“Til at the last I seemed his follower, not his partner;And he wag’d me with his countenance as if I had been mercenary.”- Aufidius, Coriolanus, 

It has become a part of the modern mindset to imagine the early modern playwrights as stand-alone authors, men whose names signify complete and individual works – Jonson, Middleton, Marlowe, Shakespeare – which have been passed down in carefully preserved, printed form through the centuries. In fact, this was not the case with the majority of early modern plays.

During the heyday of early modern theatre, fifty playwrights wrote some 850 plays, not accounting for anonymous works and those which were lost. More often, these plays were the product of the work of more than one pair of hands, either put to use as a play was written, or later as others edited and revised an existing play. It was Elizabethan England which saw the birth of professional theatre, in which collaborative playwriting played a large role, and as many as half of the plays penned by professional dramatists likely involved the input of more than one author. Many of these playwrights, Shakespeare included, were attached to specific company of players, who were in turn affiliated with a specific theatre, and those authors were paid to create plays for that one company to produce. The result of all these business deals was certainly not the setting for the romanticized image of the isolated author-artist receiving a flash of inspiration and composing an epic work in seclusion. Indeed, essentially every early modern performance was a collaboration on a grand scale, involving the dramatists, actors, musicians, costumers, prompters (who also had a hand in altering the original play manuscripts), and managers. The playwrights were just one gear in the complex machine which was responsible for turning out early modern theatrical productions.

[1] Philip Henslowe’s diary The diary of Philip Henslowe, owner of London’s Rose Theatre, lists numerous financial transactions over new plays, a large portion of which are products of collaboration. These plays, or “books,” were purchased for the theatrical company who wished to perform them, in this case the Lord Admiral’s Men, and the range of subjects and authors is plentiful. Just a few of the many instances occur in the entries of spring 1598, as when Henslowe notes funds “lent unto the company to paye drayton & dyckers & chetell ther full payment for the boocke called the famos wares of henry the fyrste & the prynce of walles.” These same names appear frequently throughout, in various combinations, as collaborators. Within the span of three months these men,  Michael Drayton, Thomas Dekker, and Henry Chettle also appear as collaborators on “a boocke wher in is a pte of a wealche man written,” one “called goodwine & iij sones” (and later part two of the same), one “called perce of exstone,” and one “called blacke battmane of the northe.” Each of these represents a calculated investment by Henslowe as a theatrical entrepreneur, and the frequency with which these entries appear represents how rapidly the playwrights, working collaboratively, could produce a book.[2]   

Indeed, Henslowe’s diary indicates the importance of one of the most critical factors in producing early modern plays: speed. All those involved in the process – playwrights, actors, theatre owners, etc. – depended on the theatre for their livelihood. Thus, it was in their best interest to put on as many plays as possible in a short amount of time. This meant that these men were, above all, prolific, as illustrated by the figure given at the beginning of this article. To achieve such prolificacy meant that the process of creating a play had to be a well-established and practiced one. A down-payment from the acting company which had requested the play served as a financial contract, and a final payment was made to the playwrights upon delivery. The elected authors, sometimes as many as five, would agree on the plot and the primary characters and then divide the story up into assigned episodes, which they would then come together to compile. [3] In his Palladis Tamia (1598), Francis Meres refers to fellow playwright Anthony Munday as “our best plotter,” highlighting a skill which would have been highly valued at that time.[4]

The process did not end there, however. Plays were often revived at a later date and were subsequently revised or embellished over the years by playwrights who were not the original authors. In his introduction to his play, The English Traveller, Thomas Heywood refers to the work as “being one reserved amongst two hundred and twenty, in which I have had either an entire hand, or at the least a maine finger.”[5] Furthermore, in a contract between dramatist Richard Brome and the men of the King’s Revels company, Brome also says that “he wrote divers scenes in old revived plays…many prologues and epilogues…songs, and one Introduction…”[6] As incongruous as it seems, this is also likely to have occurred in some form with Shakespeare’s plays. For instance, it has long been believed that various scenes in Macbeth (III.v, IV.i.39-43, 125-32) featuring the witch Hecate are, in fact, spurious additions by Thomas Middleton.[7]

In addition to these likely unintended “collaborations,” Shakespeare was or had a deliberate collaborator in several plays. Some scholars today believe that he was not the sole author of the Henry VI history plays, Henry VIII, or Titus Andronicus. Moreover, when The Two Noble Kinsmen was originally published in 1634, it was ascribed to both Shakespeare and dramatist John Fletcher. A further collaboration between Shakespeare and Fletcher was allegedly the now lost play Cardenio, a play based on an episode from Cervantes’ Don Quixote and known to have been performed twice at court by the King’s Men in 1612-13. There is, furthermore, a score of obscure early modern plays in which Shakespeare has been thought, at various points in history, to have had a hand, such as Love’s Labour’s Won, the presumed companion to Love’s Labour’s Lost, as well as the plays Edward III, A Yorkshire Tragedy, and The London Prodigal, among others.[8]

One play in particular which has inspired a great deal of conversation and speculation is Sir Thomas More. The date of the play and its performance run is unknown, with guesses ranging from 1590 to 1605. Today, the extant manuscript is a greatly revised version of the original and is a compilation of no less than six different authors: Anthony Munday, Henry Chettle, Thomas Heywood (possibly), Thomas Dekker, a theatrical scribe, and what is believed to be the hand of Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s involvement in this work is thought to have been required following edits made by Sir Edmund Tilney, the Master of Revels at Queen Elizabeth’s court, to an earlier draft. Tilney called for substantial revisions of an insurrection scene in which a mob attempts a revolt against economic oppression, only to be talked down by Thomas More, then Sheriff of London. As a whole, the play tells the story of More’s life – his rise to power under Henry VIII and ensuing fall and execution – and is a fairly standard early modern history play with little to elevate it out of mediocrity. The 147 lines attributed to Shakespeare supply a certain amount of wit and human insight, and scholars have noted several instances of textual parallels between this and his other works, which seem to confirm that this addition was indeed Shakespeare’s.[9]  

While it may disappoint many contemporary sensibilities, there is something both appealing and admirable in the image of the early modern playwrights, some of the greatest minds in theatrical literature, working together and combining their talents and ideas to create indelible works of human emotion. For the ultimate goal of these men was not to see their plays preserved in print, but brought to life on the stage – some, admittedly, more successfully than others. It was through the spoken, not the printed, word, after all, by which they made a living and supported their families. It was a career as well as, presumably, a passion. While one cannot know Shakespeare’s own opinion of this particular way of making a living in which he found himself, one aspect of it perhaps comes through in his Sonnet 111. Although writing was his undeniable genius, Shakespeare’s words also paint a picture of the more mercenary aspects of his business, so prevalent in the act of dramatic collaboration. In the sonnet, he calls Fortune

The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than public means which public manners breeds.
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdu’d
To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand (2-7). 

Links to the ASCAs part of its commitment to staging works by a variety of early modern dramatists, not just Shakespeare, the artistic year at the American Shakespeare Center often includes several collaborative works. Recent productions of this type include The Knight of the Burning Pestle, The Changeling, The Rehearsal, and Eastward Ho!, to name just a few. In this way, the ASC strives to pull from relative obscurity shows which would have enjoyed tremendous popularity in their day. When dusted off, these collaborative efforts often prove as sparkling and entertaining to modern audiences as they were to Elizabethan and Jacobean ones.

[1] Gerald E. Bentley, “The Profession of Dramatist in Shakespeare’s Time,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 115, No. 6 (Dec. 30, 1971), 480-483.

[2] Philip Henslowe, Henslowe’s Diary: Second Edition, ed. R.A. Foakes (Cambridge: UK, Cambridge University Press, 2002), 88-90. 

[3] Peter Thomson, Shakespeare’s Theatre (Boston, MA: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), 59.

[4] Francis Meres, Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury (1598), quoted in “Appendix B: Records, Documents, & Allusions,” The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), 1844.

[5] Thomas Heywood, “To The Reader” in The English Traveller (London, England: 1633).

[6] Richard Brome, “Salisbury Court Contract” (1635), quoted in Bentley, 483.[

7] Frank Kermode, Introduction to Macbeth, The Riverside Shakespeare, 1307-1308.

[8] Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare as Collaborator (Suffolk, UK: Richard Clay & Co. Ltd., 1960), 1-10. 

[9] G. Blakemore Evans, “Sir Thomas More: The Additions Ascribed to Shakespeare,” in The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974), 1683-1685.