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Column: 'Shakespeare’s solo authorship of certain plays remains in question'

Who are we really reading when we read a Shakespearean work, writes Rory Loughnane.

Rory Loughnane Lecturer, University of Kent

THE 1623 FOLIO collection of Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, better known as the “First Folio”, is a justly famous and valuable work.

Printed some seven years after Shakespeare’s death, it includes thirty-six plays, about half of which had never been printed before in any version. Without this important collection, there might have been no Twelfth Night, no Macbeth, no The Tempest. (Some students may be cursing this work right now.)

Surviving in over two hundred complete copies, it is one of the most expensive printed books in the world to purchase, with estimates for good copies in the millions of euros. If you were so inclined, ownership of this book would place you in a small minority of private holders. But buyer beware. What you are getting may not be not quite what it seems.

Not necessarily solo or primary author

As the title declares, the work proudly identifies Shakespeare as author. These are his dramatic works, it states, divided threefold by genre.

In a very real sense this claim is factual. There is no reason to doubt that Shakespeare should be identified as author of these thirty-six plays, and tests of authorship for each of these works confirms this. But that does not mean he is the solo author or even the primary author for each of the works included.

It is now fairly well established that Shakespeare worked collaboratively on certain of his plays, most notably at the beginning and end of his career. But how many of Shakespeare’s plays include the work of other authors? Is the buyer of the 1623 Folio, or indeed any modern collected works of “Shakespeare”, being defrauded?

From here on we must and should proceed gently. Hostilities over authorship attributions are notorious within Shakespeare studies. Each of these attributions, old and new, has been considered radical at some point in time.


First, the long opening scene of (1) Titus Andronicus is now considered to be primarily written by George Peele. Thomas Middleton collaborated with Shakespeare in writing (2) Timon of Athens.

John Fletcher collaborated on three plays late in Shakespeare’s career, only one of which is printed in the 1623 folio: (3) All Is True, or Henry VIII. Next, we move on to more controversial attributions.

The three parts of Henry VI include mixed writing. Thomas Nashe wrote the first act of (4) 1 Henry VI. Christopher Marlowe’s hand is identified in the Cade scenes of (5) 2 Henry VI, as well as in 1 Henry VI.

Marlowe also wrote several scenes of (6) 3 Henry VI. It has also been argued Thomas Middleton adapted four of Shakespeare’s plays in the period between Shakespeare’s death and the publication of the 1623 folio. The case for the first two of these, (7) Macbeth and (8) Measure for Measure, is longer established. Middleton’s hand as adapter of (9) All’s Well that Ends Well and (1, again) Titus Andronicus represent more recent claims.

Solo authorship remains in question

Shakespeare’s solo authorship of certain other plays remains in question. By this count, though, at least nine of the thirty-six plays in the First Folio—that is, one quarter of the plays included—have substantive writing by another author.

Would-be buyers, perhaps already disappointed to find the Sonnets and long narrative poems omitted, may be disconsolate to discover that the 1623 folio also cannot even claim to have all of Shakespeare’s plays. Indeed, it omits plays from each of the titular genres of comedy, history, and tragedy.

Persuasive work in attribution studies identifies Shakespeare’s hand as author in: (1) The Two Noble Kinsmen (its title-page declares the co-authorship of Shakespeare and Fletcher), (2) Pericles, Prince of Tyre, (3) Edward III, (4) Sir Thomas More, and (5) Arden of Faversham.

Shakespeare is also the likely author of at least one of the five added passages to the 1602 edition of Thomas Kyd’s (6) The Spanish Tragedy. And, finally, we have the case of the play (7) Cardenio, lost in its original state, but still partially represented in the printed text of an early eighteenth century adaptation, Double Falshood.

Each of these works is co-authored by Shakespeare and at least one more dramatist, with one dating from the very beginning of his career, one only existing in manuscript, and another only in a much later adapted state.

There are many reasons why any or all of these might have been excluded from the 1623 folio, and co-authorship presents only one answer for this. But these seven plays, added to the nine noted above, brings Shakespeare’s total of extant co-authored works to sixteen. That is, that of the forty-three plays for which we have Shakespearean versions in some format (i.e. that his hand as author is at least identifiable somewhere), almost 40% are, in fact, co-authored.

Who were we really reading?

This “fact” may seem surprising. Shakespeare, the acclaimed solo genius, the peerless literary icon, relied so much upon the help of others. Just who were we ever reading? But, again, this fact is misleading.

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New findings in attribution studies either add or subtract from the total sum of Shakespeare’s words. A recent estimate for Shakespeare’s total word count, taking into account some but not all of the recent attribution work, places it at close to 785,000 words.

For plays alone, I have estimated it is closer to 745,000 words. Contributions by other authors to the thirty-six plays of the 1623 folio probably represents significantly less than 5% of the total word count of that work.

Students beware. You will still have to study Shakespeare and his works, regardless of what attribution scholars discover about Macbeth or All’s Well. But as readers, the issue of co-authorship contributes significantly to our understanding of the creative genesis of these sixteen plays at least.

Two or more minds at work

There is no longer one mind at work but two or more, perhaps working together or separately, concurrently or over large gaps in time.

It may also alter our conception of Shakespeare as a working dramatist, someone who worked with other authors in a business that was already innately interpersonal (from performers to audiences), either seeking or giving guidance, and with the hope of producing more from the sum of his and another individual’s worth.

In this sense, any would-be buyer of the 1623 folio, or of a modern edition of Shakespeare’s collected works, probably still gets a lot more than they pay for.

Rory Loughnane is a lecturer at the University of Kent. He is an Associate Editor of The New Oxford Shakespeare, for which he edited ten plays.

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About the author:

Rory Loughnane  / Lecturer, University of Kent

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