The Heart of Mystery

January 15, 1995 at 12:00 AM EDT

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: For the first time since 1871, scholars believe they have found a new piece of writing by William Shakespeare. The “New York Times” reported this weekend that computer analyses seem to confirm that an elegy first published more than 350 years ago was, indeed, written by the great bard.

Here to discuss this new finding and our continuing fascination with Shakespeare are writer and NewsHour essayist Roger Rosenblatt and Donald Foster, the Vassar English professor who was largely responsible for solving this particular Shakespeare mystery. Thanks for being with us.

Professor Foster, tell us how you found this elegy.

DONALD FOSTER, Vassar College: (New York) Well, the two copies have survived of this poem, both of them at Oxford. Curiously, I found the poem on a microfilm. These early English books have been routinely filmed and distributed to universities around the world, and I first found it at the University of California.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What made you think it might be a work by Shakespeare?

PROF. FOSTER: I wasn’t looking for a work by Shakespeare. It happens to be initialed W.S., and it was published by the same team, George Eld & Thomas Thorpe, that published Shakespeare’s Sonnets, but I was only looking at the works of Thomas, the stationer’s list, the book list of Thomas Thorpe.

It wasn’t until I began reading the poem that I was struck by how much W.S. was stealing from Shakespeare, little words and phrases one doesn’t ordinarily hear from other poets, that I took a real interest in it, and it was some time before I was willing to really believe that Shakespeare might actually have written it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us a little bit about the elegy. Who is it about?

PROF. FOSTER: William Peter is a young Oxford scholar. He was 30 at the time he died in Aksutery. He had spent an afternoon of bar-hopping with a man named Edward Drew. And on their way home, Drew chased after him on his horse and from behind stabbed him in the back of the head and killed him.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And it took you 13 years to prove that–or I know–I guess it’s not considered quite proven yet, but to establish to the satisfaction of many scholars that this is by Shakespeare. How did you do it?

PROF. FOSTER: Well, for six years, I studied the problem quite closely and looked at evidence for and against Shakespeare’s hand in the poem and finally concluded that there just wasn’t enough evidence here to go on board and say I think Shakespeare wrote this poem.

So I published evidence, arguments for Shakespeare’s hand against Shakespeare’s hand, and it wasn’t until recently that additional evidence has come to light by Prof. Abrams of University of Southern Maine and by myself, which has made me confident enough, together with other scholars, to say, yes, we believe that this is, indeed, Shakespeare’s work.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you did it through a computer analysis, right?

PROF. FOSTER: Well, this is just one part, actually, of a much wider web of evidence that includes connections between Shakespeare and this young man and a good deal of rare vocabulary one doesn’t ordinarily find outside Shakespearean texts and grammatical quirks and so forth.

The computer is just a tool in the hands of literary scholars. But it can be used effectively sometimes to distinguish one writer from another, and that has helped, that kind of analysis has helped considerably in this case.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Roger Rosenblatt, why is this such a big deal? This was on the front page of the “New York Times.” It’s big news.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: (New York) Everything that happens about Shakespeare and reveals something about Shakespeare is a big deal because of who he was to us, I think, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And who was he to us?

MR. ROSENBLATT: He gave language to our common experience. In the Middle Ages, they had the seven deadly sins, a kind of–sort of categories of behavior, or they had comedies of humors, other categories of, of behavior, but Shakespeare didn’t do that.

He told us exactly who we were, what we were thinking, and changed the categories into people. So now, envy becomes or deviousness becomes Iago and vacillation becomes Hamlet, ambition becomes Richard III, ambition on the female side becomes Lady MacBeth, and all these things really told us who we are and how we think, so we treasure him above anyone in our language.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think about that, Prof. Foster? Do you think that’s why this is such big news?

PROF. FOSTER: Well, I think Roger has spoken quite well. And Shakespeare is just fun. Literary scholars have a little different kind of fun with Shakespeare than actors or students or casual readers, but he does seem to have this ability to speak to all cultures, all ages, races, ethnic groups, partly because he doesn’t take sides, and he just looks at human life as it is and attempts to tell it as it is.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why do you think he continues to be so popular? We have two fairly popular films right now, “Othello” and “Richard III,” that are Shakespeare plays made into films.

PROF. FOSTER: Because Shakespeare is such an important part of our cultural heritage, even as our culture changes, I think there is a continual imperative to make Shakespeare new, do something new with him, and so we have filmmakers like Kenneth Branagh, for example, who have been able to use Shakespeare to speak to a wide audience, a much wider audience, in fact, than Shakespeare reaches today perhaps in the theater.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Roger, do you think that Shakespeare does something that no other writer can do, and, if so, what?

MR. ROSENBLATT: He did everything that no other writer can do. I don’t think there’s any second place, and when Prof. Foster talks about the fun, I don’t know if, Elizabeth, you’ve seen the movie “Richard III” yet, but I commend it to you. It’s as much fun as watching “Blind Ambition,” and Ian McKellen is as good a Shakespearean an actor as any of us will see, but it’s set in a modern setting.

It’s kind of a modernish war in the 20’s or 30’s. It’s–half the times it looks like Nazis; half the time it’s like RAF officers. And the, the wonder of watching this ruthlessly ambitious character kill off everybody in sight, his brother, his wife, the two children, in order to get to where he wants to get, and then you’re reminded, of course, of the world of politics to which, of course, in comparison looks tame to “Richard III.” You’re also reminded how tame the shenanigans of the current family are compared to the old set.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Prof. Foster, the poem contains biographical information about William Shakespeare, doesn’t it?

PROF. FOSTER: Yes. Somewhat elliptically. It will take us a while, I think, all readers to read this and decide what to make of that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But it’s in the first person, which is unusual, right?

PROF. FOSTER: Quite unusual. We’ve got only the sonnets which Shakespeare writes in the first person, that is, speaking as an “I,” and a couple of epistles to the Earl of South Hampton. This comes at 1612, at the very end of his career, and is certainly the longest single text in which he speaks to us as an individual without the dramatic frame that we have in the plays.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What does it tell us about him?

PROF. FOSTER: Well, the poet is a little cagey about that. Perhaps one of the things that’s interesting and has drawn some interest so far is the poet speaks of having been accused of a witchless sin sometime in his past, of having felt a taste of knowing shame. He speaks of himself as a poet of some prominence and, and says that there has been a thankless misconstruction cast upon his name and credit.

All this is quite unusual, of course, in a funeral elegy that’s being written to memorialize a virtuous, presumably murder victim, and in the sonnets we have the poet speaking of “vulgar scandal stamped upon my brow,” and various sonnets in which he speaks of a sense of shame and disgrace. We don’t know what that was. It’s been the subject of speculation, although this text may perhaps some day shed some light on the other as well.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Thank you both for being with us.

PROF. FOSTER: It’s a pleasure.