Skip to comments.A Scholar Recants on His 'Shakespeare' Discovery
Posted on 06/25/2002 11:53:32 AM PDT by a-whole-nother-box-of-pandoras
June 20, 2002 A Scholar Recants on His 'Shakespeare' Discovery By WILLIAM S. NIEDERKORN
n 1995 Donald Foster, a professor of English at Vassar College, made a startling case for Shakespeare's being the author of an obscure 578-line poem called "A Funeral Elegy." After a front-page article about his methods of computer analysis in The New York Times and after his reputation was further burnished by unmasking Joe Klein as the author of "Primary Colors" the poem was added to three major editions of Shakespeare's works.
Now, in a stunning development that has set the world of Shakespeare scholarship abuzz, Professor Foster has admitted he was wrong. In a message dated June 12 and quietly left last Thursday on the Internet discussion group Shaksper (www.shaksper.net), he said that another poet and dramatist was the more likely author of the poem. He was joined in his recantation by Richard Abrams, a professor of English at the University of Southern Maine, who has been his close associate in the Shakespeare attribution. In their messages, both conceded the main point of an article in the May issue of The Review of English Studies by Gilles D. Monsarrat, a professor of languages at the University of Burgundy in France, a translator and editor of Shakespeare's works in French, and a co-editor of "The Nondramatic Works of John Ford."
The article compares the text of the poem with Ford's known work and concludes that the writing is Ford's. Professor Montserrat's method seems to derive from a close reading of the texts, rather than the kind of computer analysis Professor Foster uses.
John Ford (1586-1640) is best known for his later dramatic works, like " 'Tis Pity She's a Whore," but earlier he was a writer of memorial verse.
"I know good evidence when I see it and I predict that Monsarrat will carry the day," Professor Foster told the more than 1,300 members of Shaksper. "No one who cannot rejoice in the discovery of his own mistakes deserves to be called a scholar."
Professor Abrams said on Shaksper, "I am now satisfied that the linguistic evidence for Ford is stronger than for Shakespeare." He cited a forthcoming Cambridge University Press book by Brian Vickers that he noted was hailed by Professor Monsarrat as "definitive and comprehensive."
"I'm not sure I need to see much more evidence to be convinced," Professor Abrams said.
A debate over the authorship of the elegy had carried on for six years, in Internet groups, academic journals and books. Most agreed that the poem was not up to the standards of the Shakespeare canon, though some scholars insisted vehemently that it should be included.
Professor Vickers, the director of Renaissance Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Zurich, credits Richard Kennedy, an independent researcher and author of children's books, as the first to identify Ford as the author of the poem, in a controversy that raged on Shaksper for two years after the Foster theory was announced.
"I was the first one who ever laid it onto Ford," Mr. Kennedy said in a telephone interview on Monday. He picked up on similarities Professor Foster had noted between the elegy and Ford's poem "Christ's Bloody Sweat," but said Ford had copied from the elegy writer.
"I thought: Why not Ford? Let's take a look," Mr. Kennedy continued. "And so I went and did enough research and read enough of his poetry, and contacted Leo Stock, the greatest living Ford scholar in the world. He was over in Austria at the time. And I laid out the argument on both sides and gave him what proofs I could get together and said this seems to me to be Ford. And he wrote back and said, `I don't doubt it at all.' "
Mr. Kennedy calls himself an "Unorthodoxfordian," and he generally agrees with Oxfordians, who hold that Shakespeare is a pseudonym for Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Evidence in favor of Oxford as the author of the works of Shakespeare has been growing since 1920 and with increasing intensity in recent years.
On the other side of the argument are the Stratfordians, who maintain that William Shakespeare was the bard from Stratford-upon-Avon that every student learns about. He signed his name "Shaksper," hence the name of the discussion group, which incidentally is mainly in the orthodox camp and bans discussion of authorship issues, with indifferent success.
The elegy had been precisely dated by the death of its subject, William Peter, on Jan. 25, 1612. Oxford died in 1604. So assigning the elegy to Shakespeare was a good prop for the Stratford case. Now that prop has been dashed.
Since 1997, however, students have found the poem in three American editions of Shakespeare, published by Longman, Norton and Houghton Mifflin. Houghton Mifflin's "Riverside Shakespeare" noted in an introduction to the elegy that "The New York Times celebrated the discovery of a new Shakespearean text" after Professors Foster and Abrams announced their discovery at "scholarly seminars," including the Modern Language Association's annual meeting. The publishers, for their part, could not say for certain yesterday what steps would be taken for future editions.
Harold Bloom, a prominent Stratfordian, included the elegy in his chronology of Shakespeare's plays in "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human," where he described "an affinity" between it and "Henry VIII."
"Like them, I made a mistake," Professor Bloom said in telephone interview yesterday. "I agree that it is by John Ford. I was persuaded by Foster, though like everyone else in the world I felt it was the worst thing Shakespeare had ever written if it was by him. And of course John Ford is his imitator. so that explains why the echoes are there. But it's good to know that, you know, it isn't his."
Professor Abrams said in a telephone interview on Saturday: "It should not be included in the canon. I think that's so. I think that the writing is John Ford's. I reread about half of Ford since I read the Monsarrat article, and in the elegy you find a rare trophy if you're looking for Shakespeare. But it was simply a field day, a picnic, looking for John Ford. I was just bumping into stuff all over the place and thinking, 'How could I have been so blind?'"
On the Oxford side, an expert took the recantations in stride.
"They've been desperately looking for some post-1604 hook on which to hang their Shakespeare hat, and they've never been able to find one," said Daniel L. Wright, professor of English at Concordia University, in Portland, Ore., who heads the only annual academic conference dedicated to Oxford. "This was their latest attempt to do that, and once again it failed, as will any attempt to attribute work to Shakespeare that originates after 1604."
On the Stratford side, an expert said the loss was minimal.
"The Foster argument never was an arrow in the Stratfordian quiver, or not one considered to be important," Alan H. Nelson, professor of English at the University of California at Berkley and the author of a biography of Oxford to be published by Liverpool University Press, said in an e-mail message. "There's plenty of other evidence for Stratfordians."
Professor Foster, who, like most academics, is a passive Stratfordian, took a broad view of the Shakespeare authorship controversy. "I don't share the passion of some of my fellow Shakespeareans that there is a need to debunk such questions," he said. "The very vitality of such groups points to the continued resonance that Shakespeare has for our culture."
Another major difference that the contretemps over the elegy presents is a question of method, of the use of different kinds of internal evidence in judging the authorship of a work. At one end of the spectrum is stylometrics, based on the frequency of words like "of," "the" and "and." At the other end is intertextual analysis, in which similarities between words, phrases and sentences are the determining factor.
Professor Vickers, whose book "Counterfeiting Shakespeare: Evidence, Authorship and John Ford's Funerall Elegye" is due from Cambridge University Press in August, said: "What Monsarrat has done, and what I have done in the concluding chapter of my book, and I've done it in much more detail than he has, is to find links of phrases or sentences between the funeral elegy and the acknowledged works of Ford. Now what Foster did is to work at the level of the individual word, and that isn't enough."
He also faulted Professor Foster for the size of his vaunted database, known as Shaxicon. "The corpus that Foster collected was only 80,000 lines long, which by modern standards I'm talking about 2002 is absurdly small," he said, adding that virtually all of Renaissance drama and much of the poetry is now available on a database called Literature Online. "Were Foster to have run his tests against that corpus he would have got results pointing away from Shakespeare and certainly to Ford," he said.
Professor Foster agreed that his database had been too small, but defended his process of searching out rare words in texts and then looking at the contexts for similarities or differences.
"In this case it looks like it's going to be the linguistic evidence that carries the day, winning over even the first person who first ventured another candidate," he said. "So I think we've made some significant progress here in understanding just how important a close look at language can be in establishing authorship, rather than just depending on title page attributions."
How refreshing. A gentleman, and a scholar.
I hope he takes this in view in good stride as well. Stylometrics can establish a few things. Stylometrics will not account for deviations.
The regular academic trick is to produce scholarship with ulterior motives. Why do they need a post-1604 peg?
Edward de Vere was a homosexual and a few "scholars" have argued that he is the real author of Shakespeare's works. No one has been "desperately looking for some post-1604 hook". To the contrary, it's the pro de Vere camp who've been breathlessly searching for proof of their belief.