Rejoice! June 20, 2002 by Joe Sobran A few years ago, Professor Donald Foster of Vassar College did an unusual thing: he announced he had discovered a lost poem by Shakespeare. It caused a sensation in academia and made the front page of the NEW YORK TIMES. Soon the poem, "A Funeral Elegy," was being included in editions of the Shakespeare works, though, to be sure, many scholars challenged the attribution. Now Professor Foster has done an even more unusual thing: he has admitted he was wrong. He has agreed with his critics. He has repudiated his own claim to fame. This really should be front-page news. As a rule, a scholar will defend his own thesis as fiercely as a mama crocodile defends her eggs. But Foster's egg is all over his face, and he's eating it like a man, and I don't know where I'm going with this metaphor but I trust you take my point. I always thought that if "A Funeral Elegy" was Shakespeare, it had to be early Shakespeare, not, as Foster contended, late Shakespeare. It was published in 1612, but, as I argued in my book ALIAS SHAKESPEARE, this was doubtful, and I argued that it might have been written many years before that. Not that it matters now. Foster accepts the judgment of other scholars that the poem's author was John Ford (1586-1640); not knowing Ford's work, I can't dispute that, and it sounds plausible enough. I suspect that Ford, or whoever, was trying to pass off the poem as Shakespeare's, since it was published under the initials "W.S." by Thomas Thorpe, who had published Shakespeare's sonnets in 1609. Authorship questions have always surrounded Shakespeare. A growing body of opinion holds that "William Shakespeare" itself was a pseudonym of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who died in 1604. I presented the case for Oxford in my own book. Bogus Shakespeare plays began appearing in print the year after Oxford died, some of them under the initials "W.S." The minor tradition of Shakespeare fakery reached its apex, or nadir, late in the eighteenth century, with the phony "discoveries" of William Henry Ireland. Ireland's forgeries were hilariously crude, but for years they fooled countless literate people, including the great biographer James Boswell, who knelt reverently and tearfully in the presence of the yellowed manuscripts. The manuscripts were yellow, all right, but not because they were ancient: Ireland had merely held them over a fire to make them look that way. Ireland was so successful that he wrote a tragedy he said was Shakespeare's. It was about to make its world premiere in London, starring the mistress of the Prince of Wales, when the scholar Edmond Malone published a devastating exposure of Ireland's "discoveries." The con man was finished. He later wrote a memoir confessing all. The most serious Shakespeare fraud occurred in the nineteenth century. John Payne Collier, a serious scholar, made some genuine discoveries about Shakespeare, but he also forged some records so skillfully that it took other scholars decades to separate the authentic from the bogus. Even when he was finally exposed, Collier never confessed any wrongdoing. Donald Foster stands in edifying contrast to these deceivers. "No one who cannot rejoice in the discovery of his own mistakes," he says, "deserves to be called a scholar." That's a pretty lofty standard, and Foster may be the only man on earth who meets it. When most of us admit our errors at all, we don't exactly "rejoice." Coughing, shuffling our feet, and mumbling vaguely would describe it better. As the largely hostile reviews of my own book reminded me, the one thing most Shakespeare scholars can't bear to admit is that they have been wrong about who "Shakespeare" was. Yet in an indirect way, without realizing it, they did admit it. None of them challenged my crucial argument that the poet's self-disclosures in the Sonnets match the Earl of Oxford, not the Stratford man. My academic critics should have rejoiced to learn who the author of the Sonnets really was, but alas, there wasn't a single Donald Foster among them. As a rule, literary scholars are pleasant, decent, reasonable fellows, but setting them straight about Shakespeare is a thankless and futile undertaking. Not that I'm giving up. I think "William Shakespeare" was only one of many pseudonyms Oxford used. But if I turn out to be wrong, I hope I'll admit it as frankly as Donald Foster. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Read this column on-line at "http://www.sobran.com/columns/020620.shtml". Copyright (c) 2002 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate, www.griffnews.com. This column may not be published in print or Internet publications without express permission of Griffin Internet Syndicate. 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