An elegy to the error

June 28, 2002

A possible mistaken identity has raised questions about literary 'evidence', says Donald Foster.

In 1996, I was blasted in the pages of The Times Literary Supplement for having introduced A Funeral Elegy , by "W. S.", to Shakespeare studies. Many readers found W.S.'s verse too funereal to have been penned by England's greatest poet. But Shakespeare's authorship of the elegy was not easily disproved. Though various attributions were advanced, they failed for a good reason. They were wrong.

But last week I joined Richard Abrams in conceding that the French scholar, G. D. Monsarrat, may have succeeded where British and American scholars have failed, demonstrating in an article in the Review of English Studies that the elegy looks like the work of the Jacobean dramatist John Ford. I know good evidence when I see it and I predict that Monsarrat will carry the day. As the elegy says: " what he spake / Seem'd rather answers which the wise embrace / Than busy questions such as talkers make ".

The linguistic and intertextual methodologies I myself most trust - and that inform Monsarrat's essay - associate "W. S." more strongly with Ford than with Shakespeare. By siding with Monsarrat's attribution, I abruptly sawed off a limb on which I have been perched, with cautious ambivalence, since 1989. In Elegy by W. S.: A Study in Attribution , I considered every W. S. known to literary scholarship, along with every published writer of memorial verse, for the period 1570-1630, and concluded that "there is a possibility, perhaps even a strong possibility, that the elegy is by Shakespeare". I identified Ford as W. S.'s most ardent imitator but did not think it possible, until reading Monsarrat, that W. S. was Ford. Ford would not (I thought), in a first-person funeral poem, attempt to deceive the Peter family, with whom he was well acquainted. Ford had a known association with Thomas Thorpe, the stationer of record for both Shakespeare's Sonnets (1609) and A Funerall Elegye (1612) and there would have been no financial motive for either Ford or Thorpe to associate Shakespeare with a privately printed funeral poem.

W. S.'s elegy was the attributional grist on which I cut my teeth as a graduate student. In hindsight, I can see I ought to have been more sceptical of the external evidence. Samuel Schoenbaum's benchmark study, Internal Evidence and Elizabethan Dramatic Authorship , articulated what was then the mainstream position - that "external evidence may and often does provide incontestible proof. Internal evidence can only support hypotheses or corroborate external evidence." If we should reach a consensus that W. S. was Ford, we will have done an about-face on the relative value of internal and external evidence.

I am okay with that. I have long attempted to demonstrate that internal evidence can tell us a lot more about anonymous documents than we once thought - from funeral poems to anthrax letters. A Funeral Elegy led me, by twists and turns, to a second career in criminology and courtroom testimony. My experience with police detectives, FBI agents, lawyers and juries has made me a better scholar, more rigorous in distinguishing between investigative inference and objective evidence.

Our courts have long exacted higher standards for the admissibility of attributional evidence than literary journals. If authorship of A Funeral Elegy were a crime, our courts would not have admitted "expert witnesses" to opine that the offender was William Sclater or Simon Wastell. If Shakespeare were charged, the courts would not have allowed a defence "expert" to testify that Shakespeare was simply not a man to write that sort of thing.

Personal opinions are not evidence. But if there was too little evidence to convict Shakespeare beyond reasonable doubt, neither is there enough to convict Ford. That does not mean that the question, "Who is W. S.?" cannot be answered, but it may mean we still have a lot to learn about Shakespeare's language and our own.

Donald Foster is a professor in the department of English at Vassar College, New York.

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