Verily a flea in the ear for all who fail to properly hear

'Counterfeiting' Shakespeare - Shakespeare, Co-author
November 14, 2003

Scholarship of attribution is a battlefield strewn with corpses, particularly when it comes to Shakespeare. Kiernan Ryan witnesses a rise in the body count.

A decade ago, in Appropriating Shakespeare (1993), Brian Vickers launched a stinging attack on current trends in Shakespeare criticism.

Approaches to the plays, animated by the political and theoretical agendas of the present, were hauled over the coals for what Vickers viewed as their slipshod scholarship and historical implausibility. Although the rearguard conservatism of Vickers' own agenda was equally vulnerable to critique, there was no denying the book's many palpable hits or the blushes they brought to the cheeks of the hippest Shakespearean critics.

Now Vickers has set out once again to confound the forces of darkness in Shakespeare studies, this time by confronting them on the corpse-strewn battlefield of attribution. The simultaneous publication of these formidable twin tomes is plainly designed to deal the enemy a fatal double blow. In one book, the object of Vickers' wrath is the spurious assignment to Shakespeare of poems that are demonstrably the work of other hands. In the other, it is the refusal to give due credit to dramatists who can be proved to have co-authored several of his plays.

"Counterfeiting" Shakespeare: Evidence, Authorship and John Ford's Funerall Elegye has two hapless whipping boys, the hotshot American scholars Gary Taylor and Donald Foster. Taylor hit the headlines in 1985 with his claim to have discovered a hitherto-unknown poem by Shakespeare, Shall I Die? Ten years later, the flashbulbs were popping in Foster's face after he proclaimed Shakespeare to be the author of A Funerall Elegye in Memory of the late Vertuous Maister William Peeter of Whipton Neere Excester , published in 1612 as the work of one "W.S".

Nobody with more than a passing acquaintance with Shakespeare's verse bought either attribution for a second. Nothing in the lame lute lyric Shall I Die? ("I did walke, I did talke / With my love, with my dove") sounds remotely like Shakespeare, even at his most pedestrian.

Neither is it any easier to detect the slightest substantive affinity between what Shakespeare wrote at any stage of his career and the pious, plodding, pleonastic Funerall Elegye . But Taylor and Foster remained unfazed by the avalanche of detailed rebuttals from experts. They insisted that their identifications of the poems as Shakespeare's were founded on a host of verifiable verbal parallels with his work.

If the sheer gall of their defiance of disproof was not what got Vickers'

goat, then it was surely the fact that their defiance was rewarded by the inclusion of the poems in prestigious one-volume editions of Shakespeare used by thousands of students across the world. Whatever sparked it, Vickers' outrage at this violation of the basic principles of scholarship was such that it drove him to mount a comprehensive refutation of the cases made by Taylor and Foster.

The task of disposing of Taylor's claims for Shall I Die? does not detain him long. Vickers needs no more than a 50-page prologue, sarcastically entitled "Gary Taylor finds a poem", to expose Taylor's three fundamental mistakes: he failed to consider the negative evidence by checking the alleged verbal parallels against the verse of other poets writing between 1590 and 1620; he selected isolated particles of language for comparison, instead of examining extended sequences of discourse and thought; and he neglected to note that even where the diction of Shall I Die? and Shakespeare did coincide, the Bard invariably used the same word in a quite different sense.

The bulk of the book is devoted to the demolition of Foster's more complex contention that the Funerall Elegye "is formed from textual and linguistic fabric indistinguishable from that of canonical Shakespeare". Marshalling a fearsome array of stylometric tables and statistical charts, Vickers demonstrates in detail that every one of the linguistic, prosodic and rhetorical features that supposedly stamp the Elegye as 24-carat Shakespeare prove nothing of the sort, because Foster's procedure is as flawed as Taylor's. Not content with that, Vickers proceeds to construct a convincing case for ascribing the poem instead to the Jacobean playwright and poet John Ford. As "Counterfeiting" Shakespeare was going to press, Vickers notes in his preface, independent corroboration of his ascription by a distinguished Ford scholar forced Foster to recant and acknowledge Ford's authorship of the Elegye .

Whether ostensibly authoritative editions such as the Oxford Shakespeare, which features Shall I Die? , and the Norton Shakespeare, which embraces the Elegye as well, remove these impostors from the ranks of Shakespeare's authenticated texts remains to be seen. Their response might well be to play dead and count on the patent triviality of both poems to leave Bard buffs indifferent to the import of Vickers' labours. There is certainly no denying that for long stretches of " Counterfeiting" Shakespeare , with its remorseless computations of proclitic micro-phrases, ictic stresses, pausation practices and the like, the author seems to be using a pneumatic drill to flatten a flea.

It should be much harder, however, to turn a blind eye to the conclusions Vickers reaches in Shakespeare, Co-author . For if the evidence he adduces and the reasoning he applies are as sound as they appear to be, the covers of future editions of Titus Andronicus , Timon of Athens , Pericles and Henry VIII should each bear the name of Shakespeare's collaborators alongside his own as a matter of common justice. What is depriving the co-authors of these plays of proper recognition, Vickers maintains, is a conservative, bardolatrous consensus that clings to the romantic myth of solitary genius, in spite of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary.

Armed with the same merciless methods that dispatched Taylor and Foster, and backed up once more by batteries of tallies, quotients and graphs, Shakespeare, Co-author sets about assailing that consensus on every front.

The proof that another hand and another mind are at work in whole acts and scenes of the plays in question is secured by the systematic identification of disparities not only in vocabulary, syntax, verse style and rhetoric, but also at the level of plotting and characterisation.

It is true that in some cases Vickers is kicking down open doors. Few Shakespeare scholars will be stunned by his confirmation that Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen were co-written with John Fletcher, and that George Wilkins is the man to blame for the first two acts of Pericles . But Vickers' point is that the extent of the co-authors' share in these plays can now be defined with a precision that makes joint authorship a matter of fact rather than conjecture. As a consequence, the credibility of editions that refuse to accept this fact - such as the New Cambridge edition of Pericles (1998) - is, in Vickers' view, seriously compromised.

The contention that George Peele definitely penned the whole of Act I and the first two scenes of Act II of Titus , and that nine scenes of Timon - about a third of the play - were unquestionably composed by Thomas Middleton, is much more inflammatory. If Vickers' compelling argument stands up, however, the current Oxford, New Cambridge, New Penguin, and Arden editions of Titus and Timon will have to be overhauled. Editors who remain convinced that Shakespeare was the only begetter of these plays will be obliged to lock horns with Vickers - and the best of luck to them.

There can be no doubt that "Counterfeiting" Shakespeare and Shakespeare, Co-author constitute a major contribution to the arcane domain of attribution studies, which has wider implications for our understanding of Shakespeare's poetry and plays. For, in the course of confuting misattributions and giving collaborators their due, Vickers equips us with the means of identifying, more confidently than was previously possible, the unmistakable music of Shakespeare's mind at play in language, and the different tunes it danced to at different points in his career. He thereby supplies powerful ammunition for combating not only post-structuralist twaddle about the death of the author, but also the plague of historicism that has diverted attention from Shakespeare's unique verbal art for far too long.

Kiernan Ryan is professor of English, Royal Holloway, University of London.

'Counterfeiting' Shakespeare: Evidence, Authorship and John Ford's Funerall Elegye

Author - Brian Vickers
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 568
Price - £55.00
ISBN - 0 521 77243 5

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