Will Shakespeare, rewrite man

Painting of William Shakespeare, believed to be the only authentic life image of him.
Painting of William Shakespeare, believed to be the only authentic life image of him. (OLI SCARFF / Getty Images)
Posted: November 20, 2013

William Shakespeare didn't write his plays.

He wrote them and a whole lot more.

A new collection of 10 Elizabethan/Jacobean plays is called, provocatively enough, Collaborative Plays, by, provocatively enough, "William Shakespeare & Others" (Palgrave Macmillan, 752 pp., $31.37). For centuries, some folks have suspected he helped write them.

A turning point? Could be. This time, the attribution may stick.

How come? Digital databases, computerized analysis of style - and a sea change in the way people think of the world's most famous writer. (He's being celebrated Dec. 7 at a Ball for the Bard Gala at the Free Library.)

Collaborative Plays, a new volume in the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company editions, is edited by two accomplished scholars, Jonathan Bate of the University of Oxford and Eric Rasmussen of the University of Nevada.

"Jonathan and I went out after some BBC interviews," Rasmussen says, "and over a drink, we said, 'What if we did an edition of the plays attributed in part to Shakespeare?' "

Some of Shakespeare's plays had other hands at work: Thomas Middleton in Macbeth, John Fletcher in The Two Noble Kinsmen (performed this summer at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, to great applause), and Pericles (about to go up at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison), this guy George Wilkins.

It works the other way, too: For centuries, people have felt Shakespeare's hand - as coauthor, refresher, literary cleaner-upper - in plays by others.

So what changed? What makes this the moment for these plays?

"First, there's much more interest in Shakespeare as a collaborator," says Bate by phone from England. "This notion of the solitary genius - it doesn't work for television or the movies, where scripts are created by teams. So why think he wrote all his plays alone? Second, the science of stylistic fingerprinting has become much more sophisticated, thanks to computer analysis."

"We're being very muted in our claims," says Rasmussen. But they sense the Bardic presence most strongly in three plays.

The Spanish Tragedy, one of the biggest hits of the Elizabethan stage, was written in the 1580s by Thomas Kyd. It's a revenge tragedy, godfather of Hamlet. In 1602, an expanded version appeared - expanded perhaps by Shakespeare, especially the masterly "painter's scene," which howls right off the page:

Let the clouds scowl, make the moon dark, the stars extinct,

The winds blowing, the bells tolling, the owls shrieking,

The toads croaking, the minutes jarring,

And the clock striking twelve: and then at last,

Sir, starting, behold a man hanging,

And tottering and tottering,

As you know the wind will weave a man. . . .


Two other best candidates are a household murder play titled Arden of Faversham, and a history play, Edward III.

  Maybe we're getting a glimpse of a guy who freshens up old plays, adds a scene here, jiggers dialogue there. One manuscript page, thought to be in Shakespeare's handwriting, is an additional scene for a play called Sir Thomas More. It's quickly written, full of cross-outs. The author doesn't even know the names of the characters. ("Hey, Will, here's a pound. Can you pump out a scene this afternoon?" "No problem, guys.")

Dialogue doctor, freshener, fixer - above all, a professional, working not alone but as a team player, best there ever was.

About these computer-assisted stylistic studies. Can you really quantify a style? Put a number value on voice, the impression of an author's personality?

"Yes, that's quite fair to say," says Bate. "In a play like Arden or Spanish Tragedy, we see not only favored words and turns of phrase, not only imagery and density of language, but also a fascination with inwardness, a psychological turn. Many tests strongly suggest Shakespeare."

"It's nice," says Rasmussen, "when computers confirm something you always thought was there."

How does such analysis work? Timothy Highley, professor in the department of computer information science at La Salle University, says a computer could count word and phrase frequency, sentence and scene length, number of clauses, parts of speech, and so on. You'd want "to compare it to a body of contemporary works to determine which characteristics most clearly identify one of Shakespeare's works." Databases now exist that do just that. You can't get 100 percent certainty; nothing can. But you can cut pretty deep.

"We'll probably never know for certain the exact extent of his involvement in these or any other plays," says Rasmussen, "but we're closer to glimpsing his day-in, day-out work as part of a team."

Shakespeare scholarship is famously contentious, and some Shakespeareans just aren't going to buy this.

"I'm all for expanding the canon," says Robert Fallon, emeritus professor of English at La Salle University, "but this takes it a little too far, and I'm not in sympathy with it. Much of this computer research, while it's interesting, seems to diminish Shakespeare."

What difference would it make? Well, maybe it would prompt people to study, publish, and perform these plays.

Carmen Khan, artistic and executive director of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, says that, while intrigued, she wouldn't immediately jump at the chance. "It wouldn't be the sustained, intricate symphony he creates in Hamlet or Lear," she says. "It'd be like listening to a lot of composers you sort of like - but one then pops out."

The biggest impact, in the end, might be on the way we're used to seeing Shakespeare and his M.O.

James Shapiro, professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and author of Contested Will, says: "It's hard to dislodge this idea of the solo genius, quill in hand, alone in his garret. But he's a shareholder in a company, and that company owns a stock of plays that are past their sell-by date. Who are you going to call to come in and bring an old play to life?"

Who you gonna call? Will Shakespeare - Playbuster. Hard to see such a writer . . . not being the writer who wrote.

"I think our work helps put the last nail in the coffin of the Shakespeare conspiracy people," Bate says. "He worked in the theater world, he wasn't a nobleman writing in secret, he was at the workplace day to day, with others."

That's one thing, Khan says, everyone can agree on: "He was definitely a man of the theater."

jt@phillynews.com215-854-4406 @jtimpaneSee SHAKESPEARE on C4