No Magic in Shakespeare’s Words
A good work of fiction is greater than the sum of words the author invested in it. Shakespeare is a "great" playwright because his plays bear the load of much speculation and creativity from all its interpreters, not because he thought of every possible last detail and symbol and elucidated it clearly.
The collaborative flexibility of a play is especially valuable to plays that predate the emphasis on originality and copyright that became more important to writing in the 18th century as authors like Coleridge and the other Romantics began to extol the virtues of imagination and personal creativity. In Shakespeare’s time, one’s work was not one’s own. When a work was sold to a publisher, it belonged to the publisher to be edited and altered how he chose. When writing for a theatre, like Shakespeare, the play was fair game for anyone in the company to edit and "fix." An acting company bought the play just as a publisher would. Plays were also frequently written in teams for speed, since in the late 1580’s and early 1590’s when Shakespeare was starting out, the canon of English drama was less than a decade old, all plays were premiere plays, with new ones being introduced every fortnight.
Alterations were made constantly, as overworked actors added or transposed lines from others of the twenty roles they were performing at the same time, scenes were added to allow time for costume changes, or the censors required line or plot changes. The author, or one of the authors who each had written an act or parceled out scenes from the outlines play, or perhaps one of the actors or another playwright was on hand during the rehearsal process to make emendations to the play.
The second half of Shakespeare’s career was marked by increased control over his own work, not so much because of changes in the author-system (although Shakespeare was part of the changes toward author recognition that also began in the early 17th century), but because Shakespeare became a "sharer" in the King’s Men in 1594 (McMillin, 234).
Two centuries of subsequent editors all helped "improve" Shakespeare as well, until the push toward preserving the most authentic works of the original author began in the 18th century. The first folio of Shakespeare’s works was released in 1623, which helped to cement the plays’ authenticity somewhat. However, even the first folio was based only on old promptbooks and actors’ memories. From there,...