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Mary Ann Koory : The Spanish Tragedy

Dramaturg Mary Ann Koory blogs about THE SPANISH TRAGEDY

Mary Ann Koory

Dr. Mary Ann Koory, an award-wining teacher at the University of California Berkeley Extension and San Francisco State University, introduces students to Shakespeare as a cultural icon in our time, but also as a successful producer of commercial entertainment in Renaissance England. She's long been fascinated by the way THE SPANISH TRAGEDY haunted Shakespeare and the Jacobean dramatists. She will be working with the cast of THE SPANISH TRAGEDY as dramaturg for this summer's production. Read her musings about the play, the theatrical process, and why you won't want to miss this rare chance to enjoy this very special production.

Blog Post #12

Come enjoy the intersection of dramaturgy, poetry and birding for an evening in Forest Meadows. Join me and birder Linda Swanson Saturday night, September 14, 2013, for a bird walk, dinner and talk about birds in Shakespeare, and then, of course, enjoy the rollicking production of A Comedy of Errors. Reservations for dinner need to be made in advance. download the Bird flyer (pdf)


Blog Post #11

Author Brand Name

j.k RowlingYou may have followed the recent story about J.K. Rowling’s new, non-Harry Potter novel, called The Cuckoo’s Calling. Published in April under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, it dropped like a stone and disappeared into the murky depths of the commercial fiction market, presumably to bob up again, distended by deep discounts, on a remainder table somewhere, as almost all novels by unknown authors tend to do.

Then, in July, an anonymous someone leaked – or sneakily announced – the real author’s identity to a journalist at the London Times. The newspaper hired two experts to analyze the novel using software, and they concluded that there were significant stylistic similarities between Rowling and the pseudonymous Galbraith, including “short words, like articles and prepositions, in distinctive patterns that amount to a kind of authorial fingerprint.” (TIME Magazine) Confronted with statistical analysis, Rowling caved and admitted that she wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling.

The Cuckoo’s Calling promptly became an international best-seller, without changing a published word. The only change was our understanding that the words “Robert Galbraith” on the cover now signified “J.K. Rowling.”

I don't know the specifics of the analyses the London Times paid to have run on The Cuckoo’s Calling, but I imagine they are similar in principle to what Professor Brian Vickers and others have done to the Additions to The Spanish Tragedy to prove that they may have been written by Shakespeare.

And both groups performed these analyses and made these claims, however scrupulously, for surprisingly similar, 21st century reasons: to exploit an author’s brand name, J.K. Rowling and William Shakespeare, respectively.

One intellectual, professional reason for expanding Shakespeare attributions is to expand the frontiers of the academic empire.

The world of Shakespeare criticism is not exactly stem cell research. There are not a universe of radical discoveries waiting to be made. The chances that a moldering manuscript of Cardenio, for instance, will turn up in the walls of a thatched cottage in Stratford are steadily decreasing from slim to none. These 320 lines represent new text to analyze; new contexts for old tropes; new understanding of writing and performing practice; new material on which to build reputations.

A second reason for scholars to be inclined to attribute these lines to Shakespeare is to expand, if you will, the Shakespeare product line to include a superb speech. Hieronimo’s speech beginning “It is neither as you think . . .” is ironic, psychologically complex and moving: qualities we especially value and would feel comfortable attributing to Shakespeare. It’s a kind of circular logic: this speech is great, Shakespeare is great, therefore, these lines must be Shakespeare’s.

This inclination is in marked contrast to the discussion around Donald Foster’s attribution of a poem called “A Funeral Elegy” to Shakespeare in 1996, a claim he based on computerized stylometric analysis. It was a fairly pedestrian poem, and critics objected more or less on those grounds.

By 2003, Foster humbly withdrew the claim. The Norton Shakespeare, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, and published in 1997, in the meantime, included “A Funeral Elegy” in an appendix as possibly by Shakespeare. That editorial choice now appears as a kind of publishing curiosity.

The old arguments against Shakespeare’s authorship of Titus Andronicus showed the same bias in reverse: how can this brutal, over-the-top revenge tragedy be part of the Shakespeare Brand? It really doesn’t complement the rest of the line. (It turns out that Titus Andronicus may in fact, according to Vickers, be a collaborative effort, though Shakespeare nonetheless wrote most of it.)

Another, far more cynical reason to attribute an anonymous or pseudonymous text to a famous author -- like J.K. Rowling -- is to sell more books.

It would be a boon to publishers of Shakespeare’s Complete Works to add another 320 lines to the canon. It makes every previous edition of the Complete Works more accurately The Incomplete Works and therefore obsolete.

I imagine a wholesale product replacement similar to what happened after the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. New world maps and globes were needed to reflect the new borders and names of Eastern Europe. Rand McNally couldn’t have been happier.

The Bankside (nee Riverside) Complete Works is due to come out in 2016 and these 320 lines represent a marketing coup. (Heed Greenblatt’s example, Bankside editors: no matter how you hedge your Spanish Tragedy bet, you will run the same risk.)

The major difference between the motivation for the style analysis of the author of The Cuckoo’s Calling and J.K. Rowling, and the similar style analysis of the author of the printed Additions to The Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare’s plays is that Rowling is alive and, under pressure of such evidence, can be made to admit to her authorship.

That admission, forced or hypocritical, is selling lots of books

Shakespeare, of course, cannot admit or deny anything.


“Rowling Thunder: Harry Potter’s Creator Rocks The Book World, Again,” Lev Grossman, TIME Magazine, July 29, 2013

Jennifer Schuessler , Much Ado About Who: Is It Really Shakespeare?,” New York Times, August 12, 2013

Brian Vickers, “Shakespeare and Authorship Studies in the Twenty-First Century,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 62:1, Spring 2011, 106-142 DOI: 10.1353/shq.2011.0004


Blog Post # 10 - August 15, 2013

Literary Cold Case

sahkespeares handwriting , maybeMonday, the New York Times ran a story about an authorial fingerprint in the 320 lines of The Spanish Tragedy that we know Thomas Kyd did not write: the so-called Additions that appeared in the 1602 Quarto, 8 years after Kyd’s death.

That Kyd did not write these Additions is the factual anchor in roughly 200 years of an otherwise fluid collection of scholarly research, analysis, hopeful speculation and fantasies about William Shakespeare and his relationship to The Spanish Tragedy.

The New York Times reported that Professor Douglas Bruster compared the pattern of Shakespeare’s idiosyncratic spelling from the five pages of his handwriting that we possess and the errant typography of the printed Additions and concluded that the typesetters for the Additions might in fact have been working from a manuscript written in handwriting similar to Shakespeare’s.

Bruster is building on a more global argument advanced by Professor Brian Vickers last year. Vickers applied software analysis of three-word phrases, an algorithm that incorporates the linguistic theory that we tend to compose in “chunks” of language, that individuals use repetitive phrases in particular contexts in unique patterns. Vickers also, unlike other analysts, compared the Additions to the texts of a substantial number of Early Modern dramas to eliminate the logical possibility that linguistic patterns may be similar to Shakespeare’s but even more similar to someone else’s.

The analyses are fascinating and a case of scrupulous, imaginative literary detective work. The results, however, are still only indicative, not conclusive.

Some Evidence For and Against Jonson

Ben JohnsonBen Jonson has been the leading candidate for these Additions for some time.
I personally have inclined toward Jonson as the author of these Additions because of these lines from the printed Additions:

Why might not a man love a calf as well?
Or melt in passion o’er a frisking kid,
As for a son?

This is from a superb soliloquy by Hieronimo that begins, “Tis neither as you think, nor as you think . . .

You may remember this from the Marin Shakespeare Company’s production, when Julian Lopez-Morillas enters with Horatio’s slippers in his hands. It was one of several highlights of Lopez-Morillas’ performance as Hieronimo.

Now, imagine that you are a playwright who’s been asked to ginger up Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy for a revival. Might you not include a sly and slighting reference to the original author, as a way of showing off? You might, especially if you are Ben Jonson, known for the high opinion you have of your own work.

I read that phrase, “frisking kid,” as a wink at the name of Thomas Kyd by whomever wrote the Additions.

Johnson's poemI also read that phrase as a potential sign of Jonson’s handiwork, because in a poem by Jonson in the front of the 1623 Folio edition of Shakespeare’s Plays, he praises Shakespeare for outdoing his contemporaries with these words: “how far thou didst our Lily outshine,/Or sporting Kid, or Marlowe’s mighty line.”

“Sporting Kid” echoes “frisking kid,” and, I think, might represent Jonson’s recycling of a phrase he used in an Addition to Kyd’s play some twenty years previously.

But, of course, it could also be an echo of someone else’s phrase from the Addition, perhaps even an intentional, ironic echo of Shakespeare’s phrase in a poem praising Shakespeare.

Up to this point, one persuasive piece of evidence for Jonson is that in 1601, impresario Philip Henslowe paid Jonson for writing additions to The Spanish Tragedy. The Additions came out a year later in 1602. It has seemed likely, even obvious, that the additions Henslowe paid Jonson for are the Additions printed in 1602.

Vickers, however, moves the date of the Additions from 1601 to 1599 on the basis of a reference to the Additions in another play (Antonio’s Revenge by John Marston). If true, that means that either Jonson wrote more than one set of additions to The Spanish Tragedy, or that someone else wrote the printed Additions. The 1602 printed Additions, in other words, do not represent the only additions ever made to the play or the only ones Jonson ever wrote.

The strongest argument against Jonson as the author of the printed Additions is the hardest to prove: many critics over the years, whose stylistic judgment is considerably more organic, intuitive and accurate than linguistic software analysis has yet to achieve, find the Additions to be written in a style uncharacteristic of Jonson and suggestive of Shakespeare.

Without being a Jonson expert myself, I tend to see the point. But I wonder if, given Jonson’s contempt for old-fashioned plays, especially The Spanish Tragedy, he might not have written more roughly (in meter and rhetorical structure) and more emotionally than his usual style? I grant absolutely that we have unique linguistic voices – but we do not also have the capacity to vary that voice, in mimicry or parody? The Additions might have been a witty parody, a personal protest against hack work that became a highly effective speech that he would never have been able to write in his own voice.

Why Would Shakespeare Write the Additions in 1599?

Vickers clarifies the investigation by changing the timeline, but does not resolve a crucial objection that I have to Shakespeare as the author.

Why would Shakespeare, a partner in the Chamberlain’s Men, write speeches for The Spanish Tragedy? Only, I think, if the Chamberlain’s Men were reviving it, and he and they might profit from an updated version. But we have no evidence that they did.

The evidence that we do have suggests that in the 1590s and early 1600s, The Spanish Tragedy was closely associated with Edward Alleyn and the Admiral’s Men who performed at the Rose, not at the Globe. Vickers cannot show evidence that Shakespeare’s company performed The Spanish Tragedy in 1599, or in any other year. He shows only that, at some point in his career, Richard Burbage, the leading actor of the Chamberlain’s Men, played Hieronimo. Burbage’s career was under way when The Spanish Tragedy premiered and Burbage might have played Hieronimo at some point in the seven years before he formed the Chamberlain’s Men.

In 1599, the Globe Theatre, the showcase venue for the Chamberlain’s Men, was built. In 1599, Shakespeare and Burbage had been sharers in the Chamberlain’s Men for four years. In 1599, Shakespeare’s name was being printed on the title page of his own plays. Why would he anonymously provide lines for another company’s performance of Kyd’s play?

It may be that the Chamberlain’s Men revived The Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare wrote Additions for it and we simply do not have records to prove it.

But it also may be that they did not, and Shakespeare did not.

This new work by Vickers and Bruster moves us forward, but not – yet – to a conclusion.


Jennifer Schuessler , “Much Ado About Who: Is It Really Shakespeare?,” New York Times, August 12, 2013

Douglas Bruster, “Shakespearean Spellings and Handwriting in the Additional Passages printed in the 1602 Spanish Tragedy,” Notes and Queries (July 29, 2013)

Brian Vickers, “Identifying Shakespeare’s Additions to The Spanish Tragedy (1602): A New (er) Approach.” Shakespeare, 8:1, 13 -143 (May 8, 2012)

Brian Vickers, “Shakespeare and Authorship Studies in the Twenty-First Century,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 62:1, Spring 2011, 106-142 DOI: 10.1353/shq.2011.0004

“Seeing the Fingerprints of Other Hands in Shakespeare,” William S. Niederkorn, New York Times, September 2, 2003


Post #9 - July 31, 2013

A snoodA Note On Liming Birds

Lorenzo gleefully rejoices in the manipulation of his dupes Pedringano and Balthazar with a metaphor based on trapping songbirds:

I set the trap, he breaks the worthless twigs
And sees not that wherewith the bird was lim'd.
Thus hopeful men, that mean to hold their own,
Must look like fowlers to their dearest friends.


“Fowler” in this speech refers to a bird-hunter who traps birds using “birdlime.” Pedringano, the victim in Lorenzo’s metaphor here, earlier describes himself as a bird-hunter, too, when he stands in wait with his pistol to shoot Serberine in the back: “Here comes the bird that I must seize upon!” (3.3.28) The fowler shortly thereafter becomes the trapped bird, a role reversal that happens frequently – and always violently – in The Spanish Tragedy.

In contrast to the practice of catching birds with lime, shooting the victim in the back seems significantly more humane.

The fowler sets sticks covered in “birdlime,” very sticky glue, where birds perch. As Dan Rhoad, wild life advocate, describes it, “Any bird landing on a lime-stick becomes stuck, falls upside down, and as it flutters to free itself it becomes progressively more attached to the stick. The birds do not usually die quickly: this is a long, lingering death, which may only occur when the trapper arrives to cut their throats or crush their heads.”

Can you see that Lorenzo is rejoicing in a cruel deception, one that causes its victims a “lingering death” and uses their own efforts to escape to increase their suffering and tighten the trap?

Shakespeare uses this image several times.

For instance, Iago, a direct descendant of the Machiavellian Lorenzo, explains to Desdemona why he takes so long to come up with a witty response: “my invention/Comes from my pate as birdlime does from frieze;/It plucks out brains and all.” (Othello, 2.1.127) Iago means that he pulls ideas out of his head (“pate”) with as much difficulty as birdlime (and its limed victim) comes off the woolen cloth wrapped around the stick; when he pulls out the idea, his brains come out with it.

Why would Iago use such a harsh and awkward image while bantering with Desdemona? It’s a deliberate irony: he is about to trap her in a set of lies designed so that the more energetically Desdemona tries to do the right thing, the worse she looks.

Shakespeare obviously had seen birds caught in this trap and, even if he lacked our cultural objection to such practices and enjoyed eating the results, his imagination nonetheless appreciated the suffering it inflicted and the deception it employed. Shakespeare and Kyd use images of birdliming to describe suffering and cruel deceptions; like harmless songbirds, innocent women or their melancholy lovers were often the metaphorical victims of these traps.

My colleague, Linda Swanson, a composition instructor at SFSU and longtime birder, attended Friday’s performance with me. Intrigued by Lorenzo’s metaphor, she researched birdliming. She discovered that birdliming is still current today, especially in Cyprus, where migrating songbirds are decimated every year.

Remember that the second half of Othello takes place in . . . yes, Cyprus.

Judging from the numerous bird images in their plays, Kyd’s and Shakespeare’s London was filled with birds. While I sit in the audience of the Forest Meadows Amphitheater, I am aware of the natural surroundings; at rehearsal once, I saw a doe and her fawn spring across the creek and run backstage. The trees, of course, are part of the setting, and the moon and the stars, but the birds, too, are present, in the air and in Kyd’s words.

Horatio compliments Bel-Imperia in a gallant couplet:

Hark, madam, how the birds record by night
For joy that Bel-Imperia sits in sight.

Nuttall's Woodpecker“Record” here means birds singing a tune quietly; my guess is that the verb is related to the flute-like instrument called the “recorder.” I have heard birds “record” during performances of the play. They do not seem to care at all that Kyd uses birdsong as ironic foreshadowing, the poetic equivalent of minor chords in a movie soundtrack.

Linda tells me she heard a Nuttall's Woodpecker just before the play began. She says, “The creek makes for good bird habitat. Patrons may want to visit the wooden bridge at the creek as they arrive and look for various bird species and wildlife. September is songbird migration time, when birds travel south.” She says you may see Oak Titmouse, Brown Creeper, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Bushtit, nuthatch, wren, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Yellow Warbler, and Song Sparrow, among other species.

Birds and Early Modern Drama are a natural combination. Enjoy.

Other resources:

Jonathan Franzen, the novelist, wrote an article for the National Geographic on the annual slaughter of songbirds crossing the Mediterranean.

The plague of starlings in North America are a direct result of Americans reading Shakespeare:

The set in preparation


Marin Shakespeare Company

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