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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: November ::
Lions and Tigers and Wagers...oh my...
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1933  Wednesday, 23 November 2005

From: 		William Davis <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 22 Nov 2005 14:29:32 -0500
Subject: 	Lions and Tigers and Wagers...oh my...

Now that the dust has apparently settled from earlier discussions about 
Dr. Elliott's near-wager with Dr. Egan, I wanted to follow up with a few 
questions that have been mulling about my brain these last few weeks 
about stylometry, and more specifically, about Dr. Elliott's specific 
body of research.  Dr. Elliott, if you're still out there, I would 
appreciate your thoughts.

As I've looked through the information available about the stylistic 
markers in Dr. Elliott's tests, I can't help but notice how some of 
these stylistic characteristics evolve from Shakespeare's early plays to 
the mid and late plays.  I assume this would be expected of a writer who 
is constantly undergoing shifts in style over the course of a career, so 
this doesn't present itself as a problem.  But in light of the Dr. 
Elliott's wager, and how the measuring stick for his test is a 
collection of data representing Shakespeare's "core" plays, plays that 
appear to be written mostly at the height of Shakespeare's career, I do 
have a few thoughts that come to mind.

To begin, I personally think that stylometry has a place in Shakespeare 
studies and that its value has been underestimated.  But at the same 
time I am very hesitant to endow it as a be-all, end-all solution to the 
attribution questions.  I think the scope of possibilities still extend 
well beyond the data that has been defined as a gold-standard measuring 
stick to identify Shakespearean and non-Shakespearean works, and I feel 
that we have a long way to go before we can make final pronouncements on 
the legitimacy or illegitimacy of a text of unknown authorship based on 
stylometry alone.  In my own simple way of thinking, here is one 
possible scenario to explain why:

Let's imagine for a moment that one of the local Stratford farmers is 
plowing through a field, and he stumbles across the cornerstone of an 
old building.  And as he moves the cornerstone, he finds a box full of 
materials which turns out to be a time capsule of sorts, assembled by 
the people who lived in Stratford during Shakespeare's lifetime.  In 
fact, this particular time capsule is dedicated to the students of 
Stratford, and inside the box are several manuscripts that contain 
samples of student work.  The scholars are notified and they scour the 
manuscripts, looking for evidence of Shakespeare, but they find nothing 
conclusive.  However, there is a play in the pile of papers that doesn't 
have a title page, and no one knows who the author is.  The style, of 
course, is immature and certainly not a masterpiece---but nevertheless, 
some of the scholars feel that it shows potential, and others even feel 
that it might be one of Shakespeare's earliest plays.  Now my question 
is simply this:  if this manuscript were actually a play written by 
Shakespeare as a young boy, could the current stylometric measuring 
stick be able to accurately identify this text as a Category One Gem?

In my mind, I am not certain that the current test could do this, and 
these are just a few of my reasons:  to begin, it's well known that 
Christopher Marlowe's writing had a significant influence on 
Shakespeare's style.  And it also appears that a few other writers in 
the London scene, to one extent or another, had an influence on 
Shakespeare, as well.  But what did Shakespeare's writing look like 
before he had absorbed those stylistic influences?  How many of the 
stylometric markers can be attributed to Shakespeare's post-London 
arrival, and how many of them predate his entrance into the professional 
scene?  We may never know.  But the trouble I have is the thought of 
taking a measuring stick that is based on the plays that Shakespeare 
wrote as a well-developed writer, and then applying that measuring stick 
to a play that might be something he wrote very early in his career (or 
even "pre-career"), and then making final pronouncements as to whether 
or not it might be legitimate.  (How many of us would readily believe 
that our own subconscious style of writing had altered very little from 
our ABC days?)  In other words, if we use Dr. Elliott's test, an early 
Shakespeare play could appear to be---according to Dr. Elliott's 
descriptions---a Category Two play, or even a Category Three or Four 
play (no pun intended), even though the manuscript might actually be a 
pure gold, Category-Immature-One play.  I don't think it's inappropriate 
to suggest that the London writers, along with the whole London scene, 
had a heavy influence on Shakespeare and his writing style.  And I think 
it's probably safe to assume that his writing patterns and his personal 
style experienced some significant and dramatic changes (ok, pun now 
intended)---particularly in the early transitional years of the London 
experience.  To complicate matters further, given his status as a new 
writer, I think it would be safe to assume that in the very beginning he 
would have had relatively few opportunities to actually write entire 
plays by himself, but in the course of paying his dues I believe he 
would have been involved in several collaborative works---all of which 
would have influenced his writing characteristics, both consciously and 
unconsciously.

So I guess some of my questions fall along these lines:  if I use Dr. 
Elliott's test to try and identify a Category One play of Shakespeare's, 
will it only work if it's a play that was written during the height of 
Shakespeare's career?  Or will it work if applied to anything 
Shakespeare wrote at any point in his lifetime?  If so, are we certain 
we can accomplish this, even if we don't have writing samples from his 
earliest years to build a core test for those time periods?  At what 
point do we start to be certain?  Are there cut off dates?  Will the 
test accurately identify Shakespeare's work in grammar school? 
Post-grammar school life in Stratford?  The Unknown Years?  His earliest 
years in London, before he had a chance to absorb the styles of Marlowe, 
Kyd, Peele, et al?  In other words, is it possible that in the process 
of refining the stylometric data that we have today, the information 
might only support a test that could identify Shakespeare's writing 
within a specific window of time, and potentially disqualify those works 
that were written in the fringes of Shakespeare's career and the suburbs 
of his style?  If not, how do we know, and how can we be sure?

Genuinely interested and non-combatively so,
William Davis

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