3. What Authorship Question: Shakespeare? Who? Homer?

Stylometry: using maths to interpret English! No, this is not science fiction. Sacrilege? They’re doing it to Shakespeare. It’s been done to his works for a while. It’s being taken seriously. No, this is not horror. Pythagoras reduced music to numbers you might say, but I would contend that Pythagoras rose numbers to art.

So, what’s my issue? Even before statistics became involved the works of Shakespeare were being questioned as the product of one mind, one pen. These different minds were recognized for their differences in style of writing.

“Oh, this bit isn’t by Shakespeare, it’s too droll.”

“Droll? It’s doggerel!”

“He only helped out with that bit and that bit.”

Computers can only prognosticate when data and calculations are given to them. So how do the Stylometricians discern which part is by Shakespeare and which parts are there for the ride? It’s subjective.

“Only the best bits are by the Bard!”

“He was a genius after all.”

I have a problem with that too. Over the course of your writing career, your style will change. You will experiment with different voices as you are exposed to them. You will change your voice depending on the form of writing you are communicating with e.g., letter writing, poetry, playwriting, short story or novel writing. With practice you will hone your own style and you will improve. So if the completed works of Shakespeare are actually complete, then his juvenilia must be represented.

How do stylometricians choose their standard, “true” extract with which to compare all other sections of his works? How do they discern between his evolving style and that of the works of other playwrights with whom he is said to have collaborated? Can an entire play be chosen as a touchstone? Is there a certain world-view or mindset that runs through his works that underpins them as the work of one writer? I think there is.

Here’s an hypothetical experiment. Like all experiments it has limiting parameters. Imagine that Shakespeare wrote only plays. Imagine that you have only read his comedies. How would you sum up his women? Witty, intelligent, feisty and living within the framework of their patriarchal society. Portia (Merchant of Venice) and Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing) are brighter than the men around them but they subject themselves to the social mores of patriarchy. Shakespeare could then be said to believe that women were men’s equal in intelligence and wit but perhaps not interested in assuming the authoritarian role of men in society. Just to look at the comedies it could be said that for Shakespeare, women’s chief concerns were falling in love and getting married.

Now imagine that your Shakespeare-loving friend had read none of his plays outside of the English Histories. Your friend could be forgiven for understanding Shakespeare to have had a much shallower understanding of women. The women of the English History plays are presented two-dimensionally as prizes and ornaments e.g., Katherine (Henry V); foils, Lady Anne (Richard III) and Blanch (King John); and adjititors e.g., Constance and Elinor (King John). His women rarely portray more than one emotion or have more than one drive. In the case of Anne, in Richard III, her transition from hate to love is a showcase of Richard’s ability to persuade, but forces any actress attempting the role to scour her personal emotion memory for the triggers to making the transformation real. Your friend may say that Shakespeare just didn’t understand nor value women. Had he been able to, wouldn’t he have done something more with Eleanor of Acquitaine (King John) and Joan of Arc (Henry VI part 1)? He treats the first as a shrew and the second as a fighting machine.Place Saint-Augustin (Portrait)

Now your other friend has read nothing but his tragedies. Now s/he would be the silent one in the interrogation. The first observation would be that, generally speaking, Shakespeare doesn’t take us on emotional journeys and soul-searching with his female characters. In fact, at best he offers us their crisis e.g., Ophelia (Hamlet) and leaves us to question. Whereas, Hamlet, reveals to us every inch of his labyrinthine emotional landscape. Lady Macbeth goes from Femme Fatale to psychologically unhinged without a spoken process. But then there is Juliet (Romeo and Juliet) and Cordelia (King Lear) who are more well-rounded, more self-aware. For a female to read the tragedies, she has to treat the lead as an every-person because Shakespeare of the tragedies rarely sees women as persons.15_Verona.jpg

There are of course exceptions to all of these sweeping generalisations. It is these exceptions that I would look closely at to find a different mind or different form of theatre being presented e.g., The Taming of the Shrew, Kate is outwitted by Petruchio but the shallow rendering of the characters begs to question whether this play was written as an English attempt at Commedia Dell’arte.

To compare The Taming of the Shrew with Twelfth Night is a real eye-opener. How differently they deal with female identity and human relationships! Here he tackles sexual identity and personhood head on. Could the same writer have written Joan de Pucelle?

My argument over the last two posts has been that an author exposes his/herself by her/his mind-set. For Homer, the problem lies in the humanity he treats his soldiers with, in his almost personal account of the Trojan War, in The Iliad, as compared with the almost, nonchalance he treats the sailors with in The Odyssey. In Dr Who we have an interesting collaborative environment that follows the world view prescribed by a shepherding producer. Interestingly enough, when the previous shepherd, Russell T. Davies, was replaced with the current, Steven Moffat, his replacement was from within the flock. However the stories changed in atmosphere and preoccupation. For Shakespeare, I argue that there is a different mindset that characterises most of the comedies from most of the histories, particularly the English Histories, and perhaps the tragedies have a third or fourth mind in tow. The crux of my arguement is that Stylometry isn’t able to detect a different mindset nor the nuances of a developing mind expressed in finished works on paper. Could more than one person have written the plays of Shakespeare? How were they created if collaboratively? And if they were created in a group environment, how is it that no one spilt the beans?

Photo Credits

Joan de Pucelle (Joan of Arc)

Photo credit: Djof / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Juliet

Photo credit: Tomato Geezer / Foter / CC BY-ND

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