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John Kerrigan, Shakespeare’s Originality
by Edmund G. C. King

John Kerrigan. Shakespeares Originality. Oxford UP, 2018. 192 pp. ISBN: 978-0198793755. £26.49 cloth.

Over the past three decades, scholarly ideas about the origins and makeup of the Shakespeare canon have changed markedly. There was a long period of consensus during the mid-twentieth century that the plays in Shakespeare’s Folio canon were of solely Shakespearean authorship. This consensus was decisively broken in 1986 with the publication of the Oxford Shakespeare, which presented compelling evidence that Shakespeare had collaborated with other dramatists on Timon of Athens, Henry VIII and 1 Henry VI, as well as on Pericles, which was admitted into the Folio publishing tradition in 1664. Developments in digitisation, computational stylistics and authorial attribution techniques since the late 1980s have greatly accelerated this trend. The 2017 New Oxford Shakespeare makes an even more radical set of claims about Shakespearean revision and collaboration than its 1986 predecessor had. Taking a ‘big data’ approach to the Shakespeare canon, the editors of the New Oxford Shakespeare add Christopher Marlowe to the list of Shakespeare’s putative co-authors and increase the number of Shakespearean collaborations to seventeen. They place a correspondingly large emphasis on Shakespeare’s role as a reviser and rewriter, both of his own plays and those of other dramatists which he was called upon to repurpose and update in his role as company dramatist for the King’s Men. The seeming revelation of Marlowe’s authorial presence alongside Shakespeare in the Henry VI plays generated news stories worldwide and excellent publicity for Oxford University Press.

At the same time as this, a materialist trend has emerged in Shakespearean criticism (associated most closely with the work of Tiffany Stern) that emphasises the dispersed and multiple nature of writerly agency on the early modern stage. According to this view, we need to re-conceptualise the early modern play as a series of fragments or ‘patches’—plots; actors’ parts; songs; prologues and epilogues; playbills—produced by a variety of different agents of whom the author represented only one. It was the bringing together of these various fragments, Stern writes, ‘that amounted to “the play” in first performance’.[1] A similarly materialist way of interpreting reading and reception has also emerged, one that pays close attention to readers’ marginalia for what they reveal about the way particular historical readers interpreted, used and appropriated the books they read.

The current climate in Shakespeare studies, then, with its emphasis on revision and repurposing, co-writing and rewriting, provides a congenial environment for a book that reconsiders the idea of Shakespeare’s ‘originality’. As John Kerrigan remarks in this elegant and readable volume, however, the kind of originality he is most concerned with is not that which a reader might initially assume a book entitled Shakespeares Originality would tackle. ‘It would be possible’, he writes, ‘to write a book called Shakespeares Originality that explored the peculiar inventiveness of his imagery, his increasingly fluid handling of the verse line, or his singular ways with cross-dressing’ (2). Instead, Kerrigan directs his attention towards the early modern meanings of the word ‘original’ and what the consequences of thinking about Shakespeare in this way are for our understanding of Shakespeare’s texts. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to describe something as ‘original’ was to say that it was the point of origin for later versions and copies. Deriving from this was the idea that certain ‘originals’ were especially ‘generative’ or ‘productive’ as sources for later creative re-working (23). The modern meaning of the word ‘original’—as something that hadnt been copied or derived from another source—crystallised only in the mid- to late-eighteenth century (2). At the same time, however, Kerrigan argues that at the time Shakespeare was writing for the stage working authors had developed a hotly contested ethics of originality. Later writers couldn’t simply copy ‘originals’ wholesale. Poetic invention necessarily involved a degree of ‘innovation’. To write otherwise was to risk a charge of ‘plagiary’—an accusation which implied theft, but also carried the implications of writing without due respect for the original or, indeed, for the craft of writing itself (22).

Kerrigan’s study is organised into four chapters. The first, ‘Upstarts and Much Ado’, draws suggestive parallels between the sources and subplots of Much Ado About Nothing and the nature of early modern play-writing. Fashion, disguise and the flouting of sumptuary laws lie at the heart of the play’s Margaret/Hero subplot. Kerrigan shows that a similar set of concerns lay underneath Robert Greene’s and Henry Chettle’s infamous insinuation, in Greenes Groatsworth of Witte (1592), that Shakespeare was an ‘upstart Crow’, ‘beautified’ by the ‘feathers’ (quills) of other writers. The early modern dramatist’s skill lay in making best use of this collaborative economy. Playwriting involved working with, and re-working, pre-existing material—stitching together plot, sources or ‘originals’, language and character in order to generate the play. At the same time, the ability to innovate was a key component of this form of dramatic authorship. Artistic success, or ‘artiginality’ (24), stemmed from the ability to combine or re-stitch ‘originals’ in unpredictable ways and, in so doing, wrong-foot an audience’s expectations.

Kerrigan’s second chapter, ‘Shakespeare Afoot’, examines the place of feet on the early modern stage. Starting from the observation that the groundlings at the Globe would have been staring ‘straight at legs and feet’ due to their position relative to the stage (45), Kerrigan takes an invigorating ramble through Richard III, As You Like It and Macbeth. Gait and footwork provided the means for actors to embody characters, as well as to represent the passage of time and the traversing of space. Viewed from this perspective, Shakespeare’s originality lay in part beyond the merely linguistic. Having actors walk onto the stage in mid-conversation provided a sense that the play’s action transcended the confines of the stage—that what was performed in front of the audience was simply a small window onto a wider lived reality. However, scenes such as Act 3.1 in Midsummer Nights Dream, where Bottom, newly transformed, declares that he ‘will walk up and down’ to show his fellow mechanicals that he is not afraid, display their own form of innovative stage craft. In this passage, Kerrigan suggests, directing a character to walk is a way for Shakespeare ‘to make nothing happen’—a way of carrying on the action ‘that is both new in Shakespeare and unusual’ (50).

Chapter 3, ‘King Lear and its Origins’, delves back further in time. Focusing on small details in the action, Kerrigan records the faint echoes of a series of potential ‘originals’ resounding within the fabric of the play, starting with Sidney’s Arcadia and Montaigne’s Essays, and receding into the classical past with Seneca’s Thebais and Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus. The key to understanding Shakespearean intertextuality, Kerrigan argues, is not to isolate any one source, but to see the play’s various source materials bouncing off each other, watching them ‘combine’ and ‘resonate’ with one another into a kind of polyphonic whole (69). The chapter ends with a further elaboration of what early modern originality consisted of. The stage direction, in King Lear 5.3, ‘Enter Lear, with Cordelia in his arms’ (emended, as Kerrigan notes, in 1709 by Nicholas Rowe to read ‘Cordelia dead in his Arms’) carries within it the possibility of Cordelia’s resurrection, in accordance with the story Shakespeare’s original audience would have known from The True Chronicle History of King Leir and Holinshed. This deviation from the established plotline illustrates the power of early modern originality at the same time as it indicates the fine line that separates comedy from tragedy.

Kerrigan’s final chapter, ‘The Tempest to 1756’, continues initially in this vein, with subtle examinations of the tweaks and deviations Shakespeare imposes on his source material (Montaigne; Virgil) in The Tempest. It soon takes a more global, ecocritical line of analysis, however, drawing on a recent article in Nature by environmental geographers Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin. Lewis and Maslin attempt to define the start of the Anthropocene—the period in Earth’s history when the global environment began to be decisively shaped by human activity—and arrive at a date of 1610. This was, they argue, the time at which ‘the unprecedented homogenization of the Earth’s biota’ produced by New World settlement and colonisation becomes unmistakably visible in the geological record.[2] A date of 1610 has obvious resonances for The Tempest and Kerrigan makes the most of this convergence, producing a provocative ecocritical reading of the play, one that connects its concern with crop growth, fertility and bad weather with the wider environmental histories of the Caribbean. In the second half of the chapter, Kerrigan returns to the themes of earlier chapters, showing how the eighteenth-century critical cliché that Shakespeare was the ‘poet of Nature’ coincided with changing attitudes to literary creation. From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, originality (in the modern sense) was prized and revision and adaptation (previously described as ‘improvement’) decried, a movement that generated a return to Shakespeare’s original texts in the theatre (103).

Despite its brevity, Shakespeares Originality covers a great deal of territory and throughout Kerrigan performs the trick of fitting complex arguments into pithy, relatable expressions. This is a book to add to any Shakespeare syllabus.

Edmund G. C. King

The Open University


[1] Tiffany Stern, Documents of Performance in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 3.

[2] Simon L. Lewis and Mark. A Maslin, ‘Defining the Anthropocene’, Nature 519 (12 March 2015), 171–80 (p. 175).


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Cite as:

Edmund G. C. King, "John Kerrigan, Shakespeare’s Originality," Spenser Review 49.3.13 (Fall 2019). Accessed September 29th, 2021.
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