Shakespeare: Collaborator & Influencer

By Brandon Christopher



There’s an image near the end of the last issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic book series that features Shakespeare, alone in his study in Stratford, toiling away with his quill as he struggles to write The Tempest. It’s a familiar image: the author-as-genius struggling in isolation to capture his elusive muse, allowing it to speak through him as he writes. In this vision of authorship, the work emerges fully formed from the author’s pen, a perfect gem he (and it is almost always he) bestows upon the world.


It’s a familiar image, for sure, but it’s also wrong. That’s not to say that Shakespeare didn’t sometimes sit alone at his writing-table, staring pensively into the distance – I mean, we all do that sometimes. But this version of Shakespeare-as-genius is, at best, only a partial account of how writing for the theatre got done in Renaissance London.


First, writing was fast. Over about 23 years, give or take, Shakespeare had a hand in the writing of between 37 and 42 plays (if not more). This means that the vast majority of Shakespeare’s plays (like those of everyone else writing at the time) borrow plots, characters, words, and more, from other plays, poems, histories, prose fictions, etc. Children in Shakespeare’s time learned to write by copying writers who had come before them, and Shakespeare held onto this habit throughout his career. Love Romeo and Juliet? Maybe you should check out Arthur Brooke’s Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, from about three decades earlier (don’t – it’s pretty terrible). Don’t give Brooke too much credit, though; his poem is a translation of an earlier version of the story by Matteo Bandello (Shakespeare borrowed from Bandello on at least 3 other occasions – for Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, and Cymbeline).


Shakespeare also collaborated explicitly with his contemporaries. Two plays regularly included in his Collected Works – The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII – were cowritten with John Fletcher (who also wrote The Tamer Tamed, a critical response to The Taming of the Shrew). Another, Cardenio, seems to have been lost. And, using a variety of approaches, from gut instinct to computer analysis, scholars have identified more than one author’s hand in at least six other plays traditionally attributed to Shakespeare alone.


Not all of these collaborations were planned, though. Because writers in Shakespeare’s time didn’t own the plays they wrote (they belonged to the theatrical companies they wrote them for), the plays were often revised – by whoever was available – to suit current trends, available actors, or different performance venues. So it is that we find the same songs in both Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Thomas Middleton’s The Witch. Both playwrights were writing for same theatrical company, the King’s Men, so it would have been simple to slip part of one play into the other, if somebody felt like Macbeth needing some livening up in the middle (or maybe somebody noticed how short Macbeth is, and was struggling to get it to the expected 2 1/2 hour runtime).


And then there are all of the other people who had a hand in bringing the play to the public, either on stage, or in the bookseller’s shop. There seems to be little doubt that actors felt free to play around with the lines they were given (just take a look at Hamlet’s complaints about actors for some examples). But printers, too, felt free to take liberties with the text when it suited them. For centuries, the last lines of Titus Andronicus were:


See Justice done on Aaron, that damn’d Moore,

From whom, our heavy happes had their beginning:

Then afterwards, to Order well the State,

That like Events, may ne’re it Ruinate.


Then, in 1904, an edition of the play was discovered that ended before these lines, causing some confusion (and some relief for those readers who thought the final lines were kind of terrible). The current theory is that the compositor, who set the movable type in the printing house, had a copy of the play with a damaged last page that seemed too short. So, instead of just setting down what he was given, he took it upon himself to add the conclusion that he apparently thought the play lacked. And so, from 1600 to 1904, this unnamed employee of James Roberts’s printshop. Was, for all intents and purposes, Shakespeare. Let’s hope, before he set out those near-immortal lines, he paused, stared wistfully into the distance, and allowed the Muse to move him to this outburst of solitary poetic genius.