LONDON William Shakespeare may well have worked with contemporary playwright Thomas Middleton when creating "All's Well That Ends Well", Oxford academics believe, adding to evidence that the Bard collaborated frequently throughout his career.
But rather than detract from Shakespeare's reputation as an unrivalled genius, such partnerships should enhance our appreciation of the titan of theatre, they argued.
"The important thing to stress when writers write collaboratively is that there is a harmonic vision," said Professor Laurie Maguire of Oxford University's English Faculty.
"In that sense, Shakespeare is in all five acts of his plays. He's talking with his collaborators. So don't worry, we're not losing Shakespeare. It's our gain, not loss."
Maguire and Emma Smith, from the same department, recently stumbled across similarities between All's Well and Middleton's writing style that could help explain many of the play's "stylistic, textual and narrative quirks".
They said they had been "steeped" in the works of Middleton, which can be read in a single volume produced by the university's publishing arm.
"We went back to All's Well That Ends Well by coincidence, and the connections just dumbfounded us," she said. "A lot of these discoveries are serendipitous in this way."
"THE OTHER SHAKESPEARE"
On one level, the researchers' theory, which they admit is not yet proven, makes sense. Shakespeare is known to have collaborated with Middleton on "Timon of Athens" which was written in around 1606, at about the same time as All's Well.
Maguire also noted that the proportion of All's Well written in rhyme was much higher than normal for a Jacobean Shakespeare. In fact, the 19 percent of lines in rhyme is consistent with Middleton's norm of 20 percent.
She and Smith said there were more feminine endings and tri- and tetra-syllabic endings than usual, also hallmarks of Middleton. And the speech prefix "All", preferred by Middleton but rarely used by Shakespeare, occurs twice in All's Well.
According to Maguire, Shakespeare's collaborations have been acknowledged for some time, although the All's Well hypothesis is new and suggests that such partnerships ran through his writing career rather than coming at the beginning and end.
"We know that when 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," Smith explained.
"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."
Middleton is sometimes dubbed the "other Shakespeare", and, according to Oxford University Press, is the only other Renaissance playwright to have created masterpieces of both comedy and tragedy.
Maguire said working together made practical sense at a time when theatres were just opening and needed new works to stage.
But she conceded that the collaborative process challenged people's view of Shakespeare as an isolated master of his trade.
"It's because we have a Romantic view of the creative genius having to write alone, and in recent decades we have a much better understanding of Elizabethan theatre and of Shakespeare as a theatrical writer.
"Over 50 percent of Renaissance plays were written collaboratively -- it was the norm not the exception."
Were Shakespeare alive today, he would probably be working in Hollywood rather than in theatre, she added.
"Film is a very good analogy," said Maguire. "The speed and urgency with which plays were being produced makes the film studio the more valid comparison for us today."
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)