In 1989, a young professor named Gary Taylor published “Reinventing Shakespeare,” in which he argued that Shakespeare’s unrivalled literary status derives less from the sheer greatness of his plays than from the cultural institutions that have mythologized the Bard, elevating him above equally talented Renaissance playwrights. “Shakespeare was a star, but never the only one in our galaxy,” Taylor wrote. The book was his second major attempt to counter the view of Shakespeare as a singular genius; a few years earlier, he had served as one of two general editors of the Oxford Shakespeare, which credited co-authors for five of Shakespeare’s plays. In “Reinventing Shakespeare,” Taylor wrote that the Oxford Shakespeare “repeatedly shocks its readers, and knows that it will.”
Late last year, Taylor shocked readers once again. The New Oxford Shakespeare, for which Taylor serves as lead general editor, is the first edition of the plays to credit Christopher Marlowe as a co-author of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI,” Parts 1, 2, and 3. It lists co-authors for fourteen other plays as well, ushering a host of playwrights–Thomas Nashe, George Peele, Thomas Heywood, Ben Jonson, George Wilkins, Thomas Middleton, and John Fletcher, along with Marlowe–into the big tent of the complete works. This past fall, headlines around the world trumpeted the Marlowe-Shakespeare connection, and spotlighted the editors’ methodology: computer-aided analysis of linguistic patterns across databases of early modern plays. “Shakespeare has now fully entered the era of Big Data,” Taylor announced in a press release.
This is all very admirable. I certainly accept what many scholars say about Shakespeare having worked with others. But from my seat in the bleachers, Gary Taylor is somewhat problematic. As the article explains, he fought to try to prove that a poem by some unknown author was actually by Shakespeare, and, in 2006, when a collection of Thomas Middleton’s plays he edited was released, he went on a tour trying to say that Middleton was almost as good as Shakespeare, calling him “the other Shakespeare.” (If you’re a subscriber to Time Magazine, you can read an article by Taylor touting his book here.) He said:
Most specialists in Renaissance drama now agree that Thomas Middleton wrote masterpieces of comedy (The Roaring Girl, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside) and tragedy (The Revenger’s Tragedy, The Changeling, Women Beware Women). His history play, A Game at Chess, was the greatest box-office hit of the period. Middleton also wrote successful masques and indoor entertainments, and the most ambitious dramatic pageant of the period (The Triumphs of Truth). He wrote political and theological nonfiction. He wrote experimental literary works that we call “pamphlets,” because they mix prose and verse, and don’t fit our conventional generic labels at all — works like The Black Book (where an exuberant Satan comes up to London to help out a starving writer) and The Owl’s Almanac (where a learned female owl makes satirical predictions about the coming year). There’s at least as much variety in Middleton as in Shakespeare.
And comments like this – from the same Time article – make one wonder how he was given control of the new Oxford Shakespeare:
So why do comparisons like this irritate or infuriate Shakespearian fundamentalists? Arguing with the Shakespeare industry is like trying to reason with the Inquisition. They know you’re wrong before you open your mouth. It’s easy to see why Shakespeare attracts so many intolerant fans (who believe that the world is too small to support more than one great artist).
I’ve only seen one Middleton play at the Royal Shakespeare Company, my local theater troupe, and it was better than mediocre, but not much. It was full of tired tropes; kind of like a sitcom from the Elizabethan age.
But no matter. Not everything Shakespeare wrote is brilliant. It’s fair to say that there are a dozen masterpieces, another dozen very good plays, and the rest that are good enough, at times.
It’s not a heresy to accept that many of Shakespeare’s plays include sections written by others, and that Shakespeare himself wrote scenes for other authors. But Taylor seems like someone who is trying to hard to tear Shakespeare down in order to gain prestige for himself.