Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Who Was Will Peter? or, a Plea for Literary History

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

Who Was Will Peter? or, a Plea for Literary History

Article excerpt

When I first agreed to write on A Funeral Elegy by "W.S." I was fairly skeptical of the claim that its author was William Shakespeare--not because the attribution seemed implausible on stylistic grounds, but because the range of possible candidates for author of the Elegy seemed to have been narrowed too quickly. I resolved to look into the matter afresh, with the goal of discovering other possible poets with the initials "W. S." Although my admittedly cursory efforts gleaned interesting new information, they did not yield promising new candidates for authorship of the Elegy. Quite the reverse. I am now considerably closer than before to conviction that circumstantial evidence links the poem to Shakespeare. I cannot claim to have kept up with every nuance of the authorship debate as it has been conducted online and in TLS since the 1989 publication of Don Foster's Elegy by W. S.: A Study in Attribution, but I do not recall seeing the evidence that I will offer here. In my search for alternative candidates for the identity of "W. S." I started in Exeter, the area in which Will Peter lived before his untimely and violent death. But my investigation of Exeter led me straight back to Shakespeare.

The present contribution to the authorship debate will offer new historical evidence about Will Peter's family connections, but I hope it will also serve as a plea for the continuing value of old-fashioned literary history. In thinking about the Funeral Elegy, we have been buzzing about like bees in a bottle, limiting ourselves to stylistic analysis when there are other promising avenues to explore. To the extent that we have used historical evidence thusfar, we have behaved like literary critics--investigated the Elegy in terms of Will Peter's own literary friendships and possible connections with the theater. In doing literary history, we need sometimes to behave more like historians--explore the Elegy in terms of Will Peter's family connections and the possible ideological issues swirling around a murder in a provincial town.

The style of the Elegy is curiously lacking in distinctive markers. It is too abstract to be characteristically Shakespearean--to offer the kind of language that causes us all to lean back and say, "Ah, yes, Shakespeare!" But it is certainly within the range of flattish yet workmanlike Shakespearean language as we encounter it (for example) in one of the duller moments from a late play or one of those unspectacular scenes from an earlier history play in which necessary business gets accomplished through relatively plain and unadorned verse. As MacDonald Jackson, Richard Abrams, and Foster himself have all noted, Shakespeare's style is ordinarily marked by density of metaphors and a tendency to think in images.(1) But, as Foster and Richard Abrams have also suggested, there might be particular reasons why W. S. in this instance might have chosen to narrow his habitual poetic range. I shall have more to say about that later. Nevertheless, the argument for attribution as it has been conducted thusfar depends on the identification of a few stylistic markers as typically Shakespearean. As the eminent bibliographer Donald F. McKenzie has shown of similar arguments made by Fredson Bowers, Charlton Hinman, and others for the purposes of establishing distinctions among different compositors setting Shakespearean copy in the printshop, we have only to settle on a different set of attributes for distinguishing one compositorial style from another in order to arrive at a vastly different set of conclusions about how the printing job was divided up.(2) The same caveat applies here: if, for example, we were to choose metaphoric density and vividness of language as our criteria, then A Funeral Elegy might no longer resemble Shakespeare to a statistically significant degree.

Then too, Foster's statistics often depend on positing Shakespeare's canonical writings as pure rather than palimpsest. …

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