Something, Something, and Statistics

· 21 March 2017 ·

Some Shakespearean doings made news last fall, while I was on my continental tour and not posting here. I had intended to let this pass without mention, but Kit Marlowe’s name came up in conversation yesterday, and now I find myself in the mood to type about it.

It’s humorous if you like your humour inky, in the rueful vein that accounts for too many of my laughs about the Shakespeare Industry* these days. The latest episode in a long series of.

The first part recaps what went on last fall, but after that I discuss a new book that’s just out.

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Late last October a spate of arts-news articles hit the media, with variants on this headline:

New Oxford Shakespeare Book Will Credit Christopher Marlowe as Co-author

That link will take you to a page of search results; read what you like. The upshot is that a large amount of sophisticated electronic data-crunching was done on my texts. Mathematicians were involved. A newly-published, updated edition of The (New) Oxford Shakespeare relies on this computational stylistic analysis. The editors have used the results to assign collaborative credit, alongside Shakspere, to more portions of the corpus than has ever been done before.

TL;DR: Willy had help.

Christopher Marlowe in particular was identified by the algorithms, and he is now credited as having written parts of the three Henry VI plays. What matters most is that this was done with the blessings of the Church of Stratford, or at least a hefty chunk of it. Oxford University Press draws a lot of water in that town. Their Shakespearean catalog is both orthodox and extensive.

Even so, there are recusants.

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Mark you this, the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. Put enough fast computers in a room, banging away on printers, and eventually they’ll spit out the works of… Marlowe, apparently.

Silicon angels dancing on scatterplots seem so unnecessary to me. Common sense and Ockham’s razor can do most of the job when Authorship is impartially examined. And I don’t disagree with the premise of collaboration and influence. No creative talent exists in a vacuum. Fisher’s Folly wasn’t a hermitage, it was a frat house, with somewhat less beer pong.[1] I paid my witty scribblers’ rents, not to mention their bills at the Dolphin. We talked shop constantly, bounced ideas and phrases around. That was the point of buying the place in the first place. (It was also a bolt-hole away from the wife, but let’s don’t go into that.) I owned the Fisher house from 1580 to 1588. A computer program that didn’t find commonalities among the works of writers who spent time there wouldn’t be worth its hard drive space.

The vibe I got from the Marlowe news was one of misdirection. Ventriloquism. Pointing at mice in the corners, to keep attention away from the elephant in the middle of the room.

“See? We’re not against the idea of alternative authors. As long as they’ve been vetted, and aren’t any sort of existential threat to Our Boy. And not too much collaboration, just bits here and there. Marlowe’s premature death was so convenient a tragedy, poor Kit. But Willy’s precious edifice stands firm.”

Guess who’s the elephant.

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How have I come by this scepticism? Aside from a few centuries’ worth of observation and experience?

In conjunction with the debut of this new edition of The Complete Works, another book has just been published, The New Oxford Shakespeare: Authorship Companion. (Link follows at the end.)

You wouldn’t think it unreasonable to figure that I’d be found inside this book. All those hundreds of pages, all that cutting-edge research by senior scholars and exciting new voices. Somewhere in the discussion, either pro or con. Probably con. But mentioned.

I don’t have a spare manor to sell right now for the cash to buy the book, but the previews sufficed.[2]

A search on Vere inside the text returned these results (my highlights):

In case you aren’t familiar with my family:

  • Francis Vere = My first cousin. Our fathers were brothers.
  • Howard Vere = Nobody. There is no Howard Vere. Mr Taylor, co-editor of the book and author of several chapters in it including the one involved here, has the name wrong. He means Horace.[3]
  • Elizabeth (de) Vere = My eldest daughter, the one for whose wedding I wrote MND.
  • Horace/Horatio Vere = Also my first cousin. Younger brother of Francis.

My daughter’s the only one of them who even made it into the index.[4]

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As a result of the conclusion that I cannot help but draw from this, I believe the OUP has misprinted the book’s title. I’ve corrected it.

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Notes

[1]  Sometimes an American metaphor fits best.

[2] Prior to searching for my name, I glanced through the chapter titles. At “Using Compressibility as a Proxy for Shannon Entropy in the Analysis of Double Falsehood”, I thought my browser had been hijacked by a thermodynamics textbook. The unfamiliar term Distrest me, so I looked it up. It comes from information theory, not engineering.

Shannon entropy H is calculated by

where pi is the probability of character number i showing up in a stream of characters in a given segment of information. ‘Compressibility’ in the title is more akin to .zip files on your computer than air in your tyres.

Here’s a video at YouTube that nicely explains Shannon entropy. There’s no mention of Shakespeare.

[3]  Or maybe he’s merely confused. My aunt Frances de Vere was the wife of Henry Howard, the poet Earl of Surrey, however she did not command a regiment in 1620. She died in 1577. She was Vere Howard anyway, not Howard Vere.

[4]  Co-editor Taylor has a history of wielding his editorial veto to keep me out of the conversation. [timeshighereducation.com]

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The New Oxford Shakespeare: Complete Set [oup.com]

The New Oxford Shakespeare: Authorship Companion [oup.com]

The Double Falsehood of Double Falsehood [slate.com]
by Ron Rosenbaum, 13 May 2010

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VERO NIHIL VERIUS

 

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