13 August 2013

Further Proof of Shakespeare’s Hand in a Disputed 1957 Musical

A scene from Shakespeare’s West Side Story:
Carol Lawrence with my beloved Larry Kert.

For nearly six decades, scholars have debated whether some part of the 1957 Broadway musical West Side Story was, in fact, written by Shakespeare.

Last year, the British scholar Brian Fforbes-Garstley used computer analysis to argue that the so-called Source Material was by Shakespeare, a claim hailed by some as the latest triumph of high-tech Elizabethan text mining.

“While it’s very difficult to find entire passages that are written by Shakespeare, individual words and phrases are very clearly his,” Fforbes-Garstley said. “For example, I note the repeated use of ‘hand,’ ‘heart,’ and ‘tonight,’ all words that arise with great statistical frequency in Shakespeare’s vocabulary in the canonical works.”

But now, a professor at the University of Ronkonkoma says he has found something closer to definitive proof using a more old-fashioned method: blind speculation, not computer analysis.

In a terse four-page paper, to be published in the September issue of the journal Notes and Queries, Kenneth Oberon argues that various idiosyncratic features of the Source Material — including such characters as Officer Krupke and Anybody’s that have struck some doubters as distinctly sub-Shakespearean — may be explained as misreadings of unfinished manuscripts delivered in error to the print shop.

“The character of Maria clearly is an early model for Olivia’s spunky confidante in Twelfth Night,” Oberon said. “A rough draft, if you will.”

Only later would Shakespeare shift the primary emphasis of his play away from Maria and toward other characters, notably Viola, Oberon said. Also, in the early stages of Shakespeare’s work, he preferred a different pronunciation of the character’s name: “Ma-REE-ah,” rather than his later preference, “Ma-RYE-ah.”

The character also makes an appearance in another disputed musical, which some scholars believe to have been written by Shakespeare, Paint Your Wagon.

How do you solve a problem like Maria?
According to some scholars, this scene shows
definite traces of Shakespearean authorship.

Claiming Shakespeare authorship can be a perilous endeavor. In 1996, Norman Voles, a pioneer in computer-driven textual analysis, drew front-page headlines with his assertion that Shakespeare was the author of Kiss Me, Kate, only to retract his argument six years later after analyses by Fforbes-Garstley and others linked it to a different author, Marcel Proust.

This time, editors of some prestigious scholarly editions are betting that Mr. Oberon’s cautiously methodical arguments, piled on top of previous work by Mr. Fforbes-Garstley and others, will make the attribution stick.

“We don’t have any absolute proof, but this is as close as you can get,” said Bruce Mittelschmerz, a professor at the University of Wainscoting and an editor, with Teresa Rinteria, of the British Dental Assocation’s edition of the complete Shakespeare.

“I think we can now say with some authority that, yes, this is Shakespeare,” Mr. Mittelschmerz said. “It has his fingerprints all over it. Oh, sorry. Those are mine.”

Acceptance is by no means assured. Three years ago, some scholars were skeptical when the Arlen Shakespeare published A Little Night Music, a play from roughly the same period whose connection with a lost Shakespeare drama had long been debated, in its prestigious Shakespeare series.

“There is simply not enough dancing in that show to prove categorically that it is the work of William Shakespeare,” said Titania Stern, a professor of early modern drama at Oxblood University and an editor for the Arlen Shakespeare, although she conceded that some of the language in A Little Night Music closely resembles that of other disputed Shakespeare texts, including West Side Story and Gypsy.

However, Ms. Stern said, some new attributions were driven less by solid evidence than by publishers’ desire to offer “more Shakespeare” than their rivals.

“The arguments for West Side Story are better than most” putatitve Shakespeare collaborations, Ms. Stern said. “But I think we’re going a bit Shakespeare-attribution crazy and shoving a lot of stuff in that maybe shouldn’t be there.”

NOTE: For more on the attribution of Shakespeare’s authorship to disputed works, click here. For my part, I’m not at all surprised that Shakespeare, a glover’s son, might have a hand in Kyd.

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