Exit Sclater

By Abrams, Richard | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

Exit Sclater


Abrams, Richard, Shakespeare Studies


Katherine Duncan-Jones's ascription of the Peter elegy to the Puritan minister William Sclater represents the most detailed attempt so far to locate an author other than Shakespeare. In her conclusion, though, Duncan-Jones announces that her case for Sclater is only tentative ("my mind is not quite made up on this subject").(1) Her belated irresolution, whose better part may well be honest doubt, serves also a rhetorical function. Broached at a juncture when her argument runs into serious trouble, Duncan-Jones's irresolution implies that finally it does not matter much who wrote the Elegy--if not Sclater, then some other nonentity--so long as we're agreed it wasn't Shakespeare. In view of Duncan-Jones's hesitation, and in the light of Donald Foster's newly presented evidence of the Peter family's anti-Puritan (and probably Catholic) convictions, my systematic effort in this essay to refute the Puritan Sclater's claim may smack of overkill. But a detailed argument deserves a detailed response, in the course of which I shall take the opportunity to correct several misassumptions about the Elegy that Duncan-Jones's essay puts in circulation.

Clearing ground for her attribution, Duncan-Jones offers aesthetic: impressions that would "rule out any possibility of Shakespeare's authorship" (192). For her, Shakespeare is a known quantity, "our Shakespeare," and this is not the man. But Duncan-Jones's totalizing attempts to capture Shakespeare's essence are, for all their appeal to common sense, dated, reductive, and ideologically partial; they produce a Bard who would be unrecognizable to many readers. Observing that Shakespeare "had just celebrated theatrical illusion brilliantly" in The Tempest (194), Duncan-Jones cannot imagine him admiring the reserved, untheatrical Peter. She forgets Prospero's weary disengagement with his own theatrical artifice a,; "rough magic." Similarly, as a playwright to the king, Duncan-Jones's snobbish Shakespeare would not get mixed up in some "dingy project" involving a "fairly modest Devon gentry family." But Shakespeare was other things besides a court poet; he befriended publicans and sinners--witness his involvement in the Bellott-Mountjoy trial the very year of the Peter elegy. Nor would Duncan-Jones's Shakespeare become pious or "preachy" even in a funeral poem. But do we really know the conscience of the man who retired early from the stage, cut his adulterous son-in-law out of his will, and perhaps "dyed a papist"? Most incredibly, despite his celebrated powers of imaginative identification, Shakespeare, as "a nongraduate," cannot "have cared about the fact that William Peter was "'double honor'd in degree'" (195). This last assertion betrays a blindness that is pervasive in Duncan-Jones's argument. Just as she overlooks the possibility that certain features of the Elegy, such as its praise of Peter's achievements--which happen to have been scholastic--may be mandated by genre, so she fails to consider that W. S.'s disclaimer of "Exercise in this kind" may refer to the genre ("kited") of elegy, not broadly to poetic composition.

In proposing an alternative candidate to Shakespeare, Duncan-Jones constructs a profile of W. S. based on speculatively interpreted internal evidence, then locates a historical figure matching her profile. She begins with a strained demonstration that, as she maintained in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement (29 March 1996, p. 17), "the world of the author and subject of the Elegy [are] almost wholly Devonian." Foster had demonstrated that W. S. favors standard London English, and Duncan-Jones fails to challenge this finding; nor does she herself argue that W. S. possessed an insider knowledge of Devon. Instead, her whole argument rests on the contention that the poem salutes four luminaries associated with the region. The Elegy's "strongest poetic echoes" are John Ford and Samuel Daniel, both West Country natives, who composed elegies on the death of a third West Country man, Sir Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy. …

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