Although the name William Shakespeare is listed with that of Rowley on the title page of the 1662 quarto, this is generally agreed to have been a marketing ploy. The first editor of the play, Henry Tyrrell, insists that the play "does not contain in it one single trace of the genius of the bard of Avon." And more specifically, for instance, the "magical portion is too palpable, too material'; Edol and Uter are "bombastic and unnatural"; and Uter's beating of Joan is "not only unprincely, but unmanly and savage. Shakespeare could not have written this" (qtd. in Udall 26).
Despite some echoes of canonical plays, a more recent editor, C.F. Tucker Brooke, declares,
There is not a single poetic passage in The Birth of Merlin, which will justify for an instant the hypothesis of Shakespeare's authorship. The disjointed nature of the plot, moreover, the foolish and immature morality of the Modestia scenes, and the repeated appeals to the cheap make-shifts of sorcery and divination, stamp it as distinctively un-Shakespearean. (qtd. in Udall 27)One might add to this list the goofiness of the Devil himself trotting about on stage.
It may be fleetingly tempting to find an Oxfordian self-depiction in the character of Edol, Earl of Chester. Here is an exchange about him by some other characters:
"You know his humor will indure no check,When commanded by Aurelius, the King of Britain, to be silent, Edol rants:
Not if the King oppose it,
All crosses feeds both his spleen, and his impatience,
Those affections are in him like powder,
Apt to inflame with every little spark,
And blow up all his reason."
"Edol of Chester is a noble Soldier."
"So is he by the Rood, every most faithful
To the King and Kingdom, how e're his passions guide him."
"Silent? how long? till Doomsday? shall I stand by,But although editor Joanna Udall may wish to leave a slight possibility open as to authorship, she admits that The Birth of Merlin contains few to none of the key Shakespearean elements:
And hear mine Honor blasted with foul Treason,
The State half lost, and your life endanger'd,
Yet be silent?" (III.vi.94-97)
Among the distinctive features which could be said to be the hall-marks of Shakespearean drama are the distinctive use of significant imagery, felicity of expression, thematic coherence, economy of structure, a questioning and inventive approach to source material, and a persistent reassessment of the commonplace. (31)
Udall, Joanna, ed. A Critical, Old-Spelling Edition of The Birth of Merlin. London: The Modern Humanities Research Association, 1991.