Shakespeare and His Authors: Critical Perspectives on the Authorship Question deals with The Shakespeare Authorship question – the question of who wrote Shakespeare’s plays and who the man we know as Shakespeare was – is a subject which fascinates millions of people the world over and can be seen as a major cultural phenomenon.
Some people question whether Shakespeare really wrote the works that bear his name – or whether he even existed at all. Could it be true that the greatest writer in the English language was as fictional as his plays?
Natalya St. Clair and Aaron Williams show how a linguistic tool called stylometry might shed light on the answer.
Shakespeare was a pseudonym for another writer, or a group of writers
Proposed candidates for the real Shakespeare include other playwrights, politicians and even some prominent women. Could it be true that the greatest writer in the English language was as fictional as his plays?
Most Shakespeare scholars dismiss these theories based on historical and biographical evidence.
But there’s another way to test whether Shakespeare’s famous lines were actually written by someone else. Linguistics, the study of language can tell us a great deal about the way we speak and write by examing syntax, grammar, semantics, and vocabulary.
How does stylometry work?
In the late 1800s, a Polish philosopher named Wicenty Lutoslawski formalized a method known as stylometry, applying this knowledge to investigate questions of literary authorship.
The idea is that each writer’s style has certain characteristics that remain fairly uniform among individual works.
Examples of characteristics include average sentence length, the arrangement of words, and even the number of occurrences of a particular word. Let’s look at us of the word thee and visualize it as a dimension, or axis. Each of Shakespeare’s works can be placed on that axis, like a data point, based on the number of occurrences of that word.
In statistics, the tightness of these points gives us what is known as the variance, an expected range for our data. But, this is only a single characteristic in a very high-dimensional space.
With a clustering tool called Principal Component Analysis, we can reduce the multi-dimensional space into simple principal components that collectively measure the variance in Shakespeare’s works. We can then test the works of our candidates against those principals components.
For example, if enough works of Francis Bacon fall within Shakespearean variance, that would be pretty strong evidence that Francis Bacon and Shakespeare are actually the same person.
What did the results show?
Well, the stylometrists who carried this out have concluded that Shakespeare is none other than Shakespeare. The Bard is the bard. The pretenders just don’t match up with Shakespeare’s signature style. However, our intrepid statisticians did find some compelling evidence of collaborations.
For instance, one recent study concluded that Shakespeare worked with playwright Christoopher Marlowe on ‘Henry VI’, parts one and two.
Shakespeare’s identity is only one of the many problems stylometry can resolve
It can help us to determine when a work was written, whether an ancient text is a forgery, whether a student has committed plagiarism, or if that email you just received is of a high priority or spam.
Does the timeless poetry of Shakespeare’s lines just boil down to numbers and statistics?
Stylometric analysis may reveal what makes Shakespeare’s work structurally distinct, but it cannot capture the beauty of the sentiments and emotions they express, and why they affect us the way they do. At least, not yet.