All’s Well that Ends Well: Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith on the state of the debate

July 31, 2012

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

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One Response to “All’s Well that Ends Well: Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith on the state of the debate”

  1. Brian Vickers Says:

    The authenticity of Shakespeare’s text is too important a matter to be left in doubt or confusion, yet this is the upshot of Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith’s latest statement of their claim that Middleton co-authored All’s Well that Ends Well. Since CEMS is a group within the prestigious English Faculty of Oxford University, then it might appear as if that august institution were endorsing their views. I am grateful for this occasion to call in question their arguments.

    In their original TLS article ‘Many Hands- A new Shakespeare Collaboration?’ (19 April 2012), which appeared in a footnoted version, on the CEMS site, Maguire and Smith used a variety of arguments to advance their claim. In a reply by myself and Marcus Dahl, ‘All’s Well that Ends Well: an attribution refuted’ published in the TLS on 11th May, we pointed out several errors in the data they had produced in their essay and in its ‘Appendix: Tabulation of forms favoured by Middleton’. Our discussion was supplemented by a comparative analysis of 457 early English drama texts carried out by Dr. Dahl, which established that all the supposedly Middletonian linguistic markers claimed by Maguire and Smith as showing his hand in All’s Well actually occurred as or more frequently in several plays in the First Folio. In their CEMS posting of July 31, ‘on the state of the debate’, Maguire and Smith concede, rather condescendingly, that ‘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’. But they conceal the fact that they were also wrong about the occurrence of the linguistic forms ‘ha’s’, ‘do’s’, in’t’, for’t, all of which are found more frequently in The Winters’ Tale, Coriolanus, Anthony and Cleopatra, and six other Folio plays.

    In their original essay Maguire and Smith were rather dismissive of ‘scholarship on attribution studies’ for being based on ‘sophisticated statistical analyses’, but only yielding a ‘veneer of laboratory verifiability’. But the fact is that all the excellent work on the Middleton canon by R.H. Barker, David Lake, Mac Donald Jackson and Roger Holdsworth, used meticulous computations of up to 170 linguistic markers across a canon of several hundred plays. Their work has more than a ‘veneer’ of accuracy, providing a firm foundation on which other scholars can build. Maguire and Smith have used such data, but carelessly, treating Middleton in isolation. They are right to say that ‘qualitative judgments’ have a place in authorship attribution studies, but only when the linguistic evidence has been properly collected and analysed. Newer quantitative methods based on larger units of language (collocations of three or more words) promise to increase the amount of reliable evidence objectively acquired and replicable by other researchers.

    Maguire and Smith conclude their latest CEMS blog by citing favourable private responses to their essay from ‘a number of highly knowledgeable and esteemed colleagues well versed in authorship attribution and in the Middleton canon…’ To use such evidence is generally a sign of weakness, since the objection ‘Oh? How can I believe you?’ will be met by the answer ‘I can’t tell you’, and the evidence would be deemed inadmissible. In this instance, however, I can report that I have received an email from a scholar who certainly fits their description, who described the claim of Middleton’s involvement with All’s Well as ‘wrong’. After three paragraphs itemizing some ‘counter indications’, it ends ‘Please keep the above remarks to yourself’. I hope that Maguire and Smith will abandon this hopeless project and return to more worthwhile activities.

    Brian Vickers


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