In April we published – on the CEMS site and in the Times Literary Supplement – our suggestion that All’s Well that Ends Well be investigated as a collaborative play, and that a potential collaborator with Shakespeare might be Thomas Middleton. Now seems a good time to take stock of the responses to that article.

Our argument had three main components: the suggestion of collaboration; material relating to a later date for the play than has tended to be asserted; and the important methodological discussion about qualitative, as well as quantitative, approaches to questions of authorial attribution. The immediate public response to our work was an unexpected general press interest: we realized that the idea of Shakespeare as a collaborative writer has not really become mainstream, and that the so-called ‘authorship controversy’ is always a draw for journalists.

The published academic response was a strong rebuttal in the TLS by Brian Vickers and Marcus Dahl. While Vickers and Dahl make some helpful suggestions and corrections  – we were wrong about the use of ‘All’ and ‘Omnes’ as speech prefixes in the Folio, for instance – their argument was also caught up in issues of literary value and judgement. Our suggestion that a Middleton collaboration opened up a way to see the Countess of Roussillion and the Widow in the pragmatic, bawdlike roles of the mothers in the contemporaneous The Revenger’s Tragedy and A Mad World My Masters was to them an ‘unsympathetic’ reading of ‘virtuous’ women and ‘too high a price’ to pay for our theory, revealingly suggesting a prior investment in the virtue of these Shakespearean characters. But their criticism of us for identifying potential Middletonian markers within subdivisions of the play seems to us to misunderstand what we were arguing: we never claimed that Shakespeare was not involved, probably with the majority share, of this play (hence the links with Measure for Measure that Vickers and Dahl offer as counter-evidenceare entirely uncontentious). Rather, we undertook the kind of local work done for Macbeth and Measure by Gary Taylor and John Jowett in the Thomas Middleton: The Collected Works (also disputed by Vickers and in similar terms), and by Jowett on Timon of Athens.

Responses to a new idea are probably likely to be either a rejection or an elaboration of marginal points. A number of the TLS correspondents gave information about the play’s stage direction ‘Enter a Gentle Astringer’ in which they elaborated the meaning of ‘astringer’ as a falconer and therefore argued that the emendation we had tentatively proposed, ‘enter a gentleman, a stranger’ was unnecessary. Our point was actually rather different. ‘Astringer’ was less of a problem than ‘gentle’: the speech prefix for this character is ‘Gent.’, and we could find no evidence in printed drama of an adjective – ‘gentle’ – being abbreviated as an identity for a speaking character. Our suggestion drew on appositive stage directions characteristic of Middleton to explain ‘gentle’ as an abbreviation of a noun.

Privately the response to our article has been rather different. A number of highly knowledgeable and esteemed colleagues well-versed in authorial attribution and in the Middleton canon have offered additional evidence, both for the late date and for the collaboration, alongside suggestions about how we might modify our method. There are signs that the vocabulary of ‘disintegration’ used by Vickers and Dahl is itself being investigated for its ideological freight, thus taking up the implications of our methodological intervention. We are pleased and energized by the response to our suggestions, and look forward to the ongoing conversation about this play, about collaborative drama, and about the appropriate methods for literary scholars to pursue their discussions about attribution.

Laurie Maguire

Emma Smith

Advertisements