Something, Something, and Statistics

· 21 March 2017 ·

[Stratfordian stylometry and ‘The New Oxford Shakespeare Authorship Companion’]

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.

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 stylometric 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. The details hardly matter. What does matter 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 extensive, and dogmatically orthodox.

In addition to those of us who know better, there are some Stratfordians who aren’t buying houses on this new landfill either. Marke you this Bassanio, the divell can cypher Code for his purpose. Right in Act I of The Merchant of Venice I put that, you’d think the OUP would have taken heed.

Put enough fast computers in a room banging away on the right programs, 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 will 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 slightly 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 together there wouldn’t be worth its hard-drive space. But commonalities do not imply, much less prove, co-authorship.

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 a few bits here and there. Poor Marlowe, his premature death was so convenient such a tragedy. But Willy’s precious edifice stands firm.”

Guess who’s the elephant.

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 entirely 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, 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:

  • In case you aren’t familiar with my family:
  • · Francis Vere – My first cousin. Our fathers were brothers.
  • · Horace/Horatio Vere – Also my first cousin. Younger brother of Francis.
  • · Elizabeth (de) Vere – My eldest daughter, the one for whose wedding I wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
  • · Howard Vere – There is no Howard Vere. Gary Taylor, co-editor of the book and author of several of its chapters including the one involved here, has the name wrong. He means Horace. [3]

My daughter’s the only one who even made it into the index. And Taylor has a notable history of wielding his editorial veto to keep me out of the conversation.

As a result of the conclusion that I cannot help but draw from all of this, I believe the Oxford University Press has misprinted the book’s title.

I have corrected it.

5 October 2017 addition: The Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship has just published the latest volume of its annual journal, The Oxfordian (#19). It includes an in-depth review of The Not New Oxford Shakespeare: Authorship Companion. The review was written by Michael Dudley, Shelly Maycock, and Gary Goldstein. They must have sold a manor. If you’re interested in a much more specific analysis and rebuttal than I’ve made in my comments above, give their review a read.


[1] Sometimes an American metaphor fits best.

[2] Prior to searching for my name, I glanced through the chapter titles. When I came to “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 Shannon entropy 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 this context is more akin to ZIP files on your hard drive than air in your tyres.

Here’s a video that nicely explains Shannon entropy. Shakespeare is not mentioned.

[3] Or perhaps Mr Taylor is merely confused. My father’s sister was the wife of Henry Howard, the poet Earl of Surrey. She was thus (Frances) Vere Howard, not Howard Vere. But she did not command a regiment in 1620, as she died in 1577.