Tuesday, August 13, 2013

"Shakespeare's Hand": Collaboration Studies and Shakespeare

There's an article in the New York Times this week called "Much Ado about Who: Is it really Shakespeare?" The subtitle is "Further Proof of Shakespeare's Hand in the Spanish Tragedy." It's a great exploration of the modern, tech-driven scholarship that's exposing the intricacies of early modern collaborative authorship practices. But it's also a fascinating example of the ongoing glorification of Shakespeare as, well, "Shakespeare." In other words, the article is simultaneously saying that collaborative authorship existed and holding Shakespeare above his peers--as a supreme collaborator, or first among equals.

Here's an example. Near the end of the article, a quotation from the scholar Douglas Bruster explains the ramifications of locating Shakespearean text in the play The Spanish Tragedy--largely written by Thomas Kyd. Bruster says, "...once you realize that it’s Shakespeare’s handwriting that’s responsible for the misreading, it’s no longer a bad line... It’s actually a gorgeous passage." On one level, Bruster is saying that the printer read Shakespeare's handwriting incorrectly, and inserted textual errors that mess up the inherent loveliness of the poetry. It makes absolute sense, then, that fixing these errors would improve the reading experience.

On another level, though, the quote (framed within the context of the article) could be read to pivot on the identification of Shakespeare himself. Here's how it reads with the framing in place:

"Mr. Bruster once counted himself among the many scholars who have thought the passage in the quarto was simply too poorly written to be Shakespeare. “But once you realize that it’s Shakespeare’s handwriting that’s responsible for the misreading, it’s no longer a bad line,” Mr. Bruster said. “It’s actually a gorgeous passage.”"

Within this crucial framework, it's Shakespeare's handwriting (not, say, Kyd's), and therefore the passage can now be read as "gorgeous." Moreover, assessing whether something is Shakespearean becomes, implicitly, a matter of assessing its literary quality: while Thomas Kyd could conceivably write something bad, Shakespeare, clearly, would never do such a thing.

All of this points to an interesting problem for the larger scholarly community. When we explore collaborative practices, whose collaborations do we privilege, and why? (And where do we find aesthetic beauty, and what's at stake in that beauty, or in newly identifying beauty where it previously didn't seem to exist?)