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The notion that a bad poem cannot be by Shakespeare is a very old one, and it involves a strategy of definition: it defines Shakespeare as the best poet, and then banishes from the canon whatever is considered insufficiently excellent. The Shakespeare canon has, therefore, undergone a number of changes over the centuries as critical tastes have changed: quality has always been in the eye of the beholder. But the real issue, if it is authenticity that concerns us, is not the question of quality. Obviously the fact that we do not admire the poem is not evidence that it is inauthentic. And if that is so, then the authenticity of the text here is not a function of the poem at all; it is a function precisely of the text, in the most limited and literal sense: of the manuscript through which the poem is transmitted.
Taylor took the ascription to Shakespeare seriously because he correctly considered the manuscript to be the crucial piece of evidence, and he judged its testimony to be reliable. In the course of the voluminous correspondence about the poem, very few of his critics, who saw themselves as Shakespeare’s defenders, perceived that the manuscript, the medium of transmission, had any relevance at all – that is, that it was the manuscript that needed to be attacked, not the poem. Taylor’s judgment on this essential point was, however, energetically confirmed by a British scholar of unquestionable expertise, who agreed that the manuscript was crucial and declared this particular manuscript to be an unusually trustworthy source.
Even this, of course, does not make the poem authentic; it only means that a trustworthy witness said it was authentic – this is as close as we can get to authenticity with this sort of evidence (and it should perhaps be added that people have been hanged on weaker evidence). But three weeks later an American scholar, also unquestionably expert, contradicted the British scholar on every point, ending by declaring the manuscript particularly unreliable. And here my story stops: who shall decide when doctors disagree? I am concerned with the issues, not with their solutions, and the issues here are precisely authenticity and evidence. What do we mean by authenticity, and what will we accept as evidence of it? This is my subject, and it is a historical one: what, from Shakespeare’s time onward, has constituted an authentic text of Shakespeare?
We might begin by observing that we mean a number of different things by “Shakespeare” For example, the music for Desdemona’s “Willow Song” is preserved in a manuscript lute book of 1583. This is good evidence that Shakespeare did not write the song; he included it in Othello because he wanted Desdemona to sing an old song – the song of her mother’s maid Barbary. All this is perfectly well known; nevertheless, the “Willow Song” is invariably ascribed to Shakespeare, and the editor of the Arden Othello does not even mention the evidence that the song is borrowed. Quite simply, it is Shakespeare’s because it appears in a Shakespeare play and, more important, because we like it.
On the other hand, a less famous and less attractive song, “Orpheus with his lute made trees” from Henry VIII, is generally ascribed to John Fletcher, as is a good deal of the text of this play. There is no evidence whatever that the song is not by Shakespeare, and the only evidence that the play is a collaboration is that critics have for the past hundred years or so considered a number of its scenes unShakespearean – they do not sound like Shakespeare, or at any rate they do not sound the way we want Shakespeare to sound.
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