The Collaboration Question

Over the holiday season, like many people, I made a lot of small talk with family and friends of the family, and a lot of them asked me about Shakespeare. Specifically, a lot of them asked about the headlines they’d seen claiming that Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare collaborated. When I was in London, I was lucky enough to attend a launch event for the New Oxford Shakespeare, the edition that sparked all those Marlowe articles by officially attributing him as a co-author, and that decision was likewise all anyone wanted to talk to the editors about.

In a recent article in Shakespeare Quarterly, a group of four scholars lay out their methods for determining authorship based on ‘word adjacency networks,’ or the likelihood that a certain word will appear within x number of words in a given writer’s work. Not being remotely mathematically minded, I can’t pretend I understood it perfectly clearly, and I think there’s a lot of interesting debate about the utility of these methods.

But when one of those family friends asked how I felt about these studies– whether I felt like it was some kind of desecration to apply math to art– I told him that I found these discoveries quite exciting. I can’t quite say that I think we should accept these findings as 100% accurate and without flaw, or that they firmly close the book on questions about who collaborated with whom, but I am interested them in as a starting-place for a new line of inquiry.

I wrote my MA thesis, for example, about female characters in Shakespeare’s history plays. The problem that scholars seem to consistently be trying to tackle with that topic is why on earth the female characters of Shakespeare’s early history plays are so different from those of the later plays. In the eyes of a contemporary feminist reader, he seems to distinctly regress in terms of his representation of women– but even taking away that ahistorical lens, something dramatic does shift in how he incorporates female characters into his historical plots between the first plays and the last.

So I’m intrigued by these findings. What if part of the answer is to read characters like Joan of Arc, the Countess of Auvergne, and the Duchess of Gloucester not entirely as Shakespeare characters, but as Marlowe characters– or perhaps most plausibly, some hybrid of the two, borne of their collaboration and efforts to blend their styles? Maybe nothing will come of it, but as someone who can’t help but approach textual questions from a dramaturgical perspective, I would be excited to explore and see if Marlowe’s hand provides a potential answer for some of the questions surrounding these plays.

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