We have always known already that Shakespeare was a collaborator; he was a man of the theatre which is inherently a very collaborative, social art. The news is that he also collaborated as a writer much more than we used to think he did. We can now say with a high degree of certainty that upward of third of his plays were co-written in some sense or other.
In most film portrayals, Shakespeare seems to produce his plays in isolation, with the works torn from his soul and arising from his own personal experiences alone. When we realise he worked collaboratively, we see him quite differently – in a community that works together not only in putting the plays on, but also in writing them.
Evidence comes from a number of sources. Firstly, there is published evidence: the 1634 edition of The Two Noble Kinsmen states on its title page that the play was written ‘by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher.’
Secondly, we know the method was common practice at the time: we have very good records for the rival company, The Admiral’s Men, who used freelance writers working in teams to get a play done quite quickly.
Thirdly, we can tell from the text itself. In the mid-nineteenth century, scholarship examining the minutiae of the writing began to throw up the suspicion that some of the plays were in fact co-written. The main method used has been comparing the fine detail of different writers’ styles, by measuring the frequency of particular features, be it the frequency of certain words, or poetic traits such as feminine endings to verse lines, or certain kinds of prose style.
The things that were counted were things that was easy for a human to count. But that could only take the research so far. In the last 20 or 30 years this approach has been greatly enhanced by the availability of machines to do the counting. Whilst previous generations of researchers were assiduous in the work they did, they couldn’t aim at a comprehensive approach – no-one has the time to study all of the verse features or all of the rhyme schemes found in all of the writing of Shakespeare’s time.
And it’s that kind of comprehensive approach that really enables one to examine Shakespeare in the context of a group of his contemporaries. For this type of analysis, we don’t want to treat him as ‘special’; we want to see if his style emerges from the other writers of the period as something distinctive that we can measure. To do that, we need to have a substantial body of the writing of the period available in digital form, and that has become true in the last 10 or 20 years.
The new machine-based approach – Computational Stylistics – has started to reveal some very startling facts. For example, it is now clear that Shakespeare’s vocabulary – the total body of all the different words he knew – was not exceptionally large (as has long been assumed) but rather was just typical for the period. We now know that a lot of words and phrases that we used to think were coined by Shakespeare were already in use by other writers before him. Wherever his genius lay, it was not in his vocabulary, but in his ways of combining existing words and phrases.
The computational approaches must be used with care, of course. The history of authorship attribution is full of cases of self-delusion in which an investigator discovered a new method, applied it, found that it seemed to confirm some existing beliefs about the text, and then the applied it elsewhere to produce a new set of ‘startling discoveries’ which later turned out not to be true. The worst case of this is Donald Foster’s SHAXICON database that was supposed to correlate Shakespeare’s roles as a performer with his choice of words for his next play after acting each role. It’s an interesting hypothesis – that learning a particular role for performance put certain words to the front of Shakespeare’s mind – but Foster was unable to prove it, and no-one else was able to replicate his claims, and the one attribution that Foster made by his methods, that A Funeral Elegy to William Peter is by Shakespeare, was soon disproved.
When addressing a particular question, the truly scientific approach is to have several independent studies, using different methods, working on the same texts. If they all come to the same conclusion by different methods and we cannot figure out how that might happen without the conclusion being true, then we can start to treat the conclusion as highly likely to be true. But if the studies do not agree, the question will become ‘why not?’ Has the discrepancy revealed unacknowledged investigator bias or something faulty with the methods? This is how science works: we have hypotheses, we devise experiments to test them, and we base our beliefs on the most plausible explanations that account for the results that we find. We should apply this kind of scientific rigour as much to humanistic study as anything else, since no matter what their fields everyone who undertakes research for a living is ultimately in pursuit of the truth, and these are the best ways we have for finding it.
Featured image credit: Front cover of William Shakespeare’s First Folio by Ben Sutherland. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.