Authorship studies: where have we got to, and where are we going?

We’ve been talking about authorship and the way we study it so much on this blog that I’ve taken a moment to think aloud about where we’ve got to as a discipline. This post is unusually scholar-facing for me, both in the sense that it’s about scholarship and it’s aimed at my colleagues, and it will inevitably reveal my own biases and blindspots. But here, for what it’s worth, is a brief sketch of some recent book-length work on particular early modern authors. And also, because this is as much at issue, a brief sketch of which authors and topics and approaches have not warranted or produced such scholarly attention recently.

Needless to say, I am not trying to claim that author-focused work is the only kind of work to engage with early modern playwrights, or with the concept or practice of authorship itself – indeed, my position is exactly the opposite. But I did want to take the opportunity to explore how such author-focused work has worked and focused in recent years, and perhaps to prompt thought (if only in my own mind) on what work we’ve done as a profession on authorship-as-exemplifed-in-single-author-canons and when we did it. I’m going to tackle each author in the rough order of most recent scholarly monograph, starting with those writers who have been studied in this format least recently.

In other words, we start with the worst news first. The most recent English-language monograph on James Shirley seems to be Arthur Huntington Nason’s self-published James Shirley, Dramatist (A. H. Nason, 1915). But I’m happy to say that Barbara Ravelhofer’s essay collection James Shirley and Early Modern Theatre: New Critical Perspectives (Routledge, 2017) is as excellent as the scholar who edited it – which is very excellent indeed, by the way. But yes: there has been no monograph study of Shirley in over a century. Shirley you can’t be serious, etc.

The most recent monographs on Thomas Lodge are N. Burton Paradise’s Thomas Lodge: The History of an Elizabethan (Yale, 1931) and Edward Andrews Tenney’s Thomas Lodge (Cornell, 1935). That’s right, no one has written a book on Thomas Lodge since the 1930s, and I wish to lodge a complaint. This is obviously the saddest sentence that has ever been written on the internet, and we’re all going to need a nice lie down, but once we get back up again, could we all please go off and write a monograph about Thomas Lodge? Thanks. There is a useful essay collection in Charles Whitney’s Thomas Lodge (Ashgate, 2011), part of the University Wits series, and despite the silliness of the phrase ‘University Wits’ I recommend it to you. I’m a professional.

George Peele last received monograph-length attention in A. R. Braunmuller’s George Peele (Twayne, 1983), and before that in Leonard Ashley’s George Peele (Twayne, 1970). This only increases the utility of David Bevington’s essay collection George Peele (Ashgate, 2011), though Peele has featured prominently in recent attribution work (for example, Brian Vickers’ Shakespeare, Co-Author, Oxford, 2002) and in Emily Bartels’ Speaking of the Moor: From Alcazar to Othello (Pennsylvania, 2008). For anyone worried, I am going to run out of author-name puns sometime soon, but for now, as Andy Warhol might say, you just have to peele here and see.

There appears to be no recent book on Francis Beaumont since Lee Bliss’ Francis Beaumont (Twayne, 1987). Can we have a sequel to Bliss, please?

James Nielson’s Unread Herrings: Thomas Nashe and the Prosaics of the Real (Peter Laing, 1993) and Lorna Hutson’s Thomas Nashe in Context (Oxford, 1989) are the most recent books on Thomas Nashe. I’m shocked. Hutson’s book is particularly brilliant, but let’s hope the Nashe project stimulates fresh work on this extraordinary writer. Stephen Guy-Bray, Joan Pong Linton and Steve Mentz’s The Age of Thomas Nashe: Texts, Bodies and Trespasses of Authorship in Early Modern England (Ashgate, 2013) is also highly recommended.

John Fletcher has also been surprisingly underserved by scholarly monographs. Can I be right in thinking that Gordon McMullan’s 1994 The Politics of Unease in the Plays of John Fletcher (Massachusetts) is the most recent Fletcher monograph? What has everyone being doing with their lives? Get writing, people.

I can’t find a more recent book on John Ford than Lisa Hopkins’ John Ford’s Political Theatre (Manchester, 1994), but he appears as one of two writers studied in Rowland Wymer’s Webster and Ford (Macmillan, 1995). Compare Ira Clark’s Professional Playwrights: Massinger, Ford, Shirley and Brome (Kentucky, 1992). It looks like Ford is someone our profession tends to study in a wider authorial community. That’s a perfectly sensible and indeed very productive way to write about any writer, but it’s striking that Ford seems only to be treated in this way whereas we very often isolate other writers away from their peers.  Can we afford to ford another Ford?

Ros King’s 2001 The Works of Richard Edwards: Politics, Poetry and Performance in Sixteenth-Century England (Manchester) is a hybrid of edition and monograph. It would perhaps be unreasonable to expect another book on Edwards anytime soon, but I’m a dreamer, and I shall dream.

2001 also saw the publication of Lukas Erne’s extremely useful Beyond the Spanish Tragedy: A Study of the Works of Thomas Kyd (Manchester). More recently, Nicoleta Cinpoes edited a fine collection of essays, Doing Kyd: Essays on ‘The Spanish Tragedy’ (Manchester, 2016).

In 2004 Anthony Munday was the subject of Tracey Hill’s Anthony Munday and Civic Culture: Theatre, History and Power in Early Modern England (Manchester). As the Duchess of Malfi once said, ‘There’s no deep Valley, but near some great Hill’, and I for one would be happy to be the least deep valley going if it meant I got to benefit from Tracey’s mountainous scholarship. Tracey’s is one of the few studies ever to tackle the full length and scope of a capacious and generically versatile but little known early modern author’s work, and a model for anyone hoping to do something similar with (for example) Greene, Peele, Dekker, Heywood, etc. Where would we be without Tracey Hill?

2004 also saw a new book on George Chapman, Gunilla Florby’s Echoing Texts: George Chapman’s Conspiracy and Tragedy of Charles Duke of Byron (Almquist & Wiksell), the first book on Chapman since Gerald Snare’s very interesting The Mystification of George Chapman (Duke, 1989). See also Florby’s The Painful Passage to Virtue (Gleerup, 1982) and A. R. Braunmuller, Natural Fictions: George Chapman’s Major Tragedies (Delaware, 1992). As these examples all show, our profession tends to think of Chapman as a tragedian, but A Humorous Day’s Mirth is one of the most wonderful things to see onstage as anyone could ask for, and his Homer translations are spine-tingling. Also, there was a 1990s hit called ‘Scatman’ and I think of that tune every time I hear Chapman’s surname. What more reason for working on someone could anyone need?

To my endless surprise, there hasn’t been a monograph on John Marston since 2008, in the form of Charles Cathcart’s Marston, Rivalry, Rapprochement and Jonson (Ashgate), and I do love how Jonson sneaks into that title as a sort of exciting climax. I guess the John Marston project is going to rescue us from this state of affairs, but it is astonishing to think how little direct monograph attention has been given to this most fascinating of early modern writers. Let me also recommend T. F. Wharton’s essay collection The Drama of John Marston: Critical Re-visions (Cambridge, 2000) and Rebecca Yearling’s Ben Jonson, John Marston and Early Modern Drama: Satire and the Audience (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Perhaps surprisingly, Thomas Middleton has not been the subject of a recent monograph since Michelle O’Callaghan’s Thomas Middleton: Renaissance Dramatist (Edinburgh, 2009), which is good but intended as an introduction rather than a scholarly argument. The nearest I know to the latter is David Nicol’s excellent Middleton and Rowley: Forms of Collaboration in the Jacobean Playhouse (Toronto, 2012). Gary Taylor et al.’s transformative edition of Middleton’s work came out in 2007, and perhaps the rest of us are too busy catching up to have time to produce book-length studies. But there are two very comprehensive edited collections: Suzanne Gossett’s Thomas Middleton in Context (Cambridge, 2011) and Gary Taylor and Trish Thomas Henley’s The Oxford Handbook of Thomas Middleton (Oxford, 2012).

Richard Brome was the subject of an innovative online edition, edited by Richard Cave and published in 2010. The most recent monograph on his work is Matthew Steggle’s Richard Brome: Place and Politics on the Caroline Stage (Manchester, 2004). It is perhaps surprising that Cave’s online edition has not yet prompted a fresh examination of Brome’s work.

Thomas Heywood is the focus of Richard Rowland’s Thomas Heywood’s Theatre, 1599-1639: Locations, Translations and Conflict (Ashgate, 2010). I’d file Rowland’s book alongside Hill’s on Munday for its openness to authorial scope, and alongside Sager on Greene and Rochester on Massinger for their engagement with performance as a visual event.

That book on Philip Massinger is Joanne Rochester’s Staging Spectatorship in the Plays of Philip Massinger (Ashgate, 2010). As suggested above, Rochester’s work might be placed in productive dialogue with Sager on Greene to develop a fresh understanding of the mechanics of visual culture on the early modern stage.

To my surprise, the most recent book on John Webster was David Coleman’s useful but introductory John Webster: Renaissance Dramatist (Edinburgh, 2010). The next most recent book-length study of his work as a whole, as far as I know, is Betty Jane Schlerman’s The Meters of John Webster (P. Lang, 1989), which I read as an undergraduate and continues to blow my mind. But let me recommend Stephen Purcell’s John Webster: The White Devil (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), Paul Frazer and Adam Hansen’s The White Devil: A Critical Reader (Bloomsbury, 2016) and Christina Luckyj’s The Duchess of Malfi: A Critical Study (Continuum, 2011), for examples of book-length studies or essay collections on single plays. And let’s be honest, no one has ever really written a book that addresses all of Webster’s extant work, let alone what we know of his non-extant writing. That is, I would suggest, an extraordinary oversight.

William Rowley has attracted little attention as an individual author. Nicol’s Middleton and Rowley (2012 – see above) is the most recent near example. There’s also a case study of Rowley by Trudy Darby in J. A. G. Ardila (ed.), The Cervantean Heritage: Reception and Influence of Cervantes in Britain (Legenda, 2009).

Robert Greene was the subject of monograph study in 2013 (and I never thought I’d write that), in the form of Jenny Sager’s The Aesthetics of Spectacle in Early Modern Drama and Modern Cinema (Palgrave Macmillan). But I should also recommend Nandini Das’ edition of Planetomachia (Ashgate, 2007), Kirk Melnikoff and Edward Gieskes’ essay collection Writing Robert Greene: Essays on England’s First Notorious Professional Writer (Ashgate, 2008), and Lori Humphrey Newcomb’s Reading Popular Romance in Early Modern England (Columbia, 2001). The latter, despite its name, is really a study of Greene and Shakespeare, and is one of the best books on early modern literature that I know. All three of these books open up new ways into Greene’s writing. We are sorely in need of new work on Greene that is able to make literate connections between the various kinds of writing that he engaged in and which leaves behind the silly and slightly paranoid images of Greene given to us by Shakespeareans, and those three books help us on our way.

In 2014, Thomas Dekker was the subject of Anna Bayman’s Thomas Dekker and the Culture of Pamphleteering in Early Modern London (Ashgate, 2014). I would place Dekker alongside Peele, Heywood and Fletcher as our most astonishingly underexamined early modern writers.

Also in 2014, my own book on John Lyly came out in a rather nice shade of blue. Its title manages to be both boring and unachievably ambitious: John Lyly and Early Modern Authorship (Manchester). There is also excellent work on Lyly in Chloe Porter’s Making and Unmaking in Early Modern English Drama: Spectators, Aesthetics and Incompletion (Manchester, 2013) and in Simone Chess’ Male-to-Female Crossdressing in Early Modern English Literature: Gender, Performance and Queer Relations (Routledge, 2016).

Ben Jonson, unsurprisingly, is the subject of fairly regular monograph study. The most recent seems to be Bill Angus’ Metadrama and the Informer in Shakespeare and Jonson (Edinburgh, 2016). To pick out some of the most exciting amongst recent work, Tom Lockwood has explored Ben Jonson in the Romantic Age (Oxford, 2005), and Ian Donaldson’s gamechanging biography, Ben Jonson: A Life (Oxford) was published in 2011. I’ve also found James Mardock’s Our Scene is London: Ben Jonson’s City and the Space of the Author (Routledge, 2008) and Richard Cave, Elisabeth Schafer and Brian Woolland’s essay collection, Ben Jonson and Theatre: Performance, Practice and Theory (Routledge, 1999), incredibly useful and transformative in their renegotiation of the terms of Jonsonian debate.

Christopher Marlowe, perhaps inevitably, is the subject of endless debate, with a new book coming out at least once a year. He’s the only early modern writer other than Shakespeare that can be said of, I think. Robert Sawyer’s Marlowe and Shakespeare: The Critical Rivalry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and Eric Mallin’s Stages of Power: Marlowe and Shakespeare, 1592 (Reacting Consortium, 2016) appear to be the most recent. I can wholeheartedly recommend Emily C. Bartels and Emma Smith’s wonderful essay collection Christopher Marlowe in Context (Cambridge, 2013), Thomas Dabbs’ Reforming Marlowe: The Nineteenth-Century Canonization of a Renaissance Dramatist (Bucknell, 1991) and Patrick Cheney’s The Cambridge Companion to Christopher Marlowe (Cambridge, 2004), each of which offers exemplary new ways in to this thoroughly if not always well studied author.

Oh yes, and obviously an inexhaustible bunch of books were published about William Shakespeare in recent years. The best recent books on Shakespeare have made us think about gender, race, language, pedagogy, the book market, characters, performance and authorship-as-ideology. See, for example, Simone Chess, Male-to-Female Crossdressing (details above), Ayanna Thompson, Passing Strange: Shakespeare, Race and Contemporary America (Oxford, 2011), Dympna Callaghan”s Shakespeare Without Women: Representing Gender and Race on the Renaissance Stage (Routledge, 2000), Sylvia Adamson et al. (eds.), Reading Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language (Arden, 2000), G. B. Shand (ed.) Teaching Shakespeare: Passing It On (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), James Stredder, The North Face of Shakespeare: Activities for Teaching the Plays (Cambridge, 2004), Lukas Erne’s Shakespeare as Literary Dramatist (Cambridge, 2003), pretty much anything by Emma Smith, but especially The Making of Shakespeare’s First Folio (Bodleian, 2015) and Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book (Oxford, 2016), and also pretty much anything by Laurie Maguire, but especially Shakespeare’s Names (Oxford, 2007) and the essay collection How to Do Things with Shakespeare (Blackwell, 2008), Stephen Purcell’s Popular Shakespeare (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), Farah Karim-Cooper’s The Hand on the Shakespearean Stage: Gesture, Touch and the Spectacle of Dismemberment (Arden, 2016) and James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (Faber, 2010). Yes, I know it’s ridiculous to pick out recent favourites, and I’m sorry to, you know, everybody else, but these are the books that have transformed Shakespeare studies, at least from my admittedly eccentric perspective.

So if I was an aspiring postgraduate thinking about fresh work in early modern theatre studies urgently awaiting a scholar, I would be thinking about Shirley, Lodge, Peele, Beaumont, Fletcher, Ford and Chapman. I would also be taking note of how little we’ve come to understand the careers of Munday, Lyly, Greene, Middleton and Webster, not least because all of them wrote in time periods and literary genres alien to Shakespeare’s career, and all of them have come to be judged by their adherence to or deviation from the rules of literary greatness as set by Team Shakespeare. I wouldn’t necessarily be thinking about writing a single-author study of one of these men, but clearly their work warrants new thought, new questions and new ideas, especially when understood as a whole, in whatever way we imagine and identify such a thing. Our scholarship is still not great at thinking between the worlds of theatre and of non-dramatic writing, or about writers who sustained a career either side of the start and end points of Shakespeare’s writing life. If the list above helps anyone tackle any of those issues, I’ll be very happy, but for now, do please let me know what work I’ve missed – and apologies to scholars whose work I’ve overlooked!

Andy Kesson

8 thoughts on “Authorship studies: where have we got to, and where are we going?

  1. Hallo Andy,
    In your last sentence, you are asking for letting you know what work you may have overlooked.
    Unfortunately, as a retired german professor I never succeeded to find an English publisher for my german book on the Marlowe Shakespeare thesis (5th edition 2016) , they all (like yourself, I am convinced….since you never replied to any message ) regard it as a useless conspiratory theory). In order – at least – to make the thesis (“the multi-pseudonymity” of Marlowe) public , I composed a short youtube video summary.

    yesterdays contribution

    bastian conrad


  2. I’ll stop in a minute, but a few random thoughts: I wonder if the Brome and Middleton editions had the perverse effect of discouraging new monographs, because the people who might have written them had been involved in the editions and had said their say?
    Also: it’s a circular phenomenon, isn’t it? It’s easier to write a proposal for a monograph on a dramatist who appears on lots of reading lists, and it’s easier to teach a dramatist who’s had lots written about him/her.
    Finally: I should speak up, albeit as an interested party, for repertory studies as enabling critical work on a variety of non-Shakespearean dramatists (including anon) — although obviously such work doesn’t take the form of single-author monographs.


  3. Excellent and very helpful list. I have read a good few. The contrast between the careful scholarship on display in those studies and the ridiculous speculation engaged in by Shakespeare biographers is astonishing – and is the biggest piece of evidence for Shakespeare authorship doubters like me. I have no answers but at least I have none of the frankly offensive, largely unfounded, arrogant certainties on display from Shakespeare idolaters.


  4. James Shirley: A Study of Literary Coteries and Patronage in Seventeenth-Century England by Sandra A. Burner, Univ Pr of Amer (1989)

    James Shirley by Ben Lucow, Twayne, 1981.

    Or maybe these don’t count?


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