Shakespeare, attribution and attrition: at tribute zone

This is the first of three pieces on attribution. See Nashe’s attributions and Let me speak to you about my huge words for more.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.
  5. 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?
  6. 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?
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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?
  10. 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.]
  11. 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?
  12. 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?
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.

Andy Kesson

69 thoughts on “Shakespeare, attribution and attrition: at tribute zone

  1. Since Shakespeare has become a global language and commodity, it seems to me that, whilst I agree very much that the overwhelming focus on Shakespeare in academia, media and contemporary theatre, in relation to the culture of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century in England (and almost solely on England) during this period, we have to engage with this phenomenon, but in a critical way which should include understanding the wider context, an not only in relation to Shakespeare but also in its own right.

    Thus, I don’t believe it is possible to delete or marginalise Shakespeare, since he is inextricably bound up with key politico-cultural narratives which need to be analysed and understood, which would include an analysis of how Shakespeare has come to have or be given a dominant cultural role in modern society.

    I believe that, if we were allowed to see how Shakespeare and other contemporary writers were both products of and constructions generated under very specific socio-historical conditions, we would resolve this problem and free our minds to engage with all the texts of this period in entirely different ways. There would no longer be a need to bypass or ignore Shakespeare, in reaction to the current trend to worship, celebritise and commodify him. If we are able and willing to articulate and accept the actual history of Shakespeare it would free us and Shakespeare itself from a great burden, and shed light on the way history and national culture are as much a confection of the ruling elite today as they were in Shakespeare’s time.

    Since all of us are products of processes of historical mythologising, it is vey difficult to extricate ourselves from the myths generated by ruling establishments. However, just as the PTSD sufferer (not just a victim of events and contexts but of dominant narratives about them), can recover through practices which cohere emotional and rational parts of the brain and make it possible to directly access one’s personal history and thus neutralise the warping effects of traumatic disordering, so this is conceivable for society, if it were to adopt an equivalent collective methodology to enable us to realise our actual history, which has been systematically and recurrently broken down, distorted and recomposed for political purposes through the ages, in which ‘Shakespeare’ has come to have a primary function.


  2. Hi Andy – thanks for this, which I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I agree that Shakespeare attribution studies has often involved too many male egos comparing cock size very loudly, while using incompatibly calibrated measuring devices. That’s one reason why, after working in the field early in my career, I moved sideways

    But there are reasons to do, or pay attention to, attribution studies, and one is that techniques are now at a stage of statistical sophistication that means we can give accurate assessments of error rates – and we can test methods against corpora for which we know the right answers. We know when it works, and when it doesn’t. These improvements to techniques were largely made away from the bear pit of Shakespeare/Renaissance studies (for references, see Gabriel Egan’s recent piece in SQ, and Brett Hirsch in the NOS Textual Companion, and Hugh Craig’s work generally).

    So we know the stuff works in principle (and in practice, given the availability of sample corpora, and texts of a sufficient length).

    Why then would you want to do it? I’ve been accused of having a naive view of authorship so often for doing attribution work, but it always strikes me that it’s those who won’t engage with attribution work who have the naive view. Nothing brings you closer to the complexity or reality of collaboration than doing attribution work on a collaborative text – simply saying ‘it’s too mysteriously deep for you attribution people to understand’ is, I suspect, a lazy cop-out. How convenient that you get to dismiss a whole field without having to read all those boring numbers. (I don’t mean you by ‘you’ here by the way Andy!)

    But more constructively, here are a couple of positive reasons for doing attribution work on texts (or films, or songs).

    1. Far from denying the collaborative nature of texts/theatre, attribution studies makes collaboration visible. I’d say it treats collaboration as a real thing – and not a problem as you imply. I think the current openness to collaboration in literary studies generally (which has shifted to the positive over the course of my career) can be at least partially ascribed to the repeated studies of collaboration in attribution work. Traditional literary scholars used to be able to dismiss or elide claims for collaboration at the start of scholarly essays (check footnote 1 on numerous essays on _Henry VIII_ published before about 1990 for this type of thing) – now I’d like to think they can’t.

    2. Let’s imagine Matthew Steggle, in his work on black people in Early Modern England, turns up evidence that one of them was paid by Henslowe for contributing scenes to a named, and extant play, currently ascribed solely to Webster. Would you really be so dismissive of the attempt to return credit for artistic labour to one of the creators? And if not in that case, why in any other? It does matter who writes, paints, films, composes. Attribution studies seek to acknowledge the often unacknowledged, or actively denied, work of artists. Sometimes it’s not possible (and generally we can know when that is, and why) – but in many, and increasing, cases, it is.

    Anyway, thanks for your piece, I think!


    • Thanks so much for this, Jonathan.

      I’d like to start by making clear that I’m not sure I’m asking ‘Why would you want to do it?’, which is the question you pose yourself or me here with reference to attribution. I’d be interested to know which part of my post triggered that question. Responses to this blog have themselves demonstrated the contingency of authorship, because many respondents have not read what I thought I’d written. To be clear, then, I’m asking for more explicit and more open-ended research questions across the field as a whole (rather than declaring that individuals don’t do this) and inviting a rethink of where that field has got to and how its demographics and much of its tone enacts exclusion and discourages debate. I’m not trying to shut anything down; but I am trying to further mutual usefulness.

      You say that it’s ‘those who won’t engage with attribution work who have the naive view’ of authorship, and I guess my only dissenting response to that would be that it depends on the kinds and modes of authorship you are trying to view. I’d repeat what I’ve called above my most cynical suggestion that attribution may well be studying transcription, an important but very partial stage in the composition and transmission of text.

      I’m very struck by your sense of the importance for attribution in the acceptance of collaboration, though I’d want to claim some of this credit on the part of theory (the fall out from Barthes and Foucault) and the conjunction of theory and history in the work of Jeffrey Masten and others in early modern studies. But as Foucault would perhaps say, making something visible is not the same as valorising it.

      I’m equally struck by your image of Steggle discovering the history of black co-authorship in early modern theatre. But the discovery you imagine does not depend on research methods I associate with attribution as currently practiced, and nor would my delighted response to this discovery alter my sense that investment in authorship will only ever be a partial and limited way to understand the history of the composition of a text. Hence my attempt in point 1 above to ask how and why authorship matters, and to make my scepticism in both directions clear. So yes, this sounds wonderful, but I’m not sure it affects the points above.

      I give you entirely unambivalent thanks, and do respond if this hasn’t worked for you. It probably hasn’t!



  3. You’ve said a lot and I could respond to all of it–don’t get me started–but I’ll restrict myself to the beginning of your post.

    I write as someone who specializes chiefly in poetry and who works on Shakespeare only as one author among many. Over the course of my career I have seen many new methodologies and kinds of work in Renaissance studies and many old ones (like attribution studies) becoming ever more popular. I would say that all of these, from the new historicism that was a big deal when I was in graduate school to the most recent attempts to think about English literature outside the Anglophone world, have resulted in more studies on Shakespeare, Your experience, in which going to a seminar that seemed to promise a wider focus was actually more focussed on Shakespeare than usual, is entirely typical. Basically, whatever new approach people can come up, we’re just going to have more essays on goddamn Hamlet.

    I was especially struck by your question at the beginning of Section 1: “Why and how does it matter who wrote a play, or a group of plays?” In his comment, Jonathan Hope says that learning about attribution can complicate our sense of authorship of Renaissance plays. I can certainly see that this is true, but the complication remains largely unexplored and undocumented. We need more discussions of what it means that a particular play is by Shakespeare or partly by Shakespeare or only partly by Shakespeare. To me, much attribution work seems to be a preface to a critical conversation that still hasn’t happened.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Hi Andy,

    I agree with Jonathan’s points, and offer some quick responses of my own.

    You begin by asking “Why and how does it matter who wrote a play, or a group of plays?” and then invoke the use of “authorship” in your own work. However, the more pertinent element of your book’s title to query is “John Lyly”. If it doesn’t matter who wrote a play, or a group of plays, what happens to “John Lyly” — whatever or whoever that is — in John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship?

    It’s true that much attribution scholarship isn’t “public facing” and written to be accessible to a wide audience, but I think it’s unfair to lay this at the feet of the attributionists alone. Scholars in the mainstream of Shakespeare and early modern studies are often reluctant — or unable — to engage with quantitative research. Attribution studies of Shakespeare also have a whiff of conspiracy about them. This is one of the reasons I think the New Oxford Shakespeare Authorship Companion is so important, because Gabriel and Gary worked extremely hard to make sure that it was accessible to the widest possible audience. Nothing is taken as a given — even simple statistical measures like standard deviation are explained in full. I don’t want this to turn into a puff piece for the collection, but Gary’s essay (“Artiginality: Authorship after Postmodernism”) engages with the ethical and political questions you’re asking of attribution study and Gabriel’s essay (“A History of Shakespearean Authorship Attribution”) offers a detailed chronology.

    So, the onus is now on the wider community to engage with this work. We’ve put in the effort to make it accessible, it’s now up to you to read it, understand it, and critique it. Again, not wanting to turn this into a puff piece, but one of the chief values of Pete Kirwan’s Shakespeare and the Idea of Apocrypha is its call for a scholarship that engages with multiple critical-theoretical methodologies, including those outside one’s usual comfort zone. The danger of reading attribution studies without understanding them is evident from a recent article published by Jeffrey Kahan in ELH. I critique Kahan’s essay — and Kirwan’s book, which also has much to say about attribution study — in the forthcoming YWES, so I won’t rehearse them here.

    Your point about the apparent gender imbalance in attribution study is symptomatic of larger trends in academia that gender “tech” and STEM subjects as masculine. It’s important to remember that there are, and have been, pioneering and important female attribution scholars: Muriel St Clare Byrne, for example, whose 1932 article “Bibliographical Cues in Collaborate Plays” should be required reading for anyone engaging in this sort of work. Beyond studies of early modern drama/literature, women like Kim Luyckx have done important work to address issues of scalability in attribution study. Even so, and as with other areas of academia, there’s still much work to be done to make the field more inclusive.


    • Hi Brett,

      Really appreciate these push backs. Without engaging in a puff piece of my own, I’d say your point about John Lyly in my title is very much a live research question in the book itself. My book is sceptical both of authorship and of authorship-centred study, and an attempt to think about Lyly as wider social effect, rather than a study of him or his work (precisely because I feel disquiet about those ideas). I answer questions about the effect of Lyly’s work not by looking at that work (for the most part), but at literature written immediately before and immediately after the publication of that work. The elements of my title you point to are intended to provoke, not foreclose, discussion, and are treated with scepticism by the person who authored them. And I understand ‘Lyly’s work’ from the point of view of his contemporaries, historcising and theorising that understanding. If it were discovered that multiple people wrote ‘the works of Lyly’ (and indeed, I make that suggestion a number of times in the book), this would have no effect on my overall argument. I’m not sure if you’ve read my book and disagree with my understanding of it, or you haven’t read it and are working from your understanding of the title. If the latter, I hope it’s of some comfort to learn that it isn’t just attributionists who have assumptions projected on to their work!

      But notice too that where I’m inviting greater self-awareness and theorisation about how and why authorship matters, you seem to think I’m saying that ‘it doesn’t matter who wrote a play, or a group of plays’, and you then respond accordingly. I wonder if something similar is happening in Jonathan’s comment. This looks, to me, like an example of the way attribution tends to trap its practitioners in either/ or thinking. I don’t see any place in my piece where I’ve made the suggestion to which you respond.

      All of the references you make in this comment are very helpful, and hopefully I won’t be the only person to benefit from them. But I’m not sure I have ‘tech’ or tech-based methods in mind when I point to the gendering of the field: I have in mind the field itself. You point to women working in the 1930s or outside of early modern attribution, but that, as I think you’re acknowledging here, is symptomatic of the problem.

      You also say ‘the onus is now on the wider community to engage with this work. We’ve put in the effort to make it accessible, it’s now up to you to read it, understand it, and critique it’. Of course we all need to do this, but I’m not sure I’ll ever agree with you that the onus is always going to be on other scholars (even in situations where I don’t count as another scholar). The onus, it seems to me, is not just to be accessible but to matter, and to think through the ways in which we matter for other scholars. My book on Lyly is not pitched to Lyly scholars, as the title hopefully makes clear, and I’d be in a lonely, probably rather sad world if it was. So I’d co-opt your verbs and suggest that we all read, understand and critique not only attribution but diverse kinds of scholarship asking diverse questions, but also consider how those diverse questions, not currently asked within our own field, might help to transform them.

      Thanks so much for engaging, and do continue the challenges if I’m missing things here!



  5. Hi Andy,

    As you know, we’ve been thinking a lot about attribution in relation to the Nashe Project, and I think for us the main problem is the issue of Nashe as a prose author rather than a dramatist, which means that we aren’t really able to follow the current model of attribution studies because it is simply work that has not been done for authors who fall outside of the Shakespearean model of dramatic authorship.

    Nashe *should* be the sort of author who would lend himself to interesting questions of sole v. collaborative authorship, thanks to his highly intertextual references, his mimicking & taking apart of other writers’ styles, as well as contextual evidence associating him with a number of anonymous texts. And yet…

    Text 1= Nashe’s part on Act 1 of 1.Henry VI: maybe easiest for us, because the work’s already been done, so now it is more a question of how to include this in a collected works of Nashe. Do we just include the one act? Isn’t that reinforcing the idea of attribution studies as “this belongs to Shakespeare; this belongs to author X”? Do we *have* to include the entire play, even though it, as a Shakespeare text, has been reprinted ad infinitum already?

    Text 2= Tragedy of Dido. Title page attributes it to Nashe and Marlowe, and yet stylometric tests are based on comparing drama texts only, not on including prose texts by the authors under discussion. So doesn’t this skew the results, if we can only include Nashe’s ‘Summer’s Last Will’, itself described not as a ‘play’ but a ‘shew’, in comparison with Marlowe’s dramatic corpus? Can we include non-dramatic texts to the mix? Are we going to end up in an exhausting argument with anyone who wants to protect the integrity of this text as Marlowe’s, and to remove Nashe from the scenario altogether? (And why do emotions run so highly about Marlowe and about Shakespeare?)

    All the other texts= the 6 anti-martinist texts which have variously been attributed to Nashe, Greene & Lyly, and, various “Anons”: these were intentionally anonymous, so what are we doing as editors by trying to certify authorship? We assume they can’t all be by Nashe, yet we know he was associated with all of them at one point or another. Can we not simply edit these as texts “associated with” Nashe, and keep them together as a collection? Isn’t there an argument that as they are never usually read, that this is an opportunity to bring them to a new audience, irrespective of authorship?

    And what do we compare these and other shorter prose texts to, such as the two mock astrological pamphlets and a preface which have been attributed to Nashe? We would have to do a lot of new work to mark-up other prose texts which are not currently used for stylometric testing, and even then, the paucity of sole-authored, well attributed and lengthy texts, means that results may be skewed anyway with such a small corpus. We’re trying to work through these questions with Brett Greatley-Hirsch & with Jonathan Hope, whose input has been invaluable to us, but it still feels like we have a long way to go.

    The further away from the Shakespeare-norm that we are, the harder the work becomes, and we have to ask ourselves: is it working, trying to force Nashe’s anonymous/collaborative/’dubious’ texts into the tried-and-tested model used for Shakespeare & co, or should we be asking different questions? In fact, what do we do with a text we’re certain isn’t *by* Nashe- ‘the Trimming of Thomas Nashe’- but which clearly is a response to his ‘Have with you to Saffron-Walden’. Do we include it in the printed edition, or do we relegate it to digital publication? It is arguably as ‘associated’ with Nashe as the 6 anti-martinist texts, which can’t *all* be by Nashe, and yet which we are keen to keep together as a group.

    The problem, it seems, is in trying to squash a specific model of early modern authorship, into the canonical format of a single author collection. This means that questions of attribution and authorship are vital to us, but not for the same reasons as anyone working on dramatic authors such as Shakespeare.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this, Kate! So much great stuff going on here, and I love how the Nashe project and attribution studies are introducing each other to new questions, methods and not just new examples of primary material but new kinds of primary material too. The problems afflicting Dido Queen of Carthage exemplify many of the problems currently affecting attribution studies, and it’s great to see your work help Nashe studies and attribution studies sort through those problems. Your work on Nashe raises all sorts of questions for me about the compositional and social function(s) of collaboration and anonymity in dramatic and non-dramatic texts, the effect that stylistic mimicry and lengthy quotation might have on attributive results, and the tendency of canonical writers to skew the terms of debate (that problem goes beyond attribution, of course).

      Meanwhile your fifth paragraph suggests to me that you might be moving away from a conventional attributive, and potentially anachronistic, model of authorship, towards instead a volume of work produced by and in response to Nashe. That sounds fascinating. Even the work we think of as securely ‘Nashe’s’ is already in dialogue with other people’s work: he joins the Anatomy and Marprelate sequences, prefaces but also responds to Greene’s Menaphon, engages in direct dialogue with Harvey. By producing an inclusive volume that presents work written about or in response to Nashe, you’d still be producing an author-centred volume, and one that would be much more helpful in our attempts to historicise the function and representation of authorship in the period itself.

      I’m struck, too, by your references to ‘the paucity of sole-authored, well attributed and lengthy texts, [which] means that results may be skewed anyway with such a small corpus’. I can see how that feels an especial problem to the work you’re doing, but I also want to ask: how and when did the profession decide on the existence of ‘sole-authored, well attributed and lengthy texts’? What are the neutral starting-points from which more conventional attribution studies is built? Because that sends me back to my question about sole authorship being the gold standard, default mode, factory setting model of authorship. Ditto your reference to the dangers of straying away from ‘the Shakespeare-norm’: is Shakespeare the norm? Or might we be skewing all the evidence around us, including Shakespeare’s work, by treating it as such?



      • I’d just like to second Andy’s support for the idea of a volume of works by and in response to and associated with Nashe! One of my frustrations with the Collected Middleton (e.g.) is that, in many ways, it squashes an enormously collaborative writer into a solo-authored model of publication that mimics a complete works of Shakespeare. Your approach to Nashe sounds exciting and timely in its resistance to that model!

        Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Kate, for this interesting perspective (and thanks, Andy, for the initial post). This is my fourth go at writing this post. I think I lost the others to the ether (due to my own ineptitude) but if they turn up, please feel free to ignore them. I license this comment as the authorial one!

      I’m personally very interested in Dido because I’ve just written something about it. I was anxious about the authorship issue, even though I didn’t think it had much of a bearing on what I wanted to write about: the play’s early theatrical history. Even so, I was aware of making assumptions (perhaps even of having to make assumptions) about authorship. Should I refer to the play as Marlowe’s, or Marlowe’s and Nashe’s, or Nashe’s and Marlowe’s, or something else entirely? Whatever statement is made imparts some kind of meaning whether or not the statement-maker wants it to. I might wish to be neutral in side-stepping the issue, but I’m not, as your examples also show. At the same time, I don’t feel too bad about passing on the issue because I had other things I wanted to discuss (such as where the hell the play was performed) and I didn’t have the space, or, I think, the skill, to make two difficult explorations at once. That’s fine, obviously; we can’t do everything, but I’m please to hear the work that’s taking place on the Nashe project and I look forward to hearing more about it in the future!


      Liked by 1 person

  6. Some idle thoughts rather than considered responses.

    Why and how does it matter who wrote a play, or a group of plays? Without wading into the field of attribution studies or the various attribution debates, one thing that has always interested me is how, when, and where authors are attributed within the pages of printed (and sometimes ms) playbooks. I don’t think it’s simply a case that plays ‘became more worthy of an Author’ (as more than one critic has suggested), but that the decision to reveal or suppress the author or authors’ names – to attribute with varying degrees of precision and accuracy – can indicate something about the way playbooks were marketed, and might also say something about the relationships between playwrights and publishers/printers about which we otherwise know so little. Consequently, it is probably also interesting or worthwhile considering rates and forms of playbook attribution alongside stationers’ imprints and colophons as a way of thinking – in comparative terms – about the various ways that authorities (of various kinds) are given textual and material form within the pages of printed playbooks. As far as Shakespeare goes – and believe me I am the last person to be qualified to comment here – what do we make of the fact that the earliest quartos were printed anonymously? That his name doesn’t occur on a title-page until 1598?

    Speaking very personally, I am less interested in knowing exactly who wrote what, than I am who the earliest readers (and other users) of plays thought wrote what. That – for me at any rate – is the question.


    • Thanks for this, Tamara, I agree wholeheartedly, and Aaron Pratt has similarly been calling on Twitter for a historicisation of this process. I make some references to this need in the piece above, here and there, but really this is a blog post about attribution now and its potential misrepresentation of authorship then. If you’re minded to embark on a study of attribution then, I shall eagerly await its results!



      • Right, Andy—and the recommendation to historicize attribution is directly relevant to the question of whether attribution studies now misrepresents the conditions of authorship then. It seems to me that there are two distinct questions that scholars routinely conflate: 1) How did authorship actually work in the period? That is, what were the writing processes? 2) What did writers and their audiences think about authorship? Asked in a more particular way, to what extent and in what contexts—print, performance, etc.—were early modern writers and their audiences invested in one model of authorship or another? So often, I think critics come up with an answer to 1) and use it as evidence of 2). We find collaboration and then posit a collaborative mindset, both for authors and their audiences. But at what point in history has a collaborative reality been a bar to an investment in individual authority? As many readers of this blog will know a lot better than I do, getting pretty much any piece of writing published today requires any number of agents. When we map out the constellation of agents behind any work, we’ll likely find agents affect the shape of the text itself, and some help to market authors’ identities, thus participating in their construction. And, indeed, all of this is a process that occurs across a chunk of time (often a frustratingly long one). Even, as 21st-century readers, when we acknowledge that many hands went into making a book—or this blog post, which depends on the internet, hosting platforms, the Before Shakespeare project’s decision to host a blog—we still tend to be invested in the identity and (possible) authority of the individual or group to whom that book has been attributed. At any moment in time, we can find evidence of collaboration at virtually all stages of the writing process, but this evidence alone does not tell us how authorship worked within a culture and its various milieux. I’m in the process of writing what I hope is a pretty convincing argument about readers’ investment in dramatic authorship when it comes to early print, and I’m still doing what I can to piece together a compelling narrative about contemporary attribution practices when it came to the world of performance. It’s not easy work, but I’m certain that it will help ensure that we do honest literary history. As Gabriel Egan writes above, it’s very difficult not to impose our own paradigms onto the post, but, nonetheless, my call for historicizing attribution is a call for us to be careful not to let the answer to 1) determine the answers we give to 2). When we do allow one to determine the other, we treat the objects of our study not as a windows into the past, but as mirrors that reflect ourselves and our assumptions back to us—often under the guise of historicity. I sense varying degrees of this in both of the camps that have formed around this post. As with most things, I think early modern authorship was nuanced and complex, and if we want to tell the story of it correctly, we must resist the kinds of polarization you’ve identified and, just maybe, participated in. (Surely not all of your original questions about the nature of dramatic authorship were neutral ones.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • A little late to the game here, but it took a couple days to get past the fan-girl “Preach! Andy, Preach!” place and think more critically. That is when I remembered the classroom. In my early modern classes, I very much model forms of close-reading and analysis that eschew the author, which makes pretty good sense if you are going to talk about any works outside canon. My biggest problem with attribution studies: it leaves no room for models of collaboration (as everyone, including Andy and Aaron, have been discussing. We should start a public Zotero bibliography of all the sources mentioned in these posts!). I am more convinced that the theatre-making of the Renaissance was necessarily and inherently collaborative, to which the archive and current practitioners increasingly attest.

        Aside from my ethical commitments, I have never found an author- or attribution-centered discussion question useful in the classroom. (Perhaps I don’t know how to ask such questions?) They so often turn into right/wrong answer discussions where we are all allowed to turn into armchair psychologists, considering people whose mental framework shared little arrangement in common with our own. It flat-lines discussion, quashes the polysemy that makes early literatures so egalitarian in the classroom, and stops rather than entices the interpretive imagination of students.

        This is not to say that students themselves do not tend toward questions of the Individual and attribution. I note, however, that this tendency in the discussion occurs mot often when they don’t have the word or paradigm for discussing the craft technique—either for verse or dramaturgy—they see before them. Unable to frame the the text is doing something, they revert to describing how the author/individual subject is doing something. It seems more often a substation or a way to bridge the difference between the action of a subject and the action of rhetoric. It is only a theory, but to add to your list, I wonder: to what extent has talking about attribution and authorship supplanted our ability to talk about craft?

        All best,


  7. “Should we then be worried that early modern attribution research is almost entirely performed by men on male canons?”, Andy Kesson asks. We should if we think that somebody is being actively stifled in their research because of their gender, since that’s the sort of discrimination I think we all agree we want to fight. We know that past discrimination (such as denying education to women) is part of the explanation for why there are fewer canonical women writers than men. But aside from the need to fight ongoing discrimination where we find it, the gender of the investigator is irrelevant to our evaluation of the knowledge-creation that their work purports to achieve.

    There may well be biological sex differences that give rise to differences in the average level of interest and ability in a topic shown by two groups such as ‘all the women’ and ‘all the men’. That is, once we root out the last bit of sexism, we may well find that Physics and Maths and English and Art History do not each have a 50:50 gender balance. And that’d be just fine, since it would be telling us something about real human diversity. And, most importantly, the evidence we have so far is that such average differences are small: when you map male and female interest and ability in any particular field you get two largely overlapping bell curves, displaced horizontally by a small average difference. So, although the average-interest and average-abilitiy differ by gender, these averages are a poor predictor of any one person’s interest or ability. I’m better at maths than most humanities scholars, but there are literally millions of women who are better at maths than me. That’s a much more important fact than my gender.

    Andy wonders if the vituperative nature of the field of authorship attribution study might have something to do with the fact that most of its investigators are male. This seems to me to be an excessively introspective thought: who gives a toss about how one small corner of scholarship behaves? Scholars in general are an argumentative, egotistical, narcissistic bunch when compared to the average human being, so exploring minute differences in just how unpleasant this bunch is compared to that bunch seems to me an exercize in futility.

    I realize I haven’t addressed the substantive issues here. I think Gary Taylor’s essay “Artiginality” in the Authorship Companion to the New Oxford Shakespeare says a lot of what I’d want to say, and I love Jonathan Hope’s point about how much weight we’d want to put on authorial identity if we found a black writer working for Henslowe. Most fundamentally of all, I think the fact that as writers we care deeply about our own authorial identities–none of us want our thoughts attributed to other people–obliges us to extend the same courtesy to the dead wherever we can.


    • Thanks for this, Gabriel. I would love to take comfort from the fact that someone working inside this field feels confident that the subject isn’t gendered in the way I’ve suggested, but I have to say I’ve received many private messages since writing this post, almost entirely from women, thanking me for saying something they haven’t felt able to say. It really does seem as though this issue is significantly more of a problem within attribution studies than in other methodologies, and I can’t really see any downsides to considering working to change this. And yes, I agree with you that ideally ‘the gender of the investigator is irrelevant to our evaluation’ of their work, but I have been quite clear above that I am pointing to a structural, not a personal issue in the field. I’m not sure if your reference to ‘giving a toss’ is tongue-in-cheek or not, but either way it seems to be in dialogue with some of the issues we’re exploring here. I’m sorry to hear your opinion of the scholars you’ve encountered; all I can say is that I’ve been lucky enough to meet many who are constructive, generous and kind. I’ll try to introduce you to them sometime! And I’m not 100% sure the temperaments you describe make me feel any more sanguine about the current state of attribution studies.

      You’re the first person commenting here to answer my first question with a direct answer, and I thank you for that. I also really enjoyed your workshop on word choice and attribution at Kent earlier this year, the first time I’ve seen an attribution practitioner bring their audience in to the work they were doing. I also appreciate your final point; once again, though, I’d ask if the methods you’re employing only identify a single, very specific stage in the composition process, in which a writer transcribes the authorial decisions of a collaborative partnership. In that case, then, far from honouring ‘authorial identities’, you may be fracturing them: sometimes the authorial identity is the collaboration itself.

      Since you appeal to the universal desire of writers to have ‘our own authorial identities’ acknowledged, perhaps you’ll forgive me citing a personal example. I co-wrote the introduction to an edited collection with Emma Smith; she and I planned and revised the introduction together, but wrote its various sections separately. I don’t doubt that an attribution-centred study of our introduction (perish the thought!) might well correctly identify which bits we wrote, but that result would only give you a very partial picture of the text’s authorship and the various processes underpinning it. In other words, it would be a distortion and misrepresentation of the authors’ intent, practices and process, as well as of the text they’d produced together. The different view points you and I take on this issue, then, depend on the assumptions one makes about one’s own as well as other people’s authorial practices, which is why one of the things I am trying to prompt in the piece above is a greater explicitness about those assumptions.

      I’ve responded above to Jonathan Hope’s point about the possible co-authorship of a play by a black writer, and won’t do so again here.



  8. I really appreciated this piece. Attribution studies has rarely shown the kind of methodological self-awareness that other current Trail Blazer fields have – for example the law and literature movement – and that bothers me. The New Oxford Shakespeare’s determination to state who wrote every tiny bit of the plays leaves me cold because I don’t feel enough attention is paid to the actual *use* of this.

    Furthermore, as a young, female early modernist (still very much in training), it does bother me how often critical discourse can be dominated by men, particularly in attribution studies. I was present for the LSS Andy mentions, and I was frankly horrified by the way it turned into two, old white men arguing with one another. An academic in my acquaintance, who shall remain unnamed, later remarked that he was appalled that this was what young Masters students like myself would have been seeing as representative of academia.


    • Hi Lucy,

      You write that “Attribution studies has rarely shown the kind of methodological self-awareness that other current Trail Blazer fields have”. Can you provide some examples? I ask because I typically find attribution studies to be acutely aware of — if not fixated on — its methodologies. In fact, much of the disagreement between practitioners is about differences –sometimes minute — in methodology.

      Best wishes,


      • Hi, Brett! Thanks for the comment.

        So, what I mean by self-awareness is a failure to consider the nature of attribution studies – for example, the problem of working with static texts that Andy points out. Furthermore, I find it’s also a field that doesn’t consider its implicit premises and consequences – failure to question *what* authorship means –
        is it as simple as the metrics of stylistics? – what we can do with these attributions, and what the impact of asserting the value of authorship so much.

        My example of the law and lit movement is very different in its constant considerations, in recent years, of the actual relationship between law and literature and how that informs methodology and approach, as well as its care to not just subsume law as the unfeeling version of literature. Also you have those – like Julie Stone Peters – who actively question whether it’s even possible to think about such a relationship, and those that consider the way that considering the similarities between the two actually raise the disciplinary boundaries – see Mukherji’s article ‘Understood Relations’. All this sort of thing is what I feel the current vanguard of attribution studies lacks.




      • Essentially – it’s not about methodologies of attribution but seeing where attribution actually fits into the ‘bigger’ picture. Which is where I feel the failure lies.




  9. I might just float the idea of attribution studies being a valuable means of analysing multi-authored, non-collaborative play-texts e.g. Middleton’s adaptations of Measure for Measure and Macbeth. In that case the two authors did not sit down together and discuss the co-creation of the play, and apportioning their individual contributions to the surviving texts helps us to establish historical realities about them, enabling more precise speculation into different kinds of company practices (adaptation, revival etc.) that invites further work from theatre historians about the normality or exceptionality of these phenomena.

    I’m on a train as I write this, so can’t remember if Laurie and Emma’s superb, valuable theory about All’s Well posited collaboration or adaptation (the NOS, which welcomes and tries to consolidate their work, opts for the latter), and there were many people in attribution studies who were horrified by the vituperation they received in print, especially as we believed, and believe, them to be right. But the person who said those things is fairly hostile to most people who dare to contribute something to the field – even junior men benefitting from the patronage of senior men like myself.


    • Thanks Will! Like Kate de Rycker’s comments above, yours here is invaluable for its very specific examples of attribution working in practice. I’m particularly excited by the examples you give because they attend to the history of the composition of a text, whereas one of my worries about attribution in general is its tendency to claim only one moment in such a history as *the* moment of composition. Thanks for engaging so directly!



  10. I had begun drafting a much longer post, but found myself ranting about aspects of early modern attribution studies that, I suspect, will be of no interest to your readers: the monopolisation and underhand tactics employed during the peer review process, the misuse of data, the unremitting character assassination attempts in print and during conferences, the intrinsic association of attributionists with their primary authorial candidate, occasionally revealed in the odd seminar Freudian slip… So I offer this brief response instead.

    I sense that many of the comments here have not engaged fully with your points, Andy, and I must concede that I will inevitably also fail. So all I can say is that I am deeply saddened that the field is male dominated. I have had the pleasure of collaborating with some fine female attributionists, such as Lene Buhl Petersen and Marina Tarlinskaja. During my Marston researches, I was privileged to have such scholars as M. J. Kidnie and Sophie Tomlinson ask me for feedback and advice on authorship matters. I wasn’t aware there was a gender issue until you posted your highly significant blog, and this is something that needs to be worked on. I am certain that the likes of Brett Hirsch and Gabriel Egan, for whom I have much respect, though I disagree with some of their stated attributions wholeheartedly, will concur with me that we shouldn’t push prospective attribution scholars (or anyone whose work intersects with the field of study) out of the picture.

    Lastly, I don’t perceive attribution studies as being concerned wholly with paying tribute. Studies of the individuating elements that define an early modern author’s oeuvre encompass versification, corpus linguistics, stylometry, rhetoric, rhyme, playing companies, use of sources, patterns of influence, genre, types of collaboration, textual scholarship, and so forth. For me at least, it has always felt like a field that can really contribute to scholarly knowledge of early modern drama as a whole.



  11. I also think it’s important to note how the comment section here both proves the point on gender and on lack of methodological self-awareness. A group of men saying there isn’t a gender problem is rather characteristic, in my experience, of a gender problem.

    The defensiveness here is another problem: critical fields must be prepared to accept criticism and work towards both intellectual improvement and inclusivity. The comments generally seem to ignore the point Andy makes about textual variance, something that’s become the backbone of much early modern criticism of late: why take a step backwards, and defend it so much? (‘Give a toss’, really?)

    Right now, sitting here as a 22-year-old female student about to start their PhD, I find myself wanting to run as far away as possible from attribution studies because of the way it seems to be practiced. Also how I felt at the aforementioned LSS: are we paying tribute to our male critics, now?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Hi Andy,
    Does it matter that the author of that excellent book ‘John Lyly and early modern authorship’ was the debonair Andy Kesson? I suspect it does. I’d be disconcerted to learn it was covertly authored by someone else entirely. Giving credit where it’s due is the right thing to do. That’s why anti-Stratfordians should always be resisted strenuously. If attribution studies help us identify creators of great literature, why complain? If it doesn’t, by all means complain. But first find out whether it does or not. Does gender matter? Of course. but so does race. How many UK-based black students are currently pursuing Phds on early modern literature? Far too few. Why and when does our system filter them out? Is attribution studies perfect? Probably not. Might it be useful? Yes. Should we hope for better techniques for doing it? Of course.
    Sue Donim


    • Hi Sue,

      I agree with all of this, especially your fine points about the book and scholar that you mention (!). I’m not trying to renounce attribution studies; I’m asking how to make it work better, and how to help the rest of us use it better. As with many of the comments here, I feel you are answering questions which are different from the ones I’ve posed, but I very much love – and agree with – your answers.



  13. First a quick comment on the above comment. As a person who is finishing a PhD in Early Modern Literature, who happens to be black, attribution studies aren’t (and never were) at the forefront of my mind and certainly didn’t influence whether or not I got into the field. (Perhaps my being from the U.S. changes my experience and expectations a bit.) Finding out that a person of color wrote a play(or cowrote a play) in the 16th century won’t make me love the field any more or less. Giving diverse folks the ability to chase down what they find interesting (especially beyond Shakespeare) would, in fact, make me love it more.

    What does strike me about attribution studies and my own narrow, perhaps naive, view of it, is an inherent desire to adhere to political and social structures that make people comfortable–a clear expression about who should be reading what or who has written what. This argument, which is not a new one, takes place in The First Part of Return from Parnassus (1603-4) in which characters express a great deal of discomfort over university trained and approved poets, and those who come from the outside. Even then there was anxiety about Shakespeare taking a dominant position.

    The thing that is most useful about attribution studies isn’t the attribution, but the collaboration. Knowing that certain playwrights wrote (or could have written) together makes the creative process seem more alive, exciting, and theatrical.

    Thanks for the thoughtful, engaging questions, Andy.

    Best wishes


    Liked by 2 people

  14. [Andy, I sent a version of this several hours ago but it hasn’t appeared, so in case something went wrong I’m sending it again now. Regards, Gabriel]

    Dear Andy

    I didn’t mean to give the impression that I think the subject of authorship attribution “isn’t gendered in the way [Andy Kesson has] suggested”. It may well be. I mean, rather, that so long as no one is being oppressed, it doesn’t matter if the subject is gendered.

    I’m always sceptical when someone cites as evidence something like “many private messages . . . almost entirely from women, thanking me for saying something they haven’t felt able to say”. Who are these shrinking violets who need you to stand up for them? They should take their lead from textual scholars like Tiffany Stern or Sonia Massai or MJ Kidnie or Suzanne Gossett or the late Bernice Kliman or Ann Thompson or Barbara Mowat or Lois Potter or Juliet Dusinberre or . . .

    You get the point. There are plenty of powerful female voices and I’m not seeing the truth in your version of the field of textual studies. Yep, within textual studies not many women are interested in authorship attribution. That’s probably because it uses a fair bit of statistics and computation. In _Women Making Shakespeare: Text, Reception, Performance_ (Bloomsbury 2014), Suzanne Gossett wrote “Conventionally women are assumed to be more interested in fabric and clothes than men are; I have found it so” (p. 102). If Gossett is right, I don’t think there’s a gender problem to be corrected there. Do you?

    I don’t know what you mean by my expression “giving a toss” being relevant here. A “toss” is a small amount (OED n.1 6c), and “I don’t care a toss” is first recorded by OED in George Eliot’s _Daniel Deronda_. What did you think I meant?

    In characterizing scholars as an “argumentative, egotistical, narcissistic bunch” I was not lamenting the personalities of my friends. I too prefer the human characteristics of being “constructive, generous and kind”, but within the same persons these qualities co-exist with the first set of adjectives.

    Of course academics have huge egos: think of the work they do. Those who seek to push back the frontiers of knowledge need huge egos in the same way that engineers need to be congenital optimists. “We want to put a bridge across this large valley”, says the client. “Oh, I don’t know,” says the first engineer, “it’s a long way isn’t it? I’m not sure it can be done”. This engineer doesn’t last long. The next one says “Sure, we’ll just have to invent a new way of doing it. How hard can that be?” Conversely, we want our airline pilots to be congenitally pessimistic. “Flight Officer: O’Hare says we can land as the weather conditions are still above their legal minimums”. “Captain: No, I don’t like the look of this thunderstorm, we’re diverting to South Bend”.

    Some personality traits go with the job. Those who make their mark in any field tend to have the personalities that suit the endeavours they put their minds to. Being an academic is, like being a barrister, professionalized arguing. When Suzanne Gossett and I ran a seminar on New Bibliography at the World Shakespeare Congress in 2005 a couple of ‘old bulls’ (her words) went at each other quite ferociously, settling scores from the 1960s it seemed. If anybody thinking of entering the professional finds this distasteful, I’d recommend seeking another profession. If anybody thinks this is quintessentially male behaviour, they definitely haven’t engaged Suzanne or Tiffany or MJ in a serious argument. It’s something of an insult to female textual scholars to suggest otherwise.




  15. Small response re: arguing of old white men. Of course arguing is part of academia – that’s why we’re all commenting here, isn’t it? But with specific reference to the LSS incident, it wasn’t a question of the arguing: it was the exclusion of all others from the dialogue. Of what felt just like ego-battling *as opposed* to anything pushing forward academic discussion – which, of course, is what we should be doing at such events?

    It’s rather a cliché to point it out, but at every seminar there is a man who puts his hand up and says ‘not really a question, but a comment’. I tend to find that male academics are less ready to moderate their ideas and arguments than women, I imagine because of the subconscious gendering of teaching (an example would be at Oxford, in the history department) and also how the genders are socialised differently.

    That particular LSS argument was intensely depressing because of the abject lack of moving forward the discussion. It felt more like a personal argument. Not what I’d expected, at all – I’d compare it, perhaps, to the launch of the New Oxford Shakespeare where Sonia Massai raised her hand politely to disagree with a facet of the attribution work behind the new edition. An academic discussion that raised interesting points in a respectful manner, on both sides. Not what felt like an angry slanging match from which I – as an interested young academic – felt completely excluded, as did my fellows.

    Perhaps it’s worth considering not strong, confident arguing on its own, but the dynamics of it being practiced by one set of people – perhaps a gender, perhaps an age group – to the exclusion of all others. Strident arguing can be damaging when it goes hand in hand with a defensive attitude to one’s own methodology – I know I can be guilty of it too, shutting down discussion when challenged on my historicist readings by friends by arguing so vehemently they just back down.

    But that isn’t how it should be. Defeat the challenge to your argument by proving it’s well argued enough, or by improving it.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Thanks to Andy for productively and collegially bringing to the forefront important questions that don’t often get asked about attribution studies and collaborative playwriting from within the field. In particular, “Why (only) treat collaboration as a problem to be solved?” (6) and “What are the limitations of attribution methodology?” (10) are rarely engaged in a serious way. The _ad hominem_ mode (11) that Andy flags – even _ad *homo*nem_ in my experience, to cite a still further sex/gendering of the field – is also worthy of attention. There’s not just an ethical question around _ad hominem_ attack; despite what one response argues above, it’s also an approach that, intentional or not, keeps others (of several genders) from engaging with the field.

    I want to respond to a couple of issues by way of comments on some responses Andy has received here thus far. (I haven’t responded to the recent comments, as this comment is long already.)

    On the absence of women in this field, and its effects (Kesson et al.)

    It seems to me incomplete to suggest, as Brett Greatley-Hirsch does, that the male domination of the attribution studies is merely a symptom of its STEM orientation. (I choose “domination” carefully, for reasons Andy discusses.) Early modern and Shakespeare studies have managed to diversify *both* their faculties *and* the kinds of questions they ask about identity in the many decades since they too were virtually all-male fields. (Even textual editing has made significant progress since Alice Walker, Roma Gill, and a few others were virtually the only women in mid-twentieth-century bibliography and editing.) Though one would not want simply to conflate the demographics of the field with the questions it asks, it’s important to note that feminist, queer, and critical-race scholarship has worked hard to ask substantial questions about writing, imitation, and identity, and to develop complex models, some of which it would benefit attribution studies to contemplate. These go well beyond/outside what Andy identifies as “paternity tests.” I think it’s useful to underline that diversity in a field is not only important for its own sake and because we believe in equal access, but also because field diversity often leads to asking different and better questions.

    “So, the onus is now on the wider community to engage with this [attribution studies] work.” (Brett Greatley-Hirsch)

    I couldn’t agree more with this point – in part because I think that, if early modern scholars who have engaged subtly with questions of identity, imitation, “self-fashioning,” and intertextuality in *other* areas of early modern literary studies were *more* engaged with the details of attribution studies, they would be less quick to accept its claims and assumptions.

    However, it’s also important to state that the attribution-studies community has not always felt a similar onus to read and engage thoughtfully with the work of scholars who have questioned its baseline assumptions about historically shifting conceptions of identity, imitation, writing, and playwrighting. Scholarly conversation is a two way street – or, better, a five-way intersection. The default mode – for Brian Vickers, MacDonald P. Jackson, and some others – has been to deride what they don’t want to engage with as “theory,” “theorists,” “some quasi-metaphysical thoughts” (or worse: “the contemporary gay agenda”) and return to calculations based on their shared assumptions. In other cases, there’s been a significant failure even to acknowledge or cite scholarly work critical of attribution studies’ assumptions. A case in point is the _Oxford Shakespeare_ authorship volume Greatley-Hirsch cites, which virtually ignores the two books written about dramatic collaboration from perspectives outside or critical of attribution studies — even misspelling Heather Hirschfeld’s name in a dutiful citation and the bibliography.

    Another example where engaging beyond the subfield could make for more sophisticated models: Lynn Enterline’s brilliant thesis about pedagogy, trauma, imitation, and writing for the theatre in “Theatricality of Everyday Life in Elizabethan Grammar Schools” and her book _Shakespeare’s Schoolroom_. Want to think about how translation, imitation, and recitation of classical models in the classroom produced playwrights whose writing was *predicated* on writing outside/beyond their “detectable” “identities”? Enterline’s is the work to read. As we think about productive citation and engagement further afield, there would be more to say about how the Gary Taylor “Artiginality” essay, cited by several above, silently follows and deploys ideas and structures from two of my earlier essays on collaboration and attribution (including its closing rewrite of Foucault’s Beckett, and its similar analysis of and emphasis on craft and labor via the terms “playwright” and “wrighting,” as in my essay “Playwrighting”). “The onus to engage” will, I hope, be felt and observed across the board.

    “. . . we can test methods against corpora for which we know the right answers. We know when it works, and when it doesn’t.” (Jonathan Hope)

    The issue here, as I’ve already hinted, is that the “testing” of methods functions only within its own paradigm, its own assumptions, and has not typically sought to test the broader assumptions about writing, imitation, and identity. To test the assumptions of the tests, we need a more nuanced historical and conceptual investigation that will also investigate what a “right answer” is — as well as “work[ing]” and not “work[ing]” in the cultural and institutional context of the early modern theatre. D.F. McKenzie’s brilliant work illustrated this decades ago, when he demonstrated that compositor-identification studies (which have a significant methodological kinship with attribution studies, as I’ve argued) didn’t come up with accurate answers in cases where we had historical documentation with which to compare the results.

    “Would you really be so dismissive of the attempt to return credit for artistic labour to one of the creators [if he/she were black]?” (Hope)

    I know that attributive work has not been particularly interested in the kind of discursive analysis some of us have given to its central terms (e.g., “detection,” “problem,” “attribute” in Andy’s post). But I would argue that “credit” (giving credit, *returning* [?] credit) requires attention and analysis here for what it too says about the methods’ underlying assumptions. (I don’t mean to single out Jonathan’s local use here: he’s using a term that is widely employed and assumed to be neutral within attribution studies.) While early modern playwrights did, we know, receive varying kinds of payment for their writing, attribution studies often uses “credit” more broadly to import labor, craft, process, and activity under the aegis of an idea of “intellectual property” that is certainly emergent in the period but not fully formed – and, as many have argued, not as fully formed in the theatre as it is in other institutions/discourses. A more collaborative conception of writing, a more imitative or emulative idea of textual production, a more elastic and “diachronic” idea of writing-together (to cite a term Diana Henderson has deployed to great analytical effect) – none of these carries with it the same conception of due “credit” in the theatre as Anglo-American culture later developed, and largely developed through the institutions of print and authorial copyright. It’s simply not the case that Shakespeare, Marlowe, and their colleagues generally “credit” (*as intellectual property*) the work of their sources. Gower in _Pericles_ and Chaucer in _The Two Noble Kinsmen_ are two interesting (and dead) exceptions, like the oblique nod to Marlowe as (dead) poet/shepherd in _As You Like It_.

    Jonathan’s question of whether a critic of attribution studies would hesitate to “credit” a black writer of an early modern play is an interesting hypothetical. I would like to think that we’d both highlight and celebrate a black writer’s participation in the early modern theatre (against many odds, including immigration laws), at the same time that we would continue to think about the institutions, contingencies, constraints and enablements, education, reading, intertextualities (and so forth) that produced that participation, and the ways in which those factors themselves played a role in shaping the texts produced. Though there would be important differences (not entirely knowable in advance), we could deploy *some* of the methods feminist scholars have used to analyze Elizabeth Cary, Margaret Cavendish, and other white women playwrights who wrote under (which is to say: *through*) the particular enabling/constraining circumstances of their lives in this period. (See Margaret Ferguson, et al., and again, Enterline’s work on pedagogy is a useful model here.) Attribution studies wants to frame “giving” or “assigning” or “returning” “credit” or “courtesy” to writers as our modern ethical “obligation” (or failure), but there are other ways to think about the production and analysis of early modern writing – outside this binary, and outside modern paradigms of credit, intellectual property, and identity politics.

    Two terrific and nuanced examples of new work that helps us question and emerge from the authorship-as-credit-due paradigm were presented at the 2017 SAA meeting – as it turns out, by history of the book scholars who happen to be women. In the NextGenPlen session, Amy Lidster presented detailed, persuasive work showing how the emergence of a playwright’s name in print (that is, the construction of Shakespeare as a visible, vendible “author”) was enabled by one or more booksellers with shops near each other in St. Paul’s churchyard. How were writers’ names in print produced via an overlap with other networks of artistic patronage among theatre companies? The upshot of this paper was a sense of the *contingency* of the emergence of a category (“authorship”) that attribution studies often simply assumes as fully available and transparent for playwrights. Lidster’s paper beautifully laid bare as historically contingent and collaboratively produced an equation often assumed in attribution studies: historical person = unique identity = authorship. Second, Tara L. Lyons’s excellent talk on modes of organizing/grouping texts together in Stationers’ Company register entries showed that writers’ names were only one mode among several for gathering plays together. What are the “roads not taken” for organizing drama in the period that exist alongside, but sometimes in tension with, writers’ names? What do we see, Lyons asked, when we see the register (as well as authorially organized folios) as “moments in the collection *process*” for organizing drama, rather than as merely factual evidence of now-familiar paradigms of authorship? This work – as it turns out, by less senior female scholars – is the work that I would put the onus on attribution studies to engage with. And not simply as factual or not, empirical or not, but as scholarly work that fundamentally examines categories and cultural processes central to attribution studies’ baseline assumptions.

    I want again to thank and commend Andy for enumerating these many issues and bringing this conversation to the attention of people in multiple areas of early modern drama studies.

    –Jeffrey Masten

    ___Some Works Cited, Alluded to, Mentioned, and Consulted___ [formatting lost, sorry]

    Enterline, Lynn. “Rhetoric, Discipline, and the Theatricality of Everyday Life in Elizabethan Grammar Schools.” In From Performance to Print in Shakespeare’s England, ed. Peter Holland and Stephen Orgel, 173–90. Palgrave, 2006.

    —. Shakespeare’s Schoolroom: Rhetoric, Discipline, Emotion. U of Pennsylvania P, 2011.

    Ferguson, Margaret W. “Renaissance Concepts of the ‘Woman Writer.’” Women and Literature in Britain, 1500-1700. Ed. Helen Wilcox, 143-68. Cambridge UP, 1996.

    Henderson, Diana. Collaborations with the Past: Reshaping Shakespeare Across Time and Media. Cornell UP, 2006.

    Hirschfeld, Heather. Joint Enterprises: Collaborative Drama and the Institutionalization of the English Renaissance Theater. U of Massachusetts P, 2004.

    Jackson, MacDonald P. Defining Shakespeare: Pericles as Test Case. Oxford UP, 2003.

    Lidster, Amy. “Shakespeare and the Implications of Paratextual Attribution.” Unpublished paper. “NextGenPlen” panel, Shakespeare Association of America, April 2017.

    Lyons, Tara L. “Drama Collections: Archives of Performance to Print.” Unpublished paper. “Shared Archives, New Methods: Book History and Theater History” panel, Shakespeare Association of America, April 2017.

    Masten, Jeffrey. “Beaumont and/or Fletcher: Collaboration and the Interpretation of Renaissance Drama.” ELH 59 (1992): 337-356. [Revised as Chapt. 1 of Textual Intercourse (Cambridge UP, 1997).]

    —. “More or Less: Editing the Collaborative.” Shakespeare Studies 29 (2001): 109-31.

    —. “Playwrighting: Authorship and Collaboration.” A New History of Early English Drama. ed. John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan, 357-382. Columbia UP, 1997.

    —. “Pressing Subjects, or the Secret Lives of Shakespeare’s Compositors.” Language Machines. Ed. Jeffrey Masten, Peter Stallybrass, and Nancy Vickers. Routledge, 1997. [Rev. in Queer Philologies, 2017.]

    McKenzie, D. F. “Printers of the Mind: Some Notes on Bibliographical Theories and Printing-House Practices.” Studies in Bibliography 22 (1969): 1–75.

    —. “Stretching a Point: Or, The Case of the Spaced-out Comps.” Studies in Bibliography 37 (1984): 106–21.

    Taylor, Gary. “Artiginality: Authorship after Postmodernism.” The New Oxford Shakespeare: Authorship Companion. Ed. Gabriel Egan and Gary Taylor, 3-26. Oxford UP, 2017.

    —. “Collaboration 2016.” Shakespeare in Our Time: A Shakespeare Association of American Collection. Ed. Dympna Callaghan and Suzanne Gossett. Bloomsbury, 2016.

    Vickers, Brian. Appendix II. Shakespeare, Co-author: A Historical Study of Five Collaborative Plays. Oxford UP, 2004.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Jeffery,
      My profound personal apologies for not referencing in my “Artiginality” essay your “Playwrighting” essay or your essay on Beaumont and Foucault. I have undoubtedly been influenced by those earlier essays of yours, which I read when they came out in the 1990s. I do think my treatment of Foucault differs significantly from yours, but I should nevertheless have cited those two essays. I’ve been asked to write a book on Artiginality; if/when I do, I will certainly include a more explicit consideration of your work and its relevance to my argument.
      Both “Textual Intercourse” and “Queer Philologies” are called out in the NOS Modern Critical Edition, which will undoubtedly be read by more people than the Companion. But two rights don’t undo the two wrongs.


  17. Dear All

    Jeff Masten is quite right that we can interrogate the terms in which a debate is being held in order to speak about the usually unwritten habits of thought–some would say the ideology–that underpin our very ability to have that debate. It is a very useful trick to deploy when your main assertion has turned out to be false. The central principle of Masten’s published output to date is that the habits of collaborative dramatic writing so effectively effaced individual identity that any hope of figuring out just who wrote which bit is self-deluding. There is, Masten claims, no hope of doing that.

    Masten had the misfortune to begin advancing this claim in the late 1990s, just in time to have it comprehensively demolished by a stack of empirical work. His is an attractive idea, especially if one was educated (as I was) to believe the ideas of Roland Barthes (“The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture”) and Michel Foucault (“Il n’y a pas de hors-texte”). But wanting it to be so doesn’t make it so. Masten’s claim is entirely testable, has been tested, and has been found false.

    Sure, we can investigate the underlying assumptions of authorship attribution studies and show them to be historically contingent. We can diagnose them as being symptomatic of the period in which they arose. But the same is true of the ideas about authorship that Masten advances: they come from a particular time and place and are refutable. In “What is Not Collaborative About Early Modern Drama in Performance and Print” in Shakespeare Survey 67 (2014) I argue that Tiffany Stern’s currently fashionable ideas about the dispersal of authority among multiple theatrical documents have had great success in early modern theatrical scholarship not because they are true–the documentary and historical evidence is strongly against them–but because they appeal to currently fashionable ideas about authorship that we have unthinkingly inherited from Barthes and Foucault.

    I hope Andy Kesson and his collaborators’ project on the beginnings of London commercial theatre will value historical accuracy, documentary evidence, and the testing of hypotheses above all other considerations. Doing so is the way to make work of lasting utility rather than only transient glory.


    Gabriel Egan

    PS I take responsibility for the misspelling of Heather Hirschfeld’s name in the Authorship Companion to the New Oxford Shakespeare, and will ensure that it is corrected in the next printing. I’m grateful to Jeff Masten for pointing it out, and to anyone else who sends me corrections — I’m sure this will not be the worst gaffe someone finds in the book.


    • I’m grateful to Gabriel Egan for responding so candidly to my comment, but I’m going to leave it to others to decide for themselves what the “main assertion” or “central principle” of my writing on collaboration has been. Egan has offered his own characterization of one thread, with which he obviously then proceeds to disagree, but there are others. In the spirit of the conversation Andy has opened here, I’d encourage people to read the work and the critiques in question and decide for themselves what has been “comprehensively demolished” and by what argumentative means and methods. My own view is that Brian Vickers, Jeffrey Knapp, Egan, and others have misrepresented my argument about the meaning and function of the discourse of “author” in early modern culture.

      Just one other quick note. The sentence “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte” is conventionally attributed to Jacques Derrida — not to Michel Foucault, as Egan claims. Wanting it to be Foucault doesn’t make it so. Egan’s claim is entirely testable, in the pages of De la grammatologie/Of Grammatology.

      –Jeffrey Masten


  18. Dear all,

    Here is a list of questions answered in your responses but not posed in my blog:

    Why do attribution?
    What happens if authorship does not matter?
    Why isn’t attribution scholarship public-facing?
    (And something about misogyny and women wearing clothes which I confess I don’t understand)

    I can see how questions 1 and 2 are at least trying to respond to my questions, though they also seem to automatically polarise them as they do so; I’m at a loss to explain the origins of questions 3 and 4. As Lucy Clarke points out here, attribution studies rarely asks ‘what authorship means’, and I only see Gabriel Egan and Darren Freebury-Jones doing so above. By the way, Darren, I appreciate you responding to my point about paying tribute, but I’m not sure I’ve suggested above that ‘attribution studies [is] concerned wholly with paying tribute’. Rather, I’ve invited reflection on the fact that it might be, as both the power structures in our profession and the term’s etymology suggest. So again, I guess I feel my question is being polarised even as it’s answered, and I return you to my suggestion that this scholarly field as a whole tends to prefer working from polarised positions.

    Everyone has every right to answer whatever questions they choose, of course, but it’s noticeable that these responses aren’t answering mine. Is this not illustrative of some of the problems I raised to begin with? It seems to say at least something about the disconnect between authorship and attribution if the responses to this blog are so out of kilter with the questions its author posed.

    Brett is right that attribution studies is ‘fixated on its methodologies’, but the key word there is ‘its’. The point of my blog is to challenge the methodological narrowness of this field, from which unfold many of the problems its own practitioners repeatedly lament. I almost wonder if the ferocity of much of that discussion works to conceal from its practitioners its narrowness, which itself proceeds from a disinclination to be self-reflective as to research questions. With apologies, many of the comments to this blog read like advertisements for that disinclination. My blog suggested ways to widen that methodology and the stylistic and intellectual habits that have prevented that happening previously. Much of these comments seem to be reproducing these habits. The theory/ history divide Gabriel invokes above is not a division in my eyes, nor is it in my initial blog post. I repeat my challenge that attribution methodology attends only to one stage of authorship, the level of transcription, a challenge that no commentator has taken up. That is not a theoretical challenge.

    And Gabriel, I share your ambitions for our project, though I’m afraid I would resist definitions of historical accuracy that only meet attribution criterion. That seems to bring us back to methodology. But please do feel free to collaborate or challenge whenever you see an opportunity to do so!



    • Hi Andy,

      It’s a lengthy blog post full of provocations and questions. I’m not surprised that readers haven’t addressed each of your thoughts systematically, and wouldn’t begrudge them offering selective responses. I’m still letting some of my thoughts percolate before committing them to a post!

      Best wishes,


      • I look forward to hearing more later, and let us know if you’d like us to host a blog post of your own. I’m not demanding people respond to my questions; I’m instead noting that responses change my questions even as they answer them, and do so in a manner which polarises the debate. In other words, they aren’t really responses at all, and suggest something has gone wrong at the point of reading the blog. As I’ve said above, I see these issues as problems endemic to attribution, so they seems worth pointing out.

        As an example, I don’t understand where your paragraph on public-facing scholarship comes from. Since this isn’t an issue I raise, it seems, rhetorically and cognitively, to bespeak a reluctance to engage. Ditto the comments on my book title, which seem to proceed from the assumption that I can’t have thought these matters through. These problems seem to affect the majority of responses to this blog, and they suggest to me that attribution studies is even less open to and ready for challenge than I initially proposed. Once again, I say that not as an enemy (which seems to be how many attributionists like to position their interlocutors), but as someone who would like to benefit from, and contribute to, debates about authorship.

        Please do let us know if you or anyone else would like to write a longer piece as a stand-alone blog. We welcome dissenting views.



  19. Dear Andy,

    I hope you’ll forgive the rather off-topic nature of this post.

    I write on Easter Sunday in memory of Charlie Wilding (1961-78). Charlie was a formidably intelligent kid in my school, and one of the nicest. In our second year, we were made to read Julius Caesar in class. It was my first brush with Shakespeare. None of us had any particular interest in Roman politics, but several of us had read Asterix and knew that Caesar had a hawk nose and liked saying ‘Alea iacta est’. Charlie was asked to stand on a desk and read aloud Mark Anthony’s speech in 3.2. He just could not avoid pronouncing ‘ears‘ as ‘years’. After three attempts, he was still asking friends, Romans, countrymen to lend him their ‘years’. This caused much mirth, but although we were laughing at his mistake, we were not laughing at him. We all respected him. Sadly, three or so years later, he took his own life. I don’t believe anyone has ever known why.

    I think I may owe more to this memory than I have previously appreciated. It was the first moment for me when Shakespeare was fun. Mainly, in writing this post, I have wanted to remember Charlie publicly, and with grateful affection. But also, because I’ve had similar moments of joy from performances, teaching, reading and analysis of verbal mistakes, I could not possibly wish to ‘forget Shakespeare’, or need a ‘safe space’.

    I know this isn’t the place for an ‘in memoriam’, but it’s what I wanted to say.



    • Thanks for sharing this, Duncan. It’s a difficult comment to respond to, and I’m not even sure whether to commiserate or congratulate you on this memory full of such mixed emotions. But let me respond to your final point: I haven’t suggested that we forget Shakespeare, but that we remember much of the past that he and the research agenda currently occludes. Shakespeare’s current place in scholarship does Shakespeare as much a disservice as it does his contemporaries.



  20. [Dear Andy, Please delete the garbled half-written posting I just sent (above)! Thanks, Gabriel]

    Dear All

    I guess that on principle those who don’t see the value in authorship attribution can’t complain that I wrongly attributed “‘Il n’y a pas de hors texte” to Michel Foucault rather than Jacques Derrida. But since I maintain that it matters who wrote what, I must offer my apologies for this error.




    • Hi Gabriel,

      1. First version of post deleted, as requested!

      2. I still don’t see why you think I ‘don’t see the value in authorship attribution’, so I’m afraid your very short comment has generated a rather longer one. Here I am, presenting my arguments to you, signed with my name. There I am, above, in question 1, making clear that I am not asking rhetorical questions and that I do acknowledge positive answers. I’ve asked for a greater explicitness about the historical and cultural reasons authorship might matter, because for me, authorship is not ahistorical and attribution is not a neutral act. So let me repeat again that much of the debate in these comments seems to work via the polarisation tendency that seems to me to be endemic in attribution studies and discourages mutual learning, but which I am suggesting needs negotiation. Happy mediums (media?) and all that.

      I’m minded of your session at Kent this year when you explained that Jonson had been left out of attribution tests of texts dating before 1598, because Jonson didn’t start writing until after that date. I made sure to mention to you that this isn’t strictly true, and Jonson scholars have a strong sense that Jonson was writing before this date, but was careful in later years to craft the presentation of his authorship and its development in print. That struck me as a good example of the way attribution studies can easily put authorship before history, take texts and authors at face value and set up its tests in advance with things it expects to see. But it also struck me as a good example of the way attribution studies can benefit when it listens, as you did, to other historical perspectives. I want to be the beneficiary of the findings of attribution, but for now, these kinds of unacknowledged assumptions and the more usual tendency not to heed other historical perspectives have a knock on effect on the questions, methods and results of the field, and my blog above is intended to suggest ways forward.

      I’m still thinking through your closing remarks in a previous comment about the need for the Before Shakespeare project to value historical accuracy, documentary evidence and the testing of hypotheses. I too hope we are doing these things, but I confess it confirms all of my prejudices about attribution studies to see a scholar suggest that where there is intellectual disagreement, the obvious answer is that the non-attribution scholar’s knowledge of history is in doubt. When and how did attribution studies teach its practitioners to consider themselves to have a monopoly on historical truth, or their methods historical neutrality? I presume those remarks were written heatedly, but they do little to disrupt my sense above of ‘the hostility embedded in the field’, its preference for attack as a mode of defense, its habit of denunciation, and I repeat my suggestion that these rhetorical gestures are not effective modes of debate and prevent us all learning more. They are also exactly the reason that attribution studies has difficulty admitting new voices to the debate, or debating in a mutually supportive manner. An argument is only useful if each party is willing to learn from the other. We don’t need to agree, and clearly won’t, but we can both benefit from that disagreement if it helps each of us to understand our own and the other’s positions, and perhaps identify aspects of the other’s work that informs our own. I refer you back to our conversation about pre-1598 Jonson, as well as the comment above by Kate de Rycker which shows how attribution scholars and other kinds of researchers can work in ways that are mutually beneficial.

      I return to this moment in your comment, too, because I am not the only person involved in this research project, and whilst I will survive if you decide to question its historical legitimacy, I have colleagues working on the project who really do not deserve to be associated with any potential denunciation you decide to offer. Once again, I refer you to my discussion of the power structures involved in scholarly debate. As a senior scholar, I invite you to rethink the terms in which you debate here, and how they are likely to make junior scholars feel. I guess we’re back to attribution here: I’d be grateful if you’d confine any attacks you’d like to make to the scholar you’re addressing. But, above all, why attack? Might we each learn something from the other if we approached the conversation differently?



      • Dear Andy

        Whence all this squeamishness about scholars disagreeing with one another? I’m attacking the ideas of people I think are wrong. I’m not calling them ignoramuses or charlatans or impugning their motives. (Well, I call some people charlatans: Donald Foster is one and Brian Vickers’s intellectual honesty is sometimes to be seriously doubted.)

        Yes, I’m asserting that the standard post-structuralist model of authorship is deeply unhistorical. I’m not asking anyone to trust me — I’m advising people to read the historical record for themselves and not to accept unthinkingly the orthodoxy within English studies about authorship in our current sense being an emergent early modern phenomenon. It simply isn’t true that our modern sense of creators ‘owning’ their expressions emerged around 1800 as a consequence of wider changes in the nature of property within capitalism. (I’m a Marxist, so I have plenty of reason to want to believe this narrative.) I’m not claiming that attribution scholars have a monopoly on the correct reading of history; I’m saying that we all have to watch that we don’t let our theoretical prejudices colour our interpretations of the past. We won’t entirely succeed in that effort, but we are morally obliged as historians to try.

        Although it makes some gaffes about the post-structuralist model of authorship, the most essential reading on this topic that I recommend to all who are following this blog and finding themselves siding with the post-structuralist model is Brian Vickers’s “Appendix II. Abolishing the author? Theory versus history”, pp. 506-545 of his book _Shakespeare, Co-Author_ (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). For the record, again, I find much wrong with Vickers’s scholarship, but this Appendix adduces the evidence that, contra Foucault, there was not a reversal in the nature of authorship in the early modern period. Foucault says that, before then, scientific texts were ‘authored’ (in the sense that ‘authors’ were assigned to them) and poetic texts were essentially anonymous, and that after then the position reversed: scientific texts became essentially anonymous and poetic texts were assigned ‘authors’.

        In his essay “Artiginality” in the New Oxford Shakespeare, Gary Taylor argues that in fact Foucault was not making quite the totalizing claims about authorship that his followers have since attributed to him. I think I can accept that, although Foucault’s essay “What is an author?” does, to my eyes, make the fundamentally erroneous assertion that Vickers challenges.

        See, I can be nice about Vickers. We say a lot of nice things about Vickers in the Authorship Companion to the New Oxford Shakespeare. We also show that his authorship attribution scholarship is based on a methodology that doesn’t work and datasets that are incomplete. He is probably very angry about that and he has in the past threatened my publishers with law suits to shut me up. I wasn’t at the fractious London Shakespeare Seminar that has been alluded to on this blog, but I think the fractiousness arose from Vickers’s anger at the New Oxford Shakespeare’s Authorship Companion being so effective at revealing his errors — one can see that he would be.

        I know that the media image of ‘millennial snowflake’ students who can’t bear the sound of any heated debate is a bit of an exaggerated stereotype, but the ever-so-sensitive tone of this blog is rather disconcertingly consistent with that stereotype. As Bert Large so persuasively says to Martin Ellingham at the beginning of _Doc Martin_: “we don’t all have to love each other, doc”.




  21. Dear Gabriel,

    I’m a big fan of your latest comment, which I found both intellectually provocative and hilarious. Thanks for continuing the debate. I have no squeamishness about debate; my squeamishness is about debate that seeks to efface the other person’s position. That’s something I set out to query from the outset of this blog post, and something I still feel the need to defend in the face of successive comments. And it isn’t snowflakey and sensitive: it’s an appeal for more disagreement, not less, but for disagreement that avoids proceeding on the autopilot mode that attribution studies often sets itself. Bring on the disagreement.

    I should probably set the record straight about the London Shakespeare Seminar: it wasn’t fractious in the slightest, as my references to it in the post make clear: Taylor and Vickers came together in agreement.

    And yes, I see that you’re ‘asserting that the standard post-structuralist model of authorship is deeply unhistorical’. I just don’t see what in my blog post invites that rebuke: everything I say there is grounded in early modern histories of authorship, and especially the ones that attribution tends to efface. I promise not to seek your love, but it’s obviously difficult to debate if the positions you unpack are not ones I’ve adopted.



  22. Hi Andy,

    Thanks for the offer of writing a guest post. However, if you’re genuine about championing open dialogue and respectful debate, I don’t think a blog — and the back-channel commentary, whether serious or snide, on various social media platforms that accompany it — is the most inclusive option. Here’s an idea: why don’t you and I propose to convene a seminar or lightning-round panel at SAA, and/or propose to co-edit a special issue of a journal on the subject? It might also give those female colleagues you’re speaking for a chance to offer their own perpectives.

    It’s easy to be flippant and cast aspersions on a field and its practitioners from the outside. What frustrates me about your posts, and some of the commentary from others, is that the portrayal of authorship attribution study is both unfair and based on a limited sense of the literature. Let’s be clear: authorship attribution study is bigger than stylometry, Brian Vickers, Gary Taylor, the New Oxford Shakespeare, and even Shakespeare himself. As a field of study, it covers texts of all historical periods, languages, genres, geographies, and cultures. Consequently, the scholarship on authorship attribution is vast — so much so that I would feel uncomfortable making unqualified pronouncements about it.

    In Question 3, you ask “What is the history of attribution studies, both in recent years and over a longer period of time?” Rather than pose it as a question, I wish you had taken the initiative: a genuine investigation of the history/histories of attribution studies might have avoided the many misconceptions embedded in subsequent questions. In his lively and accessible Attributing Authorship: An Introduction (2002), Harold Love suggests that attribution studies, “considered as an organised scholarly enterprise, reaches back as far as the great library of Alexandria and embraces the formation of the Jewish and Christian biblical canons” (1). (Love’s is a short book, and one that I definitely recommend to anyone with even remote interest.) Stylometry — a methodology that you and others have conflated with attribution study itself — has an equally impressive history. As Maciej Eder reminds us, stylometry in the service of authorship attribution can be traced back at least to the fifteenth century, with the publication of Lorenzo Valla’s De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione declamatio (1440). Through “detailed analysis of syntax, morphology, and lexis”, Valla established that the Donation of Constantine, “a putative edict in which Emperor Constantine transferred authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the Popes”, could not possibly have been “written in the fourth century” as it claimed (61).

    It’s always easy to make sweeping pronouncements about someone else’s specialty, particularly in English studies. It’s much harder to admit that what one doesn’t understand is actually a lack of curiosity, or an unwillingness to engage meaningfully with difficult research. I understand the temptation to shoot first and ask questions later, and you’re fortunate that authorship attribution study is something of an easy target. But consider how ignorant you’d look making claims like this about critical race studies, textual scholarship, feminism, and so on. Consider, also, as a senior scholar with a considerable social media following and sphere of influence, how you might exercise some of the same critical self-awareness that you find lacking in others, particularly in relation to how you are modeling scholarship to younger scholars.

    Your first question asks, “Why and how does it matter who wrote a play, or a group of plays?” There are a number of reasons why it matters who wrote a play or a group of plays. Sarah Neville has persuasively demonstrated that “new developments in authorial attribution fundamentally change the approach editors take to a text”. Neville cites the convention of emending “Otherwhiles” to “The whiles” in editions of 1 Henry the Sixth, on the grounds that the word “otherwhiles” does not appear elsewhere in Shakespeare’s acknowledged works. Attribution studies have established that 1 Henry the Sixth is a collaborative text, and identification of contributions by Thomas Nashe — who uses “otherwhiles” in several of his works — provides editors with a rationale for departing from tradition and instead adopting a reading previously treated as suspiciously un-Shakespearean and typically explained away as the result of transmission error.

    Another reason why it matters who wrote a play or a group of plays, as Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells suggest in Shakespeare Bites Back (2011), is because “To claim otherwise is to deny history, the nature of historical evidence, and also to sever from the works any understanding of the humanity and personality behind them”. “As people”, they continue, “we want to know as much as possible about the artist responsible for the work” (37).

    Because it is an argument rather than a statement of fact, authorship attribution is rarely an end in itself. Rather, authorship attribution study is an opportunity to pursue further questions, explore new possibilities, and evaluate critical assumptions. Attribution study, for example, has played (and continues to play) an important role in debunking the pervasive belief that Shakespeare wrote alone. As MacDonald P. Jackson points out, “The Two Noble Kinsmen is the sole extant play for which there is clear external evidence of Shakespeare’s collaboration with another dramatist” (40), namely, the title-page ascription of the 1634 quarto to “Mr. John Fletcher, and Mr. William Shakespeare” and John Waterson’s entry in the Stationers’ Register for the same “by Io: ffletcher & Wm. Shakespeare” on 8 April 1634. To this, we may add Humphrey Moseley’s entry in the Stationers’ Register for “The history of Cardenio, by Mr Fletcher. & Shakespeare” on 9 September 1653, though the play itself is lost. We can — and do — extrapolate from the external evidence we have about Shakespeare’s contemporaries and their collaborations, but argument by analogy only takes us so far and effectively establishes that various forms of collaboration were available to him. It’s authorship attribution study — whether by analysis of the internal evidence from the printed texts or identification of Hand D in Sir Thomas More (British Library MS Harley 7368) — that provides the most compelling challenge to any claim about Shakespeare’s solitary genius. This is not to diminish the importance of work in theatre history, but, as Gordon McMullan acknowledges, “There is no denying that without attributional work of this kind, plays such as Henry VIII, for which there is no external evidence of collaboration, would simply not be available to analyses such as that of [Jeffrey] Masten because they would continue to be treated, by default, as solo work” (243). Taken together, as Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith suggest in their 30 Great Myths about Shakespeare (2013), the research of theatre historians and authorship attribution study “opens the door for us to think about the other kinds of writing that Shakespeare was involved in” (118) and prompts us to re-examine traditional narratives about Shakespeare’s writing practices and development as a playwright.

    I’m very keen to continue this conversation and welcome the possibility of informed, respectful debate. However, as I say above, it needs to be in a more appropriate — and more inclusive — forum. My offer to collaborate with you on a panel/seminar at SAA or propose a guest-edited journal issue together is genuine, and I hope you consider it seriously.


    Works Cited

    Eder, Maciej. “A Bird’s-Eye View of Early Modern Latin: Distant Reading, Network Analysis, and Style Variation.” Early Modern Studies After the Digital Turn, ed. Laura Estill, Diane K. Jakacki, and Michael Ullyot. Iter Press/ACMRS, 2016. 61-88.

    Edmondson, Paul, and Stanley Wells. Shakespeare Bites Back: Not So Anonymous. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, 2011. Online.

    Jackson, MacDonald P. “Collaboration.” The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare, ed. Arthur F. Kinney. OUP, 2012. 31-52.

    Love, Harold. Attributing Authorship: An Introduction. CUP, 2002.

    Maguire, Laurie, and Emma Smith. 30 Great Myths About Shakespeare. Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.

    McMullan, Gordon. Shakespeare and the Idea of Late Writing: Authorship in the Proximity of Death. CUP, 2007.

    Neville, Sarah. “Did Shakespeare Write His Plays?” The Walrus, 2 Nov. 2016. Online.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Brett,

      Thanks for this. Open dialogue and respectful debate is very much what we’re after, and I’m excited to get these responses. I guess paragraphs five and six of your most recent comment are exactly what I was hoping for in replies to this blog in the first place (if it got replies at all). I could respond to Neville, Edmondson and Wells, whom you cite, but for now let me express gratitude for your use of their work as bases for response. In an ideal world, you and I would be discussing those ideas on their own, but let me respond to the other issues you raise.

      I guess one of the emerging problems here is inside/ outside: yet another binary. Contrary to many of the comments here, including your own, I don’t see myself as a non-attributor, and whilst the blog piece is clearly intended as a challenge, it is a challenge repeatedly delivered in the name of mutual usefulness. As I’ve said in previous responses to your comments, these are live research questions to me, and I’ve posed them as such in the blog (‘these are real, not rhetorical questions’; ‘There are clearly positive answers to be had here’). These are not new questions in any sense of the term, but they are questions I feel we could all ask more explicitly.

      As an example of some of these issues, you wish I had avoided posing a question and instead ‘taken the initiative’. But as I’ve already explained, the questions I’ve posed here are questions I’ve taken some initiative on already, both as author and as editor of other people’s work (I make no promises as to whether you’ll find our answers useful). But since I don’t consider my or my contributors’ or even Love’s answers to be total or final, they seem worth asking others, particularly since, as I suggest above, such questions do not seem to inflect early modern attribution work as often as they could, and it would be useful for all concerned if they did. I’m suggesting that’s a problem, not as an outsider or as a member of the uninitiated, but as someone who cares about these questions and would like to benefit from other people’s answers.

      You’re right in some senses that I’m guilty of conflating kinds of attribution and attributionists in the blog above. But I’m less sure that I make ‘unqualified pronouncements’ about the entirety of ‘scholarship on authorship attribution’. I’d like to think the remit of this website as well as the blog’s introduction and conclusion make it fairly clear that it’s early modern attribution studies I am discussing, in part because it testifies to ‘Shakespeare’s domination of the research agenda’ to which I refer at the outset. The discussion is very clearly framed by the current state of Shakespearean and early modern scholarship.

      So yes, it has been odd to see a succession of attribution scholars respond to these questions as only rhetorical, and answer questions of their own, in some cases entirely made up. I’m entirely serious in my understanding of previous responses to this blog: I’ve found many of them surprising in their combination of absolute conviction with a reluctance to engage with the issues raised. Above all, I guess, it’s felt like responses have confirmed the suggestions I’ve made: I wrote that ‘it is striking that attribution scholars rarely seem to ask’ a series of explicitly positive, open-ended questions, and a series of respondents then failed to engage with those questions. If anything, such responses have made the actual questions I’ve posed feel more, not less, urgent.

      I’d love to collaborate, though I’m not sure about an SAA panel. Some way to collaborate on a forum which gives voice to others would be very welcome. In the meantime, though, I’d like to think the responses to this blog refute the idea that a website is non-inclusive. As I’ve already said, we are eager to host debate, and the other members of the Before Shakespeare team are extremely unlikely to be in full agreement with anything I’ve said above. So do consider writing for us here, if that’s of interest; otherwise I look forward to hearing about possibilities to collaborate elsewhere.

      And finally, I’m terribly upset to be described as a senior scholar, and invite a full retraction, preferably before my next birthday.



  23. Andy, these are all important questions, well worth asking and debating. I won’t presume to attempt to answer them, because to do so would reinforce the “old white men” stereotype. Personally, I have tried very hard, for a long time, not to engage in ad hominem battles—but I cannot prevent someone else from monopolizing the question period after I give a guest lecture.
    The field of early modern dramatic attribution studies has certainly been dominated by men, and in some cases by autocratic men. But Shakespeare editing was also, in the past, almost entirely dominated by men, and that has changed. I believe the gender imbalance is also starting to change in attribution studies. All the women editors of the New Oxford Shakespeare have engaged with attribution issues. The exchanges precipitated by your blog have already mentioned Sarah Neville’s work on Nashe and 1 Henry VI. The NOS Authorship Companion contains a long essay on Titus Andronicus by Anna Pruitt; it also contains a short essay co-authored by Terri Bourus and Farah Karim-Cooper on All’s Well. Bourus also, as a spin-off of her work on the NOS, wrote a separately published essay that deals with Middleton’s adaptation of Measure for Measure (“Counterfeiting Faith”), co-authored another essay that deals with attribution issues in the same play (“Performance-testing the adaptation hypothesis”), and wrote an essay on Cardenio/Double Falsehood that discusses the difference between directing Shakespeare and directing Fletcher (“Poner en escena”); her book “Young Shakespeare’s Young Hamlet” contests the traditional assumption that the 1589 “Hamlet” was written by Kyd. Neville, Pruitt, and Bourus are, respectively, an Assistant, an Associate, and a General Editor of the New Oxford Shakespeare, at different stages in their careers and with very different professional backgrounds (and styles). The Authorship Companion also includes an essay by Marina Tarlinskaja, and it devotes five essays to taking seriously (and eventually endorsing) the Laurie Maguire/Emma Smith hypothesis that the Folio text of All’s Well contains writing by Middleton. And, since you are urging us to consider many different kinds of collaboration, the whole NOS enterprise, including the Authorship Companion, was commissioned, enabled, supported, and overseen by Jacqueline Norton at Oxford University Press. She continues to play a crucial role in work on the in-progress Complete Alternative Versions. None of these women is a full-time attribution scholar—but then, neither am I.
    One correction about the London Shakespeare Seminar event: when Vickers and I agreed about the need for “large canons”, we were not at all limiting ourselves to canons the size of Shakespeare’s. In fact, a major point of my paper was that it is possible to use certain kinds of attribution tests on the Kyd canon, which contains only three extant plays of relatively undisputed authorship; Kyd’s authorship of one of those plays can be proven simply on the basis of its stylistic connections to the other two. Marston’s and Lyly’s dramatic canons are very “large” by comparison to Kyd’s. What Vickers and I agreed is that, at present, we do not have a proven empirical method for reliably identifying authorship in canons smaller than Kyd’s. And my LSS talk was also about other kinds of co-writing: the relationship between “Edward III” and Aeschylus’s “Persians”.
    FWIW, the NOS and attribution studies have recently generated an enormous amount of good global publicity for Christopher Marlowe. I’m happy to pay tribute to him.


    • Thanks Gary – these are all very helpful thoughts, and (as I hope my introduction makes clear) the New Oxford Shakespeare has been an inspiration for many of these questions. I’ll make sure to amend the reference to canon size with your clarification.



  24. Thanks, Andy, for such an interesting post. I won’t pretend to have nearly enough expertise to wade into some of these arguments (though I’m a huge fan of Kate de Rycker’s comment and now very excited to see what comes out of the Thomas Nashe project).

    All this discussion of authorship did make me think about how we present collaboration to students. Often students object to group work, and especially group assignments, because they feel they may end up doing more than their fair share of the work, and/or that the mark they are given for the work as a whole may not reflect their individual abilities. On the other side of the coin, students are warned that they risk being disciplined for plagiarism if their collaboration slips into what’s considered ‘collusion’. All these are issues around authorship – how work is produced, who owns it, and who is responsible.

    I run a course where the first assignment is a group presentation. The group is assessed as a whole, on the whole of the presentation. Individual marks are only allowed in cases where it’s clear an individual has deliberately avoided participating (and in those cases it’s usually a fail/substantially lower mark). This often makes people uncomfortable: they worry that they’re being judged on what the whole group has done rather than on what they’ve done individually. This presupposes that you can separate the two. So, I guess, does our slightly clumsy way of sanctioning individuals who aren’t ‘pulling their weight’.

    I tell students that in reality they may not always get credit for what they do with others – and conversely they may sometimes get too much credit. Credit isn’t always shared fairly. They respond (completely reasonably): but in the real world we don’t get given marks which affect our grade boundaries. This isn’t wrong, and reminds me that we perpetuate the model of individual authorship and achievement through broader institutions than just group work.

    Thanks so much for creating such an interesting debate, and one which has so many strands. I don’t personally feel that many students are ‘snowflakes’, whatever that means (protesting against hate speech is a sign of strength, not weakness) but I really appreciate the emphasis on respectful debate here. I feel that this enhances free speech rather than limiting it, as it allows everyone to debate. An advantage, perhaps, of this comment section over a seminar question-time which can be monopolised?


    • Dear Anonynous Troll,

      Thanks so much for this, Emma. Fascinating to hear another view on the mechanics and identification of authorship. I quite agree with all of this.

      And yes to your final thoughts about debate. The knee jerk, entrenched, passive-aggressive style I was trying to identify to begin with seems to me to be the opposite of argument, to mistake vituperation and hand waving for substantive argument.

      Thank you for your trolling.



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  26. Dear all,

    To continue building an archive of relevant scholarship, I’ve started an open-group Zotero bibliography, here: It has two sub-folders, “Collaboration” and “Authorship,” to which you can add citations you find relevant to this conversation. I’ve preemptively sent invitations to those who have participated in the comments section here. If you haven’t received an invitation to add to the bibliography (anyone can see the list) but would like to, simply request to do so through the Zotero website and one of the administrators can easily add you to the list. Another collaborative effort, as it were.

    All best,

    Liked by 3 people

    • Sorry, I’m having trouble working out how to add this item to the Zotero bibliography, but readers might be interested:
      Helen Hackett, ‘”As The Diall Hand Tells Ore”: The Case for Dekker, Not Shakespeare, as Author’, Review of English Studies 63.258 (2012), pp. 34-57, DOI:
      At the opening and close of the article I discuss how the cultural obsession with Shakespeare can skew attribution.
      Thanks to Andy Kesson and all contributors to this blog, which I’ve found of great interest.


      • Readers of this blog who are interested in Helen Hackett’s essay on “As The Diall Hand Tells Ore” (= “To the Queen”) will also want to see John Nance’s subsequent essay on it in Shakespeare Quarterly last year (volume 67, 2016, pp. 204-31). The poem is included in the New Oxford Shakespeare but of course we don’t think that we are obsessed with Shakespeare, just that this poem does pass our test for inclusion. Evidence that the New Oxford Shakespeare is not obsessed with aggrandizing Shakespeare is, we trust, sufficiently demonstrated by re-attributing to other authors writings that have long been thought Shakespeare’s alone.


      • I’ve added both the Hackett and Nance pieces, as well as sent email invites to all who have participated in this comments discussion to contribute to the open-access bibliography. Many thanks!


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  28. Hi Andy et. al.:

    I come late to this animated discussion. The hazards of coming late to a conversation are (at least) two-fold: 1) different people have already offered the comments one would have liked to suggest; and 2) the ideas and issues have multiplied from the originating post. But given Andy’s thoughtful questions and graceful orchestration of the responses, I thought I would chime in. As someone whose work on collaboration was invested in the notion of early modern dramatists’ individual, identifiable authorial style, I gratefully relied on the findings of various kinds of attribution studies, both those founded on what we call internal evidence and those founded on what we call external evidence. (I would add that these terms themselves need re-thinking, given that the application of computer technology to dramatic canons can be seen as far more “external” to the texts and practices of early modern dramatic production than the assessment of names on title pages, for instance). But such reliance needs nevertheless to challenge – as others on the blog have done eloquently already — the notions of “single” and “joint” authorship and style on which attribution studies depend. Such challenges are historical, in that they derive from what we know of established practices of early modern theatrical production; they then interpret (a word that has not been stressed enough, I think, in the discussion) the potential meanings of these practices and the ways in which they might have affected the experience and products of playmaking. That’s why I find Andy’s question – “why make single authorship the gold standard” – so compelling. It not only recognizes that collaborative endeavors reconfigure ideas of authorial individuality and identity, and that these ideas changed over time alongside the development of the theater industry. It also acknowledges, if only implicitly, that collaborating playwrights might not have wished to have, or even imagined having, their distinct lines or scenes or acts dissected and/or “credited.” This doesn’t have to stop those who are able and inclined from doing the kind of intensive statistical studies that reveal who might have written what line. But it does demand that we recognize the intentionality of anonymity (see Marcy North, The Anonymous Renaissance) as well as forms of credit that might have less to do with parts and lines than with networks of association and reputation. It also demands that we continue to ask about the ways attribution studies, with its emphasis on stylistic and linguistic signatures such as collocations or pronoun preferences, fits with or chafes against ideas of stylistic identity (and its suppression) in the period. For instance, would it be possible – or meaningful — to run sophisticated computational studies that measured the kinds of things that early modern dramatists counted (or mocked) as stylistically significant, such as “a suddaine wit” or “poeticall spirit” or a “battering ram of tearms” or a “pen possest with Hercules furies” (Three Parnassus Plays)? This leads to a final question about style and its audience: In thinking about what counted in the period as a dramatist’s “own” work or his “own style,” what difference might it make to imagine that the playwrights were writing, first and foremost, for each other? That is to say (and for this reason I see the textual product as more than what Andy calls a “transcription”), how might attribution studies be inflected if we consider that the primary audience for a dramatic script was not only the actor or the playgoer (or the 21st century statistician) but fellow playwrights, the writers with whose style he was competing and/or collaborating?
    Thanks again, Andy, for posing such interesting questions and getting this discussion going in multiple directions.
    All best,
    Heather Hirschfeld

    Liked by 5 people

  29. Dear Andy,

    Thanks for raising these important questions and encouraging discussion – to which I’m adding some of my thoughts. In my own research, I focus on the agents and textual practices that attribution studies tend not to highlight – the influence of scribes, compositors, publishers, booksellers, and patrons on why certain plays were printed and how they were presented as playbooks, as well as how extant texts relate to wider performance repertories. When thinking about attribution studies, I’m concerned about the erasure of these additional producers – not because I’m trying to suggest they occupy a comparable creative position as the dramatist(s), but because they have significantly influenced the appearance of plays as printed books (which, in the majority of cases, are our only point of access to what the dramatists wrote), they contributed to the emergence and development of early modern attribution on playbook title pages (which I’d say should have a significant bearing on the agenda of current attribution studies), and they’ve shaped the production of playbooks in ways that could affect stylometric analysis (i.e. through the spelling/punctuation habits of scribes and compositors, and evidence for the ways in which these and other individuals may have manipulated and edited manuscripts). I have concerns about stylometry being able to clearly demarcate agency, and to what extent this is desirable (as you mention, attribution studies – in its most pessimistic assessment – may be evaluating transcription in some cases, as well as conflating different stages of transcription).

    However, despite these reservations (and I am aware that, given the length of my response, my objections appear very simplified), I am interested in stylometry and its ability to put forward different, challenging, and revealing theories and narratives about authorship and the collaborative practices of early modern theatre. As several of the commentators here have suggested, attribution studies doesn’t just involve segregating agency and connecting dramatists to particular passages of text – and I would like to engage with approaches to stylometry that highlight the collaborative nature of early modern theatre and textual production, even within a passage of text that is connected to a particular dramatist. With the foregrounding of collaborative authorship in The New Oxford Shakespeare, I’m interested in what this publication, as well as ongoing attribution studies, might suggest about the First Folio as a project. Is it now becoming more difficult to distinguish meaningfully between the Henry VI plays and Edward III, for example, or even Arden of Faversham? As opposed to attempting to ‘solve’ collaboration, could these latest attribution studies further highlight the Folio’s position as a literary project influenced by a range of different agents that have manufactured a Shakespeare canon? I already feel strongly about the influence of the Folio’s generic classifications on subsequent criticism (and which do not reflect more widespread early modern usage, before or after the 1623 publication) – could attribution studies help us clarify a similar situation with the FF and authorship? How have early modern attribution attempts shaped our understanding and acceptance of a writer’s canon, and how might stylometric analysis shed light on this process of construction?

    Indeed, I’m particularly convinced by the importance of historicising early modern attribution and the influence of different individuals on this development – as well as how these issues affect the processes and aims of modern attribution studies. [Warning: this section deviates significantly into my own current research interests.] From some cursory initial research, I’m struck by patterns in the earliest examples of playbook attribution. With the publication of the first playbooks from the professional theatres in 1584, the first title-page attribution also takes place in this year (in The Three Ladies of London to “R.W”). For almost the next ten years, reprints of Wilson’s play comprise the entirety of early playbook attributions, until Peele’s Edward I (1593), and a mini-explosion of attributions in 1594: A Looking Glass for London and England (‘Made by Thomas Lodge Gentleman, and Robert Greene”), Friar Bacon and Friar Bongay (“made by Robert Greene, Maister of Arts”), The Wounds of Civil War (“Written by Thomas Lodge Gent”), The Cobbler’s Prophecy (“Written by Robert Wilson. Gent”), Dido Queen of Carthage (“Written by Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Nash. Gent”), Edward II (“Written by Chri. Marlow Gent”), and The Massacre at Paris (1594? “Written by Christopher Marlow”). Interestingly, the majority of these authorial attributions also contain a) references to the dramatists’ gentlemanly status or university education, b) corresponding company attributions, and c) associative links to an aristocratic or royal patron through the company naming. A fascinating and unprecedented attribution ‘project’ can be seen with these playbooks – and I think exploring developments like this should occupy an important position within attribution studies, as well as specifically informing approaches to stylometric analysis. From the questions you and others have raised here and at the recent SAA meeting, I’m planning on looking into this 1594 case study (and the earlier attributions) and I would be interested to know how stylometry could weigh in on these earliest examples of attribution (which, with the exception of Marlowe, don’t exactly involve the usual suspects)…

    In moving forward, I’d like to see attribution studies give considerable attention to early modern practices and patterns, evaluating playbook attributions to a range of different agents (i.e. not just to the dramatists, but also to the companies and patrons that are referenced on title pages, and the ways in which these patterns of attribution may be connected), as well as considering the often-overlooked position of anonymous texts and the decision not to attribute (which is a clear strategy in certain cases and is a necessary companion in understanding the function of attribution). Similarly, when considering modern attributive techniques to extant texts, I’d like to see, explore, theorise about, and emphasise a more collaborative approach, involving scholars with different interests (and agendas), and the exploration of a range of textual producers, looking at attribution to dramatists, but also to other agents. Thanks to you, and everyone else, for all the questions and discussions – I hope they continue!

    All the best,

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Amy, these are very much attributive inquiries I can get behind – and the decision not to attribute, together with the problem of books that are anonymous bibliographically but not culturally, are very much things I have worked and continue to work on. Your list of pre-95 writers named on title pages is one we are very aware of on the Before Shakespeare project, and we will be more than usually excited to hear from you once you’ve worked further on this. Wilson, it seems to me, should be at the forefront of anyone’s mind who works on early modern drama, even and perhaps especially those who consider themselves Shakespeareans. And I’m writing something as we speak on the problem of genre in early modern drama very much in tune with what you say here. Thanks so much for these thoughts!



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