Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Reign of Edward III - Definitely Co-Authored by Shakespeare?

After checking my Yahoo mail this morning, I saw an article on Yahoo (that wasn't about Colorado's own "balloon boy"!) that caught my eye. It's from Time magazine and it's entitled How Plagiarism Software Found a New Shakespeare Play.

The gist of the story is that Sir Brian Vickers, a literature professor at the University of London, used a software program called Pl@giarism to compare writing patterns between Edward III and the undisputed works of Shakespeare. His conclusion is that Shakespeare definitely wrote parts of The Reign of Edward III and Thomas Kyd wrote other parts.

My problem with this approach (i.e., matching strings of words--the more matching strings the more likely that the author of the compared works is the same person) is that it doesn't account for the fact that other playwrights probably lifted Shakespeare's phrases and incorporated them into their own works just as he did theirs. Imitation is the highest form of flattery and plagarism in the Elizabethan world was rampant.

Furthermore, Shakespeare invented so many words and phrases that attributing authorship based on matching phrases seems to ignore a distinguishing characteristic of Shakespeare as an author. I'm not suggesting that the literary detectives should look for unique phrases rather than matching phrases, but I do wonder whether the methodology holds true for Shakespeare.

I would be more convinced that Shakespeare was the author or co-author of this play if there was any evidence that it was part of the repertoire of one of the acting companies that he was associated with. It's significant to me that it wasn't part of the First Folio.


  1. Of course, if it were in the First Folio, the news would be that Thomas Kyd wrote part of a Shakespeare play, not that Shakespeare wrote part of a Kyd play.

  2. Jane, I've worked with Brian and I suspect that no article could do justice to the complexity of what is actually a very long and interesting process. If the methodology did indeed work with some of the more infrequently used words that you find in Shakespeare then it would be suspect, but in fact it is centred around what are called common triples and they are the placing of the structural words that we all use but which most of us use in idiosyncratic ways. The main thrust of Vickers' work when I last heard him speak was with the works of John Ford and for the most part it is used to compare a text whose author is not known with those which can be ascribed to a particular writer. However, it is this method that has given substance to the long suspected notion that Shakespeare wrote only two scenes of 'Henry VI Pt I' and those sometime after the original was penned by Nash and (probably) Kyd.

  3. AR - LOL, your comment made me laugh and nod my head in agreement!

    Ann - I don't doubt that you are totally right and that the methodology is much more complex than the Time article suggests. It's interesting that HVIp1, which has long been attributed to several authors, is included routinely in Shakespeare's Complete but EIII is not. Do you think it will in the future?

  4. My understanding is that there is still a lot of work to be done on Edward and I suspect that even when there has been further definition given to what is and isn't Shakespeare it won't make it into complete editions which are really ruled by what was included in the first folio. However, Jonathan Bate is working on the Apocrypha at the moment and Edward is bound to make it into that. It's a bit like the Bible. You might get an edition that includes the Apocrypha as an appendix, but it's never going to get mixed up with what was there in the beginning.

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  6. Fascinating info, Ann. I do have the new RSC compendium and I love it. Looks like I'll have get the Apocrypha as well, when it's ready! :)