Shakespeare and the Authorship Question: Part 1

Shakespeare's birth-house

The Henley Street house where Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, was built sometime between the late 1400s and the early 1500s. A typical building of the times, the half-timbered house was constructed in wattle and daub around a wooden frame. Local oak from the Forest of Arden in Warwickshire was used in the construction. Parts of the building, such as the chimneys, for instance, were built from early brick. The large fireplaces were constructed from a combination of early brick (made locally), and blue-grey stone from Wilmcote which is three miles north of Stratford-upon-Avon. The ground-floor level has flag stone floors which are said to be the original—many of the flags in the floor are broken.



Upstairs, on the first floor, there are several bedrooms. For me, four of these bedrooms held special interest: one is the guest room which is comfortably furnished with the best bed with its orange and green bed-curtains, and a small supper table set in the alcove; the next, is Shakespeare’s parents’ bedroom, famously known as “Shakespeare’s Birth-room.” The guide who showed us through the house explained that this room, with its low beamed, uneven ceilings and ancient stone and brick fire-place, would have been specially chosen as a birth-room for all the eight Shakespeare children because, being situated in the centre of the house,  directly above the living room with its large fire-place, it would have been the warmest and least draughty room in the house.

The guide then informed us that all the boy children would have slept in the room immediately alongside and in front of their parents’ room. This, she explained, was because back in Shakespeare’s day boys were precious creatures, sons were highly valued. We asked if this was a safety issue, if parents back then felt that by keeping their sons close to them while they slept, they could better protect them from intruders. Oh, no, that wasn’t it at all, it was just that the room in which the boys slept, being directly alongside the birth-room, was the next warmest and next least draughty of the bedrooms, and the boys were less likely to catch their deaths of cold.

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So, the girls, where did they sleep? The guide went on to explain: the girl children, daughters being less precious to the family than sons, slept in the room next to that again, at the front of the house. This room, being furthest away from the warmth of the birth-room, was the draughtiest of these bedrooms and also the coldest of the four. In Shakespeare’s day, girls did not carry the same value as boys.


Now though, this large  cool room in which the Shakespeare girls once slept, holds something that is very precious—a window that was originally in the birth-room but which was moved to the front room when the house was renovated, probably in the 1800s (below).

Shakespeare was much revered by many literary people, both famous figures and those who were lesser known. Shortly after his death, many of his admirers came to the house and wrote their names on the walls or scratched their signatures into the glass panes of some of the windows. Sadly, most of these early (pre-18th Century) visitors’ signatures are now gone, walls painted over and windows replaced through necessity. To my great delight I did find one very early signature that had not been eliminated during the tidying up process–that of Shakespeare’s friend, Ben Jonson himself.

For almost three hundreds now, Shakespeare’s birthplace in Henley Street Stratford-upon-Avon has been a place of pilgrimage for the literary-minded.  This tradition of pilgrimage was started when David Garrick,  a famous Shakespearean actor, organised the first Shakespearean Festival in Stratford-upon-Avon in the mid-1700s.  Since then, the house has been visited by dozens of famous people. Many people, writers, playwrights, actors, poets, and others, recorded their visit of tribute by writing their signatures on the walls and the ceilings of the house. This tradition continued throughout the 1800s, and into the next century. As happened earlier, most, but not all, of the names written on the walls during this time have long since been painted over. During the 1800s, other famous literary figures used their diamond rings to engrave their signatures on the glass panes of the birth-room window. Amongst the names engraved on this window I found the signatures of Sir Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge,  Thomas Carlyle,  Isaac Watts, Charles Dickens, John Keats, Thomas Hardy, Lord Alfred Tennyson, Mark Twain, William Thackeray, Henry James, and many, many more besides.


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In this photo below, it is too difficult to see the signatures that have been scratched into the glass panes of the window that was originally in the birth-room; and even though it was virtually impossible to gain the necessary distance, I nevertheless tried the best I could to take a photo of the panel below the window.

large birth-place window

Shakespeare was greatly loved, and still is. He is often variously called The Man of Stratford, The Bard of Avon, The Man of the Millennium. His authorship was not questioned during his lifetime or for some 200 years or so after his death. Of course, we scholars know to never cite wikipedia: as the site itself acknowledges, it is an academically unsubstantiated source, so suffice it is to say here that I found the following piece on the net:

Shakespeare’s authorship was first questioned in the middle of the 19th century, when adulation of Shakespeare as the greatest writer of all time had become widespread. Shakespeare’s biography, particularly his humble origins and obscure life, seemed incompatible with his poetic eminence and his reputation for genius, arousing suspicion that Shakespeare might not have written the works attributed to him. The controversy has since spawned a vast body of literature …(wikipedia… The Shakespeare Authorship Question)

Over eighty names have been put forward by anti-Stratfordians (supporters of alternative candidates in the authorship debate) as the real authors of Shakespeare’s works. The anti-Stratfordians’  arguments against Shakespeare’s authorship were answered by academics who said that biography and suspicion, and information gathered from here, there, and everywhere and which had not been substantiated by rigorous research and testing, or which was not verifiable for some reason or another, were simply not enough grounds to determine authorship of works which had always been attributed to Shakespeare.

Only a few of the names that were put forward by the anti-Stratfordians and scholars who bought into the argument, gained significant attention from academic Shakespeareans and literary historians as being worthy of serious consideration. In recent times, modern day academic Shakespeareans held that authorship attribution necessarily relies  mainly on the convergence of direct documentary evidence— such as, for example, the Folio, title page attributions, government records (i.e., the Stationers’ Register and the Accounts of the Revels Office), contemporary testimony from poets, historians, and those players and playwrights who worked with him, and the plays and other works themselves–and modern stylometrics in conjunction. These criteria are the accepted standard methodology, or scholarly method, for authorship attribution.

The scholarly method … is the body of  principles and practices used by scholars to make their claims about the world as valid and trustworthy as possible, and to make them known to the scholarly public. It is the methods that systemically advance the teaching, research, and practice of a given scholarly or academic field of study through rigorous inquiry. Scholarship is noted by its significance to its particular profession, and is creative, can be documented, can be replicated or elaborated, and can be and is peer-reviewed through various methods(wikipedia …/Scholarly_method)

Stylometry is the application of the study of linguistic style, usually to written language. Stylometry is often used to attribute authorship to anonymous or disputed documents. It has legal as well as academic and literary applications, ranging from the question of the authorship of Shakespeare’s works to forensic linguistics….

The modern practice of the discipline received major impetus from the study of authorship problems in English Renaissance drama. Researchers and readers observed that some playwrights of the era had distinctive patterns of language preferences, and attempted to use those patterns to identify authors in uncertain or collaborative works….

The development of computers and their capacities for analyzing large quantities of data enhanced this type of effort by orders of magnitude. The great capacity of computers for data analysis, however, did not guarantee quality output. In the early 1960s, Rev. A. Q. Morton produced a computer analysis of the fourteen Epistles of the New Testament attributed to St. Paul, which showed that six different authors had written that body of work. A check of his method, applied to the works of James Joyce, gave the result that Ulysses  was written by five separate individuals… (wikipedia…/Stylistics_(linguistics))

Of course, since then, technology has advanced greatly:

Modern stylometry draws heavily on the aid of computers  for statistical analysis, artificial intelligence, and access to the growing corpus  of texts available via the Internet.  Software systems such as Signature (freeware produced by Dr Peter Millican of Oxford University), JGAAP (the Java Graphical Authorship Attribution Program—freeware produced by Dr Patrick Juola of Duquesne University), stylo (an open-source R package for a variety of stylometric analyses, including authorship attribution) and Stylene for Dutch (online freeware by Prof Walter Daelemans of University of Antwerp and Dr Véronique Hoste of University of Ghent) make its use increasingly practicable, even for the non-expert.

Whereas in the past, stylometry emphasized the rarest or most striking elements of a text, contemporary techniques can isolate identifying patterns even in common parts of speech. In one such method, the text is analysed to find the 50 most common words. The text is then broken into 5,000 word chunks and each of the chunks is analyzed to find the frequency of those 50 words in that chunk. This generates a unique 50-number identifier for each chunk. These numbers place each chunk of text into a point in a 50-dimensional space. This 50-dimensional space is flattened into a plane using principal component analysis (PCA). This results in a display of points that correspond to an author’s style. If two literary works are placed on the same plane, the resulting pattern may show if both works were by the same author or different authors. (wikipedia … /Stylometry)

Over time and with practice and the increasing advances in computer technology, researchers and scholars have refined their approaches and methods, to yield even better results.

Now, in the present day, one ground-breaking academic researcher has had outstanding success with his computational analysis techniques in authenticating authorship that is unknown or is suspected to have been wrongly attributed, also with determining authorship contribution in the most disputed of Shakespeare’s works, as well as with determining authorship in Shakespeare’s works where collaboration is suspected, and where these works have gained significant attention  from academic Shakespeareans and literary historians as to warrant further investigation, and are truly worthy of serious consideration.

Below: Meet Professor Hugh Craig of the University of Newcastle, Australia (I took the liberty afforded a blogger [??] and nicked the following straight from Professor Hugh Craig’s University of Newcastle, Australia, staff profile on the University’s home page which can be viewed by clicking on either of the links shown below at the end of this blog; after you have finished having a good browse through our home page and read about all our wonderful research innovations and fun things we are doing etc., see “Staff Profiles” in the first column in the band  at the bottom of the home page):

Figures of speech

As unlikely as it sounds, literary scholar Professor Hugh Craig has enhanced his appreciation of Shakespeare through statistical analysis.

Hugh Craig 1

Renaissance literature expert Professor Hugh Craig is a man of letters. But the computational stylist is equally a man of numbers.

Craig is the Director of the Centre for Linguistic and Literary Computing. He has been an advocate of computer-assisted analysis of language in literature since the controversial field began to emerge in the 1980s.

He has devoted decades of research to proving that statistics can help us analyse and appreciate literary texts.

Craig says computational analysis has two applications in the field of literature: it can help authenticate authorship that is unknown or suspected to have been wrongly attributed and it can be used to build a profile of or define a writer’s particular style.

“It is still controversial because people in the literary world don’t like numbers, they don’t trust numbers, and they don’t understand how you can do something as banal as counting things in a literary context,” he says.

“That is why it is fun; because it does challenge people and threaten some people. As you can imagine, I get in some pretty heated discussions.”

Craig’s work is based largely on frequency data and has led to several breakthrough findings in regard to Shakespearean works. Using his computational techniques he found that Shakespeare was the likely author of a number of scenes from the play The Spanish Tragedy that had previously been attributed to the playwright Ben Jonson. The results are presented in his 2009 co-edited book Shakespeare, Computers and the Mystery of Authorship.

He has also established that Shakespeare did not have the wide vocabulary many credited him with. “There was a myth that Shakespeare had an extraordinarily large vocabulary, but our analysis shows that he didn’t. His talent was in the way he used regular, ordinary words,” Craig explains.

“What we did was look at the words he used and the frequency with which he used them and compared that to what other playwrights of the time were doing. Our research showed the difference in vocabulary was not striking.”

Craig’s research builds on the work of the centre’s founder, Emeritus Professor John Burrows, who was the first to establish that simple function words such as “he”, “and”, “but” and “if” were rich in stylistic information when analysed using computational techniques.

In a novel cross-disciplinary exercise, Craig employed the expertise of Professor Pablo Moscato, who heads the University’s bioinformatics program, to assist in the analysis of texts. The pair undertook a joint project comparing the structure of language in Shakespeare’s plays and poems, which returned interesting evidence of a vast disparity in style between the two literary disciplines.

He has also linked with University speech pathology researchers to study how computational linguistics can be applied in the health sphere.

“We are looking at how people’s language changes with ageing but there are other researchers using the techniques to investigate how people’s language changes with the onset of Alzheimer’s. This could in turn lead to early detection if you could find a way to pick up on those changes in language use,” he says.

Craig says computational analysis is not only applicable to the work of great writers. It can be used just as effectively to identify the idiosyncrasies of any individual’s language.

“The miracle of language is that we all make something individual out of a common resource. Computer analysis allows us to detect those word patterns more accurately than simply relying on intuition.”

About Professor Hugh Craig: BA (U Sydney), PhD (Oxford U)

Professor Hugh Craig is Deputy Head of the Faculty of Education and Arts at the University of Newcastle, Australia, and Director of the University’s Centre for Literary and Linguistic Computing, and is involved in a number of collaborations beyond Newcastle in computational stylistics. He is published nationally and internationally. Some of his earlier books are on Sir John Harington and Ben Jonson. His recent publications are on questions of authorship in the Renaissance, especially in relation to Shakespeare, and he is a member of the Authorship Attribution Board for the New Oxford Shakespeare. He is interested broadly in the application of computer science to the humanities, especially via the analysis of large language samples.

Professor Hugh Craig is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. He has been chair of the Busa Award Committee of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organisations and co-chair of the programme committee for the 2014 Australian Association for Digital Humanities biennial conference. In 2015 he was a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the University of Birmingham.

In 2002 Professor Hugh Craig was the inaugural Head, School of Language and Media. In 2005, Professor Hugh Craig became Dean of Arts and the first Head, School of Humanities and Social Science. At the time, this School had around 70 full-time academic staff, operated across two campuses and had 19 disciplines including Social Work and Speech Pathology.


Links to the University of Newcastle home page:

To be continued next posting, “Shakespeare and the Authorship Question: Part 2”


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