Seminar 3: The Many Lives of William Shakespeare: Collaboration, Biography and Authorship

That the Elizabethan-Jacobean production of texts for the theatre was a highly collaborative enterprise has always been acknowledged and Shakespeare scholars have been forced to accept (and examine) the fact that even Shakespeare collaborated with other playwrights. But the fact that a Shakespeare existed and that he wrote plays has probably impaired the correct vision of that perfect collaborative machine that such an active commercial enterprise as English Renaissance theatre must have been. Indeed, although – as has been remarked – collaboration has many shades, the acknowledgement that a certain work has been written in collaboration inevitably means a diminution of authorship; consequently, scholars have been induced to scrutinize Shakespeare’s suspect texts in order to isolate other playwrights’ hands and restore to posterity the ‘genuine’ text created solely by his genius. But also other remedies to the partial waning of authorship have been developed in time. One of these remedies is biography. While the anti-Stratfordians have used the scarcity and irrelevancy of biographical information to argue for the unlikelihood of the idea that William Shakespeare of Stratford was a great writer, orthodox critics have used biography as a strategy to build up an identity structure by giving body to the idea of Person and of Author. In recent years, two different – but probably related – ‘confirmation’ strategies seem to be at work within the field of orthodox studies: in the first place, the publication of an unprecedented number of biographies (accompanied by the ‘discovery’ of portraits which help to settle the physical aspect of that personality structure) and, in the second place, the computer-assisted trend of attribution studies, which look for authentication in the alleged objectivity of the machines and therefore promise to irrefutably ‘purge’ the texts from all ‘alien’ intervention. At the same time (and in mute opposition towards the mainstream tendency of attribution studies represented by Brian Vickers), a new ‘disintegration’ theory developing within the field of orthodoxy is gaining ground. This, rather than considering the texts themselves and isolating the various hands which may have taken part in their composition, tends to re-read the whole process of production of texts, from plot-writing to performance and intends to show that the writing of texts for the theatre was in the final analysis a ‘play-patching’ by several hands (see, for instance, the reconsideration of the idea that, at the basis of many theatrical texts, there were ‘plots’ written by writers who were not the authors of the finished texts). This new disintegration theory, this ‘new heresy’, elaborated by a few critics (see, among others, Geoffrey Masten, Textual Intercourse. Collaboration, Authorshi’ and Sexualities in Renaissance Drama, 1997; H.A Hirschfeld, Joint Enterprises. Collaborative Drama and the Institutionalization of the English Renaissance Theater, 2004; Tiffany Stern, Documents of Performance in Early Modern England, 2009) tends not to disturb Shakespeare’s texts and illustrates instead a process which can be generalized and from which the figure of a ‘collective author’ is emerging. The idea is that of a ‘dispersal’ of authorship and author-ity, which tends to replace the doubling or tripling of identifiable and separable authors which is at the basis of attribution studies. Do such recent studies innovate providing new reflections and new documentary materials or are they a continuation, reformulation and reappraisal of the various ‘disintegration’ theories? However we evaluate this recent trend, we should acknowledge that the shift in perspective which it suggests may have consequences both on the way in which we regard and assess texts and on the way in which we describe the material organization of the Elizabethan-Jacobean theatrical enterprise; and it certainly – if prosecuted – may enliven the whole picture of authorship studies. Furthermore, this critical trend which, from within academic orthodoxy, tends to argue for a diminution of authorship and a re-evaluation of text-production as an intrinsically and inextricably collective enterprise, also coincides with the release of what can be considered the first mass-divulged anti-Stratfordian text, Roland Emmerich’s film Anonymous (2011), which revives the Oxfordian theory of Shakespearean authorship with a marked pretence of historicity.

The seminar invites papers reflecting on the state of the art about the relevant ideas of authorship, collaboration and biography. Such reflections may include considerations about the recent flourishing of biographies and especially about the ways in which the new trends in biographical studies face the problem of building up a personality structure; a reconsideration of the ‘disintegration’ theories which have developed in time both in the field of unorthodox and of orthodox studies. Can attribution studies be considered as an authorized form of disintegration? In 1933, in his British Academy lecture entitled “The Disintegration of Shakespeare”, E.K. Chambers envisaged the risk of a devastation of the canon in the attribution trend which goes from Fleay and Robertson to Pollard and Dover Wilson. Can it be argued that attribution studies have in a way ‘devastated’ the canon or should we acknowledge that they have granted, in time, the more or less exact definition of authorial intentions? But is the idea of ‘final authorial intentions’ still valid in textual studies? And how and to what extent does the fact that collaboration was the normal practice in playwriting imply a diminution of authorship? Although, obviously, compliance to the cluster of issues suggested above is required, participants in the seminar are welcome to propose the discussion of other related topics and connections.

Please send your paper title, 250-word abstract, along with your name, job title, affiliation and email to [->] by September 1st, 2013.