Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2007
In 1924, E. K. Chambers delivered his British Academy Lecture, ‘The Disintegration of Shakespeare’, whose title neatly categorized a range of textual activities associated with the reattribution of Shakespeare’s plays to non-Shakespearian sources. Among these were the attribution studies of F. G. Fleay and J. M. Robertson, both of whom receive significant critical attention in the lecture. Robertson had been famously praised by T. S. Eliot in his earlier 1919 essay on Hamlet for ‘moving in the other direction’ of romantic idealization in favour of historical and intellectually rigorous scholarship. In what would become a remarkably sustained attempt to decode the authorship of Shakespeare’s lesser plays and passages through metrical and stylistic analysis, Robertson completed his five-volume analysis of the Shakespeare canon in 1930. Despite their claim to objective methodical analysis, Robertson and his contemporaries such as E. E. Stoll relied on preconceived ideals of Shakespeare’s literary quality and were, Chambers noted, as equally idealistic as the defenders of the canon. After 1924, despite Eliot’s praise, Robertson and his contemporaries would be better remembered as ‘disintegrating’ critics. This label is really rather remarkable, if only insofar as the idea of canonical disintegration entirely misrepresents such studies of attribution in a language antithetical to their (however misguided) pursuit, that is, identifying and characterizing the authentic Shakespeare text. More significant, though, is the rather morbid metaphoric dimension of Shakespeare’s disintegration.