Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well might have been co-authored with a fellow playwright, Oxford University academics have found.
Thomas Middleton, writer of The Changeling, was the most likely co-author of the comedy in the First Folio of 1623, according to analysis of the text, spelling, speech prefixes and narrative phrasing.
Professor Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith, both of Oxford University’s English faculty, said writers have their own distinctive literary fingerprints and anomalies within the play show ‘markers’ strongly linked to Middleton.
Dr Smith said: ‘We are not saying that Middleton and Shakespeare definitely worked together on All’s Well but Middleton’s involvement would certainly explain many of the comedy’s stylistic, textual and narrative quirks.
‘The narrative stage directions, especially ‘Parolles and Lafew stay behind, commenting on this wedding’, look as though it is the point at which one author handed over to another.’
Londoner Thomas Middleton lived between 1580 and 1627 and became a celebrated writer, remembered for works such as Women Beware Women.
An analysis of the textual composition of All’s Well supports Middleton’s involvement, with whom Shakespeare also collaborated on Timon Of Athens at the same time, the academics said.
‘The proportion of the play written in rhyme is much higher than usual for Jacobean Shakespeare: 19 per cent of the lines are in rhyme, which fits Middleton’s norm of 20 per cent,’ added Professor Maguire.
‘Shakespeare tends to use ‘Omnes’ as a speech prefix and ‘All’, preferred by Middleton, only occurs twice in the Folio: both times in All’s Well.’
The research suggests act 4, scene 3 was written by Middleton, Professor Maguire said.
‘This scene sees Parolles describing Bertram as ‘ruttish’, a word whose only other occurrence as an adjective is in Middleton’s The Phoenix,’ he said.
‘It also sees an unusual number of Middleton’s known spelling preferences.’
The word ‘ruttish’ means lustful – and its only other use at that time is in a work by Middleton.
More of his ‘modern’ grammar can be found in the text and its phrasing and spelling is closer to Middleton’s style than Shakespeare’s.
It is believed that if Middleton and Shakespeare did collaborate on All’s Well, it could provide an interesting insight into the way Shakespeare worked.
Dr Smith explained: ‘Where we know Shakespeare worked with other playwrights, it tended to be in a master-apprentice relationship, with Shakespeare as the apprentice in the early years and as the senior writer in his later years.
‘But if, as we suspect, All’s Well and Timon Of Athens were written in 1606-7 while Shakespeare was in the middle of his career and working with a dynamic, up-and-coming playwright like Middleton, the relationship seems not unlike an established musician working with the current big thing and is about more than just professional training.’
Research leader Professor Laurie Maguire said many plays of the time were written in partnership, but it was thought Shakespeare always penned pieces by himself.
He was thought to not want to share the glory with contempories due to his inconic status.
Prof Maguire said: ‘The picture that’s emerging is of much more collaboration. We need to think of it more as a film studio with teams of writers.
‘We are confident there is a second hand in the authorship of the play and that hand belongs to Thomas Middleton.’