The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 22.0236  Monday, 19 September 2011


From:         Ward Elliott <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         September 14, 2011 3:01:27 PM EDT

Subject:      RE: Thomas Woodstock


We have been meaning to say something short about the recent Judgment of Thomas, Egan v. Elliott and Valenza, and have put online our longer brief and supporting documents (See References, below).  The short version is this:  years ago we offered a thousand-pound bet that no one can come up with an untested non-Shakespeare play that will pass as a Shakespeare “could-be” by our computer tests.  The offer still stands (our brief, 3, our 2004, 363-65). No one has ever taken us up on it. But Michael Egan, who has written a four-volume, 2,000-page study of Thomas of Woodstock, has thrice offered his own thousand-pound counterbet, that an appointed panel of experts would rule that he has presented clear, convincing, and irrefutable evidence that the play, though wildly improbable by our tests, is Shakespeare’s. Each time, after an initially conciliatory effort to get a mutually agreed-on hearing body and procedures, Egan disavowed his own terms and stormed out, denouncing us for our supposed contumacy, cowardice, and bad faith.  The last time, however, the empanelment and briefing processes had gone too far to undo.  Larry Weiss, a retired Wall Street lawyer and Shakespeare buff, had set up a panel with two other SHAKSPERians, Dale Johnson and Will Sharpe, gotten everyone’s agreement on rules of engagement, and secured briefs and supporting materials from both sides.  The panel regretted Egan’s withdrawal, but went ahead and considered the case on the merits.  In August, the panel ruled unanimously in our favor. 


I.   Why it is unlikely that Shakespeare wrote Woodstock


In the five years since publication, Egan’s book has not changed many minds.  We know of only one person besides him who takes his position seriously.  The world’s three leading authorities on Woodstock, David Lake, MacDonald Jackson, and A.P. Rossiter, have roundly rejected it.  We thought that Egan’s case was more remarkable for its girth and assertiveness than for the strength or coherence of its evidence, and we said so in our brief.  He hadn’t shown any external evidence that Woodstock was Shakespeare’s.  He hadn’t shown that his 1,500 supposedly unique Shakespeare resemblances were, in fact, unique. The ones we checked were not.  He hadn’t explained any of our scores of indicators of gross stylistic discrepancy with Shakespeare, nor the scores of indicators in Woodstock identified by Lake and Jackson, that it belongs to the seventeenth century, not the sixteenth, as Egan and some others wrongly suppose.  If there were “borrowings” between Woodstock and Richard II (1595), and Woodstock was written years after R2, it seems unlikely that the earlier play borrowed from the later.   


“Everyone,” said Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”  Woodstock was a case where the stylometric facts seemed to us all too obvious.  We have encountered some close calls, but Woodstock was not one of them.  We had taken scores of measurements of Shakespeare’s most countable, consistent, and distinctive stylistic quirks, most of them not hard to understand.  One of these was the word ye.  Shakespeare used it sparingly, about four times in a play on average, rarely more than 20, never more than 30.  If Shakespeare were Cinderella, his ye slipper would run on the dainty side, around size four or five, never above seven.  Whoever wrote Woodstock was not at all sparing when it comes to ye’s.  He used 231 of them in just one play, almost twice as many as can be found in all of our 29-play core Shakespeare baseline.  That’s not dainty.  A better word would be “outsized” or “supersized,” more in the range of basketball giant Shaquille O’Neal’s size 23.  O’Neal is a big guy, seven feet, one inch tall, weighs 325 pounds, and neither he nor many of his stats are hard to distinguish from Cinderella.


What was true of ye’s was also true of 61 other tests.  We have taken Shakespeare’s measure in 152 tests.  In 62 of these, Woodstock fell outside Shakespeare’s range.  That means we found 24 more Shakespeare rejections in Woodstock alone than we found in our entire corpus of 29 single-authored, core-Shakespeare plays combined. The odds that Shakespeare would produce that much discrepancy from his own norms by chance in just one play are lower than the odds of getting hit by lightning. 


Tables 1 and 2 of our brief gave our stylometric case in a nutshell.  Table 1 (pp. 13-14) applied 48 of our old, 1994 Shakespeare Clinic tests to four plays:

  • Richard III, our earliest Shakespeare baseline play;
  • Henry VI, Part II, possibly co-authored and not in our baseline, but the most Shakespeare-like of our non-baseline plays by our tests;
  • two versions of Woodstock, Egan’s and A.P. Rossiter’s; and
  • Samuel Rowley’s When You See Me You Know Me (1605). MacDonald Jackson considers Rowley to be Woodstock’s most likely author. 

Bottom line for old tests:  R3 had no Shakespeare rejections in 48 tests; 2H6 had just three; the two versions of Woodstock had 18 and 17, respectively, and See Me had nine. No Shakespeare baseline play had more than two rejections.  No play not by Shakespeare had fewer than eight rejections.  Woodstock, with 17-18 rejections, fell firmly into the not-Shakespeare territory, and we said so years ago on SHAKSPER, http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2005/1953.html. Egan at the time called us “fake” and “phony” and ridiculed our procedures as “flim-flam,” but he has never explained the gross Shakespeare discrepancy revealed by our old tests.


That is not all. Our Shakespeare clinic reconvened in 2010, developed 104 new tests, and tried them on the same four plays (and on 22 new, previously untested plays, any one of which, had it passed, could have won the student who prepared it a thousand pounds.  None of them came close.)  The new-test results for R3, 2H6, Woodstock, and See Me are recorded in Table 2 of our brief, pp. 17-18:  two new rejections each for R3 and 2H6, 44 new rejections for Woodstock, 43 for See Me. Once again, the two early Shakespeare plays showed very low Shakespeare discrepancy, but both Woodstock and See Me were in a different statistical galaxy.  As in the first round of tests, the odds of such discrepancy occurring by chance are lower than those for getting hit by lightning.  Egan again denounced the process as a “hatchet job,” but he has made no more effort to respond to the new evidence than to the old. 


In sum, it seemed to us that Egan’s massive case, though cocksure in its talk of irrefutable proof, loops, whorls, and fingerprints, was mostly wishful thinking and evasive of the real issues.  In 2,000 pages, as mentioned earlier, he produced no external evidence of Shakespeare authorship and failed to prove that his 1,500 “unique parallels” were unique. He never seriously addressed the two sets of devastating counter-evidence – Jackson’s and Lake’s that Woodstock’s language and meters are un-Shakespearean and a decade later than R2’s, and ours, that its scores of gross stylometric discrepancies with Shakespeare make it look much more like Shaq O’Neal than like the Cinderella of Egan’s imagination.  Not every authorship dispute is settled on the merits, but this case seemed to us a tough one for Egan to make on the merits, and we were not surprised by the panel’s unanimous verdict that he had failed to do so.


2.  Why we are grateful to the Woodstock Panel and to Hardy Cook for hosting the controversy and facilitating its solution


We are grateful to Larry Weiss and the panel for months of putting up with Egan’s bluster, demands, and changes of mood, and for plowing their way through hundreds of his pages, which have been described by his most enthusiastic reviewer as a “reader’s nightmare.”  They have performed beyond the call of duty in the cause of examining and settling an authorship dispute that has occasioned scores of pages of controversy on SHAKSPER.


We are also grateful to Hardy Cook for providing in SHAKSPER a forum for such debates as this one.  SHAKSPER, itself a major innovation, has been a uniquely fertile resource for circulating, testing, and recording innovations like ours. None of this discussion, not the panel, not the judgment, not the Egan bets that led up to it, nor the original Elliott-Valenza bet that Egan sought to commandeer, nor most of the background information we submitted to the panel, would have ever taken place without SHAKSPER (our timeline, 1). Our Golden Ear project, which skipped Woodstock but has cast new light on other authorship controversies, would never have gotten off the ground without the help of Hardy and SHAKSPER’s membership. 


3. Whether bets and hearings are good ways to settle authorship disputes


It’s important to remember that we have not come to Shakespeare through regular channels; that nobody regards us, our methods, or our bet as orthodox; and that offbeat approaches like ours would never have been tolerated in most mainstream American English departments.  Yet we have made many, many Shakespeare discoveries that the regular channels would have been much slower to produce, and they have held up remarkably well under intense, adversary scrutiny.  We have been trying for many years to acquaint Shakespeare regulars with our New-Optics stylometric methods most fully described in our 2004 and 2008.  These seem to us in many ways an improvement over traditional methods. We supposed, and we still suppose, that anyone who cares about Shakespeare authorship should know something about them.


But getting them across to Shakespeare regulars was not easy. We picked a time when the Author was dead, and authorship studies were grossly out of style with American insiders – doubly so, if they were of Shakespeare, the deadest of Dead White Males, and the one with the largest, most impassioned fan-base of amateur authorship buffs, many of them with insistent, undeserving claims – and triply so if they use quantitative, stylometric, computerized evidence like ours, which many lit department regulars deplore and distrust.  Our work offended all three of these taboos, and, though several top scholarly journals did publish our work, we often had to face circled wagons and impassioned blockers, more bent on denouncing it and excluding it than on heeding or even reading it. We took five years of flack from Donald Foster, who promised us a whacking if we published our findings doubting his Funeral Elegy ascription. When we did, he appointed himself a gatekeeper-bouncer to block our further access to orthodox outlets (our 2002). He enjoyed some fleeting, ill-gotten success at this, and he only let up when his own case for the Elegy collapsed (his 2002).  We turned to less formal, more open outlets, such as The Shakespeare Newsletter and SHAKSPER, and found that SHAKSPER, too, had its own obstructive, self-appointed gatekeepers.


One of these, Hockey Fan, provoked our original bet.  He sternly and repeatedly warned us to keep our stick on the ice and leave all our quantitative evidence out of the game.  As far as he was concerned, all statistics were circular, misleading, and useless for telling you anything that you do not already know – oddly, because in the real world sports nuts (unlike lit nuts) are also stats nuts, obsessively studying the odds so they can play them to their side’s advantage.  We had to decide whether Canada’s 50-year failure to win the Olympics was a damning indictment of quantitative analysis (we thought not, and it isn’t), and whether the Ducks and the Devils, playing for the Stanley Cup that same evening would use the stifling, statistically-predictable neutral-zone trap (we thought so, we offered a $25 bet on it, and they did). 


We also offered Hockey Fan, and anyone else so inclined, a $1,000 bet that he couldn’t find a new, untested, other-authored play that would pass our Shakespeare tests – nor (if he could find one) a new, untested, single-authored Shakespeare play that would fail our tests. The idea was to settle the question on the facts, like a horse race, not on opinion, like a beauty pageant, and it worked.  Hockey Fan declined the bet and stopped obstructing us. We have since raised the bet to £1,000, to discourage frivolous takers, and enjoyed many years of fruitful, unobstructed discussion with SHAKSPER’s members with a minimum of recreational squabbling (see our 2004, 363-65). 


The wager tactic was not so calming for Egan. He had no interest in our terms and was eager to substitute his own, better suited for marketing his then-forthcoming Woodstock book, than for testing the predictive powers of our methods.  He was slow to disclose, then quick to disavow and block access to the hundreds of pages already posted on his pre-publication Woodstock web site. He demanded a blue-ribbon panel to read his seven-pound, $400 treatise in toto and discuss it “for as long as it needs to (our timeline, 2-12).”  We offered him a month of discussion and debate, with SHAKSPER’s entire membership as judges, brief opening and closing statements, no limits on supplemental postings on his website or ours, and no requirements for anyone to buy his book, or read any more of it than they thought necessary to make an informed judgment of it. You don’t have to drink the whole gallon to tell whether the milk is bad. He found these terms intolerably restrictive, upbraided Elliott as “a fake and phoney [sic],” denounced the process as “just so much flim-flam,” and resigned in a huff.  “The bet,” he said, “has been called off and the matter is now closed (our timeline, 10).” 


But it wasn’t.  Every time we have mentioned our bet since, he has stridently resurrected his, made an initial show of seeking and accepting rules of engagement, but stormed out whenever threatened with an actual decision.  We are grateful to Larry Weiss and the panel for forging ahead and giving him the detailed attention and judgment he has so long and insistently demanded. 


Like many of our other methods our bet was improvised, offbeat, and experimental, as well as serviceable, and it raises some questions.  Mathematicians do have a clever gambler’s-choice exercise to clarify the true odds of drawing an ace, but no one else that we know has tried a bet to settle an authorship dispute. Was this one worth it?  Can anything be learned from it?  Will it actually produce closure?  Is there any place for bets in authorship debates?  Can they help settle questions of fact?  Opinion?  Wouldn’t any consensus they might achieve evaporate whenever new, contrary evidence of sufficient weight is found?  If so, would it be any better or worse than what has happened through conventional channels with, say, the Funeral Elegy, where the stronger evidence eventually did carry the day?  Do bets actually reduce transaction costs, or help sharpen and define differences which are otherwise diffuse?  Is settling such differences with bets more of a hassle than with other methods? Is there any advantage to getting disputes settled, or is it always best to leave every question open and let the discussion run on indefinitely?  Is anyone entitled to his own facts?  Is there any place for other dispute-resolution techniques, such as trials, hearings, arbitrations, votes, or appeals to consensus?  What is gained and what is lost by using such adversary processes?  Would we be better off with designated gatekeepers to preclear new methods or conclusions before they can be considered worthy of discussion?  Do we need to create an index viarum prohibitarum?  In an era underinvested in author-detection methodology, how many authorship questions are actually settled on the merits?  To what extent do beliefs, opinions, alliances, taboos, turf, analogies, market forces, rank, or inertia, more than direct evidence, do the settling? Do any or all of these serve useful functions?  What would have happened with the present dispute without the bet or the hearing?  Would we have been any better or worse off?  Would splitting the difference, a common enough practice in property disputes, have been an appropriate outcome for this dispute?  For others like it?  We could see some interesting discussions of these and other questions on SHAKSPER, might supplement them with a survey, and suspect that we might learn something from the process.


Our own belief is that people are not entitled to their own facts, that squabbles over facts need not go on forever, that fact-based bets like ours can and have cut transaction costs, and that whatever closure ours has produced has been a good thing.  Whether the same is so for opinion-based bets like Egan’s is not so clear.  It took a lot of effort and trouble to get closure, though much of it is admittedly specific to Egan, and it remains to be seen how much closure it will actually produce.  We don’t see this as an issue where splitting the difference or prolonging the discussion indefinitely would have been very helpful.  On the other hand, we certainly don’t advocate designated gatekeepers. Most of the self-appointed ones we have encountered sought to close the gate on methods like ours, often sight-unread, yet have offered nothing better.  The U.S. is still woefully underinvested in authorship analysis, and some authorship questions have gotten decided other than on the merits.  But merits do matter and, more often than not, they do prevail in the end.  We think they have in this case. We salute and thank Larry Weiss and his panel for making it so.



Ward Elliott and Robert J. Valenza




Elliott-Valenza brief: http://www.cmc.edu/pages/faculty/welliott/E&V%20brief%20211.htm


Elliott Timeline: http://www.cmc.edu/pages/faculty/welliott/Elliott%20Wager%20timeline%20111.htm


Larry Weiss opinion, Egan v. Elliott: http://shaksper.net/documents/doc_download/274-egan-v-elliott


See also SHAKSPER threads, Woodstock, Shakespeare by the Numbers, 1 Richard 2, Wager, or  Lions and Tigers and Wagers...oh my...


Egan, M., ed. (2006). The Tragedy of Richard II: A Newly Authenticated Play by William Shakespeare. 4 volumes. Lewiston, NY, Edwin Mellen Press.


Elliott, W. E. Y., and R.J.Valenza (2008). “Shakespeare by Ear: What Can Intuition Tell Us About What He Wrote?” The Shakespeare Newsletter 57(Winter 2007/08): 99-117.



Elliott, W. E. Y. and R.J. Valenza (2004).  “Oxford by the Numbers: What are the Odds that the Earl of Oxford Could Have Written Shakespeare’s Poems and Plays?” Tennessee Law Review 72 (1): 323-454. http://govt.claremontmckenna.edu/welliott/UTConference/Oxford_by_Numbers.pdf


Elliott, W. E. Y. and R.J. Valenza (2002) “So Many Hardballs, So Few of them Over the Plate: Conclusions from our ‘Debate’ with Donald Foster.” Computers and the Humanities 36: 455 (November, 2002) http://www.cmc.edu/pages/faculty/welliott/Hardballshort.htm


Foster, D. W. and R. Abrams (2002). “Abrams and Foster on ‘A Funeral Elegy’” http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2002/1484.html.


Jackson, M.P.  (2010). “Some Comments on Michael Egan’s ‘Slurs, Nasal Rhymes and Amputations: A Reply to MacDonald P. Jackson” The Oxfordian 12.


Jackson, M. P. (2007). “The Date and Authorship of Thomas of Woodstock: Evidence and its Interpretation.” Research Opportunities in Medieval and Renaissance Drama 46: 67-100.


Jackson, M. P. (2001). “Shakespeare’s Richard II and the Anonymous Thomas of Woodstock.” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 14: 17-65.


Lake, D. J. (1983). “Three Seventeenth-Century Revisions: Thomas of Woodstock, The Jew of Malta, and Faustus B.” Notes and Queries 228: 133-143.


Rossiter, A. P., Ed. (1946). Woodstock: A Moral History. London, Chatto and Windus.



SHAKSPER: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List

Hardy M. Cook, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The SHAKSPER Web Site <http://shaksper.net>


DONATION: Consider making a donation to support SHAKSPER: shaksper.net.


DISCLAIMER: Although SHAKSPER is a moderated discussion list, the opinions expressed on it are the sole property of the poster, and the editor assumes no responsibility for them.


Subscribe to Our Feeds


Make a Gift to SHAKSPER

Consider making a gift to support SHAKSPER.