There is a professor at New York’s Vassar College who clearly knows his Shakespeare, perhaps not as well as he thought he did until a week or so ago, but at least well enough to recall Touchstone’s advice in “As You Like It”: “Let us make an honorable retreat, though not with bag and baggage, yet with scrip and scrippage.”
Honorable retreats — that is, graceful and unforced admissions of error — are rare enough in human affairs to be newsworthy, even if they occur, as this one did, in the hothouse world of Shakespearean scrip and scrippage. It is fitting that the wider world take note of the incident that has set literary scholars buzzing and learn a lesson from the man at the center of it.
Maybe you missed the story (it was a fascinating one, but hardly the stuff of headlines, even in a slow week). It all started back in 1995, when Professor Donald Foster unearthed “A Funeral Elegy,” a poem that he declared had been written by Shakespeare. Now those of us who do not live and die by such things might not think this claim particularly momentous. We would be wrong. If Shakespeare’s authorship of this long and rather dull poem could be proved, it would be huge news for scholars, for two reasons: First, the canon is pretty well established; new Shakespeare “finds” don’t happen every day. Second, it would boost the case of those scholars, the majority, who believe that Shakespeare wrote the works historically attributed to him, and it would undermine the case of the so-called Oxfordians, who think the Earl of Oxford wrote them. Oxford died in 1604, but the Elegy is dated 1612.
Armed with the results of a state-of-the-art computer analysis, Mr. Foster persuaded most of his fellow scholars in 1995 that the linguistic resemblances between the Elegy and the works attributed to Shakespeare were striking enough to prove that they were written by the same man. Though the debate over the Elegy’s authorship never entirely died down, especially on the Internet, the poem was added to three major U.S. editions of Shakespeare’s collected works — a fair measure of scholarly consensus. Mr. Foster, whose reputation also soared around that time after he identified the anonymous author of the Clinton roman a clef “Primary Colors,” became a celebrity beyond his narrow field. The Elegy saga even made the front page of The New York Times.
Then in May it all came tumbling down — or seemed to. A professor of languages at the University of Burgundy in France published an article arguing that the English poet and dramatist John Ford was the likelier author of the poem. Mr. Gilles Monsarrat based his finding not on a computer analysis, but on a plain, old-fashioned comparative reading of the texts. The astonishing part, though, was neither Mr. Monsarrat’s method nor his conclusion — skeptics had criticized Mr. Foster for both often enough over the past six years. Rather, it was Mr. Foster’s immediate, total concession. “I know good evidence when I see it,” he said earlier this month, “and I predict that Monsarrat will carry the day.”
Mr. Foster then added the sentence that deserves to be engraved over the door of every university library and laboratory in the world: “No one who cannot rejoice in the discovery of his own mistakes deserves to be called a scholar.” Yes, he actually used the verb “rejoice” — a startling choice, under the circumstances.
Mr. Foster went further. He readily admitted that the database of words he had used for his computer analysis was too small, and then he came up with the best statement yet of why any of this matters. Asked to comment on the effect of his concession on the acrimonious Shakespeare/Oxford debate, he replied that he didn’t care as passionately as some of his colleagues about the need to debunk Oxford’s supporters. “The very vitality of such groups points to the continued resonance that Shakespeare has for our culture,” he said sagely.
In short, even though Mr. Foster believes that Shakespeare, not the Earl of Oxford, was indeed the man, he is more interested in truth and in getting people to read or see the plays, no matter who wrote them, than in scoring debating points. For lovers of Shakespeare everywhere, including Japan (which boasts its very own Globe theater, after all), this attitude is more than refreshing, it is inspirational.
It could be that this episode will prove, in hindsight, to have done even more for Mr. Foster’s academic standing than his earlier apparent breakthrough did. He himself certainly doesn’t see it as a setback, since it advances knowledge. “Who loses, and who wins; who’s in, who’s out,” as King Lear puts it, really do not seem to matter to him. In the context of academia, where concern for reputation is generally paramount, that is saying something.
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