The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1348 Friday, 19 August 2005
Date: Friday, August 19, 2005 2:08 AM
Isn't SHAKSPER remarkable? It inspired our original bet offer to
counter a correspondent's continuous-loop argument that statistics can
tell us nothing we don't already know. It inspired Michael Egan to make
a counter-wager, grounded on his "irrefutable" evidence that Woodstock
is Shakespeare's. The idea was, if we didn't refute his evidence apart
from our damning stylometric evidence, we would owe him a thousand
pounds. Then it inspired, as it should have, discussion among SHAKSPER
correspondents as to who would judge the bet - Portia? And what would
be the standard of proof? Finally, when we had not gotten around to a
prompt response, it inspired Mr. Egan, who had previously called us
"pale, trembling cowards" and concluded from our "deafening silence"
that we must therefore owe him a thousand pounds, to drop his insistence
on the wager altogether, "take the contention out of the mix, and return
to a friendly exchange of views." What's not to like?
Valenza, my co-author, has been out of town, but I have been working on
a statement, making two points: (1) Mr. Egan was not accepting our bet
on our terms; he was offering a new bet on his terms. And (2) his terms
changed the bet to one like a horse-race, where the winner is clear-cut
and easy to tell objectively, to one more like a beauty contest. The
winner, if any, is in the eye of the beholder. Much standardless
haggling is called for to choose a judge, jury, and rules, and the
transaction costs can run far, far higher than our horse-race wager,
with less assurance of leading to a clear resolution of the dispute.
Limitless, standardless wrangling is not my idea of fun, nor my idea of
productive use of my time. Cutting down on it was the idea of the
original bet, where our critic had offered a testable, falsifiable
proposition, and our bet offered a clear-cut way to testing it. When we
put it in those terms, he backed off and went on to other things.
It's not all that hard to tell which plays are considered clearly
Shakespeare's, which are not, and which are debatable. Most ascription
calls are easy and unchallenged, and therefore suitable for verifying or
falsifying our test methods; a few are not. Five categories come to
mind. Category 1, Core Shakespeare, typified by Hamlet, would be the 29
or so plays that are considered pure-gold Shakespeare. Category 2, the
Shakespeare Dubitanda, typified by Two Noble Kinsmen, would encompass
another ten or twelve plays. These co-authored plays are in the Canon,
not as pure gold, but as alloys. Category 3, the Shakespeare Apocrypha,
consists of a dozen or two plays for which someone, sometime, has argued
a Shakespeare ascription. Some are more apocryphal than others;
Woodstock would probably be in most people's second or third dozen, not
their first. It is not even mentioned among the "plays excluded" from
Wells and Taylor's Textual Companion to the Oxford Shakespeare. The
important point for now is that opinion on it is at best divided.
Woodstock plainly does not yet belong in undisputed Category one
territory with Hamlet. Category 4 is 3-400 plays typified, let's say,
by Beaumont's The Gentleman Usher or John Phillips' Patient Grissel.
Nobody thinks that Shakespeare wrote any of these. If Shakespeare is
gold, all these plays are slag. Category 5 would be Lost Gold,
Cardenio, say, or Love's Labor's Won, as-yet-undiscovered pure or
co-authored Shakespeare plays which could turn up in someone's attic at
any minute, but haven't done so for 400 years.
Many scholarly prospectors have claimed to strike previously
misidentified Gold in a Category 3 work, and a few have staked a claim
in a Category 4 work. Often, as in the Gold Rush days, these claims
would be accompanied by proclamations that their evidence is
irrefutable. But how many decades -- or is it centuries? -- has it been
since such a claim has yielded anything but Fool's Gold? Remember Donald
Foster's Funeral Elegy that couldn't be by anyone but Shakespeare? Many
were ready to believe him at the time, but they turned out to be
completely wrong, and so did he. Such momentary flurries aside, the
consensus has changed remarkably little since the time of E.K. Chambers
75 years ago, and not always for the better.
Years ago, our Shakespeare Clinic students managed to test all available
Category 1, 2, and 3 plays, plus about a quarter of Category 4. Of
course, neither they nor anyone else could test a Category 5 plays
because these were and are undiscovered by definition. To win the first
part of our bet, that the bettor could not find an untested Shakespeare
play that our tests would reject, would require the discovery of a new,
Category 5 Shakespeare play, something that hasn't happened for 400
years. We were not holding our breaths for such an occurrence, and said
so, but didn't want to rule it out. But it would not be hard at all to
pick one of the untested Category 4 plays, such as Patient Grissel, to
falsify or verify our tests. There are scores or hundreds of such plays
to choose from. But that hardly means it would be easy to win the bet
against us. We had already tested a quarter or so of available Category
4 plays. Another half were written by authors we had already tested.
If an author's traits and ranges are similar from one work to another
-and our tests have shown abundantly that they are - we didn't have to
test all 39 of Ben Jonson's plays to guess that he was not Shakespeare.
The last quarter of Category 4 is untested plays by untested authors.
Some numerophobe who really wanted to win our bet would soon realize
that he couldn't do it by picking one out on a hunch, taking a puff on
his Gauloise, and sending it off to us or a third party to test, with
the red-faced loser to pay a thousand pounds. If he were serious, he
would use statistics more aggressively than hunches. He would probably
start with the last quarter of Category 4, pick out the most promising
by hunch, screen them statistically with our software, which we would
happily supply, and, only if he found one which passed the tests, accept
the bet, fling the play in our red faces and claim the thousand pounds.
This would require more work than we think is really needed for plays
like Patient Grissel, picked-over remnants chosen from the very bottom
of the slag heap, but we would not mind giving someone else the
incentive to give it a try. If they failed, it would be a credit to our
tests, and to the wisdom of scholarly consensus in relegating such plays
to the slag heap. If they succeeded, they might bring to light the Lost
Gold play that every Shakespeare lover dreams of discovering when lights
The most important part is not how confident we or even our critics
might be in the accuracy our tests on untested plays, but the fact that
our rules are so cut-and-dried that you could easily tell who won, who
lost, and by how much. Our bet is bettable like a horse race, not
debatable like a beauty contest. It is no accident that millions of
people bet on horse faces and nobody bets on beauty contests, nor even
on jury trials, though both of these have winners and losers. Bettors
generally prefer contests where the outcome is something more than a
matter of opinion.
Mr. Egan's counterbet, as we understand it, runs something like this:
"Pale, trembling coward! Prove my irrefutable beauty-contest evidence
[that Woodstock is as pure-gold Shakespeare as Hamlet] is wrong, or fork
over the thousand pounds!" Woodstock, in our view, is anything but an
untested Category 4 "other" play, far less an untested Category 5
"dreamed-of lost gold" play, the two categories at issue in our original
bet. Instead, it's a tested and flunked Category 3-minus "Apocypha"
play which he thinks should be promoted to Category 1, despite what
seems to us very strong evidence that it is not by Shakespeare. We
haven't read all of yesterday's new version of his previous, 169-page
website, but we have read the old one, the one he didn't want people to
see prematurely, and we don't think it came close to making the strong
case he claims. Nor do we think the case he did make had much to do
with our bet. He argues, in effect, "Forget the fact that my horse
finished one from the bottom in your Category 3 sweepstakes (Apocrypha).
Forget that even the Number One Category 3 play, Sir Thomas More,
finished out of the running, many laps behind the last Category 1 play,
The Tempest. We are not talking of horses here. We are talking about
Cinderella, and here's my irrefutable proof that I have found her: I've
found 1,600 points of unique resemblance between her and Woodstock.
Whoever wrote Woodstock walks like Cinderella, talks like Cinderella,
shows not only that unique smile, that unique twinkle, those unique
1,600 points of light that only Cinderella could have, but the very DNA
of her discourse, the very loops and whorls of her literary thumbprint!
I would know her DNA anywhere. Only a very undiscerning and possibly
unscrupulous person would think it made a lick of difference that her
shoe size is 14, her blood type is wrong, she's ten years too young, and
she only speaks Uzbek."
Gold scams have fallen from fashion in the real world these days, but
other get-rich-quick proposals still abound. Does anyone on SHAKSPER
ever respond to those letters from Nigeria offering you a cut of General
Abubakar's multimillion-dollar private hoard if you'll just help the
contact close an export deal? We don't, even though we haven't sought,
far less found irrefutable evidence that the letter is a scam. We did
not find Mr. Egan's evidence persuasive enough, nor related enough to
our own bet, to warrant a lengthy detour from what's left of our summer
project analyzing scenes from Pericles, Titus Andronicus, Two Noble
Kinsmen, and Henry VIII. Mr. Egan's mountains of supposedly unique
"borrowings," "echoes," and "verbal parallels," his bold talk of
irrefutability, DNA, and thumbprints, his unconcern with contrary
evidence, even his jeers at doubters, savored too much of other
prospectors we have previously encountered, aggressively marketing their
Fool's Gold as the real thing. To us, the apparent focus on weak,
untestable positives, and the non-focus on strong, testable negatives,
threatened a return to the limitless, standardless wrangling we try to
On the other hand, authorship does matter. Woodstock is obviously not a
frivolity, far less a scam, to Mr. Egan, who has worked on it for years,
given it the new, more Shakespearean name of Richard II, Part I,
published a four-volume book on it with a respectable press, and is
every bit as sure that Shakespeare wrote it as the Baconians are that
Bacon wrote Hamlet. Hope springs eternal, and we are sure that some
SHAKSPER members will find his evidence persuasive, or at least think
that his claim might be watered down to some less resounding, less
easily refuted, level than the one he now presents. Maybe it's just
partly Shakespeare's. Some might think that he really is taking us up
on our bet, as he claims, and that our "deafening silence" should be
read as a tacit admission that we think he is right and we are wrong.
He isn't, and we don't. We've gotten a lot of mileage out of our bet,
don't want to get into a situation where we don't dare show our faces on
SHAKSPER, and certainly don't want people to think that we are pale,
trembling cowards - at least I don't. Valenza's indifference to such
things runs deep, but he is not the one who keeps SHAKSPER's membership
in touch with our work.
So, rather than rejecting Mr. Egan's bet outright, I tried to think of
some ways that we might accept it, but try to make it a short detour,
rather than a long one, and less likely to require two thousand pounds
worth of haggling and wrangling to settle a one-thousand pound wager.
Obviously, his dispute couldn't be settled simply by running the race
and seeing which horse wins, so I thought we should start by setting up
an adjudicatory mechanism with agreed-on rules and procedures designed
to get the evidence presented fairly, but not interminably, and a
verdict on it arrived at promptly. The highlights of my draft proposal
were these: There should be a judge and jury, perhaps Hardy and a panel
of three authorship grand masters, or -- more likely, since Mr. Egan is
deeply at odds with two of my favorite grand masters -- Hardy and the
entire existing membership of SHAKSPER. There should rules of debate,
starting with setting the burden of proof, as Larry Weiss suggests.
Given Mr. Egan's own claim of irrefutability, the heavy burden of
overhead his bet would impose, and the vast gulf between what we offered
and what he purports to accept, his burden should not be light. After
all, he is not just claiming that Woodstock is more Shakespearean than
it looks, and that parts of it might well be by Shakespeare. He is
claiming that it belongs beyond question in Category 1 and is as purely
and irrefutably Shakespeare's as Hamlet -- and that, therefore, we owe
him a thousand pounds. If so, he should prove it beyond a reasonable
doubt before he collects his money. The question before the House
should be: "Resolved, that Woodstock/Richard II, Part I is as purely
and irrefutably Shakespeare's as Hamlet."
I also thought of simple rules of presentation. There should be a judge,
such as Hardy, to settle further procedural questions, and there should
be short, 6-page opening and closing statements by both sides, ample
discussion by SHAKSPER members in between, a one-month time limit, and a
simple-majority vote by SHAKSPER's voting membership as to whether Mr.
Egan has made his case, to be completed no later than the end of
September, to keep it from dragging on. Both sides could make longer
cases on webpages. Both sides, besides depositing thousand-pound
cashier's checks with the judge, would also send 500-pound deposits, to
be payable by the loser, to compensate the judge and any panelists for
their time and trouble and not treat their time like a free good. If
this sounds a bit hung up on procedural technicalities, it might be
because teaching public law as a political scientist is my day job, and
I am more sensitized to the time costs of litigation and adjudication
than most of SHAKSPER's Lit Department correspondents. If we should
ever again consider taking up such a high-overhead bet as Mr. Egan's, we
would probably want some such a set of rules and procedures to get both
sides' arguments and evidence fairly heard, and the question fairly and
promptly decided, and with proper compensation to the adjudicators. We
might also wish to raise the ante substantially to compensate for the
extra overhead involved, which far exceeds that of our own bet.
As it happens, my draft proposal has been overtaken by events. Before
posting, I checked it with Hardy. He was not eager to take on all the
due process, and he also had concerns about SHAKSPER becoming a party to
internet gambling. So did his Advisory Board, and I cannot blame them.
Could it be that they, too, thought that it was too much fuss to make
for what is most likely another of those letters from Nigeria? At the
same time, Mr. Egan himself offered to drop his insistence on the bet to
entice me and MacDonald Jackson into the discussion. That's fine with
me; it's our bet that I care about, not his.
My inclination is to invite him to post a 6-page statement of the
highlights of his case, respond with a 6-page statement of our own, let
the list discuss it, and, if people want it, ask the list for a straw
vote at the end of September. At a minimum, it would get the views aired
without requiring any money-changing in the Temple. It would give Mr.
Egan his say and his book some buzz. It would get the list in on the
discussion. It would give SHAKSPER a faceoff between two
well-developed, sharply contrasting ways of dealing with internal
evidence - Mr. Egan's smoking guns and our silver bullets. With the
straw poll, it would actually have an outcome of sorts, which Mr. Egan
clearly wants, and I want too because it would give both sides a much
better sense of how heavy a burden of proof we have to bear with
SHAKSPER's memberships. Others may have a different view, and prefer to
leave the dispute unresolved, like so many others on SHAKSPER. They
should be heard from, too.
In the meantime, our wager in its original form is still very much alive
and on offer, and could still easily be settled with a far lower burden
of adjudicatory overhead, simply by running the horses and seeing how
they finish. It now appears that, if any adjudication should be needed
for our bet, it probably would not come from SHAKSPER and would have to
be arranged between the parties. But so, too, we would guess, would the
tests themselves, which any serious prospective takers would want to use
before accepting, and which we would be happy to supply.
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