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  • Print Culture as an Archive of Dissent:Or, Delia Bacon and the Case of the Missing Hamlet
  • Nancy Glazener (bio)

If I discover that Shakespeare was not born in the house that we visit today, that is a modification which, obviously, will not alter the functioning of the author's name. But if we proved that Shakespeare did not write those sonnets which pass for his, that would constitute a significant change and affect the manner in which the author's name functions. If we proved that Shakespeare wrote Bacon's Organon by showing that the same author wrote both the works of Bacon and those of Shakespeare, that would be a third type of change which would entirely modify the functioning of the author's name.

(Michel Foucault, "What is an Author?")

An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.

(Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance")

1. Delia Bacon: Beyond the Authorship Dispute

William Shakespeare is a good example for Foucault's purpose because Shakespeare is the author par excellence: a foundational figure for modern conceptions of literature. Indeed, Shakespeare might even be an author of what Foucault in the same essay calls a "discursivity," an opening for the continuing production of discourse that elaborates the work of a founding figure or quarrels with it in the spirit of revision, just as Marx and Freud, [End Page 329] Foucault's examples, made possible traditions of thought in which it is possible to differ with particular views or texts of Marx and Freud as well as to extend them. Of course, Shakespeare did not write a text offering a foundational program for modern literature on the order of Capital (1867) or The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), nor was he personally involved in the institutionalization of literature, but his example has often been invoked retrospectively to authorize what literature can or cannot be. At least from the eighteenth century, when Bardolatry was first diagnosed,1 and certainly in the nineteenth century, when academic English departments were formed, Shakespeare's authority more than anyone else's was publicly conscripted for the institutionalization of literature.2 In this sense, modern literature as an institution—something very different from the range of modern texts we might value in one way or another—can be understood according to Emerson's metaphor as a shadow cast by Shakespeare, even though this shadow is an effect of Shakespeare's having been positioned and lit retrospectively.

Americans' participation in Shakespeare studies in the nineteenth century was therefore an important marker of national cultural achievement, an effort contributing to the American institutionalization of English literature. Responses to American texts were affected, in turn, by this sense of the literary, and American literature ultimately was installed in the academy as a "subdiscipline" of English literary studies (Shumway 124). In this respect, the emergence of two figures in American Shakespeare studies during the 1850s (retrospectively dubbed the "American Renaissance") is important to integrate into American literary history, a history that ought to bring together production and reception. What is even more interesting with respect to the emergence of literary studies in the US is that one of these figures—Richard Grant White—became powerful and influential within Anglo-American Shakespeare studies, whereas the other one—Delia Bacon—became a founding figure within the mainly amateur (or at best institutionally marginalized and disreputable) tradition of disputing Shakespeare's authorship. What interests me is not the dispute about authorship, since I readily concede that Delia Bacon was wrong, but rather that Delia Bacon's work came to be remembered only for her disputing Shakespeare's authorship rather than for her powerful reading of the political content of the plays.

Although Foucault's throwaway line about the possibility that the same person might have written Shakespeare's and Francis Bacon's works does not reference any particular version of this theory, the possibility was first raised in a way that generated [End Page 330] widespread public discussion in the late 1850s by Delia Bacon. Delia Bacon (whom I will hereafter call "Bacon," while referring to Francis Bacon by both names) was an American scholar whose efforts to publish her work were assisted by Ralph...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 329-349
Launched on MUSE
2007-06-04
Open Access
No
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