June 20, 2002
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 Fosters egg is
all over his face, and hes eating it like a man, and I dont
know where Im going with this metaphor but I trust you take my
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
Not that it matters
now. Foster accepts the judgment of other scholars that the poems
author was John Ford (15861640); not knowing Fords work,
I cant dispute that, and it sounds plausible enough. I suspect that
Ford, or whoever, was trying to pass off the poem as Shakespeares,
since it was published under the initials W.S. by Thomas
Thorpe, who had published Shakespeares sonnets in 1609.
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
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 Shakespeares. 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 Irelands 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. Thats 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 dont 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 cant 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
poets 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 wasnt 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 Im
giving up. I think William Shakespeare was only one of many
pseudonyms Oxford used. But if I turn out to be wrong, I hope Ill
admit it as frankly as Donald Foster.