- Against Attribution
In The Birth of Shakespeare Studies, Arthur Sherbo locates the origin of our work in the series of editions proceeding from that of Nicholas Rowe in 1709 to the younger James Boswell's expansion of Edmond Malone's edition in 1821.1 Since these publications claimed to offer Shakespeare's complete works, their editors had to determine what to put in and what to keep out. The birth of Shakespeare studies was thus at the same time the birth of attribution studies as a distinct critical practice. Attribution was already "a highly complex and contested" issue as early as "the dispute between Pope and Theobald over the authenticity of Double Falsehood."2 And as Shakespeare's "cultural authority" made it increasingly important to know "precisely what he wrote," attribution studies developed in sophistication.3 By 1787, Malone's Dissertation on the Three Parts of King Henry VI, tending to shew that those plays were not written originally by Shakspeare had established many of the basic methods—and even anticipated some of the conclusions—of the practice as it continues in our own day.4
But if attribution work has been a feature of Shakespeare studies since the beginning, it withdrew sometime after Malone into a marginal presence and, except for two distinct periods, has not attracted much general interest. The late nineteenth century saw a flurry of excitement about the possibility that [End Page 228] verse tests could reattribute shares of texts formerly taken as Shakespeare's.5 But although this work fed into subsequent reflection on "disintegration," the enthusiasm of the original project was unable to survive the collapse of the New Shakspere Society in 1894.6 The other period when attribution has risen above its usually modest position is now. The 1986–87 Oxford Shakespeare devoted considerable attention to, and generated new interest in, coauthorship, so that by 2002, when Brian Vickers began Shakespeare, Co-Author with the pronouncement that "No issue in Shakespeare studies is more important than determining what he wrote," even skeptical readers would not have doubted that he had a plausible case to make.7 Subsequent years have reinforced its plausibility. The proportion of Shakespeareans engaged in attribution study is probably no higher these days than earlier, but the widespread and apparently growing assumption of its consequentiality is a new thing.
The current stature of attribution scholarship must in part reflect an appreciation for its achievements, including an extraordinary lucidity, methodological sophistication, and interpretive power. Attribution scholars know what they're doing, and they explain their procedures and goals in accessible though nonsimplifying ways. They encounter many obstacles: theoretical (does a distinct idiolect exist?); historical (can it be identified under the nonauthorial deposits in the surviving texts?); and methodological (statistical probability, on which most current work is based, is not for the faint of heart). But they confront these problems directly, seeking to solve or contain them; where that's impossible, they adjust their conclusions accordingly. And they deliver. In demonstrating that early modern authorship "can be ascertained using empirical techniques that draw solely on internal evidence," attribution scholars often brilliantly accomplish just what they set out to do.8
Given the intellectual energy and stunning achievements of recent attribution study, it would be ungrateful to call for its termination across the board, and despite my saber-rattling title I am not doing so here. My claims may be transferable to other Renaissance playwrights (Jeremy Lopez's "Revenger's [End Page 229] Tragedy without Middleton" suggests as much).9 But "Against Attribution" is limited to contentions about Shakespearean authorship, and more particularly still to the prominence these contentions have achieved in current work. What critical interests have moved attribution from the periphery of Shakespeare studies to a position near or (in Vickers's claim) at its center? I'll be looking at the two answers attribution scholars themselves most frequently provide to this question: collaboration and science. Neither of these, I argue, justifies the prevalence of the conviction that attribution is something we need to know about to get on with Shakespearean work. Beyond this, my darker purpose, though I can only hint at...