Requiem for ‘A Funeral Elegy’ (2006, 2016)

The controversy continues to swirl around Donald Foster’s attribution of “A Funeral Elegy” to Shakespeare. While many have assailed Foster’s claim, no one has actually disproved it. That is because mere speechifying is a futile business. Foster’s attribution is based on facts reduced to statistics. And it is only upon facts reduced to statistics that his attribution can be exploded. 

We have been led to believe that the work in question has been studied by Foster and his disciples, Richard Abrams in particular, as thoroughly as a written work can be studied. On the contrary, the “Elegy” has not been studied at all from the point of view of its rhythmical properties.

Foster and his adherents have made the same error as the early critics, Fleay, Koenig and Ingram (who did much word and syllable counting), thinking that blank verse is only syllabic in form. It is not. It is a combination of the syllabic and accentual forms. It has both metrical and rhythmical properties. The error, one of omission, is the failure to count and tabulate accents. Tabulating accents provides the key to cracking not only the problem posed by the Elegy, but virtually all of the problems of authorship in Tudor and Stuart drama.

What differentiates one writer from another is his versification. The manner in which a poet conceives his verses is instinctive, as standard poetry textbooks such as Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter & Poetic Form (1979) make abundantly clear. The versification of every writer is unique. Fletcher is distinguishable by his feminine endings, in which he exceeds every other English author; his lines are endstopped, and often end in an extra emphatic syllable. It was mainly upon these grounds that Spedding isolated Fletcher in Henry VIII. Beaumont is distinguished from Fletcher by admitting prose, not using the extra emphatic syllable, allowing rhymes in the middle of his blank verse, and frequent endstopped lines. Massinger is recognized by his numerous weak endings—about ten to a page—more than any other writer; he freely uses enjambment, and avoids lines of less than five feet. E. H. C. Oliphant (The Plays of Beaumont and Fletcher, 1927) used the metrical characteristics of these three writers as the basis for establishing that most of the plays in the Beaumont and Fletcher Folio are actually collaborations between Fletcher and Massinger. To this news no one has objected.

But Oliphant has not told us everything we need to know about Fletcher’s versification. On the sole basis of Fletcher’s high percentage of feminine endings we cannot say that The Faithful Shepherdess is his, for unlike the major share of Henry VIII, the percentage here is far lower than is usual for him. This play is, in fact, a Fletcher anomaly. But since the external evidence, Fletcher himself, says that the play is his, we are bound to believe him. Still, if we had a rhythmical profile of Fletcher, in addition to the metrical one, we would not need the external evidence to know that the play is his.

Meter and rhythm must not be confused: they are separate entities. While rhythm is certainly part of meter, being contained within it, analyzing meter itself is the determination of the number of feet in a line. Foot counting enables us to recognize the feminine ending, alexandrines, trisyllabic feet, etc. But meter alone cannot serve as the sole determinant in isolating an author, as in the case of The Faithful Shepherdess. Rhythm is determined, not by counting beats (the meter), but by determining the nature of the beat. To do this, we may use our mind’s ear (reading silently), or our actual ear (reading aloud). But it is best to use both as a check against each other.

Before comparing the rhythm of the “Elegy” and Shakespeare’s narrative poems, let us first see if Foster has correctly analyzed and compared their metrical characteristics.

Shakespeare’s contribution to the development of blank verse was manifold. He recognized early on that there was no future in cranking out decasyllabic sausages in which a thought was restricted to an endstopped line. Shakespeare realized that enjambment would add flexibility to the verse. Foster finds a ratio of 266/578, or 46%, enjambed lines in the “Elegy,” which compares favorably with 46% in Cymbeline 45.5% in the Winter’s Tale, and 52.2% in The Tempest.

Shakespeare was one of the first, possibly the first, to recognize the potential of the feminine ending. Foster says that Venus and Adonis contains 15.7% feminine endings and The Rape of Lucrece 10.7%, which compare favorably with 11% in the “Elegy.” He also says that the sonnets contain 7.7%. However, since the sonnets, unlike the narrative poems, cover a considerable period of time, during which the Poet continued to develop, a percentage struck for the sonnets as a whole will yield a false statistic. The plays provide a more reliable gauge for Shakespeare’s handling of the feminine ending.

The exact chronology of Shakespeare’s plays anterior to 1600 is still in dispute. But the fact remains that these plays exhibit a range of feminine endings from 5.1% to 19.5% (Koenig’s table). There is no dispute regarding the chronology after 1600. This group reveals a range of feminine endings from 20.5% to 35.4% in Shakespeare’s penultimate play, The Tempest. The percentage reaches 47.3% in Henry VIII which, scholars agree, is mainly the handiwork of Fletcher.

One thing is clear: from first to last, Shakespeare’s use of the feminine ending never stopped accelerating. I am therefore driven to ask if Shakespeare, around 1612, could write a poem of 578 lines with 11% feminine endings when he was reaching 35.4% in his plays? No, he could not. This by itself is enough to convince me that Shakespeare did not write the “Elegy”. But there is much more evidence that is no less devastating to the claim of Foster and his supporters.

Lines 66 and 265 of the “Elegy” contain examples of trisyllabic feet. While Shakespeare’s predecessors employed them, trisyllabic feet had been eliminated as permissible variations to the decasyllabic line before the end of the sixteenth century. Consequently, one may search Shakespeare’s narrative poems and sonnets from end to end without finding a trisyllabic foot. In line 66, “Against / the assault / of youth’s encouragement,” Shakespeare, if he had been the author of the line, would have avoided the awkward trisyllable in the second foot by simply writing, “Against assault…”

Lines 154, 157, 281, and 283 contain four and a half feet. This is not allowable poetic license. 154 might seem to be a pentameter, but only if we read “lived” as a disyllable. But that would cause confusion with the word “livid.” In any case, W.S., nominal author of the “Elegy,” did not intend that reading, since he uses “liv’d” in lines 49 and 335. Line 309 is an alexandrine (six-foot line). There are lines of all sorts of lengths in Shakespeare’s plays (attributable to theatrical as well as literary revision), but there are no four and a half foot lines or alexandrines in his poems. Clearly, Shakespeare considered his plays disposable. He did not prepare them for publication. He did not lavish on them the care he took with his narrative poems.

Foster, by his cavalier discussion of metrics, as well as his Brontosaurean appetite for quantitative measurement, reveals that he is more sensitive to statistics than to poetry. If his flawed study of metrical evidence is not enough to discredit his attribution, a rhythmical comparison certainly is.

Shakespeare inherited from his predecessors the favored mode of expression, iambic pentameter. When Shakespeare got hold of it, there was practically no variation to the line, an endless procession of iambs, as is demonstrated in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. When this line is repeated ad infinitum,the resulting rhythm is like the tick-tock of a metronome. Both Marlowe and Shakespeare, with an innate grasp of rhythm that Kyd lacked, surpassed him by making their verses flexible. Shakespeare surpassed Marlowe. What are the means which enabled him to do that? A poet’s versification (and identity) is ultimately revealed through his method of substitution. That is, how he utilizes the trochaic, spondaic, and pyrrhic foot. Foster has not considered or even mentioned these things.

The trochaic, spondaic, and pyrrhic feet provide additional means for the poet to inject variety into the iambic line. The trochee is the opposite of the iamb, the first syllable stressed, the second unstressed. Its purpose is to surprise the ear which is expecting another iamb. In the spondee, both syllables have strong stress. Its purpose is to hold the movement of the line in suspense. In the pyrrhic, both syllables have weak stress.

Logic dictates that the trochee and spondee must be used with considerable restraint. If they are overused, the fundamental rhythm of the iambic line is destroyed. If the lines are heavily trochaic, the rhythm becomes spasmodic. If the lines are heavily spondaic, the rhythm is flattened. These mishaps begin to develop when trochaic or spondaic incidence gets beyond 5%. Taking Shakespeare as the benchmark, all Tudor and Stuart writers of blank verse exhibit one rhythmical shortcoming or another. To cite an example, George Peele frequently reaches 10% trochees.[1] Though his verses are supple, perhaps even more so than Shakespeare’s, his rhythm is jerky.

Shakespeare, a prosodist by nature, perceived these things instinctively. In his narrative poems, he barely exceeds 4% for both trochees and spondees. In his plays he has approximately 3% trochees and 4% spondees. Unlike his accelerating use of the feminine ending, Shakespeare’s use of the trochee and spondee remained constant throughout his career—because it is the heart of his rhythmical system.[3]

Many features of the master’s writing can be imitated, as the plays of his pupil and heir as chief playwright for the King’s men, Phillip Massinger, demonstrate. But Shakespeare’s rhythm, described by Francis Meres and known by one and all as “mellifluous,” is not among them. What does Shakespeare do to achieve the mellifluous rhythm we feel? Simply stated, he modulates his iambic lines with a judicious blend of trochaic and spondaic feet. He makes his lines even more supple by employing enjambment and the feminine ending.

Literary critics have paid little attention to meter and rhythm, as the poet-scholar George T. Wright correctly points out in Shakespeare’s Metrical Art (1988). Foster and Abrams both invoke Wright, but they have gleaned little from him, save that Shakespeare was Tudor England’s premiere purveyor of the figure of speech known as hendiadys. However, when Foster uses the phrases “dubious hendiadys” and “might qualify as an example,” he gives the impression that he does not understand the term. For the record, hendiadys is the association of two words expressing two aspects of the same idea and connected by a conjunction such as and or nor: “More white and red than doves or roses are” (Venus and  Adonis, 10). Since figures of speech can be imitated, the idea that hendiadys is a “thumbprint” for Shakespeare in the “Elegy” leaves me cold. [4]

As Wright says, there are some professors who have no clue as to how to read Shakespeare’s lines. No wonder so many academic productions of Shakespeare sound like they are being given in a foreign language. To read poetry one must have an ear for rhythm, an understanding of where the essential accents fall. Many things in life can be taught, but it is not certain that rhythm, a basic component of music, is one of them. There are opera critics, an authority assures me, who cannot evaluate singing. Some are born with tin ears.

While some of the counting done by Foster and Abrams has value, they would have made far better use of their time if either of them had scanned the “Elegy,” as well as Shakespeare’s narrative poems, tabulated the trochees and spondees, then compared the results.  [5]  As it happens, scansion of the first 50 lines (250 feet)of the “Elegy,’” sufficient to establish the writer’s versification, furnishes indisputable proof that Shakespeare cannot be the author.

The “Elegy” is relentlessly iambic like The Spanish Tragedy. But where W.S. really gives himself away is in his use of the trochee. There are thirteen trochees, a total of 5.2%, which is above Shakespeare’s average. Moreover, W.S. does not necessarily employ the trochee to the benefit his rhythm. The trochee appears most naturally at the beginning of a line, or following a strong pause, as in the Hamlet line “To be (iamb), or not (iamb) to be (pyrrhic): that is(trochee) the question (feminine ending).” Seven of the trochees are found at the beginning of lines (13, 21, 33, 35, 39, 41, 50), one follows a strong pause (44), and two in the fourth foot (29, 45) where they are acceptable. Two trochees appear awkwardly in the second foot (19, 31). A trochee in the fifth foot (29) unhappily follows another. Only a lesser writer than Shakespeare would use trochees back-to-back, or in the second, and fifth foot [6]. Shakespeare uses the initial and medial trochee.

Elsewhere, we find a clumps of four trochees (90-92, 95-100). W.S. is so haphazard in his use of the trochee, I might have chosen for scrutiny another fifty-line section in which there are no trochees at all. But whether the frequency is 0%, 5%, 2.5%, or some other percentage, the use of the trochee is non-Shakespearean.

A poem, or a play in blank verse, is a “score” for oral performance. Having disposed of the scoring problem posed by the “Elegy”—we now know that, on the basis of its rhythm, it cannot be Shakespeare’s—I turn to the performance problem.

Shakespeare places heavy vocal demands on the actor. The actor is occasionally called upon to speak a sentence containing five lines of verse in a single breath. Actors who have not had proper vocal training, particularly in the technique of breathing from the diaphragm, have considerable difficulty with Shakespeare. Still, in Macbeth’s five soliloquies, there is only one sentence containing five lines of verse. Some have four-plus lines, most have two or three. In the narrative poems, sentences can only be as long as the stanzas—six  lines in Venus and Adonis, seven (rime royal) in The Rape of Lucrece.

By way of contrast, the first 104 lines of the “Elegy” comprises fourteen sentences. There is one sentence of fifteen lines, another of fourteen lines, one of nine lines, four of eight lines, five of four lines, and one of three lines. To effectively read aloud the “Elegy”, one would need to have the lung capacity of the Goodyear blimp. No wonder Abrams maintains that “the Elegy’s ‘beauties’ are best appreciated by sampling rather than consecutive reading.” He should have added, “between deep draughts of oxygen.”

Nor can a listener follow the perambulations of such long lines. I question why W.S. wrote this work in blank verse, for it is not meant to be read aloud. Therefore, he cannot have been a poet, a poetaster, but not a poet. A reading of the “Elegy,” with its interminable lines, is a perfect prescription for insomnia, it’s soporific effect being better than Nytol and Sominex combined.

If one wonders what an authentic Shakespearean elegy might be like, I suggest turning to Mark Antony’s speeches at Caesar’s funeral. Comparing Antony’s lines to the “Elegy,” I find, as Hamlet found in the comparison between his father and Claudius, an hyperion and a satyr.

It has been noted by others that W.S. is blind to imagery. I have shown that he is deaf to rhythm [7]. I add further that he lapses into somnambulism, which Shakespeare never did [8], writing gibberish: “The grave, that in his ever-empty womb…” His womb? (Or would Foster make so bold as to call this a compositor’s error?) W.S. is blind, deaf, falls asleep at the wheel, and writes lines which defy both oral performance and silent reading. How can he be Shakespeare?

Since this hack has created an echo-chamber of Shakespeare’s work, I can find for him, whoever he is (Francis Bacon? Edward de Vere?), no better epitaph than Antony’s description of Lepidus:

He must be taught and trained, and bid go forth;

A barren-spirited fellow; one that feeds

On objects, arts, and imitations

Which, out of use and staled by other men,

Begin his fashion: do not talk of him,

But as a property.

Scholars know that Tudor and Stuart title-page attributions are far from reliable. They also know that a number of plays were falsely attributed to Shakespeare under his full name, as well as the initials W.S. by unscrupulous publishers, in the hope that buyers would think they were getting a genuine production of that esteemed author. Such is the case with the fraudulent “Elegy,” an attempt by the shady publisher Thorpe (abetted by his Igor, the printer Eld), to capitalize on the popularity of Shakespeare’s name.



  1. Peele’s versification is so distinctive that it can easily be distinguished from other writers. The Peele canon is currently thought to comprise five plays, six if we follow Dyce and include Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes. I believe that it can be demonstrated that Peele must be credited with upwards of thirty extant plays, as either original author or doctor. While perhaps initially shocking, this should not be hard to accept. He was active at London in 1581 and died in 1596, his career spanning fifteen years. Like Shakespeare, Peele wrote about two plays a year. After he spent up his wife’s dowery, which was quickly, Peele could only earn a living by writing plays since, unlike Greene and Nash, he was not a pamphleteer. He wrote a little occasional poetry, and devised some city pageants, but he was basically a playwright. There has been difficulty at times distinguishing Peele from Greene. That is because some of the work attributed to Greene is composite in nature, containing work by Peele (and others). James IV is an example and, in this case, Greene’s share is mainly a prose revision. One aspect of this revision, it may be added, bears an obvious relationship to The Merry Wives of Windsor. Since no one would believe that there is any Shakespearean material in James IV, the converse must be true, that Greene is in Merry Wives.
  1. That is, in the passages in which he is the author; implying that, as some important early critics believed, the plays attributed to Shakespeare are not entirely his work, but rather the product of a number of recensions. There is no other way to account for the variety of styles in the plays (and for the divergences from quartos to Folio). The common explanation for the stylistic differences is that Shakespeare “experimented.” What need did he have to experiment? He knew how good his verse was—it would out-last marble. During his career his work changed in only three ways: 1) He accelerated the use of the feminine ending; 2) He gradually jettisoned the affected figures of speech; and 3) He strove for a more compact utterance (which had an impact on his orthography). These developments had a common cause: a quest for realism. Remember, we are not so far from the pre-Gorboduc era when plays were written entirely in rhyming verse. Activists armed with “Disintegrator!” placards need not apply. Since Shakespeare was the last to work on these plays, they are his, and that is exactly how Heminges and Condell perceived it. They were obviously uncertain, however, about the Bard’s contribution to Pericles and other plays which is why they did not include them in the Folio.
  1. A. Feuillerat, The Compositiion of Shakespeare’s Plays.
  1. I would be remiss if I failed to point out that Shakespeare’s most conspicuous stylistic device, antithesis, escapes Foster altogether. This is a type of parallelism: “Showing love’s triumph in the map of death, /And death‘s dim look in life’s mortality” (The Rape of Lucrece, 402-3).
  1. Employing scansion as method of determining authorship is not new. Credit for that, ironically, goes to the Shakespeare Establishment’s favorite whipping boy, J. M. Robertson. In his An Introduction to the Study of the Shakespeare Canon (432), Robertson pointed out that in the first act of David and Bethsabe Peele begins 46 lines with spondees such as “Proud lust”. Shakespeare never uses a spondee in the first foot in his lyrical poems except, occasionally, in the case of an enjambment . Had Robertson followed his discovery to its logical conclusion, he would have changed the course of Shakespearean criticism. Unfortunately, he wasted most of his time hunting the vocabularies of Tudor playwrights and proved nothing.
  1. An exception to this is Keats who consciously experimented with trochees in the fifth foot.
  1. Stephen Booth will have to recant his (unsupported) opinion. He says, “It’s very good metrically, though—the author has a good ear for rhythm…”
  1. Shakespeare evidently came close—in the famous line quoted by Jonson that was subsequently expunged from Julius Caesar.