The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0209  Tuesday, 30 August 2011

From:         Lawrence Weiss <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         August 30, 2011 6:54:10 PM EDT

Subject:      Thomas of Woodstock


In 2005, SHAKSPER hosted a debate between Prof. Michael Egan, who asserted that the untitled and otherwise unattributed Renaissance play most commonly known as “Thomas of Woodstock,” which Egan calls “Richard II, Part 1,” was written by William Shakespeare, and Prof. Ward Elliott, who contended that stylometric evidence conclusively ruled out Shakespeare as the author of that play.  Elliott and his colleague, Robert J. Valenza, had offered £1,000 to anyone who could show that any previously untested non-Shakespeare play was stylistically as similar to twenty-nine “core” canonical plays as those plays are to each other.  Egan purported to accept that wager on the SHAKSPER site. Technically, however, the wager could not apply to Woodstock, as Elliott & Valenza had already tested that play, and rejected it.  Egan then offered a proposal of his own, but no agreement could be reached at the time as to how to resolve the issue.  As a result of private discussions between Egan and Elliott in 2010, they ultimately agreed to a formal proceeding in which the issue was presented to a panel consisting of myself, as “Convener,” and two other SHAKSPERIANS, Dale Johnson and Will Sharpe.  (All members of the panel had scored as “golden ears” in the test previously administered by Elliott.)  The submission agreement provided that Egan would pay Elliott and Valenza £1000 if he failed to present “clear, convincing, and irrefutable evidence that the anonymous Elizabethan play known variously as Richard II, Part One, Woodstock and/or Thomas of Woodstock is by Shakespeare,” a very high burden of proof.  The parties agreed that the decision of the panel would be announced on SHAKSPER.


The panel were presented with extensive submissions by both sides, including Egan’s four book treatise which attempts to establish his theory.  After reviewing these materials and consulting with each other, we reached a unanimous decision, reflected by a 44-page opinion, which is available at  pdf  Egan v Elliott  on the SHAKSPER website (shaksper.net).  I suggest that anyone interested in the issue consult the entire opinion, which thoroughly reviews the arguments presented by the parties, as well as other sources we consulted, and expresses our opinion as to whether Shakespeare wrote Woodstock without being confined to the extraordinarily high burden of proof undertaken by Egan.  For brevity’s sake, however, I include below an abridged version of the conclusion in the opinion and a brief “afterword” containing our discussion of the utility of proceedings of this nature:


The differences, stylistic and otherwise, between Woodstock and Shakespeare’s undoubted plays, even his early ones, so vastly outweigh the perceived similarities as to compel the conclusion that Shakespeare did not write Woodstock.  A few passages of superior poetry (e.g., I.iii.36-50), a couple of clever comic turns containing parallels to Osric and Dogberry (III.ii.115ff and III.iii)  and one or two arguable hendiadys of questionable Shakespearean quality cannot overcome the bulk of the evidence.  Parallels between Woodstock and Richard II which are most suggestive – the “landlord of England” echo, the “pelting farm” metaphor and Gaunt’s reference in Richard II to Thomas as a “plain well-meaning soul” – can easily be explained as either (1) echoes by the author of Woodstock of Shakespeare’s work or (2) copying by Shakespeare.  Egan’s arguments, thus, have more probable explanations than the unlikely one that Shakespeare wrote this mediocre play, a play which almost no one else has attributed to him and which every generally respected scholar who considered the issue concluded was surely not by Shakespeare. Therefore, Egan has not made his case.  When we go further and consider the stylometric evidence presented by Elliott & Valenza, we conclude that there is no case to be made.   Therefore, we find that Shakespeare did not write WoodstockÁ fortiori, Egan did not sustain his burden of proof, and he owes £1,000 to Elliott and Valenza.


We have no illusions that Michael Egan’s position on the issue will alter in the slightest as a result of our opinion.  He has invested too much time, effort and reputation to waver as a result of our views.  By the same token, Ward Elliott and Robert Valenza do not need us to confirm their research.  Our opinion serves at best an educational function.  That is crucially different from the judgment of an ultimate appellate court, which may be criticized or questioned but must be followed.


Given these limitations, we can ask if there is anything to gain from proceedings like this.  We think there is, if (1) the issue is carefully confined to a more-or-less esoteric point and (2) the assessors are sophisticated students of the subject. We don’t believe, though, that wagers add a useful element to the proceeding, as they tend to cast it in a sporting rather than academic mode. 


If the assessors are not adept at considering textual issues, little faith can be put in their judgments.  The broader the question and the more it carries political or emotional freight, such as the so-called “authorship question,” the less useful would be a decision like this, as we would not expect that it would persuade those who have made psychological investments in the contrary answer.  Individuals trained in non-literary pursuits, such as lawyers, are not disqualified from taking part in such panels, if they also have at least a working knowledge of the skills involved in literary criticism and textual analysis.  The reasoning skills they use in their professions are helpful in organizing and analyzing the literary data, but the latter must be the groundwork and most assuredly cannot be disregarded.  The “Golden Ear” test and any more sophisticated surveys that might be designed are useful to sift candidates for panels such as this one.


[Editor’s Note: The long document/report is available at the link above. Michael Egan has voiced objections to the report, and I have agreed to post his statement when he gets it to me. This report and Prof. Egan’s impending reaction to it are the basis for a discussion of the authorship of Woodstock/Richard II Part 1 (and perhaps associated issues of stylometrics) and do NOT constitute an open invitation to discuss the so-called “authorship question.”  Hardy M. Cook]



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