Shakespeare’s Ghostwriter: The Elegy Mystery Solved?

Exciting new developments in the controversy over the alleged “Shakespeare” Funeral Elegy . This is becoming more than a scholars’ squabble. It’s turning out to be one of the great emblematic intellectual debates of our time. A dispute about more than the authorship of a relentlessly inept, clumsily sententious 578-line poem signed in 1612 with the initials “W.S.,” a poem so mind-numbingly destabilizing, a work of such prolonged and painful mediocrity, that reports are already filtering out to Amnesty International that Saddam Hussein is using staged readings of it to torture his most hated political prisoners.

It’s a dispute about what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare, what makes poetry “Shakespearean,” what makes poetry poetry -what makes it a source of wonder, challenge and amazement that speaks across centuries, as opposed to lines of leaden hack-work laden with dimwitted piety that happen to rhyme or scan and are set out in stanzas. And it’s a dispute about whether a computer can tell the difference.

To me, it’s not an argument about whether every line of Shakespeare was touched with pure genius; I’ve always felt some of the early sonnets, for instance, are lame and strained. But they’re only 14 lines long: The real issue is whether Shakespeare was capable of being that bad for 578 lines at a time. It’s one thing for a poet to go on autopilot for a stanza or three, it’s another to produce 578 lines of virtually unadulterated dimwitted drivel-the Moby-Dick of drivel.

When I last wrote about this issue a year or so ago, the forces in favor of the Elegy seemed to be carrying the day, at least here in America, where I have been virtually the only voice speaking out unequivocally against it. The publishers of three new editions of the complete works of Shakespeare (perhaps intimidated by the supposedly scientific computer-generated “proofs” of the attribution) have included the wretched Elegy in what I believe were ill-advised attempts to cash in on the publicity over the Elegy and demonstrate how au courant they were. Although, as I’ve pointed out in the past, in each case the obviously abashed scholar-editors of those editions were uncomfortable enough to distance themselves from the inclusion as an endorsement of the attribution to Shakespeare. Instead, they either sneered at the Elegy , or characterized the inclusion with weasel words about how it would provoke debate about the “meaning of authorship” and other temporizing blather.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the tide of opinion was running in the opposite direction, with most leading British Shakespearean scholars dissenting from the attribution of the seamlessly second-rate Elegy to Shakespeare. Lively debate in the letters column of the Times Literary Supplement in particular produced several alternate candidates, although the one that most caught my interest was announced last year by Prof. Katherine Duncan-Jones of Oxford-a formidable figure in the field and editor of the highly regarded Arden edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets. She had found the true “W.S.,” she said. Not Shakespeare, but a little known Puritan preacher named William Sclater. Ms. Duncan-Jones promised to elaborate a convincing proof of her Sclater candidacy in a forthcoming symposium on the elegy, to be published in Shakespeare Studies .

Which brings us to the first exciting new development: the False Alarm, the Premature Surrender Claim. It almost knocked me out of my chair when I came upon a new letter in the Dec. 5, 1997, issue of the TLS from Ms. Duncan-Jones. In an almost casual aside, she remarked that she had received a letter from Prof. Donald Foster (the Vassar scholar who claimed in 1995 to have proved that “W.S.” was Shakespeare with the aid of a computer database called Shaxicon)-a letter in which he congratulated her on her essay in Shakespeare Studies identifying “W.S.” as the Rev. William Sclater. “The truth sometimes turns out to be stranger than fiction,” she quoted Mr. Foster telling her, implying that he was conceding the truth of her Sclater theory.

I was stunned by Ms. Duncan-Jones’ letter. It seemed to indicate that the chief proponent of the attribution of the Elegy to Shakespeare was conceding defeat. But I couldn’t quite believe it (however much I might have wanted to), so I tracked down Mr. Foster, who was vacationing in Florida over the holidays. He confirmed my suspicions: He had not in any way conceded defeat to Ms. Duncan-Jones. In fact, he claimed he had plenty of ammunition to blow her out of the water: He could disprove her key contention that her candidate, William Sclater, was linked to William Peter, the subject of the Elegy , through Puritan religious ties.

I won’t presume to pronounce judgment on that issue between Mr. Foster and Ms. Duncan-Jones, but I will say, much as I disagree with Mr. Foster on the Elegy authorship question, I think he was wronged by Ms. Duncan-Jones. Anyone reading her letter would get the misleading impression that Mr. Foster had surrendered. Such a tactic is surprising and disturbing, but perhaps an indication of how high passions run on this question.

And it looks like the fever pitch of passion and intrigue is not going to diminish. I was in the midst of studying Ms. Duncan-Jones’ case for William Sclater as W.S. in Shakespeare Studies (and finding it disappointingly far less conclusive than I’d hoped) when I came upon another outburst of contentious polemic on the letters page of the TLS , this one introducing an entirely new candidate for the mysterious W.S.

This was a letter posted from Zurich by Prof. Brian Vickers, a well-known Shakespearean scholar who was one of the first Britons to weigh in against Mr. Foster’s Shakespeare attribution of the Elegy . Mr. Vickers’ letter drops a couple of bombshells that portend even more bitter battles to come. One is that he’s working on a book about the whole Elegy controversy with the sure-to-inflame title Counterfeiting Shakespeare: The Politics of Attribution . “Counterfeiting” is strong language: It suggests deliberate falsification, rather than (what I’d suggest) sincere but misguided enthusiasm on the part of the Shakespeare-attribution partisans.

But in any event, the second bombshell Mr. Vickers drops in his letter is the unveiling-or revival-of a powerful new contender for authorship of the elegy: John Ford.

Most readers will be familiar with Ford as one of that dark and brilliant company of Jacobean revenge dramatists. Ford is best known for ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore , a play which memorably features an incest-crazed brother running into a fifth-act scene with his pregnant sister’s bloody heart on his dagger.

Mr. Vickers calls Ford “the strongest candidate yet” and reminds us that in Mr. Foster’s 1989 book, A Study in Attribution , “Foster recorded that Ford, born in the West Country and [like the dead guy, William Peter] educated at Exeter College, Oxford, was certainly known to Peter and his family, and he [Foster] even showed that A Funerall Elegie (1612) shared many phrases, indeed whole lines, with Ford’s poem Christes Bloodie Sweat (1613). But Professor Foster dismissed the parallels as showing that Ford plagiarized from the Elegie without ever considering Ford as the author of that poem.”

In addition, according to Mr. Vickers, Leo Stock, one of the foremost John Ford scholars, has lent weight to the Ford candidacy. Now, nobody would love to see the Shakespeare attribution exploded more than I, but my initial reaction to the Ford candidacy is similar to my problem with the Shakespeare candidacy: He’s too good a writer to have perpetrated this epic crime against poetry, this brain cell-killing assault on the senses, this challenge to the limits of human tolerance for tedium.

I went back and reread ‘ Tis Pity She’s a Whore and found myself exhilarated by its feverish over-the-top transgressive hysteria. Way too good for “W.S.” Then I plunged into one of Ford’s earlier plays, The Lover’s Melancholy , one I’d never read before, one I was thrilled to discover was inspired by one of my favorite works in the language, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy . To my melancholy disappointment, The Lover’s Melancholy fell far short of its source’s incomparable brio, its wild and crazy mixture of crackpot scholarship and confused yearning. It was at times stilted, at times sententiously conventional, at times awkward and dull. While it never approached the abysmal depths of poetic decrepitude the Funeral Elegy sustains for intolerable lengths of time, it had a certain je ne sais quoi of amateurish badness that made it just possible, just conceivable, that the same author might -after suffering a serious concussion, say- have composed the Funeral Elegy . (The play even contains the phrase “a funeral elegy of tears.”)

Then I looked more closely at Mr. Foster’s description of the relationship between Ford and Shakespeare. “Ford was Shakespeare’s most ardent epigone,” Mr. Foster wrote. Not only did Ford model his drama on Shakespeare and echo him repeatedly, he even wrote for Shakespeare’s acting company, the King’s Men. I sense there might be an answer here.

I called Mr. Foster to get his reaction to the Ford candidacy. While I disagree with him on the Elegy , I admire the comprehensiveness of Mr. Foster’s erudition and his scrupulous, scholarly intellect; I only regret he allowed himself to be swayed from original agnostic position on the authorship of the Elegy .

In any case, Mr. Foster raised an obvious and powerful objection: Why the hell would John Ford, who was known to the family of the dead William Peter, sign the elegy W.S. instead of John Ford or J.F.? Good question. It stumped me for a while. But it seemed like there was so much evidence of Ford’s closeness to the Peter family, clear evidence of his having written previous funeral elegies, of his connection to a playwright named W.S., that there had to be a solution lurking in the tangled data.

It was something new Mr. Foster said he’d discovered that suggested to me a novel solution to the puzzle. He told me he’d uncovered previously unknown links between the dead guy, William Peter, and Shakespeare. So both Ford and Shakespeare knew the dead guy, but Ford knew him better. And Ford and Shakespeare knew each other. Suddenly, it occurred to me: John Ford ghost-wrote the Elegy for Shakespeare .

Consider this scenario: In 1612, Shakespeare’s a few years from his death, he’s hardly writing at all any more, he’s more an investor in his acting company than a working playwright, he prefers to spend his time in rural Stratford engaging in litigious quarrels with the rubes up there.

Aspiring playwright and poet John Ford comes to Shakespeare and says: William Peter’s died, his family has asked me to ask you, O great bard of our age, to write an elegy commemorating his death; you know, maybe the usual 600 lines or so. Shakespeare would rather die than undertake the task himself for someone he knows far less well than Ford does. So he tells Ford, Why don’t you work something up and sign it for me? Sign it “W.S.” Who will know the difference? Ford’s not too happy with this commission, it’s the worst of all possible worlds, he has to write the damn thing and he doesn’t get the credit. But he wants to write for Shakespeare’s acting company. So Ford takes his resentment out on the Elegy -he cranks out some torturously blathering, sententious twaddle full of bloated, self-satisfied piety with a few subtle gibes at the theater and theatricality to express his disgruntlement with Shakespeare and the whole ghost-writing deal.

Voilà! The wretched Funeral Elegy by W.S. I think I just may have solved the damn thing.