Wells has dedicated a lifetime of scholarship to identifying the areas of collaboration. Much of the argument is to do with style: each writer leaves a signature in the way he writes whether it be in prose or blank verse of rhyming couplets or free verse; whether he regularly adds beats to the end of a blank verse line; whether his characters are logical on the build up of their arguments or more scatterbrained; whether the characters are ciphers or have lives of their own. Unfortunately, in a small paperback such as this, Wells has to assume a certain knowledge on the part of the reader which was often rather more than I possessed so I had to take some of his arguments on trust.
Although the focus of the book is always on Shakespeare, it probably works better as an introduction to the other playwrights. He is particularly good at explaining why certain scenes don't work. I found this fascinating and I learned about:
- Robert Greene who wrote Pandosto which Shakespeare later transformed in A Winter's Tale; he also wrote Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
- Thomas Kyd, author of the the best-selling The Spanish Tragedy (which I saw in a brilliant production at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington) and of an early Hamlet
- Christopher Marlowe who wrote The Jew of Malta (a tragedy which Wells believes needs to be played for laughs), Tamburlaine, Doctor Faustus, and Edward II
- The almost unbelievably prolific Thomas Dekker who write The Shoemaker's Holiday and may have collaborated with Shakespeare on Sir Thomas More; he also worked with Thomas Middleton on London-based dramas The Roaring Girl and The Honest Whore
- The agressive, murderous, and sexually promiscuous Ben Jonson who wrote great comedy including Volpone (which I saw in a memorable production at the Cockpit Theatre in London) and The Alchemist (which I saw some years ago at the National Theatre)
- Thomas Middleton who wrote A Mad World, My Masters which was produced this year by the RSC (I watched it at the Barbican; it was brilliant), The Revenger's Tragedy, and probably collaborated with Shakespeare on Timon of Athens
- John Fletcher, who often worked with Francis Beaumont and probably collaborated with Shakespeare on the lost play Cardenio as well as the Two Noble Kinsmen
- John Webster who is most famous for The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi
This is a great book which sets Shakespeare on the context of his time. It is nearly as good as 1599 by James Shapiro, which is a masterpiece, and Contested Will. Other Shakespeare books reviewed on this blog include Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt which is more or less unputdownable, and the wonderful 1606 by the incomparable James Shapiro and The Lodger by Charles Nicholls.
June 2015; 231 pages