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

By Brian Vickers | Go to book overview

Preface

A fundamental issue in humanistic enquiry concerns the authenticity of the documents we study. In history, philosophy, and many other disciplines, it is essential to know that the texts we use have been properly authenticated. If scholars base theories and interpretations on texts which turn out to be forgeries, or erroneously attributed, their work loses all validity. Arguably, the importance of properly identifying authorship is even greater in literature, since our engagement with the detail of language in poetry, drama, or fiction is far more intense than that of the philosopher or historian. In literary texts the direct confrontation with language is the primary experience, to which we constantly return. We take it for granted that even the most humble writers deserve to have their work correctly identified, an expectation which becomes more exigent the more eminent the author. With a dramatist as universally admired as Shakespeare, the discovery of a so far unknown play or poem would be a cause for great rejoicing. Conversely, the inclusion in his canon of work erroneously attributed to him would be deeply depressing, almost tragic.

Such an unhappy state of affairs has indeed come about recently, largely as a result of the work of Gary Taylor, who has caused an undated, anonymous short lyric, 'Shall I die?', to be included in both the Oxford and Norton Shakespeare editions, and Donald Foster, whose advocacy of Shakespeare's authorship of A Funerall Elegye in Memory of the late Vertuous Maister William Peeter of Whipton Neere Excester, published in 1612 as the work of one 'W. S.', caused it to be included in the Norton Shakespeare, quickly copied by the Riverside and Longman editions. The last two editions maintain a cautious neutrality, with a token reference to arguments for and against the ascription, but to many readers the very presence of these poems in the four most widely used one-volume editions of Shakespeare, which sell thousands of copies every year, may be taken as proof that they have been accepted into the canon. Was this

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