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

By Brian Vickers | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
'W. S.' and the 'Elegye' for William Peter

In the critical reaction to Gary Taylor's claims for 'Shall I die?' the name of Donald Foster occurred several times, as the author of letters to the TLS and New York Times in 1986, and a longer essay for Shakespeare Quarterly in 1987. These contributions were well presented, citing lexical and other data which would date that poem to the Jacobean period, far later than Taylor's theory allowed. At this point Foster had published none of his work on the Funerall Elegye for William Peter (1612), and his interventions seemed like the work of a disinterested scholar, concerned to establish the truth. From Foster's recent autobiography, however, a quite different picture emerges. According to this colourful account, 'the “Shakespeare” attribution for “Shall I die?” had been documented long ago in standard reference works', and 'though new to Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, had long been known to other scholars ', but without arousing interest. But it was no sooner published than 'the academic establishment exploded into raucous laughter', and the poem 'was described as the most ridiculous piece of rubbish produced in the seventeenth century'. 1 Foster explains that, 'neither good nor bad, probably a stage jig, “Shall I die?” was just one of several lyrics' doubtfully ascribed to Shakespeare. When the Oxford editors published their attribution, he claimed, the general response was so derisive that 'with cheeks stung red by this icy blast, Stanley Wells did an about-face, directing all queries to his junior associate, Gary Taylor, the American', who 'was forced to eat the poisoned apple' when English journalists dismissed the attribution as 'the product of an American scholar's gullibility'. According to Foster again, 'the Times Literary Supplement kept the frenzy going with mirthful letters to the editor, but no one presented concrete evidence that the attribution was wrong. Taylor was simply shouted down ' (Foster 2000, pp. 42–3). Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Foster's doctoral advisers obtained special funding 'and put me on a plane for Oxford to cobble together an authoritative reply'. Having taken copious notes in the Bodleian,

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