x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Literary fingerprints

Stylometry, a scientific technique to prove authorship by analysing the frequency with which certain words are used, has been applied to Shakespeare but has never and perhaps will never put the debate over the bard to rest.

Believed to be the only authentic image of Shakespeare made during his lifetime, this painting was unveiled last week by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in London.
Believed to be the only authentic image of Shakespeare made during his lifetime, this painting was unveiled last week by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in London.

As a backdrop to one of Shakespeare's most dramatic plays, the spectacular Al Jahili Fort in Al Ain could hardly be bettered. But as the audience take their seats on Friday for the national premiere of Richard III: An Arab Tragedy, they may well wonder what liberties the director-translator Sulayman al Bassam has taken with the 400-year-old English text. They need not worry: even during Shakespeare's time, six different versions of Richard III were in circulation, and even today scholars argue over which - if any - is the definitive version. Some claim that all but one are pirated versions cobbled together by actors from memory. Others insist they are all revisions penned by the Bard of Avon himself.

Nor is Richard III unique among Shakespeare's plays in coming in a variety of "editions". There are two versions of King Lear, two of Hamlet (each with its own version of the famous soliloquy "To be, or not to be"), and three versions of Henry V. The so-called Bad Quarto controversy is just one of many surrounding the works of the former actor from a small English town who became arguably the world's most celebrated dramatist. At their core is the mystery of how such a man could have such creative reach, from the light comedy of Twelfth Night to the psychodramas of Othello.

For many, the answer is simple: Shakespeare was a genius in the mould of the lowly salesman's son who devised the Theory of Relativity. But others insist that Shakespeare lacked the education, connections and breeding needed to pen such sophisticated works. Instead, they insist "Shakespeare" must be a pseudonym for someone with far more impressive credentials. Over the years, more than 50 claimants to the title of the "true" Bard of Avon have been put forward, ranging from minor aristocrats to, bizarrely, Queen Elizabeth I. And for decades the conspiracy theorists have battled it out with "Bardolators" who insist Shakespeare wrote nothing but works of unparalleled brilliance.

In the search for more light and less heat, literary scholars are turning to stylometry, a scientific technique for identifying the literary "fingerprint" of writers. Its origins date back more than 150 years, to the suggestion by the Victorian mathematician Augustus de Morgan that authors' styles might be reflected in how frequently they used certain words. In 1901 an American physicist named Thomas Mendenhall took up de Morgan's idea to investigate the long-standing claim that the works of Shakespeare had been penned by the Elizabethan polymath Sir Francis Bacon.

By comparing word frequencies, Mendenhall dealt a blow to the conspiracy theorists: Bacon's writing style was quite unlike that of Shakespeare - whoever he was. But this pioneering study also showed that stylometry needed serious data crunching power to detect subtle quirks among the oeuvre of authors - which in the case of Shakespeare amounted to over 800,000 words. Cheap computing power and advances in pattern recognition techniques have now led to a surge of interest in stylometry, with intriguing results for Shakespeare scholars. Using traditional methods such as comparisons of imagery, scholars have long suspected that several of Shakespeare's plays are the product of collaborations with his contemporaries. These suspicions have now won support from stylometric analysis, which suggests that both Macbeth and Timon of Athens include contributions from Shakespeare's contemporary Thomas Middleton, and that Henry VIII may be a collaboration between the Bard and his young acolyte John Fletcher.

Stylometric analysis also suggests that the standard Complete Works of Shakespeare should be expanding to include at least one extra play: The Two Noble Kinsmen, which appears to be another collaboration between Shakespeare and Fletcher. So far, stylometry has uncovered little support for conspiracy theorists who insist Shakespeare was just too provincial to create works of genius. It has, however, found hints of a link between his early career and that of his enigmatic contemporary Christopher Marlowe.

As the creator of such dark works as Dr Faustus and The Massacre at Paris, Marlowe is widely regarded as the foremost Elizabethan dramatist before Shakespeare. But by the time young Will was making the transition from actor to playwright, Marlowe had moved on to other things - including espionage, which led to his death in sinister circumstances in 1593. Some conspiracy theorists have claimed Marlowe faked his death and continued to write under the pseudonym of Shakespeare. Stylometric studies have found no evidence to back such claims, but analysis of some of Shakespeare's earliest plays - notably the historical trilogy Henry VI and the notoriously violent Titus Andronicus - has found something odd about them. They do not fit the Bard's usual literary "fingerprint", being apparently diluted with substantial traces of the style of Marlowe.

It is a finding that ties in with long-standing suspicions that Shakespeare started out by amending scripts left by Marlowe. Contemporary documents suggest it was a practice that attracted the attention of his contemporaries, one of whom accused him of being an upstart actor padding out their working scripts for his profit. While some of his contemporaries may have been irked by such sharp practice, these stylometric results paint a picture of an ambitious man determined to excel. It is an image backed by recent research on the Bad Quartos, which suggests they are indeed revisions made by Shakespeare, seemingly never content with his efforts.

Next month a 400-year old portrait of Shakespeare will go on public display for the first time. It is thought to show the Bard at the end of his career around 1610, shortly before he retired from London and returned to his birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon. While the noble face it depicts may indeed show Shakespeare the man, our deepest insights into his genius may well emerge from the cold, calculating power of the computer.

Richard III: An Arab Tragedy will also be performed on March 29 and 30 at the Abud Dhabi Cultural Foundation.