The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 29.0416 Friday, 30 November 2018
Date: November 30, 2018 at 2:07:48 AM EST
Subject: Re: The Shakespeare Canon and the NOS
Larry Weiss on attribution:
I agree with Brian Vickers’s prediction that substantial parts of the NOS editors’ new attributions and dis-attributions will ultimately be shown to be wrong, imprecise or problematical. By the same token, I suspect that at least some of Vickers’s blanket assertions will meet the same fate.
Larry is probably right; yet by a different token, they aren’t the same types—in my view. Vickers seems more concerned with ‘truth’ than is the NOS, though they share misleading assumptions. Gabriel Egan needles the thread:
(If . . . Brian Vickers is the only person who replies . . . I’ll drop out of this thread—I think Hardy’s rule about terminating threads that engage just two people is a good rule.)
[Editor’s Note: I am glad Gabriel brought this up. Should this thread devolve into exchanges just between Gabriel and Brian, I will shut it down. Threads need to be exchanges of ideas and not become simple expressions conflicting positions. -Hardy]
I think a prolonged two-person exchange can be productive, as often historically. If debate is between ranking scholars, so much the better, right or wrong. This is the only Shakespeare forum where readers may follow textual opinion outside expensive, slow, and poorly informed publication—especially when issues are sidestepped, as I believe of NOS advocacy.
I’m skeptical of ‘high-tech’ attribution, for various ‘low-tech’ reasons. Old, personal accounts help me to understand science; not surprisingly, good observations come from those who’ve been there:
The fourth chapter . . . mainly descriptive, may perhaps be read with profit by many who are unable to tackle the mathematical theory comprehensively. It may be also useful to have results of mathematical reasoning expanded into ordinary language for the benefit of mathematicians themselves, who are sometimes too apt to work out results without a sufficient statement of their meaning and effect. . . .
With a data base (texts, authors) chosen by factional analysis or tradition, the meaning and effect of its quantification might not translate well. Thanks to Pervez, we see some math itself isn’t trustworthy.
No matter how eminent they may be in their departments, officials need not be scientific men. It is not expected of them. But should they profess to be, and lay down the law outside their knowledge, and obstruct the spreading of views they cannot understand, their official weight imparts a fictitious importance to their views, and acts most deleteriously in propagating error, especially when their official position is held up as a screen to protect them from criticism. . . .
Mathematics is reasoning about quantities. Even if qualities are in question, it is their quantities that are subjected to the mathematics. If there be something which cannot be reduced to a quantity . . . then that something cannot be accurately reasoned about, because it is in part unknown. Not unknown in the [algebraic] sense . . . but literally unknown . . . . The unknown is not necessarily unknowable.
As regards [mathematical] limitations . . . refer to the sciences connected with living matter, and to the ologies generally, to see that the facts and their connections are too indistinctly known to render mathematical analysis practicable . . . . (Oliver Heaviside, 1893)
Decades ago, I heard from Elliott & Valenza of an attribution method wherein a test-word list had been tweaked to pass control-plays as Shakespearean—and to verify the method by passing or failing other texts satisfactorily. How it worked, they couldn’t say—yet it worked. Granted, to a point. I’ve not fully accepted that varying word-lists to see what happens is ‘connecting with living matter’ in the indistinct form of textual history. Pervez Rizvi alludes to such methods:
We may distinguish between . . . attribution methods, stable and unstable. A stable method is . . . defined once and is then always the same no matter which texts you use it for. Zeta . . . is largely stable – perhaps we may say semi-stable – but not wholly so. Having chosen the texts, the researcher must still choose which of them are in the base and which in the counter . . . . Nevertheless, there is a high degree of objectivity, and therefore stability, in Zeta. Function word adjacency network . . . is an extreme example of an unstable method. The researcher must choose one from literally trillions of possible sets of function words, and trust that, because it gives the right answer for the training texts, it will also give the right answer for the text of unknown authorship. . . . (‘Which N-grams, pt. 1’)
Chosen texts lead to mathematical objectivity, well-chosen or not. I believe Shakespeare scholarship has not advanced to match ‘sets of function words’ quantitatively to ‘sets of playtexts’ with assurance that quality can be ignored. I suspect Shakespearean diction (‘so to speak’) influenced authors to unappreciated extents. It’s risky to date plays biographically; assume collaboration; deny reporting and non-authorial alteration; overlook plagiarism and copy-catting (whole Hamlets); or to presume that Shakespeare was learning from inferiors. Scholarship may eventually recognize contamination in the very playtexts tested for attribution—and in the control texts. Like us, early theater was a digestion tube reliant on symbiosis to support its complicated life.
After trying shorthand on Tamings (they look ‘bad’), I’ve glanced at other T’s: Titus, Timon, and Troilus. It’s amazing how quickly editors sweep evidence under the ‘foul papers’ carpet-canard—before having their go at problems. NOS demagoguery positing authorial revision of a Lear authorial draft represented by Q1 has long hampered analysis, on “We have spoken” grounds. Now Shakespearians are romanced by *collarboration* (sometimes I let misprints pass for wit; nothing else works) with Marlowe. There’s an ongoing effort to re-inject Thomas Kyd into the debate, based in part on some pretty convincing, old-fashioned analysis. If such arguments are not allowed to be played out, attribution may be confined to quantity, when quality is what brung us here.
Gerald E. Downs