Classic Remarks: Shakespeare’s Collaborators

This week Krysta and Briana at Pages Unbound are hosting the discussion: Why do you think people tend to ignore Shakespeare’s collaborators and speak as if Shakespeare always wrote alone?

I should start by saying that, once again, this is a topic that I know almost nothing about. But therein lies my hypothesis to this question. People don’t talk about Shakespeare’s collaborators because, like me, they don’t know enough about the topic.

Like most English speakers, I studied Shakespeare in school. Freshman year we studied Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and the sonnets. Senior year we studied Macbeth and Hamlet. These literature studies came with some perfunctory background study on Shakespeare’s life and the time, but nothing more in-depth than learning the words “Stratford upon Avon” and “Globe Theater.” We talked very briefly about the notion that Shakespeare may not have written his works, but our teacher didn’t seem to know enough about it to help us draw any definitive conclusions. Shakespeare’s collaborators? I would only know about that from reading historical fiction!

And y’all, I went to a good school. I took advanced classes. If this was my educational experience, I have to assume that the average American didn’t fare much better. Maybe Brits get a more details learning experience about Shakespeare.

In the cultural zeitgeist it is just simpler and more fun to refer to Shakespeare as a single entity. To romanticize his life and create this larger-than-life character responsible for all the greatest literature of the age. To ignore the person behind the art and simply enjoy the plays for what they are, incredibly entertaining. Why bog that down by attempting to educate ourselves something our high school English teachers couldn’t be bothered to teach us? It must not be that important, or we would already know about it.

So if by “people” this question is referring to the general population, I have to assume that they, like me, just don’t know.

That being said, I look forward to reading more discussion on this, because I’m guessing Briana and Krysta know a lot more about this than me!

18 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Shakespeare’s Collaborators

  1. I definitely think teaching Shakespeare is part of the problem. Most people probably get their primary Shakespeare experience from school, but most teachers don’t seem to know about collaborators, as that information is usually tucked away somewhere in an intro, which a large number of people probably won’t even read.

    The idea that someone else was Shakespeare is more mainstream, I guess because conspiracy theories are more exciting and romantic. However, the collaborator issue is a problem for people who believe Shakespeare was really someone else because then you have to explain why someone like Oxford or Elizabeth I would have been writing with someone like George Peele. The collaborations are, to my mind, evidence that Shakespeare did write his own plays.

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    1. I think that some of the reason teachers often don’t know more about Shakespeare is because they are not English majors, but education majors. Which I think is a good thing, but being an education major is a lot more work than many people realize, so there’s not really a good way for them to take more classes in their focus area without turning it into a 5 year degree.

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      1. That could be. And I know quite a few teachers who teach based on their memories of their own school days, instead of researching the material. It’s likely many are not abreast of current developments in the fields they are teaching.

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  2. I was thinking about this recently, as my daughter got me “Shakespeare for every Day of the year” fir Christmas. On one hand I would love every author to get their due for what they wrote. But as I read a little of this book every day, it doesn’t matter to me. All I know is it exists and it’s wonderful and amazing and is still solid all these years later. Maybe this is a mystery that is supposed to be unsolved, or maybe it’s faith or whatever. But these particular words matter. And I guess for me that is enough

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    1. Same. I really enjoy the plays, but I’m not too fussed about the process behind writing them. They’re there and that’s, honestly, good enough for me. But I can also understand why they behind-the-scenes would be really fascinating to some folks.

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  3. I am in the same boat as you, although I have always known that Shakespeare had collaborators, my knowledge on this topic is next to non-existent! Definitely looking forward to reading more of the discussion, thanks for highlighting 🙂

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  4. I don’t know anything about this topic. we don’t study Shakespeare here in India or are introduced to his plays in schools but, from what what I have heard, I don’t believe in these conspiracies and I think we should enjoy the author’s work that dwelling on subject that doesn’t have proof.

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  5. As a Brit, through high school we didn’t go into any depth at all about Shakespeare’s life – it largely wasn’t relevant to our aims, it was the literature rather than the author that mattered. Though, I say as Brit, but really I’m talking as a Scot, so perhaps the English do study his life – I doubt it though.

    Love your post, some great thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for giving some insight from across the pond! We also spent very little time talking about authors lives, with a handful of notable exceptions like Thoreau. We tended to focus more on the literature and literary analysis.

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  6. I agree that this is a topic that’s just not taught very thoroughly; I only had to read Shakespeare twice for school (Romeo and Juliet in HS and The Tempest in college), and once took a class on plays of Shakespeare’s era that were not Shakespeare, but the fact that Shakespeare probably did not write his oeuvre alone did not come up once in any of those settings. I only heard about it once I was more present online.
    But I also think that Shakespeare probably worked with a lot of people, some of whom have likely remained anonymous and been lost to history, and perhaps even those who worked with him more openly did not leave much written record of it? I am not sure, but I suspect part of the reason we don’t learn about collaborations with Shakespeare is that there’s not a lot concretely known, though his long popularity certainly makes it an interesting subject for speculation!

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