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Playwright partners: “Shakespeare and His Friends at the Mermaid Tavern”, 1851, by John Faed

The new regulations for GCSE English Literature, just published by Michael Gove, make study of Shakespeare (along with one or two other areas, such as Romantic poetry) compulsory. But to what exactly does that regulation commit us? It may seem too obvious a question to ask. After all, if you go into any serious bookshop there is likely to be a Shakespeare section.  So for practical purposes it appears to be easy enough to decide what is by Shakespeare, and what is not.

But this practical clarity is misleading.  What falls within and what lies outside the Shakespearean canon has fluctuated, if not wildly, then beyond question much more than trivially, over the centuries since Shakespeare's death in 1616.

The crucial event in the formation of the Shakespearean canon was the publication of the First Folio in 1623. This collection of 36 plays assembled by fellow members of the Lord Chamberlain's Men (the company for which Shakespeare wrote, and in which he was a shareholder) included a number which had not been previously published in the smaller quarto format used for individual plays. Without the First Folio, we would not have texts of, for example, The Taming of the Shrew, The Life and Death of King John, Coriolanus, Macbeth, Twelfth Night, or As You Like It, since these plays survive uniquely in the First Folio. As Jonathan Bate notes, in his helpful introduction to William Shakespeare & Others, the emergence of the First Folio from those close to Shakespeare, and their undoubted access to texts which otherwise do not survive, has given the First Folio an exceptional authority when it comes to deciding what is and what is not in the canon:

The general assumption is that in the case of any play included in the First Folio the burden of proof is on the sceptic to show that it is not by Shakespeare, whereas in the case of any play excluded from the First Folio the burden of proof is on the collaborationist to prove that it is, albeit partly, by Shakespeare. No play outside the First Folio has gained widespread acceptance as being wholly by Shakespeare.

And yet Hemings and Condell, the compilers of the First Folio, may not have known every detail of Shakespeare's career as a writer for the stage, particularly before 1594 and the formation of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. There is good reason to think that Shakespeare began as a playwright by working over or "improving" already existing plays, or collaborating in the composition of plays written by teams of playwrights. Indeed, the habit of working over an already existing play remained with Shakespeare into his maturity. Both Henry V and King Lear are brilliant, powerful revisals of earlier plays on the same subjects.

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