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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: February ::
Foster on Shaxicon (In Six Parts)
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0124  Wednesday, 11 February 1998.

From:           Don Foster <
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Date:           Monday, 09 Feb 1998 09:09:32 -0500
Subject:        Foster on Shaxicon (In Six Parts)

[Editor's Note: I would have liked to post Don Foster's piece on
Shaxicon in one message, but its length prevents this.  The complete
text of all six postings will be made available in the SHAKSPER Archives
for future retrieval. I thank Don Foster for taking the time to compose
"Foster on Shaxicon," and I urge all readers to respect his request that
this material not be circulated without authorization.  --Hardy Cook]


Note: this message concerning Shaxicon is for the SHAKSPER List archive,
not for unauthorized circulation. With best wishes to SHAKSPEReans from
Don Foster (pardon the long messages).

Though no longer an active member of SHAKSPER, I am jumping in here at
the request of several SHAKSPER contributors.  In recent posts, A. Kent
Hieatt has expressed his (fierce, and, I think, understandable)
impatience with the slow pace at which Shaxicon has moved toward
licensing and distribution.   I share Hieatt's concern.  There is, in
fact, no one on the planet more eager than I to put a wrap on this
ambitious project.  I want to be done with it, and to put in the hands
of other scholars.  Next year I will be taking an unpaid leave in order
to finish the project, which has now been almost twelve years in
development.  In the meantime, there has been some misunderstanding of
Shaxicon, exacerbated by Hieatt's doubtless well-intended but
often-confused message.  His questions are perhaps better answered now
than later, though I have no time for a protracted debate over these
matters.   In a few detailed posts I will try to bring SHAKSPEReans up
to speed re: Shaxicon.  For those of you who are not interested in such
matters and who dislike getting long e-mail messages, I beg your
pardon.  Hit the delete button and push on. There's no urgency here.

Let's begin by considering linguistic transmission from Shakespeare's
day to our own, in order to clarify the kinds of cultural, mnemonic, and
intertextual phenomena with which Shaxicon is chiefly concerned.  And
let's do so, at first, without consulting the database.  Then let's turn
to Shaxicon, take a look at the kinds of data that it provides, and
consider how this resource can be used to examine the same kinds of
intertextual problems with which we began.  I'll then close with a few
tips how one may use Shaxicon to cross-examine published scholarship,
including even my own work, or Kent Hieatt's; and outline progress
towards its completion.

Let's say that you wish to investigate non-narrative sources for
_Spanish Gipsey_  (by Dekker and Ford, pub. 1653).  The play contains
hundreds of words and collocations that can be traced to antecedent
texts.  Consider, for example, the maxim, "if trod upon, a Worme / Will
turne againe" (_Span.  Gips._ V.ii).  Shakespeareans will hear an echo
of Lord Clifford in 3H6 ("The smallest worm will turn, being trodden
on," 3H6 2.2.17).  If, on further study, Ford and Dekker's play
registers an extraordinarily high incidence of word- and phrasal
borrowings from 3H6 relative to all other possible sources, then we may
justifiably refer to 3H6 as a non-narrative source for _Spanish
Gipsey_.  If there were found many borrowings in _Span.  Gips._ from
3H6, but only from the role of Lord Clifford, one might conjecture that
Dekker or Ford had a special interest in that role.  But further study
might also reveal that _Spanish Gipsey_ and 3H6 draw on a shared source,
such as an Elizabethan anthology of proverbs, without any linear
relation of indebtedness from 3H6 to Dekker and Ford.

For the time being, let's remain agnostic on the question of Dekker
and/or Ford's debt to 3H6 and turn to our own cultural moment.  Let us
suppose, as a thoroughly hypothetical example, that the evidence for a
1997 murder case rests on a threatening letter-a pseudonymous document
that includes what _may_ be a Shakespearean allusion:  The letter-writer
makes a sneering remark that "the worm has turned."   If the
pseudonymous document is thickly strewn with additional Shakespearean
echoes, including diction or phrasing not often found elsewhere in
modern American or British speech, literature, journalism, or internet
discussion, then we might infer that the letter-writer had at least a
passing interest in Shakespeare (as a student, scholar, actor, or
amateur enthusiast).  If the said document alludes repeatedly to 3H6
but not to any other Shakespeare poem or play, that would raise a
slightly different set of hypotheses (e.g., a possible acquaintance with
3H6  through theatrical production or classroom study).  If the document
included several Shakespeare quotations, but only ones found also in
_Bartlett's Quotations_, that would raise still another set of
problems.  And so on.

It is not safe to assume, on the basis of a turning-worm remark, that
our hypothetical murder-suspect ever encountered Shakespeare's 3H6.  One
must examine all possible sources.  As it happens, a search of
contemporaneous language (Usenet, Lexis-Nexis, the World Wide Web,
FirstSearch, et. al.) reveals that in 1996-97, most American instances
of <turn* NEAR worm*> refer us not to William Shakespeare but to Dennis
Rodman.  Rodman's nickname-the "Worm"-occurs in various contexts and
phrases in current text-databases, appearing most often in news articles
and basketball chatboards.  Since 1996, "the worm turns" (etc.) has been
an oft-repeated phrase in the television broadcast of Rodman's
basketball games ("the Worm turns, he shoots, he scores!").  Rodman even
chose _As the Worm Turns_ as the title of his recent (ghostwritten)
autobiography (a title that may be conditioned by still other fragments
of pop culture, such as the cliche, "as the world turns," which has even
been used as the title of a daytime soap opera).

A few additional 1996-7 collocations of <worm* NEAR turn*> occur in a
scientific context (worms as an object of laboratory research, etc.).

In our cultural moment, the letter-writer's "worm has turned" is likely
to recall the language of sportscasters and/or Dennis Rodman.  William
Shakespeare's trodden-on worm and the study of vermiculous creatures are
unlikely to have served as a direct source for our homicide-related
document.  This a simple matter of probability, given the distribution
of culturally available sources in 1996-7.

If our pseudonymous letter contains no additional bits from Shakespeare,
and nothing that would indicate an interest in vermology, while
containing other bits of professional sports jargon (as uncovered in a
thorough search of multiple databases), then we've got something that
constitutes evidence: the letter has no _topical_ relation to sports or
Shakespeare or vermology, but the remembered diction may help to limit
the suspect-authors to those individuals whose recent
reading/TV-viewing, or whose daily speech and writing, involves a
personal or professional engagement with pro sports.

Now let's imagine another context:  suppose that two radio announcers,
William and Ben, learn from their physician that they must lose weight.
Let's suppose that one of these two sportscasters (we don't know which
one) later wrote, "The doc told me I have to lose weight.  Worse yet, I
have to give up ice cream.  Boy, that's when the worm turned." No
thought here of basketball, nor of Shakespeare, nor of murder.  But of
our two announcers, William is more likely than Ben to have applied the
phrase to another context, provided that William and not Ben usually
announces for Dennis Rodman and the Bulls.  Similarly, if William the
sportscaster mentions turning worms in a context unrelated to Dennis
Rodman, then he is most likely to utter those additional instances
during the _basketball_ season, not during the _baseball_ season.
Another corollary: given two summertime customers of a
bait-shop-William, a sportscaster for the Bulls, and Sam, a Celtics'
fan, both of whom purchase nightcrawlers for a fishing trip-then
William's purchase of worms is more likely than Sam's to trigger an
otherwise unprompted anecdote about pro basketball.  And so on.  And
these patterns of lexical recall can be investigated for any writer,
including nonliterary writers, for whom a comprehensive (or at least
representative) text-sample can be gathered.

The active lexicon for any individual (you, me, Shakespeare) is
developed through repeated input and associative links:  the more times
that one encounters a new word, phrase, or idea (whether in conversation
or reading), the more likely one is to use it.  Once acquired, repeated
use generates further repetitions, both in one's own writing and in the
writing of those who most closely attend to those utterances.  In a
succeeding post, I will return to this chiastic relation of repeated
diction: it is a fundamental principal to be apprehended.

Let's suppose now that William (the Bulls' sportscaster), Ben (a Knicks'
sportscaster), and Sam (a Knicks fan) are all suspected of writing the
pseudonymous threatening letter seized as key evidence in our
hypothetical homicide.  If "the worm turns" shows up elsewhere in
William's private correspondence, but not in Ben's or Sam's, then
William-on this one bit of linguistic evidence-is a more likely
candidate for the authorship of the pseudonymous letter than Ben.  But
one must also consider William's other utterances, and the active
vocabulary among his circle of acquaintance.  If "the worm turns" (or
"now turneth the worm," or any analogous construction) has come to
appear in William's daily conversation and correspondence, then it's not
unlikely that the same metaphor will turn up in the speech or writing of
William's son or best friend or spouse or television sidekick.
Moreover, if "the worm turns" has become a regular feature of William's
speech, then someone wishing to _frame_ William for authorship of the
pseudonymous letter (John, let's say, or Simon) may have deliberately
_inserted_ that phrasing to _implicate_ William in the crime even though
William is innocent.  Isolated verbal echoes, divorced from other
considerations, cannot establish authorship.

For such evidence to be decisive, the scholar must work through the
pseudonymous letter word by word and phrase by phrase, constructing a
profile of the letter-writer's reading/filmgoing/TV-watching.  (Note:
this matter of the unknown author's reading and non-narrative source
material is largely independent of grammar, syntax, and the like, which
always provides additional evidence; and it is largely independent of
biographical and archival records, which may supply more evidence
still.  We're not yet to first base.)

When called as an expert witness or consultant in criminal
investigations and/or corporate fraud, I have found this process of
tracking down non-narrative sources to be a helpful and necessary first
step.  There is no computer-magic here; nor do I possess any special
cleverness.  For this kind of work, one must have access to a
comprehensive library of text-databases; a representative text-sample of
all possible or likely authors of the pseudonymous text; a
representative cross-sample of writing by members of the same corporate
or ethnic or social milieu; and a lot of old-fashioned scholarly
gruntwork.  With these resources, I have been able often to identify
specific texts that were read/viewed by a suspect before and/or after a
felony offense, including books, magazines, Websites, and television

Verbal parallels cannot constitute evidence except insofar as they can
be significantly situated within an individual writer's linguistic
practice.  Shortly after the arrest of Theodore Kaczynski in 1996, the
popular press (taking its cue from the Turchie affidavit) laid great
emphasis on the "inverted" proverb, "You can't eat your cake and have it
too." The "cake" proverb appears in this "inverted" form in the Unabom
manifesto; the same proverb, not verbatim but in a similarly "inverted"
form, was found in a letter by Theodore Kaczynski (hereafter, "TK").
Granted, most Americans in the latter 20th century say, "You can't have
your cake and eat it too." But would any of us have wished for police or
the FBI to invade the home of every American in 1996 who ever said or
wrote, "You can't eat your cake and have it too"?  Probably not.  (For
one thing, the suspect-list would include writers as diverse as John
Heywood, George Herbert, John Keats, James Joyce, Ayn Rand, M. C.
Escher, and Freddie Mercury, none of whom ever built a bomb.)  Isolated
verbal parallels require systematic comparative analysis, with a
comprehensive search for provenance.  I was able to show that the
proverb as used by TK and the Unabomber appear in texts that were
otherwise influential on both sets of documents; that the "correction"
of illogical American idiom was a habitual feature of TK's writing; and
that the use of TK's "inverted" (i.e., traditional and logical) form of
the proverb is indeed rare today in American English though still common
in the U.K.

By proceeding through the Unabom and the TK papers word by word, phrase
by phrase, I was able to identify many (not all) of the texts that
mutually influenced TK's language and the language of the Unabom
documents.  These included a few sources clearly identified by TK
himself, such as Jacque Ellul's _Technological Society_   Less apparent
to the casual reader of the Unabom papers is that TK was also an avid
reader of literary texts, including novels by Joseph Conrad and Somerset
Maugham, anarchist literature, Walter Kaufman's edition of Nietzsche,
and back issues of the _Saturday Review_  magazine.   These other
sources were identifiable not by explicit referencing but by the
author's largely unconscious bricolage of linguistic material.

In the weeks and months after news broke about TK's use of this proverb,
TK's version of the proverb acquired new life, occurring repeatedly in
American journalism concerning other, unrelated topics, most frequently
in articles about environmentalism.  Such is the nature of linguistic
transmission within a cultural community.  Shaxicon does for Shakespeare
studies what a manual, word-by word search of text-databases can do for
Kaczynski studies:  it serves as a map of early modern English, showing
when new or rare words appeared in literary production, who used them,
and how they were transmitted.  The database can be useful in examining
anyone's assertions (including my own) concerning the rarity or
distinctiveness of lexical material in an Elizabethan or Jacobean or
Carolinian text.

In attributional arguments, scholars often make the mistake of beginning
with a hypothesis, and of then hunting down evidence to support the
hypothesis.  Take, for example, the earnest and very interesting effort
by a few Shakespeareans to ascribe "A Funeral Elegy" to someone other
than Shakespeare.  I will have more to say about that engaging spectacle
in a book that I have not yet begun to write.  But let's take, as a
representative example,  Katherine Duncan-Jones's announcement (May
1996) that the "true author" of the elegy is the Rev. William Sclater, a
Puritain zealot.  Duncan-Jones advanced this hypothesis with
considerable verve in the 1997 Shakespeare Studies, but made a number of
fatal errors, the first of which was to neglect archival records.  In
point of fact, Sclater was already eliminated as a candidate in 1985, on
both the internal and external evidence.  Richard Abrams, adding to that
evidence, has written a brief response in the 1998 Shakespeare Studies
reply that will surely dampen enthusiasm for Duncan-Jones's candidate.

Without waiting for a second to her motion, Duncan-Jones (TLS, Dec.
1997) suddenly claimed unilateral victory.  This boast, claiming proof
for an impossible attribution, prompted some applause from I.A. Shapiro
(who seems not to have read Duncan-Jones's argument), and bewilderment
from anyone who has ever read both Sclater's work and "A Funeral
Elegy."  Further to confuse matters, Katherine Duncan-Jones-evidently
mistaking me for I.A. Shapiro-announced in TLS that I have come to share
her view that Sclater is the "true author" of the elegy.  When hearing
of this astonishing claim, I promptly wrote Duncan-Jones, stating
politely that she was mistaken, both in taking me for an ally, and in
her Sclater attribution.  This prompted Duncan-Jones to publish still
another letter to TLS:  she writes now that Sclater was "only a
suggestion." This is what used to be called, in scholarly
circles,"pedaling backwards, downhill, without a bike chain."

Duncan-Jones's second big mistake was to employ arguments which, if
employed to advance a new Shakespeare attribution, would be exploded in
a minute as airy nothing, and to universal hoots.  For example: finding
that Sclater's diction is as different as can be from that of both
Shakespeare and W.S., Duncan-Jones resorted to individual words that she
feels signify common authorship; of these, "unrest" is highlighted as
the most striking:

        "One of the words shared by Sclater and the poet
        is 'unrest,' used in the sense of 'disturbance,
        turmoil, trouble.'  _OED_ quotes from Slater's
        [sic] posthumously published _Sermons Experi-
        mentall_ (1638), 'A sweet soliloquie of David
        with his soul, checking it ... for the disquiet and
        unrest it passionately had plunged i self into';
        compare the author of the _Elegie_'s distracting
        preoccupation with 'my deep'st unrest" (572).
        Undoubtedly there is a scattering of verbal links
        between Sclater's works and the _Elegie_...."
        (Duncan-Jones, "Who Wrote _A Funerall Elegie_, p. 207)

Let's consult just one database (Literature Online) as a text-sample
whereby to test the strength of the attributional evidence presented to
us here.  As it happens, <unrest* OR vnrest*>  occurs 2,823 times in
LION (as of 2/8/98).  Clearly, the word is of no value as an
attributional indicator.   One must turn, then, to chronology, context,
and collocation.  The elegist writes "deep'st unrest," a (strictly
speaking, illogical) collocation that was far less ordinary in 1611/12
(when the elegy was written) than it is today.  LION supplies only two
antecedents-"deep unrest" in Shakespeare's _Rape of Lucrece_ (1594) and
E.C.'s _Emaricdulfe_ (1595), the latter being a poem that borrows
directly from _Luc_.   LION (which does not yet include the Shakespeare
elegy) includes only one other instance of the collocation, <deep*
unrest*> before 1700.  That third instance is in Ben Jonson's _Tale of a
Tub_ (pub. 1640).  "Deep unrest" has since become a fairly common
phrase-as disseminated principally through our cultural investment in
Shakespeare's  _Luc_.   For example, the 1863 edition of Shakespeare's
Poems (one of many editions indexed in LION) is followed by non
Shakespearean instances of "deep unrest" in non-Shakespearean LION texts
dated 1862, 1867, 1868 (2), 1872, 1874, and 1878.  What does one make of
W.S's "deep'st unrest," Shakespeare's "deep unrest," and Sclater's
"unrest"?  Only this: there is a possibility that W.S. invented "deep'st
unrest" off the top of his head; or that the phrase was prompted by
"deep unrest" in Shakespeare's _Luc._ or E.C.'s _Emaricdulfe_.   But to
employ _unrest_ (n.) as the lead instance of the elegy's supposedly
Sclater-like vocabulary is, at best, a rhetorical bullet in the foot.

Any enterprising scholar can now investigate (but not always establish)
Shakespeare's reading of nondramatic texts, of the poet's own texts, or
of particular theatrical roles.  With electronic assistance, scholars
can challenge flimsy or fraudulent attributional arguments by doing a
little rigorous homework, and Shaxicon can assist them in that labor.
The dozens of words and phrases and constructions found in the elegy and
in Shakespeare but not in Sclater render Sclater an unlikely candidate,
and would do so even if it were not for external and biographical
evidence that likewise rules out Sclater's candidacy.  The entire
English language does not supply a single word that appears only in
Sclater and FE, or in any three-way combination including FE and another
late Shakespearean text.  Duncan-Jones's argument was built entirely on
wishful thinking.  There are, however, many rare words that appear in FE
and in an antecedent text, or in H8 and the same antecedent text, or in
all three texts.  A typical example: _to all-encompass_ (v.) appears in
FE and in Phaer's _Aeneidos_; _sacring_ (ad.) appears in H8 and Phaer's
_Aeneidos_;  _undoubtedly_ (adv. [more rare in 1612 than it is today])
appears in FE, H8, and Phaer's _Aeneidos_.  This does not prove that
Shakespeare read Phaer's _Aeneidos_ in 1612; it only means that this is
a text to be investigated by anyone who wishes to comment on the
authorship of either FE or H8.

Now let's turn to Shaxicon, for a mini sneak-preview.  (See next,
SHAXICON: REPLY TO HIEATT, PART 2: Sample Shaxicon entries; and PART 3:
How Shaxicon works)

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