The Early Plays of Shakespeare: Chronology, Authorship, and Intertextuality
This dissertation explores ways in which diverse subtopics in literary studies converge to answer questions about the composition history, reception, and thematic content of several plays by Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd. I first endorse the theory that Shakespeare’s career began in approximately 1590–91, presenting a fresh look at how external evidence can be viewed quantitatively to counter the frequent assumption that he began writing years earlier. I then consider the works that have been assigned to his first years in London, demonstrating that Arden of Faversham, Titus Andronicus, and The Two Gentlemen of Verona show strong intertextual debts that indicate compositions after 1590. The study of Shakespeare’s relationship to texts from antiquity to the Renaissance is also instrumental in the newfound recognition of Shakespearean collaborations, and I consider how his distinct habits of classical allusion helps us discern his hand from that of co-authors. Identifying this profile of learning improves our understanding of his first artistic phase across works such as the Henry VI saga, Titus Andronicus, and The Taming of the Shrew. My final chapters look intently at disputes surrounding Hamlet, especially the resurging claim that it was a product of Shakespeare’s earliest development. I contend that important intertextual, bibliographic, and bibliometric analyses reaffirm traditional perspectives about the play’s date and the reliability of its divergent texts. Furthermore, I propose that the study of extant quarto copies likely serves as a reliable and valuable clue to their reception, with important ramifications for critical study of Shakespeare and editorial efforts to procure authoritative texts. As a corollary to these examinations of printed works we discover that the surviving German adaptation of the Hamlet story represents the play largely as it was conceived by Shakespeare’s predecessor, Thomas Kyd. Extending recent studies attributing the anonymous source play King Leir to this same important forebear, I consider several of Shakespeare’s far-reaching modifications to Kyd’s earlier dramas. Collectively they reveal the mature playwright’s thematic interest in performed identity, the frailty of the human psyche, and moral ambiguity, while reminding us to afford due credit to important pioneers of the earlier generation.