Disintegration, 1924

John Jowett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Noting the negative connotations of the term “disintegration” in Shakespeare studies, this paper examines its inception as a label for earlier attribution scholarship and for John Dover Wilson's textual hypotheses in E.K. Chambers' British Academy lecture of 1924. The term's historical resonance is traced with reference particularly to Rutherford's work on the disintegration of the atom, but also the inter-war fear in the English establishment of social and cultural disintegration. Wilson, like Chambers, was employed by the Board of Education, and was likewise an adherent to the views of Matthew Arnold on education in English literature as a humanizing influence that might keep Arnoldian anarchy at bay. However, Chambers' term “disintegration” suggests that Wilson was unknowingly allied to the forces of anarchy. Although Chambers' critique of Wilson's theories was valid in itself, it made undisintegrated Shakespeare an article of faith, and thus had a damagingly ossifying effect on Shakespeare studies. Today, the anxiety about textual “disintegration” remains, but attribution work is identifying an increasing number of collaborative Shakespeare plays. What remains to be done is to learn, in a positive sense, how to read Shakespeare differently as a writer who worked alongside others. To this end, neither Wilson's “continuous copy” nor Chambers' “continuous personality” provides an adequate model. Textual study relates to both the historical Shakespeare and discontinuous texts.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)171-187
Issue number2
Early online date10 Oct 2013
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • disintegration
  • attribution study
  • collaboration
  • history of criticism
  • E.K. Chambers
  • John Dover Wilson
  • Ernest Rutherford
  • Matthew Arnold


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