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July 21, 2009

Not–So–Famous Victories

In what appears to be another case of external evidence being willfully ignored, I've stumbled upon a rather surprising omission in critical writing on The Famous Victories of Henry V. This is the old play upon which Shakespeare (probably) based his Henry IV and Henry V plays.

The first quarto of 1598 states that the play is printed "as it was plaide by thc [sic] Queenes Maiesties Players". This is the company attribution generally accepted for the play. By 1598, of course, the Queen's Men had ceased to exist, but the title-page no doubt acknowledges the play's most famous or long-standing attachment.

The second quarto of 1617, however, claims it is "As it was acted by the Kinges Maiesties Seruants". The immediate implication of this evidence, then, is that the play later found its way into the repertory of Shakespeare's company, being performed by them. The Second Quarto is regarded as having some authority, making occasional corrections - it is not a 'pirate' text.

So far, so straightforward. However, the evidence of the later quarto is ignored in every discussion I've so far read of both play and King's Men's repertory. Peter Corbin and Douglas Sedge completely ignore it in their Revels Companion volume The Oldcastle Controversy. Andrew Gurr meanwhile, in his The Shakespeare Company, 1594-1642, suggests that the play may have come into the Chamberlain's Men's repertory, but his suggestion is presented as a pure conjecture, failing to note the support that the title-page offers and omitting it from his survey of surviving company play-texts.

The most puzzling response, though, is that of Roslyn Knutson in The Repertory of Shakespeare's Company, 1594-1613, who acknowledges but categorically dismisses the information. I quote her in full:

I accept the claims of ownership by the Chamberlain's and King's men on title-pages of quartos except in the cases of The Famous Victories of Henry V and Alphonsus Emperor of Germany. On the title-page of the first quarto (1598) The Famous Victories of Henry V is attributed to the Queen's men. That claim is probably right. There is no evidence to suggest the migration of the playbook to Shakespeare's company by 1617, at which time it was published with an attribution on the title-page of the quarto to the King's Men (212).

The poor logic of this is hopefully immediately apparent. What Knutson actually means is that there is no additional evidence for the attribution: but the title-page of a quarto is, in itself, a substantive testimony that does not necessarily need extra support. Several plays are attributed unquestionably to companies purely on title-page evidence: Knutson herself gives Mucedorus, The Yorkshire Tragedy, The London Prodigal, A Warning for Fair Women and Sejanus to the Chamberlain's/King's Men on no greater grounds.

Furthermore, it is not as if the evidence of the two quartos is contradictory. By 1595 the Queen's Men had ceased to exist, and their repertory was divided up. In point of fact, I can think of no good reason to assume that the play did not go to the Chamberlain's Men: after all, if Shakespeare was to use the play as a primary source for his second tetralogy in 1597-9, surely it makes sense to imagine him having a copy of the playbook to hand.

So, why is the evidence of Q2 ignored in accounts of the King's Men's repertory, and of the play? There appears to, at some point, have entered into critical consciousness a conviction that the information of the quarto is simply wrong, and unworthy of discussion. This is bad practice: as Sam Schoenbaum has told us, "External evidence cannot be ignored, no matter how inconvenient" (Internal Evidence and Elizabethan Dramatic Authorship, 163).

The other reason that springs to mind for the ignoring of the information is the assumption that the play would not have been performed by the King's Men once they had Shakespeare's versions to draw on. This is a good argument, albeit one that needs to be articulated rather than just assumed. However, this does not mean that the play had no role in the repertory. I see two possible alternatives here:

  • 1. The play was popular, and may well have been performed regularly by the Chamberlain's Men for the first few years of their existence, before being replaced by Shakespeare's plays on the same matter. The attribution to the King's men on the 1617 title-page would then simply reflect the current title of the company that had most recently performed it.
  • 2. Is it actually justifiable to assume that it was replaced by Shakespeare's plays? Famous Victories is a play with its own intrinsic merits. Firstly, it allows for the whole story of Hal to be told in a single sitting: may the company have kept this 'abridged' version handy? It's also a highly comic play, with strong clown roles, and thus could have been considered sufficiently entertaining to maintain a place in the repertory.

Some of this is just conjecture, but is designed to demonstrate that the information on the Q2 title-page cannot simply be ignored. My personal suspicion is that the evidence is, indeed, good: that the popular old play came into the repertory of the Chamberlain's Men in 1594, that it was played regularly until the debut of Shakespeare's Hal plays, and that the play was later republished some years after it had used up its stage capital.

July 20, 2009


Andrew Gurr (The Shakespeare Company, 1594-1642) identifies one of the primary features of Fletcherian tragicomedy as its conscious efforts to surprise the audience. In the repertory of the King's Men, he cites examples from 1609 such as Philaster, that pull the rug out from under the audience's feet at the end of the play with a surprise revelation, such as a boy character turning out to be a girl (Philaster) or a statue of a dead woman coming to life (Winter's Tale). I'll add Epicoene to his examples, with its woman that turns out to be a boy.

In this light, the additions to Mucedorus, first included in the third quarto of 1610, are rather interesting. In the original version of the play (c.1590), Mucedorus is only identified as a shepherd for the entire play, until the final scene when he suddenly removes his disguise and reveals that he is, in fact, a wandering prince. Gasp! This romantic trope is obviously associated with later tragicomedy, although has its roots in earlier romantic pastoral. However, the 1610 additions are specifically designed to remove the element of surprise. An opening scene shows Mucedorus as prince, donning his disguise and explaining to his friend Anselmo that he is leaving specifically in order to see the princess of whose beauty he has heard report - this is the princess who, on his first appearance in the original version, he rescues from a bear, having apparently stumbled across her by accident. Other additions create roles for Anselmo and Mucedorus' father, reminding the audience of the prince's true identity.

This is interesting because the additions, written in the early years of James' reign (another change is the epilogue, now addressed to James rather than Elizabeth), go directly against what seems to be the emerging structure of the tragicomedy. It may be unsophisticated, but Mucedorus with its disguised traveller, its surprise revelations, its distant climes, wild locations, murders and bears (!) is a good fit for the repertory of c.1610, the drama of the day finally having caught up with the structure of the old play. Yet, at the same time, the play has been adjusted in order to soften those elements which Gurr suggests define the new drama.

I'm going to explore this further, as I think Mucedorus may well have something extremely interesting to say about the development of the tragicomic form within the King's Men at this point. Judging by allusions and reprints, it was one of the most popular plays of its time, and generically it seems to me that it may represent an important turning point in the company's consciousness of how its work was presented.

July 14, 2009

Not good enough for London

Just a quick post with something that caught my eye in the first scene of Ben Jonson's The Devil is an Ass.

Pug is trying to persuade Satan to send him to earth to cause some mischief. Satan's response:

You are too dull a devil to be trusted
Forth in those parts, Pug, upon any affair
That may concern our name on earth. It is not
Everyone's work. The state of Hell must care
Whom it employs in point of reputation,
Here about London. You would make, I think,
An agent to be sent, for Lancashire
Proper enough; or some parts of Northumberland,
So you'd good instructions, Pug. (I.i. 26-34).

Inocuous enough, but I'm interested in snippets such as these which make explicit snobbery towards the provinces. Several of the apocryphal plays deal with regional matters: The Yorkshire Tragedy, Arden of Feversham. I haven't decided how big a part this will play in my argument, but it is often noted that Shakespeare's plays are almost always set at a distance from their moment of composition, whether temporal (e.g. historical England) or spatial (most notably the Italian- and French-set comedies).

Taking into account the snobbish attitudes voiced in Satan's above speech, it is no small surprise that, by the 18th century, Warwickshire yokels could be openly mocked in David Garrick's Jubilee play. Shakespeare had been claimed for London, for the most advanced and sophisticated areas of British life. The severance from those apocryphal plays dealing with provincial life is, I believe, a part of this: it mattered for the image of 'Shakespeare' that his choice of settings and subject matters was romantic, removed, otherly. City comedies and domestic plays were, instead, the province of dramatists such as Heywood and Middleton, considered to be second-rate.

Jonson's speech for Satan doesn't tell us much, but it is a reminder that this hierarchy of region existed during Shakespeare's own period as well as later, and it might provide a neat contextual gobbet.

May 31, 2009

Apocrypha – an earlier mention

Interesting discovery the other day. I've been working for some time under the belief that C.F. Tucker Brooke was the first person to call the disputed plays attributed to Shakespeare "The Apocrypha". However, I was at the Shakespeare Centre Library on Thursday going through Charles Knight's volume on the plays in his multi-volume collected works. While his terming for the group of plays is 'Plays Ascribed to Shakspere', he does, in the course of discussion, refer to them as "apocryphal plays".

This is a bit of a surprise, and will occasion a bit of re-working on my part. I'd based part of my discussion of Brooke's edition around his introduction of the term 'apocrypha', and yet here it is, appearing over sixty years earlier in a major edition of Shakespeare.

The core of my argument isn't spoiled, as the primary point is the titling of the collection, rather than the association with the word. However, it epitomises some of the frustrations of the kind of work I'm doing. Every time you think you've got something settled, another bit of historical documentation comes up which moves the goalposts again. I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm going to be editing this overview right up until my final submission deadline.....

May 20, 2009

Problems of Bardolatry #1: Cardenio

As another Cardenio makes the rounds, it seems a perfect opportunity to point out one of Bardolatry's most glaring negative consequences.

Producing a "lost Shakespeare play" is, without a doubt, one of the best theatrical marketing strategies you can hope for. In the case of Cardenio, every now and again a new staging of Theobald's Double Falsehood turns up, usually with claims that either the acting company or attendant academic have decided that it is, in fact, almost entirely Shakespearean. It's a necessary marketing factor: the more Shakespearean it is pretended to be, the more important it becomes (poor John Fletcher) and therefore the more attention and selling power it will have.

What is forgotten by the Bardolaters seeking for new Shakespeare is that the claim for the authenticity of Double Falsehood is actually dependent on its UNLIKENESS to Shakespeare. The claims that the play appears to be Shakespearean actually diminish the play's chances of having a genuine Shakespearean connection.

To explain this, we need to go back to 1728 and the publication of Lewis Theobald's hugely successfully Double Falsehood; or, the Distressed Lovers. The play did well on stage, and was subsequently published by Theobald as being Shakespeare's, fitted up for the contemporary stage by Theobald himself. Theobald's claim was that he, somehow, had acquired manuscripts of a Restoration adaption of a Shakespeare play, which he had now adapted himself. Suspiciously enough, despite the fact that he claimed to have no fewer than three copies of this manuscript, they were never seen by anyone else (or, at least, anyone who recorded seeing them). Then, conveniently, they were apparently burned up in a fire at Covent Garden, where they were on display. Again, no-one records viewing them.

This is, quite patently, extremely suspicious, and instantly cries out "Forgery!". That was the opinion of Theobald's contemporaries. It was pointed out that the play bore far more resemblance to the works of John Fletcher, and that Theobald's ascription of the play to Shakespeare was fraudulent. Theobald realised he didn't have a leg to stand on, and quietly withdrew his claims, omitting the play from his Complete Works of 1733 despite his promises five years earlier that he would publish the play in full, along with his arguments for its veracity. It seems that even Theobald lost faith in his own ascription. The subsequent centuries have largely assumed that this was a simple exercise in Bardolatrous forgery, similar to that of William Henry Ireland.

However, records were discovered much later suggesting that Shakespeare HAD written a play in his final years of active work, a collaboration with John Fletcher called Cardenio, the source (from Cervantes' Don Quixote) for the story in Double Falsehood. Theobald did not know of this. As recent scholarship has pointed out, he would therefore have had no reason to imitate Fletcher's style in forging a play. If the play IS a forgery, it would be pseudo-Shakespearean. Instead, it is Fletcherian, which actually supports the play's authenticity.

Restoration adaptations of Shakespeare's plays fitted them to the demands of the time. In the 1660s, the vogue was for Fletcherian tragicomedy, and Shakespeare's plays were fitted to this requirement (see, for example, the happy ending of Nahum Tate's King Lear). Most pertinently, Davenant and Dryden's adaptation of Fletcher and Shakespeare's The Two Noble Kinsmen into The Rivals excised almost all of Shakespeare's sections of the play while retaining most of the fashionable Fletcher. It follows, then, that a Restoration adaptation of Cardenio would likewise be primarily at Shakespeare's expense.

The authenticity of Double Falsehood as an adaptation of an adaption of Cardenio is now largely accepted. However, as explained above, this authenticity has been established on the grounds of the play's general unlikeness to Shakespeare and general likeness to Fletcher.

For modern companies and academics to claim that the surviving Double Falsehood is largely Shakespearean, therefore, defeats the point. If Theobald's play is seen to be like Shakespeare, then that fact actually instead supports the original assumption that the play is merely Theobald's attempt to mimic Shakespeare's style as part of a deliberate fraud. By buying into the Bardolatrous desire to credit Shakespeare with as much as possible, the play is actually pushed further away from canonical status.

It is notable that professional academic scholarship is generally united in the belief that any Shakespearean fragments surviving in Double Falsehood are few and brief. The claims for substantial Shakespearean authorship are primarily made by amateur or unaffiliated scholars (see also: the authorship conspiracy theorists), or by actors who are inevitably more familiar with Shakespeare than Fletcher anyway, and whose basis for comparison is therefore skewed. It's a shame, as with The Two Noble Kinsmen, that the majority of people are so concerned with the question of who wrote which bits. Is the importance of the play as a fragment of part of Shakespeare and Fletcher's later repertoire not enough? Sadly, it appears, not.

P.S. The history page at the new Cardenio production's website has some interesting suggestions for further reading. It appears to be written in black on a black background, though, so you need to highlight the text in order to see it!

January 13, 2009

A Yorkshire Tragedy – a hypothesis

A Yorkshire Tragedy is one of the most unified of the apocryphal plays. Scenes 2-10 of the play follow a prose source extremely closely in a dramatic tour de force of relentless bloody action.

Scene 1 of the play, however, is a problem. Three servants appear and discuss their betters, the story of a master having deserted a mistress. While their conversation is related to the source, the scene has almost no bearing on the remainder of the play. In addition, the style of the scene is very different, and this is the only scene in which characters are named (for the rest of the play, characters are simply 'Husband', 'Wife' etc.).

It's easy to conclude from this that Scene 1 was a later addition by another playwright. However, Baldwin Maxwell (1956) puts the more difficult question: Why was it written? The addition serves no apparent dramatic function.

Stanley Wells, in his edition of the play for the Oxford Middleton (2007), finds a possible solution in the original performance conditions of the play. The 1608 quarto bills it as 'One of the four plays in one, called A Yorkshire Tragedy'. Wells wonders if the scene acts as some kind of induction, connecting the short play to the other plays in the 'four-in-one'.

I agree with Wells that the origins of this scene probably lie in the original performance conditions, in the nature of the 'four-in-one' performance at the Globe. I would like to make an even more specific conjecture, however, regarding the nature of this addition.

Shakespeare's main source for Othello was the Hecatommithi of Cinthio. Each story in this 110-story collection began with summary and discussion of the play that had immediately preceded it. Thus, the Othello source-story begins with a group of characters discussing the action of the previous play, leading into one of them suggesting the Othello-source as their next tale.

The other three parts of the 'Four-in-one' are not extant, but I would like to suggest that their presentation owed something to Cinthio's structure. Imagine four short plays being played in an afternoon. They would doubtless have breaks between them. After the break, minor characters from the story before may have reappeared in a dramatic interlude to link the two stories. Thus, the quarto of A Yorkshire Tragedy as we have received it may well preserve the 'induction' scene that relates to the story immediately before it.

This fits in with Wells' hypothesis, but is dangerously more specific (happily, a blog allows me to conjecture freely). Rather than a general induction-style device which linked all four plays, I am suggesting a linear series of inductions similar to the Hecatommithi, where each piece connected to the next. I am also suggesting that the dramatist of each piece would be responsible for writing the next link. Therefore, Scene 1 of Yorkshire Tragedy would not have been written by Middleton (the writer of the main play), but by the writer of the play before.

This would explain the extremely loose engagement with the source material, compared to Middleton's close adherence to it. Let us imagine, for a moment, that the play before A Yorkshire Tragedy in the sequence was by Shakespeare, the in-house dramatist (who we know, of course, was familiar with Cinthio's work). Let us imagine that he had completed his part of the play, and was then required to create a linking piece to Middleton's play. The linking piece would not be in any way prestigious or worthy of painstaking work. He would most likely have skimmed Middleton's piece, glanced at the source material to see what remained unused, and then written a short scene in his own style to feed into the play.

While it probably wasn't Shakespeare who contributed Scene One (though those arguments have not completely died away), I don't find this an improbable scenario. It seems to explain the unique features of Scene One and doesn't seem out of keeping with what we know of playhouse practice. The problem, of course, is that none of the other plays in the sequence have survived, and so it is impossible to prove. However, I think this may be a useful hypothesis to work with, and an example of how, even in matters of textual authorship, an understanding of performance practice is indispensable.

November 28, 2008

Shakespeare & Co.

Shakespeare really gets in the way sometimes.

The overwhelming attention given to this one dramatist, and the importance placed on his canon, can often lead to an uncomfortable bias in articles on authorship. In saying this, I'm particularly thinking of articles which attempt to ascertain the authorship of apocryphal plays. The emphasis is almost always on establishing whether a section of text is 'Shakespeare' or 'Not-Shakespeare', unless the Shakespearean portions have been settled and they're explicitly looking at the other sections. It's quite rare I find an article that, with one of the more obscure plays, attempts to make a positive case for another dramatist.

The case of The London Prodigal, one of my favourite of the apocryphal plays, is a particularly good example. This one is quite difficult to find any articles on; Shakespeare's authorship of it is generally dismissed as a given nowadays. This in itself is quite disappointing, as Prodigal has some of the strongest external evidence supporting Shakespearean authorship: a stationer's register entry giving Shakespeare's name, a quarto in Shakespeare's lifetime giving Shakespeare's name, a confirmed place in the repertory of the King's Men, and inclusion in the 1664 Folio. I've yet to find the serious scholarship that absolutely excludes Shakespeare's hand in the play - I'm sure it exists, but I suspect that much of it may have been coloured by the given assumption that it's not Shakespearean on aesthetic grounds. In any case, that's beside the point until I start that section of my research.

No, what here interests me more is that, as far as I can tell, no-one has made a serious positive bid for any other author for the play. This is true of a surprising amount of the apocryphal plays. Gary Taylor's team working on the Oxford Middleton project 'reclaimed' The Yorkshire Tragedy, The Puritan and The Second Maiden's Tragedy for Middleton, but several of the other apocryphal plays remain in the Shakespeare-or-Not-Shakespeare limbo, adrift and unwanted.

One of the most difficult things about working on a project called 'The Shakespeare Apocrypha' is the impression that it gives that I, too, am engaging solely with the presence or non-presence of Shakespeare's hand in these plays. That's not true, though unfortunately the weight of scholarship given to that simple split makes it difficult to avoid. I intend to gain a good familiarity with as many dramatists as possible whose hands may be present in the plays, and pay particular attention to those plays where another playwright has been claimed. Thomas Merriam, for example, has been making claims for some years that Marlowe's hand is in Edward III. Middleton, obviously, pervades the apocrypha. Munday is undoubtedly a significant contributor to Thomas More, and Brian Vickers has recently strengthened the case for Kyd's authorship of Arden of Faversham. Quite frankly, I don't understand how a serious study of the apocrypha can rely simply on Shakespeare; there's got to be engagement with the whole community of dramatists in order to understood collaborative writing.

So, I'm ploughing through Marlowe's oeuvre. Then it's on to Kyd, Jonson, Middleton, Munday, Peele, Greene, Fletcher, Massinger, Beaumont, Wilkins, Webster, Drayton, Dekker, Rowley, Shirley....... Should be fun!

November 12, 2008

Words of Wisdom

Since reading Margreta de Grazia's article in Appropriations of Shakespeare entitled "Shakespeare in Quotation Marks" (1991, ed. Jean I. Marsden), I've been having some interesting thoughts about the canon and what the implications are of adding to or taking away from it.

de Grazia's article discusses the phenomenon of the Shakespeare 'quotation book', the publication that takes quotes from Shakespeare out of context and reproduces them as stand-alone sententiae. Within these books, the quotes are generally decontextualised, presented as statements and often grouped thematically (so, for example, you can go to a single page and see all of Shakespeare's important comments on love).

What this does, effectively, is present these quotes as the personal wisdom and viewpoints of Shakespeare the man. The importance of this can't be over-stressed; these books purport to offer a direct insight into Shakespeare's mind. Thus, Polonius' advice to his son becomes Shakespeare's own advice as a father; Romeo's declarations of Juliet's beauty become Shakespeare's own outpourings of love for an unknown other; King Harry's encouragement of his troops becomes Shakespeare inciting his countrymen to war. This idea is confirmed in the titles of these books published as late as the early 20th century, e.g. The Wisdom of Shakespeare (1909).

In terms of questioning the canon, this strain of Bardolatrous culture is very important. Effectively, if you change the works from which Shakespeare's 'mind' has been constructed, then you change that mind. If, say, Locrine features a different stance or take on war, suddenly in this context one has to question Shakespeare's own views on war. It strikes me that, consciously or unconsciously, this is an important part of the resistance, particularly in the 19th century, to the attribution of new works to Shakespeare; the man himself was held in such high esteem that the idea of changing him, of crediting to him works that were less decorous or voiced unpolitic sentiments, was unthinkable.

While we've obviously moved on, quotation books are still with us and we still act against the weight of a received Shakespeare who has 'opinions' which have been derived from his texts. This could be a productive line of inquiry.

October 14, 2008

Sloppy science

I'm no scientist. However, I do have a fair amount of common sense when it comes to experiments and evaluating your findings. One of the things I find quite frustrating about some of the articles on authorship I've been reading is the lack of information pertaining to people's basic assumptions before beginning their study. The key example I'm thinking of here is Kenneth Muir in his Shakespeare as Collaborator (1960).

Muir's general thesis in the section I'm concerning myself with is to show elements of collaboration in Edward III. To do so, he splits the play into two sections, his Part 'A' (the scenes thought to be Shakespeare's) and Part 'B' (everything else). He then goes on to show, rather impressively, that there are some big differences between the two sections, such as the frequency of 'new' words introduced.

What's the problem? Well, it's the lack of reasoning as to how he created the division of the two parts in the first place. For all we know, his divisions are entirely arbritrary. Worse, those divisions could have been created by the exact criteria which he then goes on to test, creating a circularity of argument which looks impressive but is anything but. Similarly, without knowing the grounds on which Parts 'A' and 'B' are distinguished, the tests lose their validity.

This is not to say that Muir is, necessarily, wrong. The ongoing cumulative weight of evidence supports a split close to the one he made. However, if you are going to prove something as contested as the authorship of an anonymous play, we as readers need to know where the experiment is starting from. The problem is that almost all articles since Muir take these divisions as read. If an experiment is going to be conducted in a laboratory environment, for lack of a better phrase, then this kind of received assumption needs to be interrogated.

In this sense, I'm far more interested in the work of MacDonald P. Jackson with LION. In articles I've read so far by Jackson, he begins with a thesis and then tests it in the widest possible sense; for example, in a 2006 Shakespeare Quarterly article testing for the author of Scene 8 of Arden of Faversham, he tests the scene against the entire corpus of English drama for a twenty year period around the estimated date of the play's authorship. This particular article tested the scene against 132 Elizabethan plays. Granted, it is only relatively recent technology that makes this kind of search practical, but it allows Jackson to provide cold, hard statistical data that can be clinically interrogated.

It strikes me that, in the study of authorship, one needs to commit to being either artistic or scientific. If you're going to be artistic, go with it; use aesthetic judgements, rely on instinct and the feel of a piece. If you're going to be scientific, follow the basic principles; define your search limits, explain your control defaults, provide objective data. Too often, however, sloppy science is used to lend credence to what is essentially a subjective judgement. The essential point I want to make here is that valid aesthetic judgements are undermined by badly-applied science. Sloppy science is obvious, and immediately invites interrogation and scepticism. It is all-too-easy to fight someone on scientific grounds, and in the ensuing debate the gut instincts lose their value.

This is all, of course, easier said than done. There are few articles on authorship which don't contain a certain measure of subjective interpretation. The difference is how you articulate that interpretation; whether you try to pass it off as being as scientific as your data, or you admit your own subjectivity. Passion and science can work together, but passion must not alter the science, otherwise one's experiment is compromised. The best scientists, it seems to me, are dispassionate about their method, but passionate about their results.

October 08, 2008

Neural networks

I felt the need to quickly put a thought down before I get swamped in material. I'm currently working through articles on Edward III by Thomas Merriam, a rather clever gentleman who has published several articles outlining a case for Marlowe's involvement in (either as writer, collaborator or the original writer of source material adapted by Shakespeare) scenes of that play.

These articles mark my first tentative steps out of the relatively safe and familiar world of historical investigation into the decidedly unfamiliar world of stylometric testing. Specifically, I'm just powering through an article detailing the creation of a particular neural network that Merriam and his colleague developed which can distinguish with (according to them!) a high level of accuracy between the writings of Marlowe and Shakespeare, using a select number of function-word ratios.

It's mind-boggling stuff for a literature boy. Yet it's also incredibly exciting. Throughout all of the studies I've read so far on the use of modern stylometrics, there's an iterated concern for the application of simple common sense to these tests, which have been used to great and damaging effect by many literary scholars who simply didn't understand the basic scientific/mathematical rules which needed to be followed in order to provide meaningful results. It's the kind of basic error which leads people to, for example, calculate ratios based on the number of function words per line in a given play, yet doesn't take into account the length of a line, whether a line is verse or prose, whether the texts are standardised with each other and so on.

I'm excited because, so far,I get it. Not just the common sense bits, but the technical data. I'm not saying I could design these tests myself (give me time), but I'm picking up how to read them and, more importantly, how to interrogate them. One of the main problems with this field, as Merriam himself points out in a 2002 article, is that the level of detail needed to make a thorough case is so massive in any particular investigation that it renders itself unreadable to anyone who isn't a specialist. By contrast, if you don't put it in the detail, clarity comes at the expense of accuracy and devalues the research. Therefore, for anyone seriously considering studying authorship, it's imperative to gain a solid understanding of how to read this stuff, how to interpret and respond to it. Otherwise, you just have to take people's word for it; or, alternatively, dismiss it out of hand as many scholars do.

This is a massive challenge for me, but one I'm really excited about. It's nice to be doing something interdisciplinary (though I won't be at a stage where I can hold meaningful conversations about this with Computer Science PhDs for quite some time), and it's nice to be taking on an area which puts off so many literary academics. Bring it on!


I’m Peter Kirwan, a final year doctoral student in the English Department at Warwick, and this is my PhD blog.

Conferences, reviews, articles, thoughts and links relating to my interests in the Shakespeare apocrypha, early modern drama, authorship and performance.

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