"That Liberty and Common Conversation": A Review of the SHAKSPER Listserv Discussion Group
Sean Lawrence
University of British Columbia

Lawrence, Sean. "'That Liberty and Common Conversation': A Review of the SHAKSPER listserv discussion group." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.1 (1996): 16.1-16 <URL: http://www.library.ubc.ca/emls/02-1/rev_law1.html>.

  1. The SHAKSPER listserv discussion group has been growing since July 1990, when it was founded by Ken Steele, then of the University of Toronto[1]. In 1992, the task of editing was assumed by Hardy Cook of Bowie State University, where the files were transferred late last year, with the first digest from the new address being mailed on January 4, 1996. Recent postings have covered topics as diverse as the role of bastards in Shakespeare's drama[2], or the originator of the term "Bardolatry" (George Bernard Shaw, for those who are interested)[3]. If SHAKSPER as a whole has a structure, it is the interplay of an open, democratic debate with various controls. While I hope that this review imparts a sense of what some might call, "the free play within the system," I will concentrate largely on two threads which dominated SHAKSPER in the first three months of 1996: Shakespeare's possible authorship of "A Funeral Elegy," and two associated questions regarding the ontological status of the characters in Shakespearean drama and the historicity of the individual as self-conscious subject.

  2. A debate on the historicity of the individual was initiated by Jesus Cora's request for bibliographical suggestions in late 1995. Thomas Bishop sensibly suggested that we should "distinguish between individuality as fact and as value." This would, he argued, avoid an absurd belief that the medievals had no self-consciousness, while simultaneously allowing a discussion of the "cultural institution with specific investments of ideological and discursive effort" being formed in the Renaissance.[4] Robert Appelbaum also made a plea for conceptual clarity, arguing that:

      We need to distinguish theories of the self from representations of the self, discourses of the self from technologies of the self, and all of these things from that which concerning someone other than ourselves we can never have direct knowledge, namely the experience of the self.

    He also implied that such conceptual clarity would avoid the temptation towards ahistoricism. David Reed expressed an interest in finding "the terms that express/define why individualism is quite relevant" for the period. Victor Gallerano, on the other hand, distinguished the modern and post-modern view of the self constructed by the "will to power" with earlier views of selfhood. He seemed to be moving toward what Appelbaum was warning against, "the a-historicized work of setting the two opinions side by side." The two arguments passed liked ships in the night for the simple reason that they were posted concurrently.[5] It was two days later that SHAKSPERians could read Victor Turner responding to Appelbaum that he would not know what to do when he had "artfully segregated these categories, except perhaps to explore their modes of reintegration."[6] Bill Godshalk queried Appelbaum's historicism by pointing out that the belief in the Christian soul espoused by Jehovah's Witnesses is "straight out of John Milton."[7]

  3. Jonathan Sawday's reference to "Cartesian fish" and speculation that the "historical Shakespeare" must have shared Spenser's contempt for the Irish[8] prompted Chris Fassler to speculate on the use of "reflective constructions" such as "methinks" and their relationship to Descartes, as well as to question Sawday's apparent historical determinism.[9] This tended to produce two debates, running in almost perfect concurrency. Ron Macdonald corrected Fassler's labelling of "methinks" as reflective, and Jonathan Sawday corrected his quotation of Descartes. Sawday then moved the question to whether one can determine the level of individuality in a time period by examining its artistic representation, and offered pre-print copies of an upcoming article on the subject to anyone interested.[10] Bill Godshalk seemed to take a similar tack, asking if "artist's periods [are] really correlative to the artist's perception of her or his world and her or his self? Did Picasso think of himself as a cube?"[11] Meanwhile, Chris Ivic argued in favour of Shakespeare's contempt for the Irish, citing the wish expressed by the chorus of Henry V to see Essex return victorious.[12] Fassler responded by changing his example to juxtapositions of "methinks" with "I," and writing that the arguments of Ivic merely indicated that Shakespeare's support for genocide was likely, not certain. He nevertheless claimed to be willing to accept an argument starting from this likelihood ("After all, colonialism sucks.")[13] W. Russel Mayes picked up on the two questions, arguing against the historical determinist position on Shakespeare's views of Ireland, and offering a few bibliographical suggestions on inwardness and Elizabethan language, as well as trying to bring the whole debate back to Shakespeare by suggesting a consideration of The Comedy of Errors.[14]

  4. The advice was not followed, however, as the whole debate was revolutionized by an apparently straightforward inquiry. Suzanne Lewis asked whether SHAKSPERians thought that Hamlet and Ophelia slept together, and suggested that this might explain Ophelia's song.[15] Apart from a few witty responses regarding the proclivities of actors, the result was to shift debate from "individualism" to "character." The question was overwhelmingly popular, with several people suggesting that an implication of physicality would make for a better play. "It raises the stakes," wrote Andrew Tsao.[16] Jonathan Drakakis, on the other hand, responded that:

      Whether [Ophelia] is pregnant or not is about as irrelevant as whether Gertrude and Claudius had a clandestine affair before the death of Old Hamlet, or whether Lady Macbeth had any children (and how many).[17]

    In the same digest, Hardy Cook pointed towards the different characterizations in the Q1 and Q2/F1 texts, and asked whether it is legitimate to perform close readings for "character." Michael Yogev and Michael Saenger made explicit the distinction between a theatrical reading, in which constructing character is vital, and a textual reading. Harry Hill, on the other hand, contended that a Stanislavskian acting style is not inevitable, and that he, Hill, occasionally acts for surfaces.[18] Heather Stephenson also denied such an easy separation between the theatrical and the critical.[19] Nevertheless, the binary continued to inform contributions for weeks.

  5. Janis Lull made the perfectly sensible argument that one need not confuse fiction with reality in order to perform character criticism, quoting Samuel Johnson to this effect:

      Imitations produce pain or pleasure, not because they are mistaken for realities, but because they bring realities to mind . . . We are agitated in reading the history of Henry V, yet no man takes his book for the field of Agincourt.[20]

    John Lee made a similar argument in saying that "Shakespeare's dramatic persons insist on being treated as real persons." He also argued that the distinction between "real" people and "characters" tends to become increasingly clouded as we consider ourselves products of culture rather than autonomous individuals.[21] Robert Appelbaum made a yet more subtle distinction in saying that while Ophelia may be only a textual signifier:

      I would like to add that part of the feature of the persona as a textual signifier is that this signifier is understood to have the nature of what Barthes called a "precious remainder." In other words, signifers like Ophelia are more than the sum of their (textual) parts; they signify as subjects who have pasts and possible futures, not all of which are necessarily disclosed in the texts to which they seem to belong, and they signify as subjects with identities over time, from textual locus to textual locus, even if those identities are not necessarily deep, psychologistic, or philosophically coherent.

  6. Steve Urkowitz (who signed himself "Urquartowitz") argued that while there are many Ophelias, found in different texts and productions, the correct response is not to seek one which is "true," but to "PLAY these scripts." Yu Jin Ko's posting, which immediately followed Urkowitz's, would seem to support him in saying that there is a good deal of "play" in a play script. While psychological questions are raised, Ko argued, they are frustratingly unanswered by the play. Trying to figure out why so, he further argued, is just "self-obsessed indulgence."[22] For this he was taken to task by Surajit A. Bose, who concluded her long and witty contribution by declaring that "Yes, the play is a mousetrap; let's see how it works, let's figure out the technology behind the play's words, so we can imagine a way out of the trap."[23] Clark Bowlen seemed to agree with Urkowitz and Ko in insisting that the play presents only incomplete characterizations, which should be treated as "skeletons to be fleshed out by the actor."[24] To this, John Drakakis replied that whether created by the author, or augmented by the actor, characters nevertheless "emanate from a constellation of ideological assumptions," and that, moreover, the concept of character is anachronistic.[25] Mary McKenzie, similarly, argued that Bowlen's position was ahistorical, proceeding from a view of character solidly lodged in modern, western theatre.[26] John Lee demured that "whether or not 'character' is anachronistic is a debate, not a self-evident fact."[27] More damningly, Joseph Green showed that the word "ideology" is also anachronistic to Shakespeare's time.[28] A general disagreement can be seen in the more recent posts between viewing a text as determined by ideology, or as open to "play."

  7. The second major thread of the year concerned Shakespeare's possible authorship of "A Funeral Elegy." After a number of members expressed interest in the published reports of a "new" work, Don Foster wrote a summary of how he had first come to suspect that this poem was by Shakespeare, how he had brought it to light with the publication of his 1989 book Elegy by W.S.: A Study in Attribution, and what further study of the subject had been undertaken by him and others since. Though admitting that "If you go to the Elegy looking for the poetic richness of the Sonnets, you'll be disappointed," he nevertheless declared that "I am now persuaded that the Elegy is indeed Shakespeare's, partly for reasons spelled out in my book, and partly for what I take to be a whole web of conclusive new evidence of Shakespearean authorship."[29] At the suggestion of Sean Lawrence and Michael Yogev, he posted the full text to the SHAKSPER fileserver a day later,[30] and provided a more detailed bibliography in the next week, concluding that:

      While waiting for the next round of attributional and critical work to appear in print, we have in SHAKSPER an excellent forum for critical discussion of the poem. Speaking strictly for myself, I'd be happy to see criticism of any kind, including even the less sophisticated, "ooh, it's yucky," variety of readerly response.[31]

    The last phrase has proven particularly pregnant, since the merit of quantitative stylistic analysis over subjective judgement has formed an important sub-thread of discussion.

  8. Richard J. Kennedy waited until the end of the month, forty digests later, before challenging Professor Foster's labelling of "less sophisticated" criteria above, and arguing that the ascription is incorrect for the reason that the elegy is "like a long babbling stream that is shallow the whole length." He queried the findings of the Shaxicon database on the grounds that "a computer . . . cannot tell . . . whether to weep, or laugh, or to be stunned by some understanding of the human condition."[32] This argument was answered by Terry Ross, who did not, however, praise the quantitative method of ascription but the poem itself, remarking upon its "remarkable enjambment."[33] Harry Hill, enjoying the unique perspective of being midway through making a recording of the poem, responded that "What some praise as enjambement turns out in practice--and such poems were read aloud as we know or presume--to be thumping, thunking, clunking carpentry that is all but unreadable."[34] The poor quality was defended by David Kathman on the grounds that it was probably written in a hurry, and that most Elizabethan and Jacobean elegies are bad poems anyway:

      The verse of W.S. seems almost effortless beside the funereal labors of such noted poets as George Chapman, John Davies, or Thomas Heywood, and beyond comparison with the doggerel of such hacks as George Wither and Joshua Sylvester.[35]

    The "hacks" fans, including Richard Kennedy, were not impressed by this argument.[36]

  9. David Schalkwyn raised another defense of the elegy's lack of rhetorical flair in questioning whether "the poem by WS enacts the disparagement of . . . rhetoric by the poet of the Sonnets."[37] It may be awful, in other words, but it's meant to be awful. Kennedy, facing this and similar arguments, rebutted that the "plain-style," which some saw accomplished in "A Funeral Elegy," was merely an invention of its defenders.[38] David Evett challenged this claim by producing a series of previous uses of the word, going back at least as far as translations of the ancient rhetors.[39]

  10. Gabriel Egan also questioned the use of the Shaxicon database, but on the more constructive grounds that it only measures rare-word usage. He suggested the occurrence of feminine endings as another possible criteria for comparison.[40] His announcement that "A Funeral Elegy" has far from the Shakespearean mean for feminine endings was clarified by David Kathman, who noted that it has precisely the Shakespearean average for rhymed, non-dramatic poetry written in iambic pentameter,[41] to which Egan replied that such analysis "requires a model of the creative process in which some features are more intended than others. What evidence is there that the decision to use rhyme makes a poet less likely to use feminine endings?"[42] Not to be easily dissuaded, Kathman showed that a large number of Elizabethan poets employed feminine endings overwhelmingly more often in unrhymed than rhymed verse.[43] Egan answered simply that correlation is not the same as causation,[44] though this did not disturb Kathman at all.[45] The two only ended their dispute on realizing that their names were appearing in the context of another thread on the "excessive discussion of any one topic."[46]

  11. Bill Godshalk asked the obvious question of why "A Funeral Elegy" was published anonymously by George Eld instead of taking advantage of Shakespeare's fame to sell more copies. David Kathman's answer was simply that it was probably printed for private circulation,[47] though this begged the question of why it would be circulated in print, rather than manuscript ("the classy way").[48] Kathman's speculation that since all printed books were preserved in the Bodleian, the medium might lend itself to an immortalizing project[49] was answered by reference to the many surviving manuscripts from the time.[50] The theory of private circulation also raised the awkward question of why Thomas Thorpe, a publisher, entered it in the Stationer's Register if he couldn't make any money off it,[51] though this was met by surmise that he may have been securing the rights in order to publish it commercially later.[52] The two agreed to differ, but only after driving the question into the realm of speculation about possible relationships between Shakespeare, his publisher, the publisher's printer, and a poem Shakespeare may or may not have written.

  12. By way of parodying the ascription of "A Funeral Elegy" to Shakespeare, Kennedy proposed (electronic tongue in electronic cheek) that portions of the anonymous Dr. Dodypoll may have been written by him.[53] By way of bringing the debate back to quantifiables, Donald Foster reverted to the question of feminine endings, coming down on the side of David Kathman.[54] In the same digest, Roger Gross made the observation that "Elegy" contains a use of "sour" as two syllables, something only found one other time in Shakespeare,[55] and Bill Godshalk made the sensible suggestion that the sonnets would probably provide the best stylistic comparison. In the next digest dealing with the issue, David Kathman presented statistics linking the sonnets and the elegy, and Richard Kennedy referred to the vastly different number of lines beginning with "of" in the two works.[56] The utility of this evidence was disputed by Don Foster who, bolstered by more statistics produced by Kennedy, argued that enjambed lines are more likely to begin with "of."[57] Patrick Gillespie queried the usefulness of the Shaxicon database, on the grounds that it cannot distinguish parts of speech.[58] A number of contributors made this issue more important by questioning the statistics regarding the use of the form "whilst" in the elegy as compared to other works.[59] The need for lemmatising a text before submitting it to computerized stylistic analysis became clear. Matters of issue not only to the authorship of "A Funeral Elegy" but also to computerized stylistic analysis generally were raised in this thread and though the level of discourse may not always have been entirely elevated, the debate was free-spirited but nevertheless productive.

  13. There are those who object that the broad range of discussion on SHAKSPER detracts from scholarly integrity. Michael Saenger argued in favour of creating two lists, "One dedicated to high-level dialogue, the other answering basic questions and open to any kind of banter."[60] To be fair to Mr. Saenger, he was clear in recognizing that "The basic idea of this list is a noble one--a truly democratic forum for ideas, a way of weaving any one with a modem into the academic community." In a later posting, he recognized the value of SHAKSPER as it stands and argued that his proposed new list would be more in the way of "a panel discussion with an open audience," rather than a "Shakespeare cafe."[61] The reaction was not always quite so even-handed, however. The next digest included six responses to Saenger, all but one of them negative, of which Louis Scheeder's "And dialogue, drama, conflict, and controversy would end" was most damningly brief.[62] Accusations that Mr. Saenger was "elitist" were met with suggestions that the list is used by undergraduates looking to plagiarize their next paper. Ellen Edgerton pointed out (sensibly enough) that any editorial policy would be bound to irritate somebody, and asked rhetorically "Where do these schisms ultimately end, anyhow?"[63] More practically, Timothy Reed indicated that editing the list as it stands is already a "Herculean task," and choosing posts on the basis of content would make it even harder.[64] Ken Steele, the founder of SHAKSPER, observed that:

      Michael Saenger's naive announcement of a new list, although he has no particular passion to run it, no idea which backbone Listserv would control it, and no editor to volunteer the roughly 80 hours a month it would take to edit it, is doomed to failure before it begins.[65]

    Joanne Woolway convincingly argued that since most subscribers to the hypothetical new list would probably maintain their subscription to SHAKSPER anyway, the only result would be to banish serious discussion from the older forum.[66] Discussion of the proposal has ceased.

  14. Although not always charitable, the response to Saenger's modest suggestion indicates the high level to which the heteroglossia which is SHAKSPER is both recognized and valued. Kay Campbell Pilzer called on us all to "Keep this democracy, with its messy, chaotic mish-mash of peasants, bourgeoisie, and nobles."[67] Chris Gordon's comment that "The delight of SHAKSPER for me has been its variety, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous"[68] was typical.

  15. On the other hand, some filtration occurs inevitably. Gabriel Egan observed that "Those who get Internet access free as part of their work will necessarily be over-represented, and those who do not and cannot afford the equipment and online time [will] be excluded entirely."[69] A number of contributors remarked that since the contents of each digest are listed in the subject header, anyone can just delete articles in which they are not interested. Moreover, Hardy Cook certainly excludes some postings. Speculation that Shakespeare may have been the assumed nom-de-plume of someone else, for instance, was banished months ago. This selectivity, I believe, tends towards more serious discussion, while allowing the conversational tone which many participants enjoy. Electronic sources are increasingly recognized as meriting proper scholarly citation. In fact, the MLA provides a reference to SHAKSPER as its example of how to cite information obtained through the internet. Certainly my own experience justifies Robert Teeter in claiming that the list has "a good signal-to-noise ratio" as it presently stands.[70]

  16. The first three months of discussion on SHAKSPER justify both the praises and the criticisms of the list. Discussion could teeter dizzingly on the brink of absurdity, but often rose to careful considerations of important critical paradigms. The very breadth of the list's membership forces a dialogue between enthusiasts of different critical approaches, and devotees of incompatible ideologies. Rather than being split into self-ratifying groups of like-minded people, the discipline of Shakespeare studies is represented whole. Neither SHAKSPERians nor Shakespeareans always agree, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(April 22, 1996)