Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Empirically Determining Shakespeare's Idolect

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Empirically Determining Shakespeare's Idolect

Article excerpt

Whether we approve or disapprove of the style or the content of what W. S. writes in A Funerall Elegye has nothing to do with the issue of its authorship. What we believe authorship to be, however, has everything to do with it. Attribution research asks for an understanding of how an author creates, what an author leaves of himself in the work, and how that differs from the linguistic system belonging to the period. The study of authoring and authorial idiolects is now interdisciplinary and empirical. It rests on the testimony of authors and, over the past half century, on repeated experiments by neuroscientists, cognitive psychologists, linguists, and other disinterested observers on the process of uttering sentences. Once we know how the mind shapes language into speech or writing, we will be in a good position to understand how Shakespeare did so.

Attribution evidence takes three forms. It can be external, found on the title page or the author's preface, and here resting in the historical events described in the poem. It can be interpretive, stemming from a reading of the meaning of the text or of the author's style. Or it can be linguistic, extracting substylistic characteristics of the writing in the hope they may distinguish the writer from any other writer: that is, a fingerprint.

The external evidence for Shakespeare as W. S. is good but not incontrovertible, despite best efforts by Foster, Abrams, and others in the debate. Someone with Shakespeare's initials published an elegy in 1612 with the printer who published his sonnets in 1609. The poet in his preface says that he personally knew the subject of the poem, an Oxford graduate murdered in Exeter. Because several poets with these initials are active at this time, and none has a very strong link to the deceased young man, the identification of author remains open. Even if Shakespeare's full name were on the title page, doubt would dog this attribution. Anyone can claim authorship of a work falsely; and anyone can incorrectly attribute a work and publish it. Only the author knows for sure, and Shakespeare never left a list of his works in his own hand. Printers sold books supposedly by Shakespeare that are not. Even his friends could innocently pass off, as his, many scenes by another playwright. Henry VIII belongs to both Shakespeare and Fletcher, not just to Shakespeare, as Heminges and Condell lead us to believe. To assign authorship on the basis only of testimony by others is to judge on circumstancial evidence, which routinely leaves juries deeply worried.

Abrams's reading of the poem plausibly argues that several passages self-identify the poet as an actor-playwright. Other passages contain word clusters from Shakespeare's known works, one of them then unpublished. Because the only practicing playwright in 1612 known to have the initials W. S. is Shakespeare, Abrams reasonably concludes that the authorship question can be answered. On the other hand, Foster argues that Thorpe the printer misidentified Shakespeare as "W. H." in the preface to his sonnets. Critics who disagree with Foster and Abrams may say that "W. S." was reversed or, less plausibly, that someone misread "f" for long "s" in the manuscript. Further, verbal parallels between Shakespeare's work and that of others are well known in scholarship. They appear even in arguments that Shakespeare did not write the works known certainly as his. Source studies use such parallel passages. The main difficulty with them relates to our fragmentary knowledge of the state of common English idiom in the period. How rare is the fixed phrase or collocation (word pair in variable order) or word cluster (combination of fixed phrase and collocation)? Foster uses a large Renaissance lexical database, Shaxicon, to establish that the phrase "Court opinion" appears only in A Funerall Elegye and in a late redaction of Shakespeare's lost play, Cardenio. Abrams cites a choice parallel between the poem and Richard II, but he does not say that he has searched the literature of the period to see if the cluster is elsewhere. …

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