Emma Smith's research

Fame at last!

It’s not often you can claim that your research has featured on Radio 4’s topical comedy show The News Quiz – but that happened to me this year. With my colleague Professor Laurie Maguire at Magdalen College I published an article suggesting that Shakespeare’s ‘problem comedy’ All’s Well that Ends Well was co-written by Thomas Middleton. The extent of the media coverage was extremely unexpected – helped, probably, by the headline possibilities of the play’s title (which is the most famous thing about it).

Shakespeare as co-author

We’ve known for decades that the Romantic image of the singular Shakespeare writing his genius works unaided doesn’t really represent working methods in the early modern theatre. Analogies with Hollywood are useful: Renaissance plays are collaborative products, in which actors, musicians and technicians in both theatre and print combine with authors – usually more than one. Most plays in this period were collaborative: it would be odd if Shakespeare were an absolute exception.

It is now broadly acknowledged that he collaborated with George Peele on Titus Andronicus and with Thomas Nashe on 1 Henry VI in the early 1590s, with someone as yet unidentified on Edward III. At the end of his career he wrote Two Noble Kinsmen, All is True and, apparently, the lost Cardenio with John Fletcher. In addition he collaborated with George Wilkins on Pericles, and with Thomas Middleton on Timon of Athens. Laurie and I wanted to throw All’s Well into this collaborative mix.

Our approach

Why? Well, our evidence drew mostly on literary criticism: our sense of how these different writers work. We had previously researched Middleton’s comic plays in relation to his work on Timon of Athens. This made us attentive to his particular forms of stage direction, spelling, and word-choice. Many of the things that editors have found difficult about the text of All’s Well seemed to us to look different if we posited a Middleton component. We were able to make use of large online collections of early modern texts to check for what was unusual in the period. We also drew on other, more quantitative scholarship which has been concerned to classify authors’ style in tabular form – their use of certain kinds of syntax or vocabulary or metre, for instance. But one of our aims was to suggest that authorial attribution could not be left to computers, as has been increasingly the case in recent research: we wanted to suggest that it was less a matter of counting (what computers are good at) and more a matter of reading and interpretation (what literary critics are good at).

Where next?

Of course there have been dissenters to this view. Much of literary criticism tends to operate in a middle ground of coexisting but differing views: this work has been more actively contentious. But it has been an interesting piece of work which will shape my own thinking about Shakespeare, and about Middleton, about the collaborative world of the theatre, and also about the fruitful possibilities for literary scholars to work jointly.