You can get yourself into a lot of trouble simply asking questions about Shakespearean authorship on most college campuses. It is a subject approached only with great apprehension and confidence, and probably also with a sizable number of years and respected publications under your belt. And even then, you’ll probably get eaten alive.
Which is part of why today’s news from The New York Times is so shocking. The next edition of The New Oxford Shakespeare will credit Shakespeare’s contemporary, mentor and rival Christopher Marlowe with co-writing Henry VI 1, 2 and 3.
According to the article and New Oxford Shakespeare general editor Gary Taylor, scholars tested the frequency of very specific stylistic tics known to Marlowe (which they determined via a whole different set of tests) in the Henry VI plays, which many have long suspected Shakespeare had help on. In a way not previously possible, they now feel confident enough to claim him as a co-writer.
“No one has had the confidence to put the name actually on the title page,” Mr. Taylor said. “Which is perfectly reasonable because the only reason that we can do it now is because Shakespeare has entered the world of big data.”
Claiming Shakespeare had help writing a play is usually academia’s (especially pre-20th century) secret way of explaining how such a genius could produce something less than perfect. “Oh, this part is bad, someone else must be to blame!” In short, snobbery.
But the link between Shakespeare and Marlowe, particularly in Shakespeare’s earlier plays, is a lot stronger than that. Marlowe, while lacking Shakespeare’s eternal fame, displays an incredibly distinctive voice that, along with the specific subject matter he covers, utterly defines him. We can argue about this all day, but we know the mark of fully matured Shakespeare through his brilliance, his distrust of stupidity, his questions, his poetry and his plotting, but not so much through his authorial voice.
Marlowe is different, more specific. If Shakespeare is Spielberg, Marlowe is his John Milius. His characters’ speeches deal in extremes, making poetry of violence, figuratively supplying all the battles and bloodshed the stage cannot produce and making you feel wet with gore while doing it. His villains adore their own evil with a haughty pride not even achieved by John Waters.
You can hear a lot of Marlowe in early Shakespare plays like Titus Andronicus. You can even feel Shakespeare ascend beyond Marlowe in Richard III, which focuses on a figure very much in the Marlowe style but imbued with the kind of pathos only Shakespeare was capable of. And you can definitely feel it in the Henry VI plays.
These plays are not typically celebrated today. It makes sense. They tell a scattered version of the Wars of the Roses (essentially the real life Game of Thrones), and their lack of a main character, combined with the constant revolving door of new people we meet only to watch them get killed later, make it difficult to establish any real complex tragic elements, much less an easily identifiable narrative through-line.
But they are great, blustery bloodbaths. This is one of the few places in literature (co-written by English's greatest writer, no less) where you can revel in the saucy taboo of a Joan of Arc who is a whore rather than saint. And all Trump supporters should familiarize themselves with Shakespeare’s version of Jack Cade, a ruffian rebel leader who decides it would be best to just hang anyone with the ability to read.
Or was it Marlowe’s Jack Cade? The study hasn't specified who wrote what but claims Marlowe helped most with part one and less with part three, with no determination of who did more for part two, which is where we meet Cade. I am absolutely giddy with excitement at the idea of his delightfully over the top lines coming from Marlowe’s quill. The only argument against it is the satirical wit pointed at his character’s ignorance, which feels a bit more Shakespearean.
This is a huge deal. If accurate, academics will have to accept this new wrinkle, or at least spend the rest of their lives arguing about it across hundreds of papers. For hardcore Shakespeare nerds, it should come as no surprise this sprang from the New Oxford Shakespeare. The publication has a history of shaking things up. Its aforementioned general editor Gary Taylor is a bit of a wild man iconoclast among Shakespearean academics. He follows the truth, even at the risk of being unpopular. But he’s no dummy. His Reinventing Shakespeare is one of the most difficult - and most rewarding - Shakespeare studies I know.
I recommend anyone who feels threatened by this news (I’m aware not many of you will have that reaction) to relax. Collaboration was common in Renaissance drama, and given Shakespeare’s relationship with Marlowe this should not come as a shock to the system, particular with these plays. If we found out Marlowe had a hand in Richard II, that might be worth some side-eye.
This, however, just makes three plays which speak deeply to the shallow action fan within me even cooler than they already were. They now bear the names of two titans instead of one.