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 

     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 

Copyright (c) 2002 by the Griffin Internet 
Syndicate, This column may not 
be published in print or Internet publications 
without express permission of Griffin Internet 
Syndicate. You may forward it to interested 
individuals if you use this entire page, 
including the following disclaimer:

"SOBRAN'S and Joe Sobran's columns are available 
by subscription. For details and samples, see, write, or call 800-513-5053."