of Man’s Wit, the Dialogue of Dives, and for seven years space was absolute interpreter to the puppets.”)
After several years, he had made something of a name for himself as a smalltime impresario. The next logical step was to move to London and get involved in the theater. He did some acting, but also worked as a play broker, acquiring plays from other writers. Some of these were old plays no longer in fashion, plays originally written by an aristocrat for court performances in those days when the public theater was still in its infancy. (“At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean,/ Buy the reversion of old plays …”)
These plays were long, complex, rather weighty and intellectual affairs treating of the problems of the high and mighty. Shakespeare saw commercial potential in them but knew that his unsophisticated audience would not sit still–or more accurately, stand still, since the groundlings had to stand throughout a performance–for a long, challenging production. He set to work doctoring the dramas, cutting out some of the lengthy speeches and slower scenes, simplifying the dialogue, adding elements of broad comedy and bombast–in short, popularizing these intellectually serious productions. He may have done this himself, or he may have hired writers to make the kinds of changes he required. In any event, the finished product was a commercially viable play bearing his unique stamp.
The plays were successful, and since he took a cut of the profits, he began to grow rich. Some writers were unhappy with his success, aware that he was taking credit for work that was not originally his own, and they were particularly upset by his practice of padding out some of the plays with plagiarized passages from their own works. They found him arrogant, dishonest, knavish. (“There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers [i.e., a plagiarist], that with his tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute Johannes Factotum [jack of all trades], is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.”) They mocked him as a country bumpkin who knew little Latin and pleased the unintelligent by dumbing down the intellectually demanding plays he had obtained. (“Few of the university pen plays well, they smell too much of that writer Ovid, and that writer Metamorphosis, and talk too much of Proserpina and Jupiter. Why, here's our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down …”)
But Shakespeare didn’t care. He had found a way to succeed in the big city, to become a major name in the burgeoning theater industry. When printers asked for permission to publish his works, he agreed–and naturally they put his name on the title page. There was no conspiracy; though the plays were originally written by someone else, they had been revised and “improved” by Shakespeare himself or by hired hands acting in his stead, and as far as he or anyone else was concerned, they were his work. And of course he never objected to the publication of these quartos; quite the opposite–he agreed to it and profited from it, just as he profited from nearly everything he did.
Eventually he retired in Stratford, a wealthy man famed for his business acumen, his bravado, and his country wit. Some years after his death, those who knew the truth of the matter and who wanted to preserve the best of the plays in their original form–the plays as untouched by Shakespeare–set about compiling the First Folio. They obtained, wherever possible, the actual manuscripts Shakespeare had purchased, and even advertised this fact on the title page of the Folio itself (“Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories & Tragedies, Published according to the True Original Copies”) and in the front matter (“The Works of William Shakespeare, containing all his Comedies, Histories, and Truly set forth, according to their first Original”). Naturally, they discarded the apocryphal plays, which they knew had been written by others and had no connection to the masterpieces they were seeking to preserve. If they could not find the manuscript of a particular play in its original undoctored form but wished to preserve it anyway, they had no choice but to preserve the adulterated version, as was probably the case with Titus Andronicus, The Merchant of Venice, Timon of Athens, Macbeth, and others. They continued to attribute the plays to William Shakespeare in order to protect the privacy of the original aristocratic author, and perhaps for complicated political reasons. They did put in some clues to the actual authorship of the works, but they could not be too open about it.
If something like this were the case, it would rather neatly answer a number of questions. It would explain how and why the bad and apocryphal quartos came to be published, and why no one ever complained about their publication. It would explain why Shakespeare’s contemporaries ridiculed him as a hack, a plagiarist, and a yokel of limited education and talent, when quite plainly none of these things was true of the original author. It would explain how William Shakespeare became, in effect, the front man for an aristocrat who either would not or could not publish under his real name. It would validate the title pages of all the quartos–good, bad, and apocryphal–and relieve us of the need to hypothesize a complicated series of conspiracies among the printers. The only remaining conspiracy theory would involve the original author’s need to maintain his secrecy, and the desire of his friends to keep his secret after he was dead.
I am not saying that the above description accurately summarizes either Feldman’s or McCarthy’s viewpoint. Each writer has her or his particular take on the details. McCarthy, for instance, does not seem to think that there was any conspiracy involved even in the publication of the First Folio, though I am at a loss to understand his thinking here. But I’m not trying to get bogged down in details. What’s fascinating to me is the possibility of a new way of looking at William Shakespeare’s London career–an approach that gives him credit as a successful actor, play broker, stage producer, and adapter of difficult material–a man of natural wit, high ambition, and a certain ruthless willingness to use other people for his own ends. All of this is quite in keeping with the portrait of Shakespeare that emerges from those who knew him, remembered him, and satirized him.
It also leaves room for the mysterious figure behind the scenes–the genuine author of the Shakespearean canon, whose works were written to be enjoyed as court entertainments or as poetry, and which have come down to us very often in an altered, simplified, popularized form.
For those who are interested, I recommend both The Apocryphal William Shakespeare, by Sabrina Feldman, and North of Shakespeare, by Dennis McCarthy, for more information on this intriguing new hypothesis. Feldman’s approach is more cautious and scholarly; she takes far more time to amass her evidence before drawing any conclusions; and she does not insist that her conclusions are correct. McCarthy’s book is a quicker read, setting out its conclusions more starkly, and a good deal of it is devoted to his claim that the aristocratic author behind the works was actually Thomas North, the famed translator of Plutarch’s Lives. For the moment, I’m more interested in nailing down the career of the Stratford man than in considering yet another claimant to the authorship crown.
If you’re going to read just one of these two books, I would read The Apocryphal William Shakespeare. But both books are very much worthwhile. Even if you have no interest in the authorship controversy, you may well find them provocative. At the very least, you’ll learn a lot about Elizabethan theatrical and printing practices, and about the thorny questions that still bedevil admirers of the Bard.
I’ll give the last word to Ben Jonson, whose poem “On Poet Ape” is often taken to be a shot at William Shakespeare. Does his scathing critique sound applicable to the original author of Hamlet and King Lear, or to someone who appropriated and adulterated those works?
On Poet Ape
Ben Jonson, 1616
Poor Poet Ape*, that would be thought our chief,**
Whose works are e’en the frippery*** of wit,
From Brokage**** is become so bold a thief
As we, the robbed, leave rage and pity it.
At first he made low shifts, would pick and glean,
Buy the reversion of old plays,***** now grown
To a little wealth, and credit on the scene,
He takes up all, makes each man’s wit his own,+
And told of this, he slights it.++ Tut, such crimes
The sluggish, gaping auditor devours;+++
He marks not whose ‘twas first, and aftertimes
May judge it to be his, as well as ours.
Fool! as if half-eyes will not know a fleece
From locks of wool, or shreds from the whole piece.++++
*Poet Ape = poet imitator, also poet-actor (ape = actor)
**That would be thought our chief = that would be regarded as the best poet of the age
***Frippery = used apparel; recycled garments
****Brokage = play brokering
*****Buy the reversion of old plays = purchase the rights to old plays
+Makes each man’s wit his own = takes credit for others’ work
++Told of this, he slights it = doesn’t care that he’s stealing credit
+++The sluggish, gaping auditor devours = the casual playgoer doesn’t notice
++++Shreds from the whole piece = mere fragments retained in popular editions vs. the original, uncut masterworks