Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Man Behind The Devil

Published six times in quarto over 50 years, performed at court and the Globe, and cited by both Thomas Middleton and Ben Johnson (cite Chambers) in their works, The Merry Devill of Edmonton was clearly an extremely popular comedy of 17th century England. Yet the question still remains: who wrote it? Editors have, since the 18th century, proposed authors such as Dekker and Middleton for various stylistic and thematic reasons, but the only attribution from the era of Merry Devill's peak priority claims that William Shakespeare is the author. This was first put forward 37 years after Shakespeare's death, however, and is unlikely to be true for some very simple reasons.

While we do not know when the play was first performed, Thomas Middleton first makes reference to it in Black Booke (his 1604 sequel to Thomas Nash's Pierce Penniless) (Middleton 536). Merry Devill must have been written at least sometime earlier. Pretending that Middleton wanted his audiences to understand the reference, it is reasonable to assume Merry Devill was popular with a broad enough audience that he would have been comfortable in making the assumption that his audiences would have understood the reference when writing Black Booke, so it would be fair to estimate Merry Devill to be a product of 1603 at the latest (in fact, this is Chamber's estimated date as well).
While certainly not all quartos were published with the authors name, even Shakespeare's, we know that certain of his quartos were (such as the 2 Henry IV quarto of 1600) (Greenblatt 1322). It is by no means proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but the question must linger in our minds as to why, if Shakespeare was the author, his name would have been left off.

A more compelling question that one must ask before attributing this play to Shakespeare: why was a popular work of Renaissance theatre not collected into the First Folio of the most popular Renaissance playwright's work? Since the First Folio was compiled by Shakespeare's friends, coworkers, and admirers after his death, it is fair to assume that the collection was meant as a testament to Shakespeare's genius by his contemporaries. Of course, it was printed to be sold and make money, and the completeness of the collection was one of the selling points.
While the First Folio was not a complete collection, Herminge and Condell's introduction indicates that they had assembled what they believed to be the most complete collection of Shakespeare's works possible. If Shakespeare's contemporaries were to ascribe authorship to the man himself, there is no reason to think that they would not have done so at this time.

It would be 30 years after the Folio that The Merry Devill was first ascribed to Shakespeare.
At some point after the 1631 quarto Humphrey Moseley obtained the rights to the text and registered the play on 9 September 1653 with the stationer as "The merry devil of Edmonton, by Wm:Shakespeare" (Chambers, Vol. 4. 30). The title page of the play had, since the first quarto of 1608, advertised The Merry Devill as having been performed by the King's Men, and so it was perhaps not unreasonable for Moseley to assume that the play, which was popular enough to warrant another printing in 1655, was written by the greatest playwright of that company.

Lacking some new discovered reference, it will be impossible to do anything but guess as to the author of the text. Whether it is the work of a gifted but unknown journeyman, the product of collaborative authorship in a way that did not make sense to credit any one (or two) individuals (a distinct possibility given it's three very separate plots and sets of characters), or the work of William Shakespeare's own hand is unknown. While the writers of one of early modern London's most popular comedies will likely remain a mystery, this ultimately does nothing to diminish the quality of the text, or its success in its own time.

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