Some Shakespeare scholars have devoted their careers to trying to work out the maze of collaborations in which Shakespeare was involved. The below article outlines the current thinking of which of Shakespeare’s plays we’re collaborative works, and which of his many contemporary playwrights Shakespeare worked with on each play.
The theatre was big business and the playwrights worked hard, sometimes alone but more often with another writer, and at times in teams. The hunger for plays in London was voracious and so they were churned out, almost like goods in a factory. Some of the Shakespeare texts that have been handed down to us are quite rough, as they were written fast and usually not refined, but completed for a deadline and immediately performed. The texts were disposable and there would have been no point in going back to them after they had served their purpose.
Shakespeare was highly sought after as a writing partner, especially when he became a ‘mature’ writer, valued by his contemporaries for his experience and the success of his plays. Sometimes he simply advised young writers, or helped them edit their plays, but he also co-wrote with many of them.
In recent years we have learnt a lot about Shakespeare’s involvement in the plays that were performed in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, due partly to the use of computers, which are able to analyse language patterns and identify passages, and even single sentences, written by a particular writer. Those patterns are like fingerprints and so we now have a pretty good picture of Shakespeare’s widespread involvement. Here are the results of some of the work done by scholars on this.
Quite early in Shakespeare’s writing career – in 1596 – Edward III was published anonymously and attributed to him in a bookseller’s catalogue. The language of the text is generally quite uninspiring but there are passages that clearly come from Shakespeare’s pen. Scholars now believe that the play was written by a writing team that included him. The two writers identified as having written the most are Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd.
Analysis of Henry VI, Part 1 has revealed that Shakespeare wrote less than 20% of the text. There are several different styles, suggesting that the play was written by quite a large team, most of whom have not been identified, although the first act is thought to be the work of Thomas Nashe. As usual with Shakespeare, when one comes across a passage written by him the language suddenly comes alive. That can be seen in the sections of text identified as having been written by him, which are part of Act 2 scene 4, Act 4 scenes 2 to 5 and the first 32 lines of scene 7.
George Peele and Shakespeare worked together on Titus Andronicus. This is a more difficult one because they appear to have written together rather than each working on separate parts. It is thought that the play was written by Peele with revision and heavy editing of the text by Shakespeare.
Most of Shakespeare’s collaborations were with his friends, Thomas Middleton and John Fletcher. Middleton inserted some musical sequences into Mabeth as it appears in the First Folio. He also did some light revision of Measure for Measure. Scholars believe that both worked on Timon of Athens, which has a somewhat incoherent plot. Also, the play has a cynicism that is unusual in Shakespeare’s work and seems to fit the more cynical tone of Middleton’s work. Two scholars, Emma Smith and Lurie Maguire of Oxford University suggested in research published in 2012 that the two writers collaborated on All’s Well That Ends Well.
Cardenio is a play that has unfortunately been lost, but contemporary reports affirm that Shakespeare collaborated with John Fletcher on it. The scholarly consensus about Henry VIII is that the two collaborated on it. The Two Noble Kinsmen was attributed to Fletcher and Shakespeare on the title page of the quarto of 1634 and it seems that they each wrote half of the play.