Let me speak to you about my huge words

This is the third of three blogs on attribution. For more, see Shakespeare, attribution and attrition: at tribute zone and Nashe’s attributions.

I’m aware that I’m becoming an extremely inferior version of George Lucas, writing an unwanted trilogy of posts about attribution which aren’t even the retrospective prequels to something a little better I’d written a couple of decades before in a galaxy far, far away.

In my last piece on Nashe’s attributions, I studiously avoided speaking directly about Nashe’s place in current attribution work. It was a silence I hoped would be obvious to those familiar with this work, and that I hoped would spare those unfamiliar with these controversies from having to become familiar with them. But since publishing that piece, a number of people have asked me about modern attributions of work to Nashe, and even speakers at this week’s Nashe Symposium repeatedly described the writer’s reference to 1 Henry VI in Pierce Penniless as a ‘puff’ for his co-authorship of that play. This makes me worried about the potential for the blindspots of attribution to limit the possibilities of editing Nashe. The symposium explored this writer in his full complexity, asking us to think about style, punctuation, pace, bibliography, performance and reception. But I was very struck that when contributors engaged with attribution, such as the Pierce Penniless passage, these complexities suddenly evaporated, and such a passage was repeatedly described as a ‘puff’. So perhaps that example will allow me to articulate some of my concerns about attribution in a more direct and specific way.

Here is Nashe, writing in a printed book for his rapidly growing readership, describing a play onstage:

How would it have joyed brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to think that after he had lain two hundred years in his tomb, he should triumph again on the stage and have his bones new embalmed with the tears of ten thousand spectators at least (at several times), who, in the tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.

So what exactly is being puffed here? If Nashe is puffing the play onstage, does this mean that he hoped to time the publication of Pierce Penniless to coincide with the play’s appearance in the theatre? If Nashe is puffing his co-authorship, as is more usually imagined, then this seems a remarkably unpuffy sort of puff. Nashe is unusual in his general willingness to talk about authorship and attribution head on: he comments directly and explicitly on the writing process, names texts he hopes to write in future, refers back with pride to past work, sometimes using an earlier work to justify the composition of a new one, and, where necessary, denies his authorship of texts which were becoming associated with him. He is, as I have tried to show, unusually invested in the semantics of attribution, authorship and creativity. Nashe is both much more direct and much less straightforward than these readings of this passage want him to be. If this is a puff piece, then, it is remarkably uncharacteristic of his work, otherwise so strongly invested in claims about authorship and attribution. As a final problem with readings of this passage, I simply don’t see the rhetorical function of this passage as a claim about authorship at the level of the reader. Either Nashe’s readers already know that he wrote this play, or they don’t. In either case, the passage loses the function ascribed to it: for those in the know, the passage is unnecessary; for those not in the know, it cannot work as a puff. Just a few sentences after describing Talbot in performance, Nashe describes ‘Henry the Fifth represented on the stage’, and the Talbot reference is no more puffy or authorship-focused than this next reference to plays in the theatre. One only needs to turn to the preface to the second edition of Pierce Penniless to see that this is not how Nashe usually writes about his and others’ authorship. ‘Let me speak to you about my huge words’, Nashe wrote elsewhere; the Talbot passage simply isn’t doing this.

Even if we accept the attribution to Nashe and accept the idea that the above piece is a puff of the play or of Nashe’s authorship, then it is striking that these claims do not work together terribly well. Attributionist claims for Nashe’s authorship identify his hand in the play’s first act, but Talbot only appears very belatedly in Act One, his ‘fresh bleeding’ still a number of acts away. In my original post about attribution, I worried about the field’s tendency to uncouple collaboration, to segregate authorial activity into separate parts of the play’s text, and the results of stylistic inquiry into Nashe’s perceived role in Henry VI seem exactly to illustrate that tendency. If attribution tells us that Nashe wrote Act One, then it seems striking that he himself tells us that he is most interested in Act Four. This returns me to my concern that ‘attribution studies’ attention to stylistic habits only really tells us something about the person writing out authorial decisions that are always collaborative and collective’. Nashe may or may not have written out the version of Act One that survives, but his interest in the play extends well beyond that act.

This seems to raise two possibilities. If attribution studies are wrong to associate Nashe with this play, then his ‘puff piece’ is instead a remarkably important audience witness report. If attribution studies are right in identifying Nashe’s co-authorship of the play, then Pierce Penniless shows that Nashe’s imaginative investment in the play transcends the sections attribution wants to box him into. Hence my concern that attribution studies treats collaboration as a problem to be solved and authorship as a single and preferably solitary act. Even if we accept the findings of such stylometric work, this particular example illustrates the focus of attribution on transcription, rather than authorship. Such studies are in danger of looking only at the portion of the play Nashe happened to write out, rather than to write. In so doing, we miss the joy, terror, triumph, tears and imagination that Nashe tells us he witnessed in the performance and audience of this play.

To be clear, I am not challenging attributionist claims about the authorship of 1 Henry VI, a challenge I have neither the training nor the interests to make. I am instead taking note of the fact that, whether right or wrong, such claims produce strange readings of both Pierce Penniless and 1 Henry VI. Narrow models of collaboration mean that the association of Nashe only with the bits of the play bearing his stylistic imprint are out of kilter with Nashe’s own statements about his investment in the play onstage, whilst the desire to read Nashe on Talbot as a statement of authorship seems to me a fundamental misreading of this most authorship and attribution-aware of authors and loses any sense of how this passage might work within a printed book written for public readership.

The other major attribution stumbling block for Nashe’s work is Dido, Queen of Carthage. It would be easy for these two attribution issues to look like similar challenges to Nashe’s modern editors, since they both raise questions about whether to include or exclude certain texts, but there is an important distinction to be made, I think, between the modern attribution of part of 1 Henry VI to Nashe, and the early modern attribution of Dido, Queen of Carthage to Nashe and Marlowe (a distinction that has perhaps been obscured by the readings of the Talbot passage I have questioned above). In his paper, Matthew Dimmock read out a long litany of scholars who have been sniffy about the idea of these two writers collaborating, on the basis that Marlowe is a self-evidently much better writer than Nashe. That interested me precisely because the reverse was probably true in 1594, when this play was published, when Marlowe was making either his first or second appearance on a title page and when Nashe was by far the more visible public figure. The same may well have also been the case whenever the play was written; one of the difficulties in making any claims about the literary culture of the 1580s is the paucity of such evidence.

There has been some suggestion, both in attribution scholarship and in comments on this blog, that Marlowe is a writer whose authorship is especially available to attribution study because a sufficiently large number of his uncontested sole-authored plays survive. This is a surprise to me. The publisher of Tamburlaine tells us proudly that he has revised the texts of the two plays; Dr Faustus survives in two different versions, both of which appear to record multiple stages of collaboration and revision; The Massacre of Paris is a notoriously massacred text; Dido, Queen of Carthage is printed as a collaborative play; The Jew of Malta isn’t printed until the 1630s. The most stable bits of the “Marlowe” canon may well be Edward II, Hero and Leander and his Lucan and Ovid translations, precisely the parts of the canon most often described as anomalies or departures from Marlowe’s presumed house style. So how Marlovian was Marlowe? And how and when were uncontested sole-authored plays diagnosed as such, and why – to repeat a question from my first blog post – does uncontested sole authorship continue to be the gold standard of these inquiries rather than the subject of inquiry in its own right?

Nashe, then, permits us to historicise the processes of attribution and the subjectivity of authorship because he writes repeatedly and insightfully about such issues in highly unusual ways. But his authorship, too, decentres the author as usually understood in attributionist study because his work usually operates, at its inception and throughout its execution (in other words, both as initiating ideas and at the level of form and typography), in dialogue: he joins the Anatomy and Marprelate print sequences, prefaces Greene’s Menaphon with an overview on contemporary authorship itself, and not only engages in direct dialogue with Gabriel Harvey but operates on the basis of direct quotation in order to expose the stylistic architecture of his opponent’s text. His authorship is self-reflexive but also other-reflexive, highly attuned to issues of voice and readership and deliberately and insistently prolix, complex and elusive.

The response to my initial blog post on attribution has been illuminating; whilst I indicated that I expected adverse responses, the repeated suggestion that if you question this work, you clearly can’t have read it, coupled with comments that suggested that the blog itself had not been read or understood, both confirmed the concerns I’d raised about gatekeeping, a lack of openness to new ideas and the habit of mistaking refutation for argument. They suggested a field more than usually invested in the belief that the more you rubbish someone else’s position, the more convincing your own becomes, a field unused to and unready for challenge. Even Jonathan Hope’s very engaged and generous response included the suggestion that scholars don’t engage with attribution studies because of a disinclination to get involved in ‘boring numbers’. This seems unlikely to be true at a time when book history, bibliography and even theatre history and the study of theatregrams are as reassuringly invested in boring numbers as any other field.

I continue to hope for more constructive and historically-informed debate on the matter of authorship and how authorship matters. Perhaps Nashe can help us get there, but it will require us to abandon automatic appeals to the puffery of Nashe on Talbot (and I do mean ‘automatic’: I’ve been told about this passage at least ten times in the last twenty-four hours, but not once how this passage functions on the page) and the compartmentalisation of his authorial contribution to individual plays. Despite his own interest in authorial individuality, this writer gives the lie to the idea that authorial canons can be reduced to discrete, self-contained little worlds. Neither, I would suggest, can scholarly fields.

Andy Kesson

10 thoughts on “Let me speak to you about my huge words

  1. I’m not seeing the big contradiction here, Andy, between Nashe writing one part of a play and extolling the dramatic success of another part of it. I have recently spoken glowingly about parts of the New Oxford Shakespeare Complete Works that I had no hand in creating, and I have been praised for things I didn’t contribute. Those who think (as Jeffrey Masten does) that collaboration effaces all authorial distinctions would also reject your characterization of this problem, since they would see the collaborators as more or less equally responsible for the final work. I happen to think that this is mistaken since it can be empirically shown that we can distinguish the various writing stints. But just because we now know who wrote what does not mean we should see a contradiction when authors claim equal merit for the whole. The various editors know which bits of the New Oxford Shakespeare they were responsible for, but there’s no contradiction between that knowledge and their willingness to take credit for the whole of it.


    • I’m always interested when someone says he knows what I’m thinking: “Those who think (as Jeffrey Masten does) that collaboration effaces all authorial distinctions . . . .” My working hypothesis is that this broad statement may be based on a stretch of the following rather different sentence: “the collaborative project in the theatre was predicated on _erasing_ the perception of any differences that might have existed, for whatever reason, between collaborated parts” (Textual Intercourse 17, original emph.). As I mentioned in a response on Andy’s earlier attribution/collaboration post, I hope readers of these thoughtful blog posts will engage with the texts of earlier work on collaboration, and not simply the characterizations of that work from certain positions within the field.


  2. Gabriel. The fact that the editors of the NOW still refuse to scknowledge there is a Shakespeare Authorship issue (see Diana Price, Ros Barber, William Leahy, etc) rather diminishes the authority of their work on the works attributed to Shakespeare. Period.


    • Dear James

      The New Oxford Shakespeare’s general editors acknowledge that there is much to be said about “Shakespeare Authorship”, which is why we produced our 741-page “Authorship Companion” on this topic. If you mean by the “Shakespeare Authorship issue” the idea that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was not an author at all, then no we don’t acknowledge that there is something we need to respond to there. We also neglect to establish that the Earth is round and that NASA put men on the moon, and somebody somewhere doubtless thinks that this also diminishes our authority. We’ll have to just live with these judgements upon us.




  3. Gabriel

    Sweet. There’s good evidence that the earth is round and that NASA put men on the moon. There is zero contemporary evidence, i.e. when the man from Stratford was alive, that he was an author. This is not the case for dozens of Stratford man’s literary contemporaries. If you read Diana Price, which I suspect you haven’t, you will see this clearly and stop being so silly. I have read many impressive modern orthodox biographies of these contemporaries (Spenser, Jonson, Nashe etc) and remain amazed at the double standards of scholarship vs those for Stratford man. If you can’t see it too then you and your colleagues lack of rigour is truly very sad. I have yet to see any good evidence of who did write or organize the writing of the works, but lack of evidence is not evidence of absence. Someone, some people, must have written (and/or extemporised) the works. Sure there is circumstantial evidence for the man from Stratford, but it should not be enough for scholars like yourself and your colleagues. It’s a fascinating mystery, which is why I find the type of work in this project (of which I am only an interested observer) so interesting.


  4. Pingback: Shakespeare, attribution and attrition: at tribute zone | Before Shakespeare

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