"Exercise in This Kind": Shakespeare and the "Funeral Elegy" for William Peter
Abrams, Richard, Shakespeare Studies
The story has become familiar: On 25 January 1612, in Exeter, after a day's drinking with the brothers Edward and John Drew, William Peter was murdered. Nineteen days later Thomas Thorpe entered in the London Stationers' Register a 578-line poem entitled A Funeral Elegy in Memory of the Late Virtuous Master William Peter. The poem, twice signed W. S., was introduced to Shakespeare studies by Donald Foster in Elegy by W. S.: A Study in Attribution (1989). Noting the possibility of Shakespeare's authorship, Foster did not at that time feel he could press his arguments with confidence. But over the next five years, new evidence emerged; Foster and I presented an augmented case for Shakespeare's authorship at professional conferences, in the Times Literary Supplement and the Shakespeare Newsletter, in the journals PMLA and SEL, and online.(1) Inevitably, the Elegy's attribution to Shakespeare met with resistance; dry and repetitious, the poem was not a welcome addition to the canon. Yet the case for Shakespeare's authorship rests on powerful evidence: biographical coincidences, verbal echoes of canonical works including plays not yet printed in 1612, and anticipations of a play or plays not yet written in 1612, together with a host of characteristic, even idiosyncratic stylistic mannerisms. That these coincidences were managed in probably under two weeks (allowing for news of Peter's murder to travel the 160 miles from Exeter to London) by a poet who just happened to be initialed W. S., who courted a resemblance to Shakespeare, who enjoyed (on the poem's testimony) success sufficient to provoke envy, and who had access to the publisher of the Sonnets, is highly intriguing. Consequently, scholars who were initially skeptical of claims for Shakespeare's authorship began to listen hard to the evidence.
The present essay, expanding on one originally published in SEL, looks first at W. S.'s allusions to the theatrical profession and at singularities in his manner of alluding to Shakespeare; on both scores, I argue, W. S. must be Shakespeare himself. If the Elegy deviates stylistically from Shakespeare's other writings, then this deviation may be explained as an accommodation to the poetic occasion, an accommodation for which the Elegy supplies abundant metapoetic evidence of intention. In a further turn of my argument, I contextualize the poet's transformation of his customary style by linking the Elegy with proximate Shakespearean texts. My attempt in this latter regard is speculative, falling outside the bounds of my stricter evidentiary argument. Others who accept the Elegy as Shakespeare's may wish to build other bridges. It is plain in any case that some bridging is in order if the poem is truly to be assimilated to the canon and not just to orbit around it indefinitely, like the little-read but widely accepted A Lover's Complaint. For even if the massive evidence for Shakespeare's authorship stands up to scrutiny, the Elegy faces emotional resistance because of the kind of poem it is. In a record starved of first-person testimony, the Elegy bids to be that thing we have sorely lacked: an intimate document--from the final years, no less--in which Shakespeare extemporizes on the way of the world and his own sense of place in it.
Because the Elegy, if Shakespeare's, must be reckoned nothing less than a late-life credo of our favorite author's, it raises high expectations and is capable of touching off deep resentments. Our latent bardolatry feels violated to hear a voice so alien proposed as "our Shakespeare's." Of course, by now there are many Shakespeares, from Arnold's demigod "out-topping knowledge" to the New Historicist's cipher, the locus of collaborative cultural forces. Yet probably the most familiar of these--paradoxically, the most international--is the Shakespeare who appeared first in a heading of Ben Jonson's commonplace book: "De Shakespeare nostrati." Since Jonson's time "native Shakespeare" has been naturalized to states unborn and accents then unknown; readers around the world hold him dear. …