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Chapter Four: Apocryphising the Canon

Tonight we are going to attempt a feat which we believe to be unprecedented in the history of theatre. That is, to capture, in a single theatrical experience, the magic, the genius, the towering grandeur of ‘The Complete Works of Williams Shakespeare.’ Now we have a lot to get through tonight… (The Reduced Shakespeare Company, The Compleat Works of Wllm Shakspr (abridged))

Canon, Apocrypha, and the Purpose of "Completeness"

This chapter turns to the implied (and often stated) project of attribution studies, which is to determine everything that Shakespeare wrote. Through exploring the question of "completeness" within the authorial paradigms set up by four different 21st century projects, I ask where the value of "completeness" lies and what the role of the apocryphal plays might be in looking to the future of Shakespearean editing and criticism.

Beginning with the 2010 publication of Double Falsehood in the Arden Shakespeare series, I argue that the acceptance of this play, more than any other, offers a paradigm-shifting take on what "Shakespeare" is/might be, moving away from formalist and literary conceptions of Shakespeare in the words and towards a sense of his presence and involvement in ongoing processes of theatrical inspiration and adaptation, endemic collaboration and revision.

From this, I move to three different embodiments of a "Complete Works". A materialist notion is embodied in the Folio-based RSC Complete Works of Shakespeare (2007); which excludes apocryphal works but theoretically could be used to justify re-examination of works based on bibliographic attribution; performative, in the RSC Complete Works Festival (2006-7), which through its myriad inclusions and understandings of the multivocality of Shakespeare offers a simultaneously fixed and infinite notion of completeness; and author-centred, in the Oxford Collected Works of Thomas Middleton (2008), which includes apocryphal and canonical Shakespearean works, destabilising canon while at the same time operating under a conventional authorial governing principle. All three projects are compromised to an extent by the question of "completeness", but offer exciting theoretical possibilities for different projects of completeness, moving us ultimately towards acceptance of Shakespeare as fundamentally INcomplete.

Key texts

In tackling such recent debates, I am reliant on review articles and media interventions as well as the usual sources; appropriate for a chapter that, to a large extent, is concerned with how marketing demands shape academic projects. Brean Hammond's Arden edition of Double Falsehood is the primary text for the first section; Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen's RSC Shakespeare is the focus of the second, though with interest in a number of other book-based editing projects including the Shakespearean Originals and Cambridge Early Quartos series. The appearance of apocryphal plays in modern individual editions is dealt with here.

The RSC Complete Works Festival is in part discussed through first-hand experience, though Katherine Duncan-Jones provides an essential insight into the Festival's contention with the notion of "completeness" in a 2007 Shakespeare Quarterly article. Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino's mammoth two-volume Oxford Middleton is the focus of the final section, and allows for particular discussion of The Puritan, The Yorkshire Tragedy and The Lady's Tragedy, though the volume's treatment of Macbeth, Measure for Measure and Timon of Athens is also importantly relevant.