A Long, Dull Poem by William Shakespeare

Article excerpt

By one of the many ironies of life on earth in the twentieth century, it is probable that the controversy over the authorship of a roman a clef by Anonymous called Primary Colors--a controversy that as I write this in July 1996 is selling newspapers all over the United States--will be long and well forgotten while interest persists in fixing or unfixing blame for the Peter elegy by W. S.--a work of considerably less literary appeal than Primary Colors.

The distinction operative here between the two is that--whereas no one has suggested that Primary Colors, an elaborate echo of the 1992 Clinton campaign for the American presidency, is the work of the same author that gave the world The Two Gentlemen of Verona four hundred years ago--there are a lot of weak reasons and one strong one for guessing that the Peter elegy is by the author who, for reasons obvious to most people, we take to have been the Warwickshire-born actor William Shakespeare.

Whatever the reason, Shakespearean authorship has for the last century and a half or so been a persisting bee in our culture's bonnet, a bonnet that might be supposed too busy with other things to give room to an issue marginal even to the works written by or not written by Shakespeare. The late Shakespeare scholar Alfred Harbage used to like to muse publicly on the curious fact whereby people intellectually distinguished in fields other than the study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature regularly intrude into that field as impassioned amateurs of one or another candidate to succeed William Shakespeare as putative author of the plays and poems. Harbage would then pause to lament that Sigmund Freud never studied the psychology behind the phenomenon. Harbage would then take two long beats and say, "but Freud, of course, was himself a dedicated Oxfordian." The same improbably hardy psychology seems responsible for the interest people and publications otherwise unconcerned with the plays and poems of William Shakespeare take whenever a scholar attempts a case for including this or that late-sixteenth- or early-seventeenth-century work in the Shakespearean canon. The present intensity of concern for the Peter elegy (A Funeral Elegye in memory of the late Vertuous Maister William Peeter. by W. S. [London, 1612]), derives from newspaper reports on a session at the 1995 MLA convention in Chicago--reports in newspapers entirely indifferent to Venus and Adonis, Lucrece, and the sonnets and to the literary merits or demerits of any text at all discussed by literary scholars in Chicago or anywhere else. As a result of the publicity in newspapers in late December 1995 and January 1996 and then in a series of notes and letters in TLS in the first weeks of 1996, it is probable that more people in and out of the literary profession read the Peter elegy in a two-month period than read Shakespeare's superb Lucrece all year.

Given the easy, smug detachment of the foregoing paragraphs, it should seem odd that I should be enough involved in the Elegy controversy to have been invited to comment here. I expected the same question in December in Chicago when I chaired the MLA session that, by attracting front-page attention from the New York Times, brought the Peter elegy to the notice of the world (and all our woe). I therefore opened the session by saying what I--who have neither credentials as a veteran of previous wars of Shakespearean attribution nor any prospect of acquiring any--was doing there. I went on then to note the surprising intellectual responsibility shown by the few people who had so far concerned themselves in print with the Peter elegy and Donald Foster's 1989 book, the one in which he printed the text of the Elegy and gave reasons for suspecting that its author was William Shakespeare. This is what I said.

I do not much care whether Shakespeare wrote the Elegy for William

Peter. Indeed, I'm not interested in the Elegy itself, much less in who

wrote it. …