A question of authorial attribution, too

A couple of days back, I discussed the news that the Oxford University Press had announced that they had updated their authorship credits for many of Shakespeare’s plays, adding co-authors for many. But what about our current play understudy, Timon of Athens?

Well, even before this recent announcement, the critical consensus was that Shakespeare did not act alone in the creation of this play. The idea that this is a collaboration of some sort is nearly 200 years old. While some critics once believed that George Chapman may have been the other author, most now believe that it was Thomas Middleton, a younger contemporary of Shakespeare’s who was in his mid-twenties around the time this play was supposedly written (mid- to late-1600s).

The basis of this opinion is both by stylistic comparison as well as metrical inconsistencies. The subject matter and rather harsh tone seem to fit with Middleton’s other works, in both comedies and tragedies. Some of the diction and punctuation used in the play also seem more Middletonian than Shakespearean. I’m willing to bet that the word-adjacency network analysis done for the New Oxford Shakespeare series will bear this out as well.

But the question remains: Was Middleton the original author with Shakespeare doing clean-up? Or did Shakespeare start the play with Middleton finishing it off? Or did they collaborate together?

It seems that Middleton’s fingerprints are found mostly in the second scene (the first feast), as well as the third act (the servants asking for money from the flatterers, Alcibiades and the Senate, and the final “feast”), as well as the end section of the fourth act’s last scene (with Timon and Flavius).

And if this is the case, I would posit that they either worked side by side (or at least concurrently) or that Shakespeare finished off (and supplied the opening for) the work by Middleton. I just think it would be weird to have Shakespeare basically provide a first scene then much of the build-up to (though not including) the climax, as well as the final act, with a bit of the lead-up to the ending…only to hand that off. But as I type this, I could see that happening (and that it actually makes sense), allowing the younger (apprentice?) playwright to handle the climax, with Shakespeare overseeing (the shell of) the work (overall). But…it would also work if Middleton had a full play, and Shakespeare “punched up” the beginning and end. And, of course, the side-by-side co-authorship is definitely feasible, too, with each writer taking on what the other didn’t want to do.

We’ll never know for certain, but it’s going to be interesting when I take my second dive into the text, to see if I can tell the difference between what has been considered to be the division of labor. I know that I did feel that many sections were clunky in their meter, and that fifth act is a mess, so it’ll be interesting to bring this knowledge (or at least theory) to that deeper read.

More to come…