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‘An office to the dead’: Recognising Collaboration in the First Folio

Darren Freebury-Jones

Shakespeare, like most playwrights of the period, sometimes co-wrote plays. Collaboration between authors could take many forms: theatre managers might commission an author to write a plot from which other dramatists could base a play. Co-authors sometimes divided their labour according to acts, scenes, and even individual speeches. Authorial revision was common during the period. A new spin could be offered on an older play to take account of shifting audience tastes, advances in stage technology, and changes of playing spaces and company personnel.

Darren Freebury-Jones
Dr Darren Freebury-Jones

A guiding light for the compilers of the First Folio was the 1616 Works of Benjamin Jonson. That title gives primacy to Ben Jonson even though he was a deeply collaborative dramatist. The 1647 Comedies and Tragedies written by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher privileges just two authors even though that Folio edition contains the hands of numerous writers. Shakespeare’s First Folio is similarly presented as a shrine to his genius. It’s ‘an office’, as his fellow company members John Heminges and Henry Condell put it, ‘to the dead’. The emphasis in the prefatory material is placed on singular pronouns, ‘he’, ‘his’, the reader entreated to ‘Read him, therefore, and again, and again’.

George Peele, Shakespeare’s co-author on Titus Andronicus, goes unmentioned. Thomas Kyd is mentioned only in relation to the extent to which Shakespeare transcended him. Nor does Thomas Nashe receive tribute, despite scholarly arguments (including from the author of this piece) that he and Kyd were the original authors of the play printed as Henry VI Part One. Shakespeare’s collaboration with George Wilkins, Pericles, is omitted from the edition altogether, as is Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s The Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost play Cardenio. Shakespeare’s collaboration with Thomas Middleton, Timon of Athens, appears to have been an afterthought, included in the Folio to occupy a gap while the compilers negotiated the rights to Troilus and Cressida.

Folio 400

Evidence suggests that publishers considered single-authored plays to be easier to market. The compilers of the First Folio present Shakespeare as sole author, a solitary genius. The irony is that Shakespeare’s dramatic identity was shaped in large part by his fellow company members, the people with whom he collaborated most.

The First Folio is the product of collaboration between authors, actors, scribes, printers and publishers. Recognising collaboration in the period is important for our continued understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare, as academics and creatives adapt, edit, and interpret his plays for modern audiences and readers ‘again, and again’.

Dr Darren Freebury-Jones is Lecturer of Shakespeare Studies at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust