This week, I spent six hours watching Shakespeare plays: as much as four hours of which may not have been written by Shakespeare. The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is celebrating the reopening of its spectacularly renovated theatres in Stratford with productions of Cardenio, a previously unperformed work connected with their resident dramatist, and the latest revival of Macbeth, a boldly counter-intuitive choice for introducing a new venue, given the deep theatrical superstitions surrounding it.
Yet, as the RSC documentation surrounding the production commendably makes clear, Cardenio may contain very little by Shakespeare. And new techniques, the literary equivalent of genetic analysis pioneered in pathology, have revealed the hand of fellow dramatist Thomas Middleton in Macbeth.
April 23 marked the 395th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death and, by convention though not historical record, the 447th anniversary of his birth. So to what extent does it matter who wrote the plays of Shakespeare?
This debate will be reignited in September, with the release of the big budget Hollywood movie Anonymous, which credits the core work of the RSC to the Earl of Oxford, one of the many alternative authors proposed through history by those who refuse to accept that a glover’s son and jobbing actor from the English Midlands could have turned out to be the most sublime dramatic poet in theatrical history.
In his brilliant recent book Contested Will, the American scholar James Shapiro sardonically demolishes all of those (including Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud and Helen Keller) who have insisted that the Shakespeare plays were written by someone else: whether Oxford, Sir Francis Bacon or Queen Elizabeth I. But, crucially, Shapiro then endorses a different authorship dispute: the gathering acceptance in academies that Shakespeare, although an actual and prolific dramatist, worked in a theatre in which collaboration and adaptation was standard and constant. So, while his plays weren’t written by Bacon or Oxford or Marlowe, they were co-written with, or rewritten by, John Fletcher, Thomas Middleton, George Wilkes and many others.
The question now, though, is how far this revisionism should go. While no one is arguing that the RSC now be rena-med The Royal Shakespeare Middleton Fletcher and Others Company, Shapiro has suggested that it may be sensible to be clearer on posters and programmes about who wrote what. For example, productions of Macbeth still routinely give sole authorship to Shakespeare. There’s a paradox in this theatrical precision happening when the question of ownership and copyright in contemporary work is increasingly compromised by mashing, file-sharing and free republication. But the fight over Shakespeare is driven, for both bitterly opposed sides, by devotion to the extraordinary plays that have survived for 500 years.
The mystery continues because it seems both intellectually and logistically impossible that a single mind was behind all these pieces. We will never have “bliss in proof”, as it was put by Shakespeare — or possibly someone else.