No More Disintegration (2011)

[This article is intended as a prolegomena to a future piece.]

In 1924, E. K. Chambers delivered his famous lecture “The Disintegration of Shakespeare” before the British Academy. Twenty years later he published the text in Shakespearean Gleanings (1944), a shot heard round the world of Shakespearean criticism, and which eventually became misconstrued. 

By disintegration, Chambers meant the shrinking of the Shakespeare canon by the withdrawal of plays thought to be written by other authors and revised by Shakespeare. And Chambers was very specific about who these disintegrators were: “You find the substantial Shakespearean authorship of Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labor’s Lost, and oddly enough Winter’s Tale, doubted by Pope (1725), of Henry V by Theobald (1734), of Two Gentlemen of Verona by Hanmer (1743), of Richard II by Johnson (1765), of Taming of the Shrew by Farmer (1767)…. Charles Knight (c. 1843) suggested that Shakespeare was only a reviser of Timon of Athens; James Spedding and Alfred Tennyson (c. 1850) fixed the second hand in Henry VIII as that of Fletcher; and [Cambridge editors] William George Clark and William Aldis Wright (1874) elaborated Coleridge’s heresy about Macbeth by ascribing substantial interpolations in that play to Middleton.”

But Disintegration eventually took on a meaning Chambers never intended, a meaning that has had far-reaching consequences. Today if you think some passages in the plays are not Shakespeare’s, you are a Disintegrator. This misinterpretation of Chambers is so widely ingrained that no less an eminence than Samuel Schoenbaum is willing to repeat it: “The Disintegration of Shakespeare… effectively turned the tide against those—the disintegrators—who assigned passages and sometimes whole plays of Shakespeare to other hands.” (Shakespeare’s Lives, revised, 512).

Chambers did not include passages thought to be spurious as examples of Disintegration. It is true he castigated F.  G. Fleay: “Fleay distributed and redistributed Henry VI, Richard III, and Titus Andronicus among Shakespeare, Marlowe, Greene, Peele, Lodge, and Kyd; found much of Lodge and a little of Drayton in Taming of the Shrew, traces of Peele in Romeo and Juliet, traces of Kyd in Hamlet, debris of Dekker and Chettle in Troilus and Cressida.” But is Chambers himself truly convinced of the purity Shakespeare’s plays? For the answer to that we need only turn to his William Shakespeare:

1 Henry VI. Chambers divides this play into sections a-f: “If Shakespeare is in it at all, it must be in (a)…. Gaw finds Peele in some of the (b) scenes, and I see no obvious reason why he should not have written all of them…. Section (c) [the Talbot death scenes] is more likely that they are by the author of (b)…. If Greene is in the play, (d) [the Suffolk and Margaret scenes] seems more like him…. Shakespeare’s presence is only clear to me in (e), the Temple garden scene, and (f) an unrhymed Talbot scene leading up to (c) (290-92).

Titus Andronicus. It cannot, as a whole, be Shakespeare’s at a date later than Richard III and the Comedy of Errors. If, then, one could be sure that the play was really new on 24 January 1594, I should be inclined to accept Ravenscroft’s tradition [that shakespeare only applied ‘master touches’ to the play] much as it stands, and to suppose that the author, whether ‘private’ in the Restoration sense or not was someone unknown to us…. And again, if the play was originally written in 1592, and still more if in 1589, the stylistic case against Shakespeare as an original writer is weakened, and as the Garter poem did not exist, that for Peele as an original writer is, so far as the parallels to it have any weight, strengthened (317-).

The Taming of the Shrew. I assign to Shakespeare Ind. i, ii; ii. I. I-38, II5-326; iii, 2. 1-29, 151-254; iv. I, 3, 5; v. 2. 1-181. Possibly he also contributed to the Petruchio episode in I. 2. I-II6. Some critics give him less than I have done. On my view his share amounts to about three-fifths of the play, and includes all the Sly and Petruchio-Katharina scenes. The other writer is responsible for the subplot of Bianca’s wooers. I do not know who he was.”

So, while it is clear that Chambers did not believe that a number of plays attributed to Shakespeare were wholly Shakespearean, he did not profess to withdraw them from the canon as the disintegrators wished to do.

But here’s the irony: The antidisintegrator has a spikey exterior that camouflages a gelatinous interior. For, this genuflector before the canon, and strict adherent to documented fact, is willing to sanction Pericles, which Heminges and Condell did not include in th First Folio; to endorse the unproved collaboration between Shakespeare and Fletcher in Henry VIII; to admit to the canon Two Noble Kinsmen, Edward III, the wretched “A Funeral Elegy,” and regurgitate the purely conjectural notion that Shakespeare is Hand D in Sir Thomas More. Many think that if an idea has been repeated for a hundred years it must be a fact. Not so.

Are we not therefore entitled to conclude that the antidisintegrator is himself corrupting the canon by addition rather than subtraction?

Years ago when I mentioned to an important play publisher that Edward III—there are now two editions—was coming out, he said “Good. We can use more Shakespeare material.” Since the Shakespeare Establishment is willing to oblige him, it might as well make him jump for joy by throwing in Locrine, The Puritan, The Birth of Merlin and the rest of the Apocrypha. Surely there are enough scholars wanting to make names for themselves with hot new editions of “Shakespeare” plays. At the current pace, the Third Folio will soon become the official one.

Today, nearly ninety years later, the impact of Chambers’ polemic is still keenly felt. In an era in which the Shakespeare canon is sacrosanct, the word disintegrator is a term of contempt and ridicule. And if one is labeled a disintegrator he is not to be taken seriously. But in reality the term amounts to nothing more than an ad hominem slur, an empty house built on an ersatz foundation.