In which the All’s Well That Ends Well brouhaha continues

I’m thinking that no one but me cares about this brouhaha, but as the sole proprietor of this very fine blog, I’m the only one that matters.

When last we checked in, two Oxford professors had written an article published in the Times Literary Supplement proposing that Thomas Middleton had a hand in writing Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well.  In response, Brian Vickers and Marcus Dahl produced a scathing rebuttal.  (By the way, it is the official position of this blog that, no matter who wrote it, the play kinda sucks.  But it doesn’t come within miles of the badness of Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside.)

Now the two Oxford professors, Emma Smith and Laurie Maguire, have responded in the TLS.  I can’t find the response online, but here is a taste of what they have to say:

Vickers and Dahl are flat-earthers.  They cling to an old date for AWEW (1604 rather than 1607) or later); they do not endorse revision in Measure for Measure or Macbeth; their appeal is to “lovers of Shakespeare”.  It is these ideological idées fixes that underlie their article.  Unlike us, however, they do not make their subjective positions clear.  We accept this new scholarship and build on it; these Canutes try to stem the incoming tide.

Ouch!  But wait!  Online we find a response from Vickers to the response by Smith and Maguire to the response by Vickers and Dahl to the article by Smith and Maguire.  Here is their concluding paragraph:

Smith and Maguire, abreast of ‘new scholarship’, claim that we ‘cling to an old date’ for All’s Well. It may well be that Gary Taylor in 2001 was ‘inclined to put it’ in 1607, and that others have been inclined to follow him. But contrary evidence cannot be dismissed. In Taylor’s own Textual Companion (1988) to the Oxford Shakespeare seven pages of tables listing various types of linguistic evidence place All’s Well after Measure for Measure and Othello, and before Timon and King Lear, thus in the period 1604-5. If Taylor now flirts with the idea of placing it after Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Pericles then he will have to disown the data collected in these tables. Writing from a literary critic’s standpoint, Barbara Everett has given some strong reasons for not lumping All’s Well with Shakespeare’s late plays, and these can be supplemented with Marina Tarlinskaya’s prosodic studies, which place All’s Well before King Lear. In the humanities, as in the sciences, the truth or falsity of a proposition can only be established by a consensus among those qualified to judge. Time will tell.

Both sides have a good bit to say about “anal fistulas,” which has its own Wikipedia article, but I’m going to advise you not to go there.  The discussion of fistulas (anal or otherwise) in All’s Well That Ends Well is one more reason to avoid the play.

I am incompetent to judge between these adversaries.  But I’d be disinclined to mess with Brian Vickers on matters Shakespearean.


In which I read Thomas Middleton so you don’t have to

The controversy over the authorship of All’s Well That Ends Well prompted me to give the Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton a try.  This turns out to have been a mistake.

A friend lent me A Chaste Maid in Cheapside. Wikipedia says: “Unpublished until 1630 and long-neglected afterwards, it is now considered among the best and most characteristic Jacobean comedies.”  The Internet is littered with other encomia.  Sheesh.

Here’s what I have to say: The plot is incomprehensible, the characters are uninteresting, and the language is devoid of poetry or wit.  The play is supposed to be dirty, and that sounds promising, but it turns out to be the kind of vulgarity that a modern reader can only understand by reading the footnotes.  The word “confusion,” the editor informs us, means “incest.”  Oh, of course, shoulda figured that out myself.  The play is supposed to be funny, but it’s the humor of stereotypes that were probably banal 400 hundred years ago.  The prim Puritan ladies get drunk at a party — what a riot!  The son comes home from college and he’s full of himself with all his new-fangled learning — I didn’t see that one coming!

Even in the dreariest parts of Shakespeare you’ll come across a startling image, a beautiful couplet, a character who does something unexpected.  There’s none of that in A Chaste Maid.  The only thing that seemed even quasi-Shakespearean is a happy ending that features a rebirth of sorts — the two lovers, supposedly dead, arise from their coffins, and the funeral turns into a wedding.  But there was no particular setup for the scene, so it felt entirely arbitrary.  And the characters could have stayed dead, for all I cared about them.

There, I feel better now.  Time to re-read As You Like It.

Yet another brouhaha: Did Shakespeare have a co-author on All’s Well That Ends Well?

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.

Great stuff!

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: