William Shakespeare & Others: Collaborative Plays
Edited by Johnathan Bate
and Eric Rasmussen
Shakespeare’s Apocrypha hasn’t been around for awhile, one-hundred and five years to my bookman’s memory, but its contents -that is the characters in its plays- haven’t grown old.
The plays included in Shakespeare & Others are comparable to Middleton, Webster, and the dramas of Fletcher & Beaumont and, at worst, Greene; their focus, humanity. The plays of the period are rich, certainly, with wordplay, war, love and many other fine devices, but their driving force is pathos.
Arden of Faversham is a play of dubious authorship. Often credited to Anonymous, the play focuses on the murder of a rural landowner by his wife. Its plot was drawn from a real-life murder committed in 1551 (on Feb. 14th!), which makes it unique among plays of the period. Arden, his wife Alice, Alice’s lover Mosby and the absolutely unforgettable Black Will were real people of a middle and lower-class bearing; they are wholly different from characters like Richard III, Julius Caesar, or, even, Henry VIII -all figures known to a vast populace due to their socio-historical importance. The intrigue that Arden of Faversham, to my mind, has over any other play of the period is that it dwells in the real world; there are no king’s courts here, no mystical forests or islands. It is a domestic drama played out in a way that many can easily understand. Perhaps we don’t devolve to murder often, but we do express our discontent and argue and mope and fight within our households. We feel underloved and neglected. Arden has all these themes and they read as freshly today as they did in the late 16th century.
Edward III is a masterpiece. It follows Edward during his bloody campaign in France. The battle scenes in the play are on a par with Macbeth; there is a swirling sense of action throughout. Even the monologues take place in a world of action, as opposed to a bedchamber, a court, a garden, etc. Edward himself is an intensely strong figure who, ill-fated as he is, is the model of leadership and kinghood.
New to the Shakespeare Apocrypha is Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. In its own time, this play was enormously popular and, over its long stage career, experienced many rewrites. Dramas of the period were frequently reworked. If a director noticed heads nodding off during a scene, pensive faces during a scene that went too long, those scenes would be rewritten and, often, by a different playwright than the original. Sound strange? Plays were a chief form of entertainment during this time period, comparable to television today. If something didn’t work, new authors, new actors, new stages were brought in to reboot a popular, but not perfect work; of course we see this today with newspapers, comic books, sitcoms and other forms of media. The possibility that Shakespeare did rewrites to The Spanish Tragedy is great. It is likely that Shakespeare began his career as a playwright (do not forget that he was also an actor), reworking passages of plays that seemed to sag in performance.
All that aside, The Spanish Tragedy contains many elements that are found in Shakespeare’s masterpiece Hamlet: a ghost who reveals a hidden truth, a play within a play, family and lineage issues and, of course, good old-fashioned revenge.
William Shakespeare and Others is a very welcome publication. Any fan of Shakespeare will be delighted to add this edition to their shelves. The ancillary material provided on subjects like authorship, stage performance, and a discussion of other works (not included in the current volume) that have variously been attributed to Shakespeare. These sections are highly researched and well worth the time of even those with a passing interest in Shakespeare or plays of his period.
The quality of the volume is without reproach, and the price is fair for a half-a-year’s worth of reading.
For the right reader, this is the most exciting publication of 2013.
-Christopher J. Johnson