Our previous brouhaha was over how the universe began. But who cares about that? This latest brouhaha is serious.
The venerable Times Literary Supplement recently ran an article proposing that the Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton had a hand in writing the latest Shakespearean play All’s Well That Ends Well. Here is Mr. Middleton:
The TLS version of the article isn’t online, but it’s available from the Centre for Early Modern Studies at Oxford. Based on various kinds of evidence like stage directions and stylistic quirks, the authors state:
A broad-brush summary might look like this. One author knew that the two French lords had names, the other did not. One preferred personal names over types, and drew for many of them on his earlier plays. One used different speech prefixes from his collaborator. One wrote narrative stage directions as explanation to his partner at point of handover. One was more inclined to rhyming couplets and to hypermetric verse. One wrote like William Shakespeare and one wrote like Thomas Middleton.
Publishing a scholarly piece like this in the TLS is a big deal, and the authors’ identification of Middleton as Shakespeare’s co-author made news around the world, from the Huffington Post to the Times of India.
Enter Brian Vickers — not the NASCAR driver, you idiot, but the eminent Elizabethan scholar. Professor Sir Brian Vickers to you, bub. He and a colleague have published a refutation in the TLS, also available separately, that refutes the claim. They come out swinging:
Towards the end of their article claiming to have identified Thomas Middleton as the co-author of All’s Well that Ends Well,1 Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith record that only one previous critic had anticipated them, John Dover Wilson.2 That ought to have given them pause, for to follow the path of the Grand Disintegrator eighty years after his methods have been discredited is to risk a similar fate. When faced with some aspects of a Shakespeare play that he didn’t like or understand Wilson was always ready to postulate some “inferior dramatist” or the relic of “an old play” as the explanation. For All’s Well he suggested a dramatist who also worked on Measure for Measure and “had a passion for sententious couplets and a mind running on sexual disease”, a fiction that conveniently excused Shakespeare of both “faults”. It is rather shocking to find such antiquated attitudes taken seriously, after four decades of scholarship has established authorship attribution as a serious discipline.
They battle the Oxford authors statistic for statistic, and then conclude:
We could extend this rebuttal, but suffice to say that there is absolutely no evidence of another hand in this play. The world media get excited by any attempt, however weak, to take something away from Shakespeare. We hope that they will pay equal attention to this restitution. The Roman definition of justice was “suum cuique tribuere”, render to everyone his due. Whether or not you like the play, All’s Well is all Shakespeare’s.
Before reading the original TLS article I listened to the Arkangel recording ofAll’s Well on my endless commute. These recordings are great, by the way. The only thing I noticed that might have been slightly anomalous was that there seemed to be a lot of rhyming couplets (an issue that the Oxford authors in fact raised and Vickers refutes). The main thing I noticed was that the play continued to be every bit as unlikeable as I remembered it. (You’ll note that Vickers implies that this is not an uncommon reaction to the play.) The lead male character, Bertram, is an arrogant prick; the lead female, Helena, is a dope because she has fallen for the arrogant prick. It’s not funny, it’s not thought-provoking, it has no memorable lines . . .
But it sure did seem to be by Shakespeare. It has the fairy-tale quality and gnarled syntax of his late romances. It has the bed trick he used in Measure for Measure. It has the long, and somewhat distasteful, gulling of the comic villain he used in Twelfth Night. It has the concluding rebirth tableau he used in A Winter’s Tale.
But that doesn’t mean the play is any good.
Once I finish slogging through Lisa Randall on the Large Hadron Collider I’m going to give Middleton a try. A friend has lent me the pleasant conceited comedy A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, which sounds not bad: