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Attributing Authorship: An Introduction by Harold Love

Cambridge University Press 2002, 271 pages

a book review by Ramon Jiménez

Detail from Sandro Botticelli's Madonna del Magnificat

The identity of the creator of the Shakespeare canon is only one of the many authorship mysteries that Harold Love discusses in this entertaining and thought-provoking history of scholars’ attempts to find out who wrote what.

The author is a professor of English at Monash University in Victoria, Australia. His stated purpose is to “mediate” between “computer-based work on attribution studies” of the last four decades and the traditional approaches to such studies, which extend as far back as pre-Christian Athens, where Aristotle pondered the authenticity of Homeric texts. Attributions also occupied the compilers of the Jewish and Christian Bibles. “It was recognized early that the Pentateuch could not be more than partly the work of Moses, though it was customary to present this fact with some delicacy.”

An author’s identity may be unknown or concealed in several different ways—anonymity, deliberate or accidental; pseudonymity, including the use of another person’s name; forgery; or fakery, which might include several methods. Love illustrates each method with a variety of examples. Pseudonyms, for instance, have been rife in every place and period, and in every genre from classical texts to modern romances. Some were involuntary. The name of Jesus’ apostle John was attached by church officials after his death to five Biblical books by one or more anonymous authors. Most, however, are self-adopted, but with differing degrees of intent. In 1586, William Camden issued his Britannia under the initials “M. N.,” the last letters of his name, and we are all familiar with the transparent “W. S.” Another “W. S.” was William Sharp, who, in the nineteenth-century, published biographies and novels under his own name, and “Celtic fiction” under the name “Fiona Macleod.” He resolutely concealed Fiona’s identity throughout his life, including creating a bogus entry in Who’s Who.

The subject of detecting the writer has not only a lengthy history, but a broad range as well—from the concept of authorship itself (or, as Michel Foucault puts it, “the author-function”) to some of the ultra-modern methods of detection, such as “dated examples of word-processor fonts” possessed by the FBI. Of the two types of evidence used, external and internal, the external, primarily bibliographic and biographic, has traditionally been given greater credence. But since the 1960s “the balance of confidence has shifted back in favour of the internal.” Two reasons for this are that new external evidence is rare, and techniques for detecting and evaluating internal evidence have improved exponentially.

One type of internal evidence, stylistics, as it is called by the practitioners, includes everything from broad comparisons of vocabulary and imagery to the counting of the frequency of a single letter. Toward this latter end of the spectrum, stylistics passes into stylometry, one definition of which is “the exact quantitative measurement, tabulation, and interpretation of designated aspects of verbal performance.”

Love quotes some startling assessments of “non-traditional attribution studies”—those “employing the computer, statistics, and stylistics.” One expert suggested in the late 1990s that the field was “a quagmire full of half truths and flawed techniques,” and asserted that after thirty years and seven hundred published studies, “there is more wrong with attribution studies than there is right.”. Stylometry’s status as a legitimate science is still debated, and the irrepressible Eric Sams once equated stylometry with phrenology, adding that “nobody has ever proved that minds can be measured by bumps, or style by numbers.”

Even though he presumably finished his book in 2001, Love does not report the sudden resolution of the most recent authorship cause celebre—Donald Foster’s attribution of A Funeral Elegy to Shakespeare. He does, however, provide an amusing explanation for American critics’ higher opinion of the poem and greater willingness than English critics to ascribe it to Shakespeare: “much Elizabethan poetry sounds better with an American accent simply because it is closer to that of Elizabethan times than modern RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company] English.”

As expected in a book about attributing authorship, Love devotes a full chapter to what he coyly calls “Shakespeare and Co.” Even without the issue of the pseudonym and the identity of its user, the Shakespeare canon has long been a gold mine for attributionists. Questions about Shakespeare’s authorship of poems and plays and parts of plays, both in and out of the four Folios, probably began as soon as his name appeared in print, and surely by 1595, when the initials “W. S.” appeared on the quarto of Locrine.

For his discussion of the basic authorship question, Love appears to rely on John Michell’s relatively unbiased Who Wrote Shakespeare (1996), but his approach is far from objective. He has no doubts that the man he calls “Will the player” was the Kings Men’s “house dramatist”— functioning as “a play-doctor for work by others” and “a reviser of older scripts when they were brought back into the company’s repertoire.” He also briskly clears up several of the minor authorship questions that have plagued editors and critics all these years. For those who have muddled over the authorship of Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen and Cardenio, it is helpful to read Love’s pronouncement that they are “known to be collaborations with John Fletcher.” It is also revealing to learn that Timon of Athens, Measure for Measure, and Macbeth “probably contain contributions by Thomas Middleton and are to be included in the new Oxford University Press edition of Middleton’s Works.” (As of fall 2006, this work had not been issued.)

Love approaches the anti-Stratfordian argument in the usual manner of the orthodox critic—by disparaging its proponents and their alleged motives. But instead of the hoary “snobbery” argument, he sees sociological forces at work: “The Baconian cause, with its reliance on ciphers and elaborate mathematical arguments, represented an attempt to appropriate Shakespeare for the emerging, number-based culture of scientists, engineers, evolutionary biologists and political arithmeticians. Subsequent attempts to claim authorship for such colourful characters as Marlowe and the literary aristocrats of the Elizabethan court represent an anti-scientistic move to reappropriate the plays for the older literary culture.” How and where he would fit Whitman, Twain, James, or Freud into either of these groups is unclear. Continuing along this line, Love dismisses the Baconian argument by describing one of its more eccentric proponents. Turning to Marlowe, he calls him an “aggressive drunk” who “pulled a knife on Ingram Frizier,” and rejects the idea of the fake murder on the grounds that it is based on the “arbitrary assertion” that Marlowe was Walsingham’s lover.

As for the “literary aristocrats,” Love vigorously demolishes one straw man after another, such as the “implied assumption” that literary genius was a genetic quality “more likely to emerge in noble families.” He then naively claims that the case for Oxford is “hampered from the start by the fact that he died in 1604, whereas new plays attributed to Will the player continued to appear for a number of years after that date.” He does not seem aware of the same problem in the three or four previously unknown plays that appeared in the First Folio in 1623, seven years after Will’s death.

Another reason for rejecting Oxford and every other alternative author is that “the writing of a play for the Elizabethan public stage was a highly technical activity,” and “the candidates are invariably amateurs.” According to Love, actors know that the stage-savvy Shakespeare had to have been one of their own. This rules out everyone but Will the player. Love seems to be unaware, or has chosen to ignore the fact, that Oxford was a published poet, a patron of a playing company (as was his father), a lessor of one of the earliest Elizabethan theaters, and was cited in three different publications as a leading playwright, once as “the best for comedy.” These facts are outweighed by the scant evidence that Shakespeare of Stratford was an actor and a part-owner of two theaters. To explain the intimate and accurate knowledge of the law and legal concepts revealed in the plays, Love offers his own variant of the quaint “Mermaid Tavern” theory, suggesting that if Shakespeare needed legal knowledge “it was easier to extract this from Inns-of-Court drinkers in the Devil Tavern than to search volumes of precedents.”

Love’s excursion into the authorship question leads him to the issue of circumstantial evidence. He cites B. R. Ward’s connection of Shake-speare’s Sonnets to Edward de Vere through the onlie begetter→Mr. W. H.→William Hall→George Eld→Hackney→King’s Place→Earl of Oxford series of links as typical of a circumstantial chain that breaks wherever one of its links cannot be proved. True enough that there are weak links in this chain, but there is not even a thread of similar connections, much less a chain, between the publication in 1609 of Shake-speare’s Sonnets and the retired grain-hoarder in Stratford-upon-Avon. Love then undercuts his own reasoning by citing a nineteenth-century judge’s observation that circumstantial evidence is not a chain-like series of links only as strong where it is weakest, but a rope of many strands that would still bear the weight of the argument if one or two of them were broken.

Some Oxfordians might think that Love hit the nail on the head with his conclusion that “the only sensible reason . . . why members of the aristocracy might have wanted their plays to be performed on the public stage is as a programme of political propaganda masterminded from the court.”

Strangely, Love does not cite, or even mention, one of the most revealing of the recent attempts to distinguish authentic Shakespearean texts from bogus ones—Jonathan Hope’s The authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, A socio-linguistic study (1994). Using “socio-historical” linguistic evidence to identify certain gradual changes in English usage, Hope found distinctive patterns among five selected dramatists: Marlowe, Dekker, Fletcher, Massinger, and Shakespeare. Each author’s use of half-a-dozen changing word-forms—thou/you, that/which, etc.—seemed to reflect his birth date, with one startling exception. Instead of the expected similarity of usage between Marlowe and Shakespeare of Stratford, both born in 1564, Hope found that the author of the Shakespeare canon had the socio-linguistic habits of a man significantly older than Marlowe. He suggested that this anomaly might be explained by the Stratford man’s “southwestern upbringing” in, as John Rollett once put it, “darkest Warwickshire,” far removed from the linguistically advanced London scene,

The Shakespeare authorship question involves an unusual set of circumstances—a literary genius who concealed his writings under a pseudonym throughout his life for as yet undetermined reasons; the continued concealment of his authorship after his death by those who knew about it, including his descendants; the deliberate substitution of an alternative author; and the intentional falsification of physical and literary evidence to perpetuate the fable into the ensuing centuries. It appears that a hoax of this scope and audacity is beyond the detective capacity of scholars who scrutinize documents and count words. This introduction to atttribution studies is a useful survey of the subject that inadvertently reveals the astonishing failure of its practitioners to solve, or even to seriously address, the greatest mystery in world literature.

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