Sunday, March 27, 2011

What is canon?

Having bored a friend senseless tonight (probably) (sorry Ian) on the subject of canonicity in science fiction franchises, or rather what does and doesn’t count as part of the wider mythology. I think it’s only fair to let it seep online somewhat. To recap: In Star Trek, as far as Roddenberry and Paramount are concerned, in the main everything filmed is canon plus elements of the animated series. In Star Wars there are four levels of canonicity within a database called a Holocron and I’m bored already.

For Doctor Who, the BBC have been clever enough not to make any real pronouncement on the subject, preferring to leave it up to fans to make their own judgement on the subject which means there are varying degrees of opinion from my friend who’s in the anything filmed and broadcast on BBC television camp to me who assumes everything officially licensed is canon, even online webcasts, charity skits and 8-bit computer games. Good old time travel.

The reason it was on my mind was, oddly, because I’ve been wondering lately exactly who the Paramount, Lucasfilm or BBC equivalent within the Shakespeare study community is.  Some might suggest the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust with their library, or the RSC, or even an academic institution.  The lack of such a body becomes particularly important when reading a book like Shakespeare, Computer, and the Mystery of Authorship by Hugh Craig and Arthur F Kinney which seeks to blow the subject of canonicity and what can be constitutes a Shakespeare play wide open.

For quite some time, the academic orthodoxy was that the thirty-six plays that appear in the First Folio, gathered together by Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues a couple of years after his death were the canon, plus the 154 sonnets and various narrative poems and that’s the figure which still often appears in general readership books on the subject. In time, it was widely agreed that he also collaborated on Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen which brought the figure up to thirty-eight.

Scholarship has moved on again and this were the discussions within academia begin to mirror those in some online forums, the kinds of places which have agreed that because we didn’t see a regeneration, the new series of Doctor Who is a remake rather than a continuation. Essentially, new thinking on how plays were written at the time and the level of collaboration involved is starting to suggest that the concept of a “Shakespeare canon” is shaky at best.

Some certainty is surrounding Edward III as being, like the other collaborations mostly Shakespeare. It’s being published in the Arden series next year to accompany Sir Thomas More and Double Falsehood both of which it’s suggested Shakespeare had a hand in them too. If that’s the case, if the so called canon can be raised to forty-one how high can we go and what’s the point in trying seek a definitive number anyway?  Well I think it is important at the very least from an educational point of view but also because it feeds into my collectors "gotta catch 'em all" mentality.

Part of the problem is that much of this work is based on academic consensous and value judgements based on whether a passage “feels” like Shakespeare. Craig and Kinney and other computer analysts are attempting to remove such value judgements from the equation and take a more scientific approach based purely on statistic analysis and the logical make up of the text, the textual equivalent of comparing brush technique in anonymous paintings.

Their methodology, as best as I understand it, is this: having established definitive authorship for a corpus of plays by a number of Elizabethen/Jacobian playwrights, Shakespeare, Kyd, Marlowe, Fletcher, Middleton, Jonson, Lyle, Webster and the rest, they’ve created a database that contains elements of vocabulary that are distinctive to their works so that when one of the plays of confirmed single authorship is compared to the database only that single author could possibly be the source.

In the introduction they note that though the word ‘gentle’ was available to all of the authors of the time, Shakespeare used it twice as much as anyone else, as much of a prop word probably as ‘actually’, ‘essentially’ and ‘probably’ are for me. There are other words too and for the other authors and meaning that if a play is compared to the database, Craig and Kinney can, within a tiny margin of error, identify who collaborated on the play.

They've used the method to confirm that, as is already widely agreed, Fletcher was the collaborator on Henry VIII and Middleton wrote the other half of Two Noble Kinsmen. They go even further too in confirming the contention of Brian Vickers that Titus Andonicus was of joint authorship with Peele and that Timon of Athens has a secondary author and that it’s Thomas Middleton. My mind had exploded and I’d only reached the end of the first chapter.

This is were it becomes really thrilling, assuming this is the sort of thing you’re thrilled about. They suggest the evidence is strong enough to identify Christopher Marlowe was the source of many of the Joan la Pucelle and Jack Cade scenes in Henry VI. They confirm Shakespeare’s co-authorship on Edward III and Sir Thomas More and that the variant Folio version of King Lear shows Shakespeare’s own hand in revising the Quarto. If only they'd done the same for Hamlet.

But it’s their work on the apocrypha or the anonymous plays attributed to Shakespeare at some point their life, it’s assumed by nefarious publishers trying to cash-in on his name, which is the most exciting (assuming – see above). When at the end of my review of the Arden Sir Thomas More I cheekily suggested they might publish an edition of Arden of Faversham soon, this turned out to be less wrong headed than I thought.

“We can be confident in our conclusions: Arden of Faversham is a collaboration; Shakespeare was one of the authors; and his part is concentrated on the middle section of the play” they say, constituting five whole scenes, confirming the recent proposal by fellow academic MacDonald P. Jackson. Given how their approach and evidence stacks up in other areas, I’m convinced.  But there's more.

After debunking Edmund Ironside (negating dozens of books on the subject) they move on to Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, the revenge play which its believed was one of the great influences on Hamlet. The play was revised for a 1602 publication with five new passages but the printer neglected to mention exactly who the author was for these sections but due to some payroll records it's often believed they’re by Jonson.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge believed they were by Shakespeare. Craig and Kinney compared the sections to the five big plays of the period (including Hamlet) and the work of ten others and agree that there’s a high degree of probability that they may well be. To me, that’s huge news and properly throws a grenade in the Shakespeare canonicity debate because we’re now discussing whether The Spanish Tragedy or at least the 1602 rendition should be included.

Which brings us back to the original thorny problem. As far as I know, there is no single body sitting in judgement on what can and can’t be considered Shakespearean canon, no literary version of the Star Wars Holocron or Pluto devaluing International Astronomical Union in which there are different levels of canonicity depending on how many lines Shakespeare actually wrote with Hamlet at the top and Sir Thomas More at the bottom or I voting on whether to submit Arden of Faversham.

So I’ve decided to take the Doctor Who approach, as I probably tend to in all things, and assume that everything is canon. If Arden are willing to publish an edition, it’s in. If Craig and Kinney provide a good enough argument in this book, and they do, it’s in too. Which means far from being thirty-eight plays, with Double Falsehood, Sir Thomas More, Edward III, Arden of Faversham and the 1602 edit of The Spanish Tragedy my personal canon counts up to forty-three.

Wishful thinking perhaps and not being an expert or academic I don’t have much more than a regurgitation of other people’s work to back up the claim. If was being less conservative too, I’d count up to forty-five by including the various variations to Hamlet and King Lear. But with the ongoing discussions on the extent to which playwrights worked together, it’s very seductive to consider there is more Shakespeare out there waiting to be discovered.

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