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Welcome to Episode #68 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare. 

While Shakespeare is name is the most well known of the playwrights from Renaissance England, he was hardly the only famous artist working during that time period. Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson, John Fletcher, and John Lyly are just a few of the names we can mention of excellent theater practitioners working alongside the bard, and it turns out, William Shakespeare apparently had at least a high professional respect for these gentlemen personally, as he is known to have collaborated with several of them on plays like Pericles, Henry VIII, and Timon of Athens. 

But knowing that Shakespeare collaborated with fellow playwrights, even with members of rival playing companies, brings up some questions about the practicality of collaborating in the Renaissance. Who owned the plays that they wrote? Why weren’t the collaborative plays published with all of the contributing authors? There are so many questions about what collaboration looked like for William Shakespeare, and this week we have the man who literally wrote the book on Shakespeare’s Collaborative Works, Dr. Eric Rasmussen, here to walk us through 16th century playhouses and the world of collaborative Renaissance theater.

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Eric Rasmussen, an award-winning author, editor, and scholar, has been called “the Robert Langdon of the Shakespearean world” by The Washington Post. Stories about his recent authentication of a newly-discovered Shakespeare First Folio, featured in The New York Times, USA Today, The Guardian, NPR, CNN, and the BBC, among many others. 

Rasmussen’s narrative account of The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folios (Palgrave) was serialized by both the London Sunday Times and Australia’s national newspaper, The Age, and has been translated into Portuguese and Japanese. He has co-edited The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Collaborative Plays by William Shakespeare and Others with Jonathan Bate, which was the winner of the Falstaff Award for 2013 Best Book of the Year, along with The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue and The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

Rasmussen is the co-editor of The Norton Anthology of English Renaissance Drama as well as critical editions for the Arden Shakespeare, Oxford’s World’s Classics, the Revels Plays, and the Malone Society. He is a contributor to The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Ben Jonson and Shakespeare Beyond Doubt. Rasmussen has served on the Board of Trustees of the Shakespeare Association of America and is currently Foundation Professor of English at the University of Nevada.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Eric about :

  • What are the plays included when we say “Shakespeare Apocrypha”?

  • Was it a common practice for playwrights in the 16th century to collaborate on plays? 

  • Why are some of Shakespeare’s collaborative plays not talked about in the same way we mention Rodgers and Hammerstein, for example? Why is it not “This play is by Shakespeare & Fletcher?

    … and more!

Villain, thou liest; for even her very words 
Didst thou deliver to me on the mart.

Antipholus of Syracuse

Comedy of Errors, II.2

Portrait of British playwright John Fletcher (1579 – 1625). Source

Shakespeare’s Collaboration with John Fletcher

John Fletcher is the man who would go on to take over the King’s men after Shakespeare died. Fletcher is famous for his expert collaborations with another renaissance playwright, Francis Beaumont, with whom he wrote over a dozen plays and even lived with him up until Beaumont’s marriage in 1613.  

Vouchsafed to think he had partners: you shall find there a man who is the abstract of all faults  That all men follow.

Antony and Cleopatra I.4

Portrait of Francis Beaumont (1584-1616) by Francis Kyte, unknown date. Source

Eric shares inside this episode that it is very likely William Shakespeare was preparing Fletcher to take over the company when he chose to collaborate with him on several plays. Shakespeare collaborated with Fletcher more than any other playwright, He collaborated with Shakespeare on Henry VIIIThe Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost play, Cardenio. Fletcher would complete a play by himself called The Woman Prized, or the Tamer Tamed, which is considered to be a sequel of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.

John Fletcher was a close friend of William Shakespeare’s, not only collaborating with him on multiple plays (all of which are towards the end of Shakespeare’s life, which is why scholars like Rasmussen believe Shakespeare was preparing Fletcher to take over after his death), but William Shakespeare left mourning rings in his will to only a handful of individuals, of which John Fletcher was one.


Join us inside #Ep46 of That Shakespeare Life for our Interview with Lucy Munro. In this episode, Lucy shares with us about the life of John Fletcher as one of the bard’s good friends, and the man who took over the King’s Men after Shakespeare died.

Title page of Shakespeare’s First Folio, published in 1623 by Blount and Jaggard, as compiled and prepared by Heminges and Condell. Source

Shakespeare’s First Folio is Not His Complete Works

Many writers of the 16-17th century frowned upon the idea of being a collaborator, despite it being an industry standard practice of the time. Whenever a writer wanted to promote themselves, or market their abilities as a writer, they did so by compiling the works they had written independently of other writers. (Or at least had completed enough of a majority on that they could claim it as their own.)

An example would be Ben Jonson’s folio that was specifically marketed as being nothing but works completed by Jonson, to exclusion of works we know for a fact Jonson wrote, and eventually became famous for having written.

Similarly, William Shakespeare’s First Folio, as compiled and prepared by his good friends Heminges and Condell, represent only plays Shakespeare wrote, or wanted you to believe he wrote, completely on his own. Plays which we he know he collaborated on with other authors, are not included in the Folio, and are considered part of what’s called “Shakespeare’s Apocrypha” because he did write more than what’s in the Folio, but he may not have completed the extant plays alone.

For this reason, when you buy a Complete Works of Shakespeare, if it is based upon the First Folio when it was compiled, you are not actually looking at everything Shakespeare ever wrote. Our guest this week, Eric Rasmussen, has co-authored a book with Jonathan Bate, that includes the collaborative works of William Shakespeare (the ones we have copies of today). You can purchase that book from amazon at this link: William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays (The RSC Shakespeare)

The Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App

Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App gives you the correct pronunciation of words found in the text of Shakespeare’s plays, with audio accesibility at the click of a button. This app lets you keep a professional voice coach right in your back pocket. 
 Download the app here.

This app is an official sponsor of That Shakespeare Life.


Collosal Sculpture “Pirithous’ Battle for Helena” by Joseph Echteler (exact year unknown). Figure (woodcut?) By Richard Brend’amour (exact year unknown). Source

How to Spot Multiple Authors in Shakespeare’s Plays

One of the ways scholars can spot the places where Shakespeare is collaborating with other authors is that the spelling of various character names will be different throughout the play. As Eric explains in our conversation, this difference is attributed to the fact that each author was referencing a different piece of literature of the same story. For example, in Two Noble Kinsmen, the play is telling the story of a character named Pirithous. Pirithous is an actual ancient Greek military leader, written about by many authors for centuries. However, those different authors spelled his name with either an “e” or an “i” depending on who you were reading. Plutarch (in Theseusspells the general’s name as Perithous (the way Fletcher spells it in the play, Two Noble Kinsmen) whereas Ovid (in Book 12 of his work Metamorpheses), and Chaucer –in A Knight’s Tale from The Canterbury Tales— whom Eric believes Shakespeare was referencing, spells it with an “i”; these are the tell-tale signs inside the text of the plays which provide evidence of Shakespeare’s collaborative works. The links above are to digital copies of the works mentioned, so you can search either “Perithous” or “Pirithous” to see how each author spelled this name.

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Photo of Donald Wayne Foster, English professor at Vassar College and developer of a linguistic algorithm which can analyze speech patterns in text to identify the author of a written work. Image Credit: Vassar College Source

Donald Foster’s Linguistic Algorithm

In the audio for this week’s episode, Eric Rasmussen refers to John Foster, but he meant Donald Wayne Foster, Elizabethan professor at Vassar College, who developed a linguistic algorithm in the late 1990s, which purported to be able to analyze a writer’s linguistic fingerprint and determine the author of an anonymously written work. His system works mainly by comparison to other writings known to be by a specific author and the algorithm makes a suggestion on how close to a particular writer’s style the text provided might be. His work made headlines intially, when Foster developed a theory about the dedication on one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Foster contended that “Mr. W. H.” was a misprinting of “Mr. W.S.” or even “Mr. W.Sh.” and that the dedication was to William Shakespeare. Later, Foster claimed to have discovered one of Shakespeare’s lost poems, assigning the bard’s authorship to a poem titled “A Funerall Elegye in memory of the late Vertuous Maister William Peeter.” That contention was later disproven by a translator whose work was able to demonstrate the poem is actually written by renaissance author, John Ford.  As you might imagine, the legitimacy of Foster’s algorithm is a source of nigh unto constant criticism and debate, with many scholars on both sides of the aisle in terms of support for Foster’s analysis. While Shakespeare scholars, in general, seem less than keen on his approach, Foster was able to correctly identify the anonymous author of “Primary Colors” as John Klein, and has worked on several criminal cases as a forensic linguistic expert. 

Books Eric Recommends:

Jonathan Bate, author of The Genius of Shakespeare, shown above, and co-author with Eric Rasmussen on the Collaborative Works of William Shakespeare, is a guest of That Shakespeare Life. Join that conversation here.


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