The Folger Shakespeare Library

Against Attribution


Attribution scholarship goes back to the beginning of Shakespeare studies, but its presence has increased dramatically in recent work. When, in 2002, Brian Vickers began Shakespeare, Co-Author with the pronouncement that “No issue in Shakespeare studies is more important than determining what he wrote,” some readers might have thought he was overstating his case, but few would have doubted that he had a reasonable case to make, and subsequent years have only reinforced its plausibility. What critical interests have moved attribution from the periphery of Shakespeare studies to a position near or (in Vickers’s claim) at its center? “Against Attribution” looks at the two answers attribution scholars themselves most frequently provide to this question—collaboration (a current consensus declares that Shakespeare was much more of a collaborator than we have thought) and science
(advances in digital technology have vastly expanded the storehouse of methods by which authorship may be identified and elevated the practice to levels of sophistication and reliability unimaginable until now). Neither of these, I argue, justifies the
prevalence of the conviction that attribution is something Shakespeareans need to know about to get on with our work. Beyond this, my darker purpose is to suggest that both of these, taken together, represent a lopsided critical practice, over-invested in figuring out what may have gone into Shakespeare’s plays at the expense of reflecting on what seems to be coming out of them.