I Imagine, if you will, the works of Shakespeare laid out on a map like the United States of America. The Poems are coloured blue, the Comedies green, the History plays red, and the Tragedies black. The five plays in which Shakespeare had a co-author – Titus Andronicus with George Peele, Timon of Athens with Thomas Middleton, Pericles with George Wilkins, Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen with John Fletcher – are marked with a diagonal band. Then imagine a series of changes. A patch of yellow (for Middleton) is spreading over the black of Macbeth, and another yellow patch has established itself on the green of Measure for Measure. Also, a small and hitherto un-regarded offshore island, no more than a pile of rocks, has been annexed in blue.
These are the changes that were made by the Oxford Shakespeare Complete Works in 1986 and justified in a separate Textual Companion the following year. The prime mover in all three revisions to Shakespeare’s canon was Gary Taylor, a young American scholar who had just been promoted from editorial assistant to co-editor alongside Stanley Wells, a respected Shakespeare scholar. Since no external evidence exists for these ascriptions, Taylor had to rely on other evidence or his own aesthetic judgement. The small rocky island on the new map was a banal lyric, “Shall I die?” which Taylor inserted in the canon because in one manuscript the scribe signed it “William Shakespeare”, increasing its value to other collectors. In fact, it looks like a poem written for music in around 1610. None of Taylor’s co-editors, and indeed no other critic, ever endorsed the ascription, but if you’re editor of the Oxford Shakespeare you don’t need anyone else’s approval.