“Shakespeare’s” Henry VI isn’t
Authorship has become one of the most heated topics in Elizabethan drama today, inviting readers to take note of recent evidence pointing to collaborators of famous works, previously defined by one author. The contributions of Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, and Thomas Watson have recently been discussed in articles in The Guardian and The New York Times, illuminating their hands in creating some of the most famous works of their time. Marlowe and others have been credited with contributing to many works previously attributed to Shakespeare including parts of Henry VI.
This new research highlights the question, where is credit due? We are asked to remain receptive to the very plausible fact that Shakespeare was only a contributor and not the sole author to many works that have been deemed “his.” Therefore, as we continue studying this literature, we must not give all credit to Shakespeare and acknowledge the other authors of equal talent and caliber, including Marlowe.
Daniel Pollack- Pelzner writes how evidence in Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy points to Marlowe and Nashe as co-authors to one of Shakespeare’s most famous history plays (“The Radical Argument of the New Oxford Shakespeare”). The process of stylometry, the analysis of different writer’s literary styles, detects how writers have specific styles that can be defined through their works and can be recognizable. Based on stylometric analysis, researchers have found evidence of other authors’ styles of writing in specific parts of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays. Pollack-Pelzner concludes, “The fact that some other scholars have also attributed the same Henry VI scenes to Marlowe, however, gives the authors confidence: “The presence of Marlowe in these plays … is now undeniable.” This article goes on to say that “The most surprising claim is that Marlowe…collaborated on the scripts that popularized the English history play” (Pollack-Pelzner). Although most Shakespeare professors and scholars understand that Elizabethan playwriting was collaborative, and that credit should be allocated to his contributors, this is not common knowledge.
In the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast titled “Shakespeare and Marlowe: Attributing Henry VI Authorship,” Eric Rasmussen comments:
Well, it’s interesting because it used to be that people were assigning shares of Henry VI to playwrights other than Shakespeare because they thought they were bad. And so, what’s fascinating now is that we are assigning these plays that we think are good and giving a share to Marlowe, so it’s a completely different ball game.
Barbara Bogayev interviews Rasmussen and Michael Witmore as they discuss a current push from scholars to get rid of this absurd notion that if something is good, then it must be Shakespeare’s; and, if something is not good, it can’t be Shakespeare.
This conversation, both in the podcast and in the larger scholarly community, does not end here. As more information is uncovered, this topic becomes more popular and many people have something to contribute. With more collaborators being recognized, new visions and styles for the works arise, providing new, richer discussion of these works. Not only do Marlowe, Nashe, and others deserve credit for their contributions to plays previously attributed to Shakespeare, but their work together can also tell us how actors, writers, and printers all had hands in making the plays we know today. Credit is due to all!