A Stern Article from Tiffany

You’ll remember that at the end of his introduction to the Arden edition of  the faux Shakespeare Double Falsehood, Brean Hammond mentions that he had heard a lecture by Professor Tiffany Stern of Oxford University that made even him doubt the attribution of this play to Shakespeare in any degree:

Tiffany Stern’s keynote lecture was the most openly skeptical contribution. Her study of the various ways in which plays could be plotted in Shakespeare’s period—in particular her contention that co-writing might not actually involve two hands being present in the finished article because one of the authors might be responsible only for the “plot” or narrative content—paves the way for saying that both Shakespeare’s and Fletcher’s hands need not be found in a collaborative play by them. . . . Stern built up a case convincing enough to render any editor of the play cautious. And “cautious” is what I hope this edition has been.

(True to form, Hammond did not address her criticisms or his doubts.) Professor Stern’s paper (at 40 pages, it cannot be the lecture she delivered) appeared in Shakespeare Quarterly last year (“’The Forgery of Some Modern Author’? Theobald’s Shakespeare and Cardenio’s Double Falsehood,Shakespeare Quarterly 62:4 (2011), 551-93)and I am finally catching up with it. (Here is a link that, alas, works only if you have access to Project MUSE

I might not have wanted to return to the subejct of Double Falsehood in this blog–I wouldn’t blame you for thinking I’ve already run it into the ground–but I’m the more impelled to do so because of this news. Professor Gary Taylor has long, long had a reputation as a Bad Boy among Shakespeare scholars, but he finally seems to have gone full Theobald, unabashedly adding his own writing to what he takes to be Shakespeare’s. Perhaps he should bear in mind that if Theobald is remembered at all outside the narrow world of Shakespeare editors, it’s for being the main target of The Dunciad.

Taylor is notorious for his challenges to traditional attributions of Shakespeare. His edition of Middleton, as this article proclaims, includes Macbeth, Measure for Measure, and Timon of Athens. Because he has spent much of his career as a provocateur, one takes his claims with the needed boxcar of salt; but this paper claiming that All’s Well That Ends Well was cowritten with Middleton has been getting serious attention. (Yes, serious attention, although for convenience I am linking to the Telegraph.) Serious enough attention to have drawn this stinging refutation from Brian Vickers and Marcus Dahl (best known, at least to me, for this critique of Taylor’s claims about the authorship of 1 Henry VI).

I find all this distressing. Just a year ago I was praising the potential of stylometric analysis to illuminate the conditions of English Renaissance playwriting, specifically to educate us about the realities of collaboration. Yet even then I qualified my praise with the reservation “properly applied.” As I understand stylometric analysis, it is a statistical technique that requires large corpora to compare authorial styles. Elloitt and Valenza would not, if I understand them, claim to discern how Shakespeare starts a single scene, hands off to Middleton, and then comes back for the ending, as Maguire and Smith do. So perhaps I should speak of attribution studies here, a broader category. In any event, given the now-untraceable intervention of scribes and compositors, we don’t (and can’t) have a technique for making the kinds of fine-grained distinctions Maguire and Smith make so blithely. It’s not so different from the idea that we can chisel away the barnacles of eighteenth-century revision to get to the original Cardenio.

Have attribution studies jumped the shark so soon, then? (Has the phrase “jumped the shark” jumped the shark? Probably. But you know what I mean.) I’ll be coming back to this subject.

Comments are closed.