A Play By Any Other Name? WKU Shakespeare Scholar 'Delighted' By Marlowe Decision

Oct 27, 2016

A detail of a portrait of William Shakespeare, presented by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, as seen in March 2009.
Credit Lefteris Pitarakis/AP

An announcement this week from the Oxford University Press landed like a bombshell in the laps of Shakespeare fans and scholars.

The prestigious publisher revealed that its new edition of the complete works of William Shakespeare will credit the 16th century British poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe as co-author of the three Henry VI plays.

There have long been debates and controversy over whether the many plays, sonnets and other works attributed to Shakespeare were, in fact, written by him. The decision by Oxford University Press will likely further stoke the discussion.

WKU Public Radio spoke with Western Kentucky University English Professor and Shakespeare scholar Gillian Knoll about her reaction to the decision to credit Marlowe as co-author of the Henry VI plays.

Q: What did you think when you heard the news?

A: “Well, I was delighted. I have seen in a number of other plays that sometimes Shakespeare shares credit with other playwrights, and it’s really common in the early modern period for playwrights to collaborate.

So it’s exciting that we have technology now that can really open up the field and give us answers that we’ve always been speculating about.”

Q: You’re teaching courses this semester on Shakespeare and Marlowe. Had any of your students heard the news about the Oxford University Press decision? If so, did they have any reaction?

A: “They had strong reactions to it. A number of them requested that we teach a course on Shakespeare and Marlowe here—that, wouldn’t it be a wonderful intellectual exercise to read a Marlowe play right next to a Shakespeare play, and see what we think. See if we see it ourselves—if it’s just something computers can kind of sniff out, or if our sort of scholarly eyes can also do that work.”

Q: Does the decision by the Oxford University Press in any way diminish Shakespeare in your eyes?

A: “Yeah, I think it does. I think Shakespeare’s place in the literary canon is very secure. I don’t think he’s going anywhere. I think we have good confidence for the most part in his singularity as a playwright.

But I also that it’s really misleading to imagine that he wrote his plays in a vacuum. I was talking to my students today about the fact that he’s probably writing out in public, and hearing things. You know, stealing words that are being shouted across the tavern…phrases that he heard from a poem, or a play the other night. The idea that he is somehow master craftsperson who just spouts out poetry from nowhere—I think that that’s problematic. I think that tells our students—who are also trying to be writers, many of them—that they have to somehow produce writing like that.

Shakespeare was a listener. Someone once described him to me as a ‘giant ear’ walking around London just listening and regurgitating what he hears, and turning it into poetry.”

You can hear our interview with WKU’s Gillian Knoll by clicking on the “Listen” button at the top of the page.