At the 2017 Shakespeare Association of America, Marissa Nicosia and Curtis Perry ran a session on Shakespearean Distortions, asking what is lost from our understanding of the early modern period by Shakespeare’s domination of the research agenda. This strikes me as the most urgent question in current scholarship, and one that rarely gets asked, and I want to begin by paying my own tribute to Nicosia, Perry and their contributors. I came along to this session with what turned out to be false expectations, anticipating a sort of Shakespeare safe space, a two-hour slot in which I could hear alternative, new readings of the history of literature and theatre in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I even naively expected the history of early modern theatre to be reread via a different and overlooked author: Anthony Munday and the playhouses c. 1580-1630, for example. Not everyone’s idea of a good time, I know, but after all, scholarship on the playhouses has been focussed on the two central decades of Shakespeare’s career, and someone like Munday would help us refocus current debate around different modes of writing, different authorial practices and a different sense of historical period.
The discussion was great, and repeatedly made challenges to Shakespeare as focal point to our collective research, but I was struck by the fact that it was even more focussed on Shakespeare than an average SAA session. If I had brought my Shakespeare klaxon to my presumed Shakespeare safe space, I’d have been traumatically tooting it at least once every twenty seconds. What I understood as an invitation to forget Shakespeare had resulted in a discussion of Shakespeare. That discussion was full of transformative ideas, but it still seemed embedded in a Shakespearean viewpoint. Perhaps I was wrong to expect otherwise; as contributors themselves kept helpfully noting, early modern literary scholarship has got stuck in a self-perpetuating loop.
We are running our small research project on pre-Shakespearean playhouses at an interesting time. Two large and highly visible editions of Shakespeare’s work have just been published, and we enthusiastically pursue our AHRC-funded research at the same time as two other AHRC early modern projects, one on Thomas Nashe, the other on John Marston. It’s striking that all these projects concern themselves with authorship, and all of them have generated, in very different ways, new questions in attribution. As a member of the only one of these projects not directly focussed on such matters, I hope it won’t be impertinent of me to ask some questions about this scholarly field.
Our own project throws attribution into a particular light, and one that I’m aware is eccentric and unusual. We’re working on the period when playhouses first started to be built in London in any number, between around 1565 and around 1595. For the first fifteen of those years, attribution studies is 100% useless to our methodologies (I assume?), because not a single play survives. For the last ten years of our period, attribution studies is a major if often rather peripheral voice in current scholarship, particularly around the inevitable figures of Shakespeare, Kyd and Marlowe. To put it another way, our project and attribution studies are, at different historical moments, mutually irrelevant and then, suddenly, uncertainly relevant to one another. This odd relationship looks to me like an opportunity to consider again the utility, methods and findings of attribution studies. So here are a few questions.
- Why and how does it matter who wrote a play, or a group of plays? I’m the author of a book with the word ‘authorship’ in the title, so these are real, not rhetorical, questions, but it is striking that attribution scholars rarely seem to ask them. There are clearly positive answers to be had here (and the irony of asking why authorship matters and then immediately invoking my own work is not lost on me), but it would be useful to know what those answers might be for attribution studies as a whole, or for individual attributionists. Asking these questions explicitly would help those of us sceptical about this work to understand it better. It would make explicit that which is currently implicit and thus hides inbuilt assumptions about research questions, methods and results. When I say this question would be useful, then, I mean it would literally increase the usefulness of attribution studies to other fields, and vice versa. Attribution scholars sometimes complain that other scholars do not understand their field. This is doubtless true, but might attribution studies as a field work harder to help the rest of us with this problem by engaging in more overt methodological self-reflection, including connecting their work to other kinds of scholarship? Asking open-ended questions about why and how authorship matters is an obvious point to begin.
- That’s a conceptual way to ask the question, but what of its political import? Why pay tribute? What power is in play in a field that seeks to restore or entrench or detect authorship? (I’m probably choosing the wrong verbs here, but I’d be interested to hear what the right verbs are.) Since the word ‘tribute’ has at least two central meanings in modern parlance, is this tribute a form of compliment, praise or homage, or is it a form of tax, allegiance or submission? When we pay tribute, are we saying that the author owns us and our allegiance? Again, there are positive answers to some of these questions, but as will become clear, these unarticulated assumptions about fealty and power may themselves disrupt the ability of attribution to ask and answer persuasive research questions.
- What is the history of attribution studies, both in recent years and over a longer period of time? What might such histories tell us about its habits of mind, its established and therefore automatic expectations and assumptions, its common blindspots?
- What stage in a text’s life does attribution studies study? Attribution research focuses on style, locution, word choice, collocations or grammatical, syntactic or other kinds of lexical habits (apologies to anyone whose work I may be misrepresenting there). Despite all the complexities it otherwise associates with texts, these kinds of focus seem to imply the text, or at least these aspects of it, are relatively or especially transparent in their presentation, representation or evidencing of authorship. This can bog the field down in what can easily look like data-dotage, but it also seems to treat these textual effects as representative of the entirety of the authoring process.
- Relatedly, then, what stages in a text’s life does attribution studies not study? Or what kinds of textual practices does it struggle to account for? I’m mindful here of certain collaborative plays, among them Eastward Ho!, which seem to resist the habit of desegregation with which attribution usually treats collaboration. If these plays don’t fit the model, might there be something wrong with the model?
- Why (only) treat collaboration as a problem to be solved? Attribution studies routinely takes as its aim the segregation of authorial activity I’ve just described: Kyd wrote this bit of this play, for example, and Shakespeare wrote this other bit. Why this need to belabour and undo collaboration? And where does this get us once we’ve done it? Why this acceptance of single authorship as a gold standard, the default mode, the factory setting of authorship? Are there not other histories of early modern authorship available to us? Might single authorship in fact be an unusual, unrepresentative or at the very least only partial mode of authorship?
- These last three questions point us to a conceptual impasse between attribution studies and other forms of bibliography and theatre history: surviving early modern texts are the products of multiple stages and layers. The above focus on style, locution or syntax treats only one of those stages as a key or even the only stage of authorship. Even if we want to envisage a stage at which single authors did work on scenes alone, that stage will have been preceded and followed by stages of planning, composition and revision. Such processes enable and are therefore non-negotiable elements inside the extant text(s). I’m minded of the modern anecdote that Connie Booth and John Cleese wrote Fawlty Towers together, she writing the women’s dialogue, he writing the men’s. This anecdote may well reflect an accurate description of one moment in the text’s generation, but if it had reflected the only such moment, well, the script would have been incoherent. This stage is only possible because it relies on at least some other kinds of collaboration: planning, writing together, or subsequent revision, all of which leave their mark, including non-verbal marks, on a text. Attribution studies narrows in on the least collaborative stage of composition. I would like to know why, and I ask this not to be confrontational but because this question might help to generate fresh opportunities in methodology, argument and persuasion. I suspect this question would also help attributionists articulate their case better to those unconvinced by their work, which would in turn help the rest of us be more helpful to them.
- At my most sceptical, then, I guess I would ask whether attribution studies’ attention to stylistic habits only really tells us something about the person writing out authorial decisions that are always collaborative and collective, rather than about authorship itself. That person may well be engaged in kinds of authorship, but we might not want to assume them to be the only or primary author. For this reason, attribution studies may be unwittingly studying something closer to transcription than authorship.
- At my least sceptical, I would be willing to concede that forms and kinds of authorship occur at the stage that attribution studies studies, but I still want to ask why it seeks to occlude and efface other authorial stages: those moments when playing companies commission or accept composition, writers come together to plan or revise, performers work and rework their scripts, or the printing process reimagines its working manuscript(s) anew. The history of the production of texts is the history of multiple producers and processes, many of which lack agreed terminology with which to describe them. Many of these processes occur even with texts which were or now appear to be only sole-authored. Why efface them?
- What are the limitations of attribution methodology? At a recent London Shakespeare Seminar given by Gary Taylor, Taylor and Brian Vickers both agreed that you need ‘large canons’ in order to enact attribution. This strikes me as a great example of the way that Shakespeare has set the terms of the debate. Taylor opens The Collected Works of Thomas Middleton by calling him ‘our other Shakespeare’ and celebrating his greatness in terms of his production of great plays in the three core genres, comedy, history and tragedy. Taylor has provided us with a productive model for rethinking non-Shakespearean authorship, one I have cheekily reappropriated in my own work on Lyly, but I’m struck by this Shakespeareanisation of Middleton. I am unconvinced that those were the three great genres throughout the early modern period, and I suspect we think of them as such only because of the title page of the 1623 Shakespeare First Folio. As Taylor himself shows us via his Middleton edition, it’s easy to lose sight of the plethora of genres with which Shakespeare strikingly did not engage. But what does it mean to celebrate Middleton for writing in Shakespeare’s perceived core genres? Would we demote Jane Austen or Homer or Samuel Beckett from the literary canon because they did not work in these modes? Why is it any different to treat Shakespeare’s contemporaries in this manner? In any case, a character in The Taming of the Shrew thinks they are in a history; another in Richard II worries they may be in a comedy. Philip Sidney and John Lyly both warn that genre is not in play in the early modern playhouses, and it isn’t until the 1590s that such terms start to settle down at all (in part, I’ve suggested elsewhere, because of Shakespeare and his early reception). And as they settle down, of course, they also implode: tragicomedy, subgenres, entirely alternative kinds of genres proliferate. As with genre, so with attribution: if the models you employ only really work for Shakespeare or on Shakespearean terms or for writers who wrote like Shakespeare (in the sense that attribution needs writers who produced relatively large canons), is that not an example of the inbuilt biases of these methods? If such methods only work for that which is like Shakespeare, do they really work? [See Taylor’s comment below for the clarification that large canons need not equate in number to Shakespeare’s.]
- Attribution studies is premised on the assumption that authorship matters, that is does matter who is speaking. Should we then be worried that early modern attribution research is almost entirely performed by men on male canons? I asked earlier about the politics of attribution, of the desire to pay tribute: might this explain the sealed demographic make up of attribution studies and its deeply disquieting habit of breaking out into embattled tones and factions? I find much attribution studies insistently, almost obsessively ad hominem, in many different meanings of that term. I am aware that pointing out its own demographic distribution is another form of ad hominem criticism, but think of it as ad homines: this is a point about the overall structure of the field, not about individual members. Might this aspect of the field explain its methodologies and tones?
- Given the reference above to authors with large canons, together with this issue with the unusually male and ad hominem nature of attribution debate, might we ask whether attribution studies is really performing early modern paternity tests? Why is it so hostile to new voices in the field? Heather Hirschfeld, Emma Smith, Laurie Maguire and Peter Kirwan have all recently proposed more playful, even feminist models of authorship, proposals that often met with determinedly unplayful, unwelcoming responses that treated differences of opinion as reasons not to listen rather than opportunities to learn and reflect. Attribution studies cares about style, but it too has stylistic habits, and they are grounded in aggression, denunciation and belligerence that seem harmful to its own cause and deeply unreceptive of new ideas. Might this style be connected to the dominance of this field by men, especially by senior men often working in systems of patronage with more junior men and in faction with other groups of men? Might it be connected to its focus on predominantly male authorship? Might it be connected to its automatic distaste for and desire to undo collaboration? Might it be connected to its own unwillingness to collaborate through disagreement? Might it not be good for all concerned to rethink these stylistic premises, this factional entrenchment, this unwelcoming tone? What can the positive effect of this determined inimicibility to new voices possibly be?
- Might it, then, be time to consider how this field could unite, collaborate, reflect and welcome in new models for work? This in turn would help those of us sceptical about their work understand its terms, values and methods a little better.
- What would happen to this field if it stopped using its differences to define itself, to entrench practitioners further into predisposed positions, and instead enquired into the spaces between its differences, as well as between its field and other methodologies? Attack may be a good form of defence, but it’s not likely to lead to useful agreement or agreed and productive disagreement. It is possible to collaborate even in disagreement, which at least helps other scholars build on your work. At Taylor’s London Renaissance Seminar, Taylor and Vickers came together to call for further theorisation of their field, but until attribution studies is at ease with both old disagreements and new voices, this tendency towards hostility and denunciation is inevitably going to stagnate such theorisation.
- Though attribution studies often takes its own importance as self-evident, it is in fact an often marginal form of study, as its own practitioners sometimes complain. Many scholars find themselves able to work on its primary material (plays) without reference to its discoveries or methods, though of course we are almost always indebted to attribution whenever we consult modern editions (and some early modern editions too). By working through some of these questions, might we all become more useful to one another?
Much recent debate has been produced and dominated by what are in effect unacknowledged test cases, and perhaps unrepresentative test cases: King Lear, most obviously. What would attribution studies look like if we built its assumptions, questions and methods around the textual history of the first surviving play written for the playhouses, The Three Ladies of London, which survives in two textual versions as well as a printed eyewitness report of an entirely different version? In the current scholarly climate it feels important to say that where a play only survives in one version, that is not evidence of textual stability but of the unstable survival of textual variation. There is no reason why The Tempest, which survives in one version, or Hard Shifts for Husbands, which survives in none, would have been any less textually tempestuous or shifting than King Lear. We call the two versions of Dr Faustus the A text and B text, but we know that they both represent later versions of an earlier play: they are at best the B text and C text of the original work (assuming we even want to invoke the idea of an original and originating work). Survival in a single form is not an indicator of historical textual stability. We sometimes forget that in this period it is normal for a play not to survive at all: it is the plays that do get printed which are unusual. It is always good to remember that without the 1623 Shakespeare play collection and its later iterations, we would not have half of Shakespeare’s canon.
So look, I’m not calling for my Shakespeare safe space. Some people can work on Shakespeare if they really want to: as a comment on a recent post gently pointed out to me, we all have our eccentricities. As someone who works on the playhouses from the point of view of the 1560s, ’70s and ’80s, I only have to talk to colleagues to become aware of my own perceptual eccentricities; but I am struck too by the lack of awareness on the part of more traditional scholars that their work is also eccentric in its occlusions, assumptions and methods. In working on Shakespeare, might we ask what it means to work on Shakespeare, to reinforce an imbalance in scholarly work on one writer that is so at odds with the historical period we purport to study? I can’t imagine a world in which we look at current scholarship and decide that what we need is more work on Shakespeare, and I wonder if we’ve reached saturation point yet. But I will always be interested to learn from those who disagree with me on such matters.
A year ago I lightheartedly suggested that we put the Shhhhhh into Shakespeare. I was grateful to be challenged on this idea by Robert Stagg’s comments below my blog, and I probably need to accept that the shhing won’t start anytime soon. But could non-Shakespeareans and Shakespeareans work together to rethink the dominance of this one writer over a period which is still poorly understood? Could we rethink the very idea of a Shakespearean, given the questions Arthur Little and others (link coming soon) have asked us about who gets to define themselves in this way?
I have found this post very, very difficult to write, precisely because of the hostility embedded in the field I have described. Early in this piece I talked about power, and later I talked about gender. I am yet another male scholar. I am not an expert in attribution. I am in that strange point in my career where I’m not quite early career anymore and am wandering/ wondering into my mid-career crisis stage (I’m not sure at what point you get the memo about being non-ECR). I cannot begin to imagine how difficult it must be for junior or female scholars or for anyone uncomfortable with the current state of attribution to engage critically with its practices, nor am I looking forward to the responses this post may inspire. So please, please folks, can we acknowledge that things are not in a good place? We shouldn’t be making it difficult for others to challenge or engage with our work. We need to conduct scholarly work in a manner that includes and encourages others, especially those who think differently, and if someone like me, fairly privileged and thick-skinned, is wary of making what I hope is a fairly gentle intervention in methodology and argumentative premises, then it’s likely that others are being shut out of the conversation too. That is, as ever, to the detriment of us all.
In summary, then, perhaps it’s ok to collaborate. Perhaps we can pay tribute to those with whom we disagree. Let’s find out.
I was lucky enough to have Victoria Yeoman and Harry Newman with me whilst I wrote this piece; and I ran it past Peter Kirwan, Marissa Nicosia and Curtis Perry too: I would like to record my collaborative debt to them.