Shakespeare and Skeptoid Redux

October 18, 2011

Brian Dunning has dedicated his most recent episode of Skeptoid to the manufactured Shakespeare “authorship controversy.” The last time he discussed Shakespeare, I applauded his conclusions but questioned some of his premises (see here). Again, I find myself in agreement with his conclusion (Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare), but feel the need to quibble with some of his statements.

To begin with, Dunning says that Shakespeare

overcame his ordinary middle-class station and relative lack of formal education to compete with the finest noble playwrights of the day, and trump them all.

Shakespeare denialists claim that Shakespeare had no formal education at all because the records from Stratford’s grammar school do not survive, but Shakespeare scholars point out that Shakespeare would have been eligible to attend the grammar school for free because of his father’s position. If he did indeed attend grammar school, his formal education would have been perfectly adequate. According to Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro,

Scholars have exhaustively reconstructed the curriculum in Elizabethan grammar schools and have shown that what Shakespeare…would have learned there…was roughly equivalent to a university degree today, with a better facility in Latin than that of a typical classics major.” (Contested Will, p. 276)

Dunning’s statement makes it sound as if most of Shakespeare’s colleagues/competitors were noble and university educated. While some did have elevated connections (such as Shakespeare’s collaborator John Fletcher), few if any writers for the public stage held noble titles (this fact is important to Shakespeare denialists). Christopher Marlowe, who was much more famous than Shakespeare during his life, was the son of a shoemaker (Shakespeare’s father was a glover), although Marlowe did receive Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Cambridge. Ben Jonson, who famously said that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek,” was the stepson of a bricklayer and, like Shakespeare, a grammar school boy who never attended university. In other words, Shakespeare’s grammar school education and middle-class origins were not that unusual among playwrights of his time.

In arguing that Shakespeare was not, as Shakespeare denialists claim, illiterate, Dunning says:

There are only seven surviving signatures of his, and oddly, some are spelled differently from one another, and all appear to be nearly illegible scrawls…. The style of writing common in Shakespeare’s time, known as secretary hand, often incorporated breviograms, shortened forms of words. Whether the various spellings of Shakespeare’s signatures are breviograms or the result of illiteracy or simple laziness, can’t be known. It does not prove that Shakespeare the man was different from Shakespeare the author.

Shakespeare did write in secretary hand which can be very difficult to read if one is not used to it. Some of Shakespeare’s signatures probably are intentionally shortened, but Dunning’s suggestion that the variation in spelling is a result of breviograms, illiteracy or laziness is a false dichotomy (trichotomy?). Spelling wasn’t standardized in Shakespeare’s day. He was not the only one who varied the spelling of his name. In Roland Emmerich’s video “proving” that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, he uses Shakespeare’s supposedly poor handwriting and spelling to suggest Shakespeare was nearly illiterate. He compares Shakespeare’s signatures to a single signature each of Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe. Bacon and Jonson were using italic hand, which is more familiar to us, so naturally they appear clearer. Marlowe did use secretary hand, and it’s really not that much clearer than Shakespeare’s. It should also be noted that in this, the only known signature of Marlowe, he spelled his name “Marley.”

Curiously, Dunning mentions seven Shakespeare signatures. Six signatures are generally accepted: one from a legal deposition, two related to the Blackfriars Theater and three from Shakespeare’s will (signed a month before his death). Presumably the seventh signature is the one which appears on a copy of William Lambarde’s Archaionomia. This signature is not universally accepted, but many scholars believe it is likely to be genuine. If it is genuine, it is important because it is in a book, which would mean that Shakespeare denialists could no longer claim that Shakespeare didn’t own any books.

Even more important is Hand D in the handwritten copy of the play Sir Thomas More. Hand D resembles Shakespeare’s signatures and the passage resembles Shakespeare’s style and contains spellings that are typical of him. Hand D is an authorial hand rather than a scribal hand–bits have been crossed out and other bits have been inserted. Again, not all scholars accept that Hand D is Shakespeare, but most agree that it is likely his work and his handwriting. If Hand D is Shakespeare’s handwriting, it destroys the denialists’ argument.

Dunning correctly notes that it is not unusual that no letters have survived in Shakespeare’s hand (though there is one letter to him, written by his future son-in-law, asking to borrow a rather large sum of money. It is not known whether the letter was ever actually sent). Dunning is, however, incorrect in saying that we don’t know very much about Shakespeare. We actually know a fair amount: it’s just not that interesting–most of it concerns business and legal matters. You know, the kind of documents that tend to survive because they are official.

Dunning also incorrectly compares what we know of Shakespeare to what we know of Marlowe:

Marlowe is well-documented largely because he was often in trouble with the law and was also murdered.

It is certainly true that Marlowe had a genius for getting into trouble. It is also true that he was killed. However, most of what we “know” about Marlowe actually raises more questions that it answers. Many things were said about him. How many of those things are true is a bit of a mystery. For instance, in the years after Marlowe’s death, several accounts were given of his death. Some were wrong. Gabriel Harvey suggested that he died of plague; Francis Meres said that he was “stabbed to death by a bawdy servingman, a rival of his in his lewd love” (see here).

In discussing the claims for the Earl of Oxford as the real author, Dunning says,

It’s well known that de Vere’s family did participate in the publication of Shakespeare’s works after his death, called the First Folio.

I was shocked and embarrassed that I did not know this well-known fact. Actually, it appears to be Oxfordian propaganda. The argument is as follows: the First Folio was dedicated to William Herbert, third Earl of Pembroke, and his brother Philip Herbert, first Earl of Montgomery (and later fourth Earl of Pembroke). Montgomery married one of Oxford’s daughters and Pembroke was briefly engaged to another. That’s it. That’s the de Vere family connection. The Herberts came from a very literary family–many members were writers and most were patrons of the arts. One Oxfordian site adds another supposed connection to Oxford:

The First Folio publication was a de Vere family affair with Oxford’s other son-in-law, William Stanley, Earl of Derby, being a highly literary man with his own company of players, quite possibly taking a hand in the preparation of the collected plays of his father-in-law.

That’s clearly just a made-up connection. The Herbert connection isn’t much better. And if Oxford’s sons-in-law (and almost-son-in-law) were behind the publication, why weren’t all the plays in the First Folio based on Oxford’s own handwritten copies instead of the mish-mash of sources the compilers actually used? Denialist propaganda should not be repeated as fact.

Dunning ends by suggesting that new techniques of computational analysis “prove” that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare:

But let us not speculate. It turns out that technology finally did evolve to the point where we’ve been able to conclusively exclude all of these nominees, Edward de Vere the Earl of Oxford included, as having written Shakespeare’s works. Computational stylistics is a branch of computer science in which a “literary fingerprint” can be determined for any author, based on computational analysis of his writing. As detailed in their 2009 book, Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship, professors Arthur Kinney and Hugh Craig proved during their 2006 research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst that Shakespeare was the author of his own works, and nobody else. These computational techniques also made it possible to determine which plays influenced which later authors, and many other subtleties that escape conventional study of the texts. Hollywood movies to the contrary, we now know for a fact that neither de Vere of Oxford nor anyone else deserves credit for William Shakespeare’s life’s work.

First of all, computer analysis is not as cut and dried as Dunning suggests. Scholars have already quibbled with arguments made in some of the articles in the collection edited by Kinney and Craig. Other authors who have used computer analysis to identify Shakespearean works have had to admit errors. Donald W. Foster had argued that Shakespeare wrote a funeral elegy for a man named William Peter (“A Funeral Elegy,” Norton Shakespeare, pp. 3303-3305). He has since admitted that his attribution was premature. The poem may have been written by John Ford. (In a comment on a previous post, I mentioned Foster’s attribution, but was not aware at the time that he had recanted).

More importantly, there is no way such analysis could prove that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. It can very strongly suggest that Christopher Marlowe and Francis Bacon didn’t. But to prove Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, one would have to compare Shakespeare’s disputed works (all of them, from the point of view of denialists) to his acknowledged works (none, again from the point of view of denialists). The argument that the Hand D passage matches the characteristics of the rest of the works attributed to Shakespeare is the strongest argument, but it is hardly conclusive. At least it’s hardly conclusive IF you don’t believe the mountain of documentary evidence that suggests that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. It also doesn’t really eliminate Oxford because many of the works attributed to Oxford are of questionable authorship, and I believe that all of them are considered juvenilia.

Perhaps one of the most frustrating aspect of the episode is that Dunning does not include James Shapiro’s excellent book, Contested Will among his references.



Dawson, Giles E. “A Seventh Signature for Shakespeare.” Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (1992): 72-79.

Dunning, Brian. “Finding Shakespeare.” Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 18 Oct 2011. Web. 18 Oct 2011. <;.

Evans, G. Blakemore, text. ed. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston, Houghton, 1974.

Greenblatt, Stephen, gen. ed. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: Norton, 1997.

Nicholl, Charles. The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. London: Jonathan Cape, 1992.

Shapiro, James. Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.


Science Gone Berserk

May 3, 2011

Not long ago, I wrote about how the History Channel dealt with the Norse warriors known as berserks (spoiler alert–they dealt with it badly). More recently, Brian Dunning mentioned berserks in an episode of Skeptoid on feats of superhuman strength:

Such drugs [as PCP] have also been suggested to explain groups such as the Norse berserkers, a subset of Viking shock troops who fought like enraged wild animals, impervious to pain, and contemptuous of injury. Some researchers have suggested that berserkers may have taken hallucinogenic mushrooms before going into battle, as did Zulu warriors. Another theory states that they may have simply gotten really drunk, but this likely would have resulted in poorer performance in battle. It’s also possible that berserkers simply worked themselves up into a frenzy, and combined with the fight or flight response to the impending battle, did indeed gain heightened physical ability.

Berserks aren’t the focus of the episode, but Dunning covers the all the bases briefly: berserks may have taken magic mushrooms; they may have used another substance, such as alcohol (but probably not); or they may have achieved the frenzy without any mind-altering substances. The idea that berserks may have taken something seems to be pervasive, and the history of the idea is traceable and interesting. To a large extent, it has been scientists who have explored the “magic mushroom” theory. It turns out, when science gets involved in the humanities, science is not always right.

In Dunning’s “References and Further Reading” section, he lists an article called “On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry” by Howard D. Fabing. This article was published in both The Scientific Monthly and The American Journal of Psychiatry in 1956. It is based on a paper Fabing presented at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. According to the author biography included in the article, Fabing was at the time of writing “in private practice of neurology and psychiatry.” Previously,

[he had] taught physiology and neurology at the University of Cincinnati. During World War II he was director of the School of Military Neuropsychiatry in the European Theater of Operations. His research activities have been in the fields of parkinsonism, narcolepsy, epilepsy, wartime blast concussion syndrome, shock therapies, and the neuro-chemistry of mental disorders.

Clearly, Fabing was eminently qualified to discuss neurological and psychiatric disorders. He was perhaps less qualified to discuss medieval Scandinavian history. He doesn’t directly quote a single primary document related to the Viking age, and indeed, it seems clear that he was not immediately familiar with the primary documents (many of which were available in translation in 1956, although often in that “ye olde” variety of English that no one ever spoke). He begins by giving the supposed legendary background of the berserks:

Berserk was a mighty hero in Norse mythology. Legend states that he was the grandson of the mythical eight-handed Starkadder. He was renowned for his consummate bravery and for the fury of his attack in battle. He had twelve sons who were his equals in courage. He never fought in armor but in his ber sark, which means “bearskin” in the Nordic languages. Thus the term berserk became synonymous with reckless courage. (232)

I was not familiar with a hero named Berserk. I have still not found him in any primary text. I have, however, found references to this story in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century re-tellings of Norse legendary material. For instance, the 1910 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica gives the following information under the entry for “berserker:”

[I]n Scandinavian mythology, the name of the twelve sons of the hero Berserk, grandson of the eight-handed Starkadder and Alfhilde. Berserk was famed for the reckless fury with which he fought, always going into battle without armour. By the daughter of of King Swafurlam, whom he had killed, he had twelve sons who were his equal in bravery. In Old Norse berserer thus became synonymous with reckless courage, and was later applied to the bodyguards of several of the Scandinavian heroes.

Starkaðr, usually Anglicized either as Starkad or Starkadder, does appear in various primary texts. There are actually two of Starkads. One or the other or both appear briefly in the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, Heimskringla and a number of sagas. Starkad the Old plays a larger role in chapters 6-8 of Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum (translation available here) and the extremely strange Gautreks saga. Neither Starkad has a grandson named Berserk in any of these works. I suspect that the origin of this story comes from Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (The Saga of Hervor and Heidrek, translation available here). In the versions of Hervarar saga that I have seen, there is no character named Berserk. The berserk father of the twelve berserk sons is named Arngrim, and in most versions Starkad does not seem to be his grandfather. There are, however, several variant texts of the saga. In this short, strange version* of Hervarar saga, called Saga Heiðreks konúngs ens vitra (The Saga of King Heidrek the Wise) Starkad does indeed seem to be Arngrim’s grandfather, and Arngrim is called “Arngrímr berserkr” (Arngrim the berserk).

So, without citing a source, Fabing recounts a garbled version of one variant of one saga. As I said, it is clear he is not familiar with the primary texts and accepts conflated and sometimes inaccurate accounts in secondary sources. Later, he gives a description of berserks that is third-hand (“A vivid description of the behavior of the Viking hoodlums is given by Schübeler, who relied on the renowned Norse historian, Munch” 234). While this description contains a lot of the usual information, it includes symptoms that are less common: “This condition is said to have begun with shivering, chattering of the teeth, and chill in the body, and then the face swelled and changed its color” (234). These sound like medical symptoms, and they fit rather well with some of the symptoms he and other doctors have observed in patients who have taken or been given hallucinogens, but they are not common in the sagas.

Fabing goes on to note that

There is a fascinating theory that Berserksgang…may not have been a psychogenically determined habit pattern, but may rather have been the result of eating toxic mushrooms. This idea, fantastic though it may appear at first glance, has won general acceptance among Scandinavian scholars, according to Larsen. (232)

According to the endnote, this information comes from a personal communication from “H. Larsen, provost, University of Illinois.” The next note identifies him as Henning Larsen. Larsen was a professor of English who is listed as a consultant in the front matter of the Middle English Dictionary. He was also the president of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study. Several articles he wrote are listed in the MLA Bibliography. Still, it would have been nice if Fabing had cited some actual articles or books to show this “general acceptance.” The theory does not seem to be generally accepted among Norse scholars any more.

The reasons it is not widely accepted are clear from Fabing’s article. He notes that the mushroom Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric, has been “used orgiastically” by Siberian tribes. The practice was first described in 1730 (232). Notice that Siberia is not Scandinavia, and the eighteenth-century is not the Viking age. He describes the effects in some detail. Some of these effects fit with the berserker rage: “Prodigious feats of physical strength are reported to have been accomplished under its influence” (232).  Other effects would seem to be detrimental in battle: “Suddenly his eyes dilate, he begins to gesticulate convulsively, converses with persons whom he imagines he sees, sings, and dances” (W. Jochelsen qtd. in Fabing 233). Berserks would not have been effective warriors if they raged about fighting imaginary people.

One man who accidentally poisoned himself with hallucinogenic mushrooms suffered

explosive onset of diarrhea, profuse sweating, excessive salivation and vertigo. He fell asleep and wakened…completely disoriented, irrational and violent…. He did not react to deep pain stimulation, but responded to pinprick. He was disoriented in all three spheres…. He thought that he was in hell and identified the interne, nurses, and attending physicians as Christ, Satan, God or angels (Arthur Drew qtd. in Fabing 233)

Violence and imperviousness to pain fit with descriptions of berserks. Diarrhea, vertigo, disorientation and hallucinations would seem to be drawbacks for a warrior.

As Fabing points out, the theory that berserks used some sort of mind-altering substance originated in 1784 with Samuel Lorenzo Ødman, a Swedish theologian, who read the sagas (or at least some of the fornaldarsögur) and concluded:

I am not of the opinion that these ecstasies can be explained as effects of a peculiar temperament or of autosuggestion because…they were not able to keep up their hated arrogance between paroxyms. (qtd. in Fabing 234. Ellipsis in Fabing)

Now his logic here seems flawed: because the frenzy isn’t essentially permanent, it can’t be auto-suggestion. Obviously, this is not true. One could think of berserker rages as big-boy temper tantrums: awful, but fortunately temporary. Ødman goes on to suggest that berserks used some substance from “the vegetable kingdom,” but that they “kept it secret so that their prestige would not be reduced by the general populace’s knowledge of the simplicity of the technique” (qtd. in Fabing 234). Ah, yes, they kept it secret. That’s convenient. Of course, what isn’t quite being said here is that there is NO EVIDENCE that berserks used any substance to achieve the berserker rage: NO REFERENCES to any ritual consumption of mushrooms or anything else. But if you have a cool theory, there’s no reason you should let a lack of evidence hold you back: you just have to come up with an excuse for why it doesn’t exist.

Lacking any reference to berserks consuming mushrooms, Ødman turns to accounts of the tribes of eastern Siberia and finds corroborating information:

What in particular seems to me to argue for flugswamp [the delightful Swedish name for fly agaric] is the fact that to partake of it is a custom from that part of Asia from which the pagan god Odin, with his pantheon, made their migration to our North. … The history of the Berserks in our North begins with Odin’s coming. (qtd. in Fabing 235)

While it was difficult to identify the source for the story of Berserk, son of Starkadder, this bit of misinformation is easy to identify. In both the Prose Edda and Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson euhemerizes the Norse gods, explaining that they were great men who came to be regarded as gods. He suggests that they originally came from Troy. After Virgil invented a nice history for Rome, many European lands came up with foundation myths centered on Troy. Snorri’s has about as much validity as any of the others (none whatsoever). But Snorri tosses in some completely bogus etymology as well: the gods were called Æsir because they came from Asia. Hector becomes Tror, which becomes Thor. I could go on. These etymologies are false.

So, to summarize Ødman’s argument: it is based on false assumptions; it has to explain away the complete lack of evidence; it relies on “historical” accounts that no one accepts. It doesn’t really look good for the magic mushroom theory.

It didn’t go away though. A century later, it was taken up by a Norwegian physician and botanist, F. C. Schübeler. Schübeler agreed with Ødman about pretty much everything, including the likely secrecy that surrounded the mushroom-eating. He considered other substances, but dismissed them as less likely culprits than fly agaric.

Fabing concludes by discussing his own observations. He had studied bufotenine, the active ingredient in a number of hallucinogenic mushrooms and plants (and toads). He injected healthy, mentally stable prisoners with bufotenine and recorded the results. He concludes that the effects are very similar to the berserker rage, which is odd because rage is noticeably absent from his descriptions. The subjects had hallucinations and their faces became purple, but they also became “relaxed and languid” and “lay contentedly in bed, feeling pleasantly relaxed” (236). These prisoners would make disastrously bad berserks. In addition to being supremely relaxed, they suffered from severely impaired spacial perception, and other side-effects that would again be problematic for a warrior.

The whole magic-mushroom theory is based on cherry-picking certain side effects of hallucinogens (the effects of bufotenine can vary drastically) and certain descriptions of berserks and ignoring the bits that don’t fit. More importantly, it depends on a flawed justification (that it couldn’t be auto-suggestion because the state is temporary) and false history. Oh, and also there is no evidence the berserks used any mind-altering substance to achieve the berserker rage!

*I’m not sure where this version comes from. Very little information is provided. There’s no manuscript reference. Googling the title in Icelandic or English just turns up a lot of hits for Christopher Tolkien’s edition/translation of Hervarar saga. Although he uses the name that is given to this version, this is not the text he is editing and translating.



Fabing, Howard D. “On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry.” The Scientific Monthly 83 (Nov. 1956): 232-237.

King Gautrek. Seven Viking Romances. Tr. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards. London: Penguin, 1985.

Saxo Grammaticus. Gesta Danorum.

Snorri Sturluson. Edda. Tr. and ed. Anthony Faulkes. London: Everyman, 1987.

Snorri Sturluson. Heimskringla or The Lives of the Norse Kings. Ed. Erling Monsen. Tr. Monsen and A. H. Smith. 1932 New York: Dover, 1990.

Shakespeare and Skeptoid

February 8, 2011

In a recent episode of Skeptoid, Brian Dunning answered questions from students around the world. One student, Stephen from California, asked Dunning’s opinion about the Shakespeare authorship question. Briefly, Dunning concludes that “all available evidence supports Shakespeare as a real living author, and the only support for the opposing viewpoint is supposition.” He also notes that the authorship question “may be worthy of its own complete Skeptoid episode.”

I agree with Dunning’s conclusions, and think Shakespeare does warrant an episode to himself. If Dunning does choose to devote an episode to the authorship question, however, I hope he does better research and uses better sources than he did in this episode. The two sources he cites in this episode are from those two great literary heavyweights, Scientific American and*. Why must skeptics appeal to science even when discussing the humanities? The Scientific American article was written by Michael Shermer, who has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology/Biology, a Master’s in Experimental Psychology and a Ph.D. in the History of Science. He also seems to want to make history into a science: “But reasonable doubt should not cost an author his claim, at least not if we treat history as a science instead of as a legal debate.” He was responding to former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens’ use of legalese in making his argument for the Earl of Oxford. But history is neither of these: it is its own field with its own methods and standards for scholarship. It may be messier than science and more open to interpretation, but that is largely unavoidable. It can’t be fixed by trying to make it into a science.

In introducing the article, Dunning says:

Perhaps the most compelling reason to accept Shakespeare as the real author is his unique and recognizable writing style, which does not match that of the authors to which his works have been attributed by doubters. And this is not merely an unreliable, subjective opinion: It’s backed by hard science.

Again there is a suggestion that the humanities are only trustworthy when science is involved. Of course science can be a useful tool in literary studies. In this case, literary scholars used computational stylistics to detect Shakespeare’s hand in various works. That is to say, they used a computer program to compare Shakespeare’s diction, syntax, etc. to other writers from the period. For instance, a scholar would look at a work whose authorship is disputed and use the computer program to compare it to works by many different authors. The frequency with which certain typical features of a certain author appear in the disputed work suggests a likely attribution.

Obviously, a computer can sift through a huge amount of data at great speed. Still, it builds on work done for years by literary scholars who have painstakingly studied the language and usage of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. In addition, it is wildly optimistic to assume that such computer analyses will actually settle many questions. Someone else is bound to say, “Oh yeah, well my computer program said Shakespeare wrote this unattributed play.” Indeed, some of the conclusions drawn by the group headed by Arthur F. Kinney, director of the Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies at UMass Amherst, have already been questioned.  Kinney, for example, claims in the article cited by Dunning: “I have now proven that Shakespeare is part-author of Arden of Faversham. They guessed that in the 19th century but no one would believe it in the 20th century. Now we know.” He makes this argument at greater length in Shakespeare, Computers and the Mystery of Authorship. Sir Brian Vickers, however, has argued, based on his own computer analysis of the play, that Thomas Kyd is the sole author.**

Based on the thumbnail descriptions of studies in the article, some of the conclusions just seem…odd. For instance, in regard to the play Sir Thomas More, we learn that

Timothy Watt at last proved that Hand D in the manuscript of a play called The Book of Sir Thomas More is Shakespeare’s own handwriting and so extends examples of his writing past the seven signatures which alone have been attributed to him.

In the first place, there are only six signatures that are more or less universally regarded as genuinely Shakespearean (I assume the seventh refers to a copy of William Lambarde’s Archaionomia. If that signature were considered genuine, it would prove that Shakespeare did indeed own at least one book. Although a number of eminent scholars have accepted the signature as likely genuine, the attribution is still in question). Moreover, how could a computer program that evaluates authors’ styles conclude that the passage was in Shakespeare’s handwriting? It seems, based on the article in Computers, Shakespeare and the Mystery of Authorship, that Watt concluded that Shakespeare was the author of the Hand D passage. At the end of the article, Watt argues that “[s]ince the nature of the manuscript indicates an author at work–correcting and amending along the way–rather than a scribe making a fair copy,” if Shakespeare is the author of the passage, it logically must be in his hand. In other words, the handwriting isn’t being used as evidence of Shakespeare’s authorship; Shakespeare’s authorship is used as evidence of his handwriting. At any rate, the study has not quelled questions about Sir Thomas More.

Another assertion in the article concerns one of Shakespeare’s putative sources:

Kevin Petersen noted that although people think Shakespeare was influenced by Montaigne’s skepticism in his work from Richard II through Hamlet to The Tempest, and was the source of his skepticism in parts of many of his plays, in fact there is no indication of any Montaigne – in French or in the popular English translation.

This article did not make it into the book, so it is hard to judge. It is possible that the brief description misrepresents the argument, but, as stated, it just doesn’t make sense. In the first place, while many of Montaigne’s essays have been suggested as sources for Shakespeare, very few of them are widely accepted. Many of the most compelling arguments for Montaigne’s influence on Shakespeare concern The Tempest. In 1781, Edward Cappel suggested that Gonzalo’s “commonwealth” speech in Act 2, scene 1 of The Tempest very closely resembles a passage in John Florio’s 1603 translation of Montaigne’s “Of the Cannibals:”

I’ th’ commonwealth I would, by contraries,
Execute all things, for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty–
Seb.                                       Yet he would be king on’t.
Ant.  The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.
Gon.  All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour. Treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth
Of it own kind all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
Seb.  No marrying ‘mong his subjects?
Ant.  None, man, all idle–whores and knaves.
Gon.  I would with such perfection govern, sir,
T’ excel the golden age.  (2.1.145-66)

Here is Montaigne’s description of life among the Brazilian cannibals:

It is a nation…that hath no kind of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate nor of politic superiority, no use of service, of riches or of poverty, no contracts, no successions, no dividences, no occupation but idle, no respect of kindred but common, no apparel but natural, no manuring of lands, no use of wine, corn or metal. The very words that import lying, falsehood, treason, dissimulation, covetousness, envy, detraction, and pardon were never heard of amongst them. (“Of the Cannibals,” Bk 1, ch. 30 of The Essays by Michel de Montaigne, tr. by John Florio. Included in Orgel’s ed. of The Tempest, pp. 230-31)

No one claims that Shakespeare got his ideas for Gonzalo’s commonwealth from Montaigne–they were not original to Montaigne. It is the way those ideas are expressed: primarily in negatives. Neither Montaigne nor Shakespeare describes his Utopia in terms of what it is or what it has, but rather of what it is not and what it doesn’t have. In addition, many of the details are the same. And you do not need a computer program to point out the verbal parallels. Indeed, if a computer were to tell me that the verbal parallels did not exist, I’m afraid I would have to disbelieve it.

Computational stylistics is a useful tool, but it is naive to think that science can definitively answer questions that literary studies have failed to answer.  It can lend credence to arguments that Shakespeare had a hand in a particular work (or that a collaborator had a hand in a work generally attributed to Shakespeare alone), and it can question other attributions. It is less useful in the argument that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. A particular disputed work, such as Arden of Faversham or Sir Thomas More, can be compared to Shakespeare’s acknowledged works, but when the entire corpus is disputed, to what can we compare it? One of the anti-Shakespeareans’ main arguments is that we have no works that can be definitively attributed to Shakespeare (this is not true, of course, but that’s the argument). Admittedly, we can compare “Shakespeare’s” works to those by Oxford, Bacon and Marlowe, but, with the exception of Marlowe, none of the main candidates wrote in the genres for which Shakespeare is known, which makes comparison more difficult. Not impossible, of course. Many idiosyncrasies are likely to be the same, regardless if the poet is writing drama or lyric poetry, but it’s certainly not going to be good enough to satisfy Oxfordians (not that anything is).


*This article is taken word for word from a press release from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

**I have not yet read this article (I have ordered it from Inter-Library Loan), so I am basing my interpretation of it on second-hand accounts.

Further Reading:

Craig, Hugh and Arthur F. Kinney, eds. Shakespeare, Computers and the Mystery of Authorship. Cambridge UP, 2009.

Hodgen, Margaret. “Montaigne and Shakespeare Again,” Huntington Library Quarterly 16 (1952-53): 23-42.

Montaigne, Michel de. “Of the Cannibals.” The Essays. Tr. John Florio. 1603. Included in Orgel’s ed. of The Tempest, pp. 227-238).

Paster, Gail Kern. “Montaigne, Dido, and The Tempest: ‘How Came that Widow in?’” Shakespeare Quarterly 35 (1984): 91-94.

Prosser, Elaine. “Shakespeare, Montaigne, and the Rarer Action,” Shakespeare Studies 1 (1965): 261-64.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. Ed. Stephen Orgel. Oxford World’s Classics. Oxford UP, 1987.

Vickers, Brian. “Thomas Kyd, Secret Sharer.” Times Literary Supplement 18 Apr. 2008: 13-15.