Leading Article: Too blinded by the Bard to recognise true talent

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The Independent Online
Dr Eric Sams, the great Shakespearean, is convinced the Bard wrote the play Edward III. If true the attribution not only boosts the canon to 39 but rounds out nicely the great historical cycle that ends with Richard III. Dr Sams's call is based on painstaking scholarly detective work - gigabytes are now routinely applied to tracing metre and meaning across time and space. Like Ariadne he follows the thread in and out of Elizabethan court politics and weaves much clever stuff of his own.

The life of Edward, under whom the King of the Scots had died in prison, gave the playwright a chance to be rude about the Scots. At the time this was politically incorrect, since the Scots were mostly religious allies in a hostile world. Railing at the Scots became especially dangerous after Elizabeth recognised Mary's son, James, as her heir - which, of course, she never formally did, though she let it be known through what passed at Richmond and Greenwich for sources close to the Palace.

It's all great stuff and tremendous fun. But at the end of the day you are tempted to ask, who gives a fig? Dr Sams's excitement about Edward III may win that disputed play a staging and it may, in the hands of a Hands or even a Rylance, turn out to be a grand performance. But does the identity of the author matter to the qualities of the play? Besides, all this attributive politicking comes at a cost.

The real question is whether we have become so fixated by artistic names - the cult of genius - that we are depriving ourselves of great swathes of culture which deserves to be recalled and consumed for what it is, not for its author's fame. Most theatre managers would say that the tourists and casual theatre-goers need a name; the brand matters. Christopher Marlowe's Edward II is a vastly better play than this "new" Shakespeare, but it is likely to be less of a crowd-puller.

In the theatre, as in the plastic arts and the novel, attention and fame get heaped on those already famous. Shakespeare, as the name who wows them from Calgary to Cochin, the set book, the top of the reading list, exemplifies the historical triumph of the auteur or individualist theory in art. For all the noise made by the structuralists and the deconstructionists, they have made no real inroads into the way we think about high cultural production: lone man at desk with quill, solo painter in atelier, Mahlerian composer anguishing limply on an alpine summit.

This way of thinking about art means that the juvenile leavings and hack- work of the great names are promoted and discussed at the expense of much better works. More, they are elevated to semi-sacred status. Every word or pencil-line by a genius is guarded by the academic keepers of the flame. In Shakespearean studies, this causes endless problems and argument; was that line his or that of some lesser hand; did the Bard, could the Bard, have been responsible for that substandard stanza? Shakespeare himself would have been flattered but bemused. He lived and worked in the age before the divine artist, and before marketing, when begging, borrowing and stealing material was common - great chunks of Macbeth are lifted from Holinshed's chronicles, which themselves were hardly original.

Shakespeare plays were all in part collective productions, compounds of manuscript, ad lib, revision on stage and - who knows - intervention by groundlings. Early on they were works in progress, the common property of the troupe and its patrons. His special gifts make most of them gleam, though there are bad jokes, weak lines and lame couplets aplenty. Other, lesser, playwrights collaborated heavily - one of the most enjoyable plays of the era, The Witch of Edmonton, is by three authors, at least. The same processes could be widely seen in the pre-modern arts; ateliers and "schools of" in Flemish and Italian painting; music picked up and endlessly adapted by sometimes obscure German Kapellmeister.

Today, by contrast, we are children of the cult of the romantic genius. We are dazzled, still, by the sublime models of the past few centuries and as a result we perhaps over-emphasise individual genius.

Getting over-excited by bad Shakespeare (and anyone who thinks there is no bad Shakespeare should try Titus Andronicus) leads to him being locked up inside the canon. Allan Bloom, the American, had good reasons to attempt to set down a central list of "great" works of western civilisation: he was contending with growing illiteracy among American college students and the casual relativism of academic colleagues who rated their authors and painters simply because they were not dead, white or male. But canonisation excludes. It directs the spotlight centre-stage when just off in the darkness there are writers and creators of talent. It leads to the ridiculous doctrine that the lesser works of the greats are necessarily better than the great works of lesser creators.

So Mozart's juvenilia are preferred to the mature works of Cherubini or Hummel. "School of" becomes a term of abuse. The greatest novels of RS Surtees and Thackeray, Smollett and Grassic Gibbon, are overshadowed by lesser works by Dickens or George Eliot. The Bard hides a gallery of contemporaries from Marston to Middleton, Dekker to John Ford who are, at their best, wonderful. It is mildly fun to "discover" a Shakespeare attribution, or a possible Bronte novel. But there are many much more exciting discoveries in the mildewed back-rooms of second-hand bookshops or local libraries. They don't get front-page stories or academic seminars, but they are the rich and vivid flesh of our culture.