Friday, October 28, 2016

New Oxford Shakespeare adds Marlowe as co-writer

Christopher Marlowe, 1564-1593
by Linda Theil

Oxford University Press raised a storm of major media coverage this week with the announcement that their new edition of Shakespeare’s complete works credits Christopher Marlowe as co-writer on Shakespeare's Henry VI plays. OUP editor Gary Taylor and others have recently devoted themselves to the notion of Shakespearean “collaboration”, but this is the first time that an academic publisher has broken the authorship taboo by admitting there may be unanswered questions about the origin of Shakespeare’s works.

Taylor, a staunch Stratfordian, doesn't realize that an emphasis on Shakespearean “collaboration” invites investigation of the entire Shakespeare authorship question by validating the search for authentic attribution. 

Oberon asked Dr. Ros Barber -- who wrote her 2012 doctoral dissertation and her award-winning novelThe Marlowe Paperson the topic of Marlowe writing Shakespeare -- what she made of the news from Oxford.

Oberon: Did you know this was coming?

Barber: No, not in such a formal manner regarding co-author attributions in the new Oxford Shakespeare. But I've been aware of some of the work that led up to it -- Craig & Kinney's work on Henry VI Part 2, John Nance's follow-on work. In addition, some of my own and Peter Farey's research on specific Kentish knowledge in Part 2 which I wrote up in Shakespeare: The Evidence is suggestive of Marlowe's authorship. 

Part 1 has long been considered co-authored (since the nineteenth century), but several hands have been suggested -- not just Marlowe but Kyd and Nash. Possibly Peele. Have they been written out of the equation? It is too patchy a play to be solely a Marlowe-Shakespeare project, especially when put up against Parts 2 and 3 (both of which were written earlier, scholars think). Part 3 was more of a surprise, and I haven't yet seen the underlying scholarship for giving Marlowe a co-authorship attribution on this play, but since Parts 2 and 3 are stylistically very similar and they were published very much as a pair, that doesn't feel very surprising.

Oberon: Do  you feel vindicated?

Barber: Certain scholars deciding that Marlowe co-authored three Shakespeare plays is not the same -- as I'm sure they would point out! -- as entertaining the idea that Marlowe might be the chief author of the Shakespeare canon. It's good that it raises Marlowe's profile and highlights his importance to the Shakespeare 'project' -- if I can call it that. It emphasises how close Marlowe's style is to 'early Shakespeare' -- something that other scholars have noted but not formalised with an attribution, generally explaining away (parallelisms, for example) as 'influence'.

But Gary Taylor et al are suggesting their methodologies can tell the difference between the hand of Marlowe and the hand of Shakespeare-influenced-by-Marlowe. If this were so, it would put paid to any wider authorship claims for Marlowe. However, nearly all the stylometric methodologies I've investigated are unconvincing:
  • They do not conform to proper scientific (or statistical) methods. 
  • They do not take into account, for example, the purpose of a particular scene (a court scene, for example, will have more formal language than a scene involving 'commoners').
  • They do not take into account genre when setting baseline standards (lumping the Shakespeare canon into one, rather than breaking it out into histories, comedies etc).
  • They do not consider that we have no 'clean' text that has not passed through several hands (including scribes).
  • And most important of all, they do not consider the fact that a single writer's style and word usage changes over time. 

Consider this from Peter Farey:

Suppose that there are two bodies of work, one which we will ascribe to playwright A and the other playwright B. 
We work out that the frequency with which they each use the words 'most' and 'then' differs greatly. In fact, if we add up the total for both words in a play by either of them and find what percentage of them are 'most' we can be fairly sure that:
* if it's less than 40%, it's by playwright A
* if it's more than 40%, it's by playwright B
(In fact this works for all of A's 21 plays bar one, and all of B's 16 except two. You would need to get a bit more complicated to get 100% in each case!)
Now let’s imagine that we have a play where we suspect collaboration between the two playwrights. We find that Acts 1 & 2 are well below 40% (so probably playwright A) and Acts 3 & 5 well above (playwright B). Act 4 is more doubtful at 43%. 
So does this tell us anything at all about whether the two playwrights are different people? No. In fact playwright A is Shakespeare before 1600, and playwright B is Shakespeare after 1600. And Twelfth Night (1601?) was the play in question, if you were wondering. 
What we can see, therefore, is that to claim that this tells us they were different people is circular reasoning. If you start with an assumption that they are two different people, and take no account of time, then it’s hardly surprising that this is just what the figures will seem to show.
Oberon: Are you surprised Gary Taylor was involved?

Barber: Not at all. He has been at the forefront of the co-authorship movement for many years. However, his attempts to gift 200 lines of Macbeth to Thomas Middleton, and give Middleton credit for parts of Measure for Measure have been entirely dismantled by other scholars, and I imagine the Marlowe attribution will be ripe for dismantling too.

Oberon: How does this data fit into your thesis?

Barber: It isn't data so much as an argument around that data, and that argument is entirely disconnected from my PhD thesis, which was looking at the relationship between Early Modern biography (Shakespeare and Marlowe biographies in particular) and fiction. I did mention in passing the fact that certain early Shakespeare plays (including the Henry VI trilogy) were sometimes attributed to Marlowe right up until 1920, and the similarity of 'early Shakespeare' stylistically to Marlowe. But the work of Gary Taylor et al is claiming they can distinguish between the two. 

Oberon: Do you plan to write about this?

Barber: When the underlying research is published, I'll take a good look at it and decide from there. 

Oberon: Are you excited, or is this not as important as we, here, think it is?

Barber: I have seriously mixed feelings about it (as you can probably tell). I need to drill down into the underlying research before make up my mind one way or another.  As you can tell, I don't have a lot of faith in stylometry, and I suspect that reducing Marlowe to co-author on three early and minor plays will be seen as destructive to the theory of his wider involvement. This announcement is important just because of the amount of press interest it has generated, but unfortunately that can have the detrimental effect of cementing something as 'true' that is actually unproven or even false. And I'm always against that, no matter what the subject area.

We are grateful to Dr. Barber for sharing her insight with us at Oberon. We also thank Richard Waugaman, PhD and Elizabeth Waugaman for their assistance with this article.

Additional information:

New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition: The Complete Works edited by Gary Taylor, et al, will to be published Dec. 27, 2016.

Download Ros Barber thesis, "Writing Marlowe as Writing Shakespeare" from the British Library EThOS system at
EThOS registration is free.

Media reports on OUP announcement:

Peter Farey citation: "Stylometrics and Edward II by Peter Farey" The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection weblog, Sept. 18, 2014.

Note: Because this article includes a written interview, we have left the authentic British spellings in place, Ed.

UPDATE 11/4/16: "How Statistics Solved a 175-Year-Old Mystery About Alexander Hamilton" by Ben Christopher, published Oct. 31, 2016 on the Priceonomics website, is an excellent explanation of the statistical methods used to determine the Marlowe attribution of the Shakespeare Henry VI plays. Well worth reading!