Living Will

updated 02/12/1996 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/12/1996 01:00AM

SURE, WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE wrote three dozen plays and 154 sonnets, but what has he done for us lately? Everybody thought the Bard's literary well had long since run dry. Now, however, thanks to Donald Foster and the wonders of computer analysis, Shakespeare's résumé boasts something new—a 578-line poem with the catchy title A Funerall Elegye in Memory of the Late Vertuous Maister William Peeter.

Foster, an English professor at Vassar College, doesn't think the poem is top-drawer Will—he calls it rather dull—but Shakespeare scholars are agog, partly because it may shed new light on the life—and sexual orientation—of the playwright, who was married to Anne Hathaway.

Foster, 45, found the elegy in 1983 in a copy of a 21-page Elizabethan-era pamphlet acquired by Oxford University's Bodleian Library. Soon he heard Avon calling. "I came across what seemed to be echoes of Shakespeare's plays," he says, a notion buttressed by the fact that the initials W.S. appear twice on the pamphlet.

Realizing other academics would be skeptical, Foster told no one except his wife, Gwen, 42, of his suspicions. Using a computer program that he had previously developed, he matched words and phrases in the poem to those in known works of Shakespeare. He disclosed his findings—along with the work of four other experts—at an academic conference in Chicago last month. The evidence convinced many scholars that the poem was, indeed, part of the Shakespeare canon. Some think the Elegye, written to commemorate an Oxford student killed in a brawl, is further proof that the Bard might have been bisexual, long suspected because so many of his sonnets are thought to have been addressed to a young man. "There is enough innuendo in the poem to raise questions about the nature of the relationship between Shakespeare and William Peeter," says Foster, though scholars may never know for certain whether, romantically speaking, Shakespeare went both thisaway and Hathaway.

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