Meet the Kiwi scholar who's got Shakespeare's number
MacDonald P Jackson remembers the first poetry he heard. He was in a high chair at the time, being fed spoonfuls of something, and his mother was reading from AA Milne's When We Were Very Young. He would have been three, so it would have been about 1941. His father was a schoolteacher. The house was full of books.
A bit later he discovered another poet: William Shakespeare. He was obsessed with the 1948 Laurence Olivier film of Hamlet, returning to the cinema "at least half a dozen times". Studying Hamlet in sixth form English at Auckland Grammar he found he didn't experience that difficulty with the language that scares off some students: "I responded to it very quickly and easily."
And that's how you begin a career as one of the world's leading Shakespeare scholars.
Professor Jackson is 78. He retired from the University of Auckland in 2004, but last week his research was making international headlines. He is part of the team behind Oxford University Press's new collection of Shakespeare's works, the first major edition to credit Shakespeare's rival Christopher Marlowe as co-author of the three Henry VI plays – parts 1, 2 and 3.
Jackson has published more than 200 articles and written or co-authored 13 books. He was an award-winning lecturer at Auckland, where his course on film versions of Shakespeare was hugely popular. He's seen the British greats like Dame Judi Dench on stage over decades. He's attended Shakespeare conferences everywhere "from Atlanta to Zurich", and is also an esteemed authority on New Zealand literature. But his claim to fame in the The New Oxford Shakespeare is built on his expertise in a splendidly arcane corner of literary studies: statistical analysis of a text to establish authorship.
Jackson fell into it as a student while reading Henry VIII, which contains some passages written by John Fletcher, a younger contemporary of Shakespeare.
"I noticed while I was reading it that – this might get a bit boring – I noticed that the world 'yes' appeared much more often than in any play I'd ever read."
In the Fletcher-attributed passages the modern word "yes" was prevalent, while in the bits by Shakespeare you saw the older affirmative word "ay".
"That set me going," says Jackson. In the world of literary detective work, it seemed you could still dust for an author's fingerprints 400 years after the event.
In Shakespeare's time, plays were often printed anonymously, or with the wrong names on the title page, or with unacknowledged revisions, so there were plenty of cases to investigate. Early on Jackson focussed on Thomas Middleton, a successful dramatist who turned out to have written chunks of Shakespeare's plays, including most of Act 3 of Timon of Athens.
Jackson frequently visited Oxford's Bodleian Library, poring over 150 plays in their original "quarto" printings, looking for Middleton's tiny linguistic tics, such as using "on't" (meaning "of it") and "e'en" (for "even").
Jackson was no maths whiz, but he taught himself the statistical tools he needed. Back then, you counted words and phrases "by hand and eye", but the advent of computer databases of tens of thousands of early books and plays has changed the game. Some tests analyse the frequency of such dreary words as "the", "of" and "from" to detect an author's signature.
The results are surprisingly robust, says Jackson, even allowing for writer's stylistic maturation and the fact that writers imitate and plagiarise each other.
Jackson uses the new tools, but "I must admit, I quite like counting things" – as long as it's going to end up demonstrating something useful.
But how useful is it to know that it was Middleton (or Marlowe, or Fletcher) who wrote something we thought was Shakespeare's?
It matters, says Jackson, because it's "establishing historical truth". One wants to get as broad a picture as possible of the London theatre in a period that produced "some of the greatest drama that's ever been written – not all of it by Shakespeare, but most of it".
Proving that Shakespeare had co-writers put his achievements in their context.
"The whole idea of Shakespeare as a solitary genius working utterly alone on his scripts has dissolved, and we realise that like other playwrights of the time he tended to collaborate."
A career highlight was proving the anonymous 1606 play The Revenger's Tragedy, which had been attributed to Cyril Tourneur, was actually the work of Thomas Middleton.
"Now that makes a difference. That means everybody now knows it as Middleton's play. It's in the collected works. It gets compared with other Middleton plays.
"It makes no difference to him. He's dead. But the reputation of Middleton is what's at stake."
Reporters made much of Marlowe's co-authorship of Henry VI, but Jackson's biggest contribution to the new Oxford Shakespeare edition went in the other direction – proving that Shakespeare was definitely the writer of the early tragedy Arden of Faversham, which was printed anonymously in 1592 and whose authorship has long been moot.
It makes a "tremendous difference" to the play itself knowing that Shakespeare was involved, says Jackson. "It'll be put on a lot more frequently."
It's important, says Jackson, not to confuse these nuanced reappraisals of Shakespeare's collaborations with the outlandish theory that his plays were written by someone else entirely, perhaps a nobleman such as Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford.
This strand of Shakespeare revisionism, which sprang up in the 1800s, is based on snobbery and zero evidence, says Jackson. To buy this line, "you have to construct some giant conspiracy for which there is absolutely no point at all".
It's eight years since Jackson retired from Auckland University, and though he is clearly delighted to be free of the corporate blight of "strategic plans" and "research performance assessments" in modern academia, his own work has barely slowed.
He's just published a book identifying the true author of the 19th-century poem "The Night Before Christmas", and an essay about screen versions of King Lear. On Thursday, he flew to Wellington for a meeting with David Carnegie and David Gunby – "retired" professors from Victoria and Canterbury respectively – with whom he's working on the fourth volume of the works of the dramatist John Webster. A literary detective's work is never done.
- Sunday Star Times