Attribution, agencies, and investigation

We welcome a guest post from Leah Scragg, responding to this summer’s discussion of attribution on the blog (see here).


This post joins a very interesting discussion of attribution studies somewhat late in the day but I would like to put forward a couple of ideas in relation to the question of why attribution matters. Like some previous contributors, I am alienated by the aggressive tone of much of the work in this field and the pointlessness of regarding sole authorship as the ‘gold standard’ or ‘default setting’ (to use Andy Kesson’s terms) for the investigation of sixteenth-century authorial practise. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the devising of reliable authorship tests has a utility that extends far beyond the disintegration and redistribution of canons, in that it enables a fuller understanding of the community of creative artists in play (if not in physical proximity to one another) in the composition of many early modern works. Though the Elizabethan progress entertainments fall outside the scope of Before Shakespeare, they offer an insight for the twenty-first-century reader into the complex composition of such communities, and the problem for contemporary criticism of comprehending how the work of the various agencies was brought together into a coherent whole. Seven writers (William Hunnis, George Gascoyne, George Ferris, John Badger, Richard Mulcaster, William Patten, and Henry Goldingham) are known, for example, to have contributed to the Entertainment at Kenilworth, together with a host of musicians, costume designers, and artificers of a variety of kinds. Though some elements of these writers’ contributions are capable of being viewed as separate works, cross referencing between them endows the entertainment as a whole with a coherence that implies the role of some species of designer in the construction of the event, who might well be regarded as its author but who cannot be accommodated within the terms in which the authorial process is currently conceived.  Conversely, the work of any one of the contributors cannot be incorporated into their canon in any meaningful sense in that it forms part of a construct which is the product of another’s design, and which is robbed of its full import when dislocated from the composition as a whole. The more the agencies involved in such projects can be identified, the fuller our understanding of the extraordinary diversity of writers employed in the construction of early modern ‘shows’, and the variety of contexts in which the talents of those currently situated in a specific theatrical arena were brought into play. In short, attribution study in such cases has a significant, if paradoxical, role to perform in that it vividly exhibits the limitations of author-based accounts of products of the Elizabethan stage.

Conversely, this peculiarly defensive branch of literary studies might be prayed in aid of a rather different area of research. The location of a particular author’s hand in the context of a specific work speaks not only to who wrote what but to who wrote when. The Entertainment at Chiswick composed in 1602 provides a useful example. The piece is attributed to John Lyly in a contemporary transcription of the text, and the style employed in the two brief speeches of which it consists is redolent of Lyly’s canonical works. Lyly’s authorship has nevertheless been discounted on the grounds that he is generally supposed to have ceased writing following the closure of Paul’s Boys, a decade before the entertainment was composed, though recent scholars have consistently disputed that contention. Should attribution tests be devised capable of confirming the reliability of the contemporary witness, the door would be finally be open to an entirely fresh, evidence-based investigation into the later phase of Lyly’s career rather than one rooted in unfounded assumption.

In brief, less blinkered aggression and more cooperation could be of considerable help to us all.

Leah Scragg

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