Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Masters Program in London on Shakespeare Authorship Studies

This is a report on my experience, from Robin Williams

Professor William Leahy made history in 2007 when he developed and inaugurated the first post-graduate program in the world that looks at the question of the authorship of the Shakespearean works. The program is at Brunel University in London, a campus founded in 1966 that now holds more than 15,000 students from over 100 countries.

The Masters program does not try to discover, “Who wrote Shakespeare?” Rather, the program’s focus is on the question itself: why is it not going away, what are the facts and issues behind the debate, why is the question greeted with such fierce antagonism and even vitriol in academic settings? Scholars complain that most of what is written about the authorship question is bad scholarship, but how can decent scholarship develop if it is not allowed to be discussed? Dr. Leahy himself does not find enough evidence to warrant his allegiance to any particular candidate, thus an open-minded and non-biased attitude permeates the entire curriculum.

The program consists of four modules, each designed to flesh out the history of Shakespeare’s changing place in the world and to provide students with a broad background within which to consider the question. Each module requires a 5,000-word essay/paper to pass.

“Research Methodologies” is an education in the textual scholarship of the plays, methods of research, how to judge sources, document retrieval, early modern printing and spelling, paleography, Shakespeare’s source materials, assessing multiple versions of texts, preparing for visits to libraries and archives, and how to write a professional academic paper, among other related concerns. My own papers for this module were 1) a bibliographic assessment of a 1763 German book that claims to be a translation of Mary Sidney’s manuscript of four rather mysterious techniques; and 2) a comparison of an original source material (a Greek version of the story of Jason and the Argonauts) with the published play of The Merchant of Venice. At the conclusion of the course and learning from the comments on my papers, I felt well-grounded in research techniques with an overview of early modern texts, and I felt I had the basics of the appropriate skills to enable me to move forward in this arena.

“The Making of Shakespeare” module traces the path of Shakespeare’s acceptance in the world from his own time up to the present. This module includes studies of early modern London and theaters, how the Shakespearean works have been adapted and edited and rewritten according to the mores of each era, how Shakespeare’s image has been influenced by each era—from a rustic and old-fashioned writer to a romantic genius to a deified entity—as well as readings and discussions of the theoretical works of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault in relation to the ideas of authorship. We looked at the work of Nicholas Rowe and other early biographers, actors, editors, and critics who influenced perceptions of Shakespeare, such as John Dryden, Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, Edmond Malone, up through Samuel Schoenbaum, Steven Greenblatt, and James Shapiro. I found it fascinating to see how Shakespeare has been refashioned to match the ideals of each era, and how these eras have influenced the editing and scholarship of the works. The slow process of deification over the centuries is what has led, I realized, to the resistance today of questioning his authorship (there are remarkable parallels to the sixteenth-century resistance of printing the Bible in English so the common masses could have direct access to the Bible, but that’s another story). My own paper for this section was on the Woman’s Club movement in America in the late 1800s/early 1900s that disseminated Shakespeare across the country and promoted widespread reading of the plays.

“The Shakespeare Authorship Question” module presents an unbiased overview of the question to date, including its history and premise, theories of authorship, the evidence for Shakespeare, the evidence for the question, the problems of attributions and declarations, the attitude of academia, academic authority, the question as a postmodern phenomenon, as well as individual presentations of the arguments for the four leading candidates (Mary Sidney, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford) from outside authorities. My research paper for this module was to discover for myself the prevalence of pseudonymous or anonymous publications in the Elizabethan/Jacobean age. I found it riveting to discover the Elizabethan passion for wordplay and name games that influenced a widespread pseudonymous culture in print, inspiring me to create my own nom de plume.

The final module, “Shakespeare, the Collaborator,” looks at the complex field of literary collaboration and authorship attribution, including the studies from Brian Vickers and Jonathon Hope that attribute certain portions of the Shakespearean plays to writers such as Peele, Kyd, and Middleton. This module focuses on the history and philosophy of attribution studies, how they parallel and conflict with attitudes to Shakespeare throughout history, as well as how to gauge the reliability of studies and their results. To this end, close readings of the Shakespearean plays alongside those of his contemporaries focus on recognizing the techniques and jargon of metrics, imagery, rhetorical devices, verse vs. prose vs. rhyme and how they are used, play structure, rare words, and characterization, to enable not only effective comparisons of authors, but an ability to understand and appraise the existing studies. A continuing thread throughout the course is the importance of proper argumentation and documentation. My own paper for this module was yet another method of attributing authorship using visual patterns to compare the metrics of the language in Shakespearean and other plays. Seeing Shakespearean plays in a visual form is enlightening, I discovered; although it is limited in its quantitative value in coauthorship studies, there may be other uses for my technique. I must admit it was rather shocking to see how the multitude of attribution studies contradict each other—one wonders where this important study will eventually lead us.

All papers are read and marked by two PhDs, analyzed by computer programs for plagiarism, and sent to an External Examiner for final comments and an assessment of the program in general. To complete the Masters, a fifty-page dissertation (a critical essay) is required. Personally, learning to write papers in the appropriate “scholarly” fashion was difficult for me because it’s just about the opposite of how I’ve written more than sixty computer/design books. I did take advantage of the great variety of workshops, seminars, and private tutoring that Brunel provides to support graduate students in all areas of the process. Based on the marks I received on the papers, it appears I was able to rise to the occasion.

Dr. Leahy is to be commended for having the courage to create this exciting and important program. I am honored that I was able to participate and look forward both to its future and to mine.

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Brunel University
Authorship Studies program at Brunel

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Shakespeare and His Authors:
Critical Perspectives on the Authorship Question,
William Leahy

Sweet Swan of Avon: Did a Woman Write Shakespeare? Robin P. Williams