Is that play by Shakespeare?

Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship, published by Cambridge University Press in September 2009, is not about the authorship question in the sense of questioning the traditional Stratfordian attribution. The book is about the possibility of multiple authors of works attibuted to Shakespeare, and the question of what plays might be included in the Shakespearean canon.

If today’s play-going public were aware of how mutable is our knowledge of that canon, they might be less inclined to accept the Stratfordian authorship attribution as written in stone instead of lemon juice. Any discussion that highlights the limits of our knowledge — such as this technical endeavor edited by Hugh Craig and Arthur Kinney — enhances public skepticism of the traditional Stratfordian attribution. That benefit exists in addition to the hope that linguistic analysis may yet provide insight into attribution to an authentic candidate, such as Edward de Vere, for Shakespearean authorship.

An L.T. Merriam review of Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship in the January 15, 2010 issue of Notes & Queries says:

. . . (the book) makes an incisive case for Shakespearean co-autorship. Despite and enormous hinterland of computerized data on tap, its authors demonstrate co-authorship with skill and elegance of presentation. The analogy that springs to mind is key-hole surgery.

The Cambridge University Press website says, “Craig, Kinney and their collaborators confront the main unsolved mysteries in Shakespeare’s canon through computer analysis of Shakespeare’s and other writers’ styles.” They say the book:

• Presents a detailed examination of a series of attribution problems in the Shakespeare canon, providing a reliable guide to authorship for students and scholars

• Demonstrates several different methods for attribution, which can also be applied by students to other problems

• Fosters a wider understanding of the way individuals create their own distinct patterns within a shared language.

More than fifty searchable pages of the book including the first two chapters — Introduction and Methods — and the complete index are available online at the Cambridge University Press website.

Readers have access to the specialist software for humanities computing used by the researchers in Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship through the Shakespeare Computational Stylistics Facility at the Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing at the University of Newcastle/Australia. The center is directed by Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship editor, Hugh Craig. The site introduction says:

The Computational Stylistics Facility presents a set of Shakespeare play texts with a ready-made apparatus for computational-stylistics exploration. Within its parameters, users can define any number of variations on what is analysed and how. The system has been designed for use by those with no experience in computational stylistics, and is set out so as to work intuitively as far as possible.

Postscript: The cover of the book features an image of the Stratford man’s will. The graphic intrigue of sixteenth-century handwriting makes this an excellent marketing choice. But, that image sends a message that the text analyzed within the covers is similarly handwritten — when, in fact, no such manuscripts linking the Stratfordian hand to Shakespearean production exist. When, in fact, only six meagre scrawls link the Stratfordian to any literary production whatsoever.

Update February 16, 2009
Reply from Shakespeare, Computers . . . editor Hugh Craig to SOS query

SOS: Could you tell us if your methods would be applicable to analyzing letters of Edward de Vere for Shakespearean characteristics?

Hugh Craig: You asked about analysing letters by a given writer for Shakespearean characteristics. This could certainly be done. One would have to be wary about the differences between modes (letters and dramatic dialogue) but one could ask the question, is there anything about the language usage of these letters that puts them closer to Shakespeare dramatic dialogue than to the dialogue of other playwrights of the time? That might avoid the problem of simply seeking resemblances between the letters and the plays — and of course if one looks hard enough one is bound to find *some* resemblances.

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  • Roger Stritmatter  On February 17, 2010 at 2:51 PM

    “If today’s play-going public were aware of how mutable is our knowledge of that canon, they might be less inclined to accept the Stratfordian authorship attribution as written in stone instead of lemon juice.”

    O Linda, you do have a way with a phrase. Nicely put.

  • Roger Stritmatter  On February 23, 2010 at 2:01 PM

    Just another brief comment on this important new development. Although this book may still be at the stage of not acknowledging the larger question of who actually wrote the Shakespearean works, one cannot fail to notice that phrases like “the mystery of authorship” tap into public (and even academic) curiosity about this larger phenomenon. This is a slippery slope for orthodox academicians to negotiate.

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