Shakespeare has a co-author thrust upon him



27, Oct 2016

Researchers have used big data technology to analyze Shakespeare’s works and probe for other contributors. As a result, Christopher Marlowe, a highly-esteemed playwright will share the credit with Shakespeare for Henry VI, Parts One, Two and Three in the New Oxford Shakespeare. Speculation on Shakespeare’s authorship fuelled theories at a rapid pace in the nineteenth century. This research highlights technology’s capability to perhaps finally solve the old mystery.

What has advanced research revealed about Shakespeare's work?

  • Shakespeare’s unmentioned co-authors have contributed much more to works he is credited for than was previously estimated.
  • Parts One, Two and Three of Henry VI and about 14 other plays in the Oxford Shakespeare have been studied by scholars who detected the hand of more than one – at times more than two persons. This is more than twice the figure in the previous edition of Oxford Shakespeare, published 30 years ago.
  • Speculation of Marlowe’s presence as an author in Shakespeare’s works started off as early as the eighteenth century but this time scholars believe they have proof enough to list him as co-author on the title page of Henry VI, Part One, Two and Three.
  • This is a radical departure from the traditional view that Shakespeare’s works were solely his own. This view was strongly held till 1986 and it took thirty years of collecting evidence using more advanced techniques in conjunction with scholarship and resources to dispel it.
  • Apart from collaborations, adaptations – making additions prior to publication of the works – have also been found. Thomas Middleton, for this reason, now shares the credit with Shakespeare and for the first time, been acknowledged in the title page of All’s Well That Ends Well. In his case too, software clinched the evidence of his role though there had been theories in the past to substantiate his contribution.

Why did the original/co-author(s) not take credit?'

Champions of different candidates have speculated on the theory that Shakespeare was the pen name of someone else. Some of the reasons put forth for a few main candidates are:

  • The “stigma of print” – the authenticity of which is contested – has been suggested as a major and common cause. It says that aristocrats of the Tudor and Jacobean age were expected to confine the circulation of their literary works – especially poetry and drama – to a limited group and discouraged from selling their books to the masses. This prevented a scar in the reputation if their works provoked the public also made it convenient for them to look down on the press. This argument has been put forth in defence of Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford and William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby.
  • The added motivations for Bacon are a claim by Dr. Orville Ward Owen to have discovered Bacon’s autobiography and his controversial identity as the secret son of Queen Elizabeth and a different hypothesis that suggests his moral philosophy needed to be disguised as a commoner’s because it threatened monarchy.
  • With Oxford, the further motivation put forth is in his youth, he was the lover of Queen Elizabeth, and had a son by her named Henry Wriothesley, who was brought up as the 3rd Earl of Southampton. The dedication of works by Shakespeare – Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and the Sonnets – to Southampton has been cited as evidence.
  • For Marlowe it has been argued that he faked his death in 1593, mainly to escape trial and near-certain execution on charges of rebel atheism. To go on with his work while living in hiding, he needed a pseudo-identity and took on that of Shakespeare’s.
  • Besides rank and reputation, for female candidates, gender has been cited as a motivation.

Since when has Shakespeare's authorship been under scrutiny?

  • The question was first brought up with increased vigor in the middle of the 19th century when Shakespeare’s fame was at its zenith. He had earned the recognition of the greatest writers of all time.
  • Doubts began to spread when his insignificant upbringing was highlighted as not in sync with the genius who had produced phenomenal works. This fuelled proponents to point out that he lacked the education, the aristocratic sensitivity, and familiarity with the royal court, all of which were characteristic in the works produced under his name.
  • Further, the lack of biographical information about Shakespeare is attributed to a deliberate destruction of any clue about his life by government officials so that the identity of the true author may remain hidden.
  • The absence of documentary proof of his education forms a part of the case against his authorship. Despite the fact that very little documentary evidence is available about Shakespeare’s contemporaries as well, the argument strongly persists.
  • Despite explanations for all the above arguments, the theories against Shakespeare’s authorship remained and grew on. In 1845, writer and scholar Delia Bacon introduced Sir Francis Bacon as the orchestrator of the works through a team under him. Sir Walter Raleigh, she said, was the main writer and the group’s aim was to sow the seeds of a political and philosophical society which had to be done incognito.
  • 20th century saw the introduction of new candidates as authors and co-authors and the application of software to analyze Shakespeare’s works in an attempt to determine authorship.

Where are the advancements in this new research?

23 academics from five countries were involved in the new analysis. Big data analytics software provided the advancements. “Big Data” computerized databases built over the last two decades are said to have made precise comparisons between authors possible.

  • One way of deciphering the author’s identity was to track the usage of very common words like “and” or “or” or “of”. The pattern formed would escape human observation but algorithms can uniquely match it to an individual.
  • Another way examined combination of words and picked up certain combinations of nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs such as ‘glory droopeth’, ‘familiar spirit’, ‘cull out’, ‘regions under earth’, ‘oh hold me’, ‘to your wonted’ that indicated Marlowe’s hand.
  • Yet another way looked at how the minor parts of speech such as prepositions and pronouns were arranged.
  • Gary Taylor, professor and one of the team leads said, “In some cases, we know that, say, Marlowe is likely to use two of these prepositions within five words of each other. While Shakespeare is unlikely to use those two words within five words of each other.”
  • Evidence was inferred also by identifying n“Shakespeare-plus words” which he was more likely to use than his contemporaries and “Shakespeare-minus words”.*

Who was Christopher Marlowe?

The barely disputed description

  • He was born in Canterbury in the same year as Shakespeare. He was the son of a shoemaker and went on to earn a Cambridge scholarship.
  • As a playwright, he rose to fame and remained famous throughout his brief literary career. He was highly esteemed by most contemporaries. He is known for introducing the blank verse style of writing – each line has five stressed syllables followed by five unstressed syllables such as Now draw up Faustus like a foggy mist to plays. His most famous plays are The Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus and The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta.
  • He had a major influence on Shakespeare and was definitely well-known by the time Shakespeare began his writing career. Shakespeare’s tribute to Marlowe in As You Like It is said to be the most famous among tributes by eminent contemporaries.

The controversial description

  • He may have been a secret agent working for the Queen. This has been cited as one of the reasons behind his yet unsolved death.
  • He was an atheist and in his time, it was a very dangerous position to take.

The highly disputed description

  • His relationship with Shakespeare. Marlowe has been called Shakespeare’s rival and this research offers a fresh perspective of collaboration between the rivals. How mutual this rivalry was is open to question. Skeptics of this latest research also ask why Marlowe would choose to collaborate with someone who was a non-entity at that time.
  • His death. If it’s not enough that his death has been an unsolved mystery till now, there has been strong speculation that he faked his own death in order to go on writing as Shakespeare.

The Hoffman Prize spurred research on Marlowe. It was instituted by Calvin Hoffman, author of The Murder of the Man Who Was Shakespeare (1955) who believed it was Marlowe’s hand that wrote the works under the name of Shakespeare. He did not want his conviction to die with him and therefore left a princely sum of money with the King’s School, Canterbury, where Marlowe did his schooling. The school was to conduct an annual essay competition – open to all scholars and informed laymen the world over – on Marlowe’s contribution to Shakespeare’s works. This sustained the interest and motivation, though it has failed to achieve Hoffman’s goal so far.

How has another perspective emerged?

Her suggestion is to look among the actors who were heavily influenced by Marlowe’s work. As she puts it, Yes, Shakespeare collaborated. But it's much more likely that he started his career working for a company where he was already an actor, and collaborated not with another playwright but with the actors - who will have had Marlowe very much in their heads, on the stage, in their voices. They were the ones putting Marlowe's influence into the plays.”
  • She said the research helped in that it highlighted the richness of the writing experience in early modern theatre, something we fail to recognize when we look back into that period these days.
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    Tags | Christopher Marlowe Henry VI Shakespeare