BY RENN ELKINS '20
On Oct. 23 and 24, an eye-catching headline blared across the pages of several renowned news sources, including the New York Times, the Guardian, and NPR: William Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe will be credited as coauthor of the three-part “Henry VI” cycle in the New Oxford Shakespeare publication of the Bard’s collected works.
Though this may seem like groundbreaking news, it’s only another step in a long, complex saga of scholarly debate regarding who actually wrote each of the 37 iconic plays attributed to the Bard.
Most readers of Shakespeare are familiar with the arguments surrounding his identity. The prevalence of uncertainty has often led to the question of whether the man “William Shakespeare” even existed. Other proposed authors have ranged from the plausible to the ridiculous: Everyone from Francis Bacon, renowned scientist and writer of the time, to Queen Elizabeth herself.
The majority of academics dismiss this notion, insisting that Shakespeare did indeed exist, and that he wrote at least the majority of the plays credited to him. Collaboration, on the other hand, is acknowledged as nearly certain, and not only in the Henry VI trilogy. One example of this is “Pericles,” the genre-scrambling, pirate-fraught retelling of the life of the titular Ancient Greek statesman. Simply enough, some plays are regarded as too weak and uneven in style to be the work of Shakespeare alone.
The three parts of “Henry VI” have also been examined in this light, and the decision by Oxford University Press is less of a breakthrough and more of a proposition. Christopher Marlowe’s linguistic style has long been recognized in the language of these plays. The certainty voiced in the recent announcement is thanks to the work of computers: Researchers at the Oxford University Press employed an advanced program of textual analysis in order to come to their conclusion regarding Marlowe’s coauthorship. In short, this means that the plays were scanned for phrases and patterns that resembled Marlowe’s writing more so than Shakespeare’s.
Many academics are responding with indifference. Christopher Marlowe was considered the greatest writer in the English language before Shakespeare came along, and it’s not unreasonable to infer that Shakespeare may have intentionally emulated Marlowe in his early works, including the “Henry VI” trilogy. He clearly knew how to mirror the writing and speaking style of others in his own work — that much is clear from his depictions of aristocracy, which are so convincing that they’ve fueled a large number of the claims that he couldn’t possibly have written the work that he claimed he did.
Context is hugely important here. Though the exact chronology of Shakespeare’s plays is disputed, the three parts of Henry VI are recognized as being among his earliest works, if not his very first. They were the first to be greeted with phenomenal success. He was still finding his voice at the time they were written, whereas Marlowe was already well established among London’s rather exclusive circle of foremost playwrights, which included the lesser-known Robert Greene, Thomas Watson, Thomas Nashe and George Peele. While it’s almost certain that the triad of plays was a collaborative work, it’s far more plausible that a lesser writer than Marlowe joined Shakespeare in the process.
Nonetheless, the possibility of Marlowe’s contribution can’t be fully dismissed. Whether or not he wrote the segments of “Henry VI” that Oxford University Press suggests, he was a tremendously important figure in the history of English playwriting, and his recognition from a broader audience is long overdue. His influence on Shakespeare is incontrovertible, and by listing him as a coauthor, the New Oxford Shakespeare will hopefully bring more light to one of the most overlooked talents of the Elizabethan literary scene.