Shakespeare and Marlowe, Often Considered Rivals, Now Getting Co-Author Credit for the Henry VI Plays


The Guardian reports that New Oxford Shakespeare, via Oxford University Press, is about to make a bold move (particularly in the eyes of Shakespeare purists) in publishing the three Henry VI plays with accreditation to two authors; no longer shall the title page list “William Shakespeare” alone — now he’ll be sharing his title page with rival playwright (not to mention someone the conspiracy theorists posit in fact was William Shakespeare), Dr. Faustus writer Christopher Marlowe.

As the New York Times notes, this is pretty major, as it’s unprecedented for a major publisher to acknowledge one of the famed playwright’s colleagues as a co-author. Gary Taylor, a general editor of the volume, explained to the newspaper that “the only reason that [they] can do it now is because Shakespeare has entered the world of big data,” which, to elaborate, means they ran the texts of the plays through a number of tests to see if certain linguistic touches (words repeating in succession, constant use of particular articles, etc.) matched those of Marlowe, who for centuries had been a rumored co-author.

The research was done by 23 academics across five countries, overseen by the volumes’ four general editors: Taylor, a professor at Florida State University; Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham professor John Jowett; Indiana University professor Terri Bourus; and De Montfort University professor Gabriel Egan.

Taylor told the Guardian:

The orthodox view was that Shakespeare didn’t collaborate at all. When the Oxford Shakespeare in 1986 proposed that eight plays of Shakespeare contained writing by other writers, some people were outraged…the accumulation of new scholarship, techniques and resources has made it clear that, in 1986, we underestimated the amount of Shakespeare’s work that’s collaborative… In 1986, eight of 39 plays were identified on their title pages as collaborative, a little more than 20%. In 2016, 17 of 44 plays are identified, a little more than 38%, close to two-fifths.

The process of Shakespeare and Marlowe’s collaboration for the Henry VI plays is unknown (whether they wrote it in the same room, whether there were snacks, etc.), but it’s speculated that it may have been something along the lines of the way contemporary studio films are written, with one author writing a first draft or outline, and another being hired by theaters to tailor certain scenes to their own strengths. They may have potentially worked separately… or not. It’s also possible that they actually wrote it together in pubs, as some playwrights were known to do. (Which would potentially answer the snack mystery.)

Apparently from what the tests revealed, the majority of Henry VI, Part I is actually by Marlowe, while Part II is a little muddier to determine, and Shakespeare is thought to have written more of Part III.