To He or Not to He : Computer Narrows Down Claimants to Bard's Throne


After centuries of debate among scholars, gadflies and would-be experts, researchers at Claremont McKenna College say it has taken just three years of computer analysis to come close to figuring out the true author of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets.

It wasn't Christopher Marlowe or Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford, the researchers say.

To their surprise, it could have been Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh, the obscure poet Fulke Greville or even the glover's son from Stratford-on-Avon, the man who has been known as "The Bard" for 400 years.

"Just about everybody in sight has flunked enough tests to be no longer a plausible claimant," said Ward E. Y. Elliott, the political science professor who heads the project.

Using computers to compare such things as often-used words, punctuation and spelling in scores of texts, the researchers say they have eliminated most of the 58 claimants proposed at one time or another as the authors of such masterpieces as "Hamlet," "King Lear" and "The Tempest."

Elliott and his colleagues will present their results at a news conference today.

"It seems to me we're a whale of a lot closer" to establishing Shakespeare's true identity, said Elliott, 52, who confesses that he never took a college course in Shakespeare and didn't read "Hamlet" until he was over 40.

The research has given new credence to three of Shakespeare's contemporaries who have largely been overlooked: Greville, who has never before been named as a claimant, adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh and--"somewhat to our embarrassment," Elliott said--Queen Elizabeth.

The authorship question has burned in academic and literary circles since the late 1700s, when scholars began raising doubts that the mysterious man from Stratford-on-Avon, born 426 years ago Monday, could be the erudite poet and playwright.

The project has accumulated more than 3 million words of Elizabethan literature in data banks, including 884,000 words of Shakespeare. "We've put together what is probably the largest collection of machine-readable Elizabethan texts in the world," Elliott said.

The project is sponsored by the Shakespeare Authorship Roundtable, a Santa Monica-based forum of Bard devotees who meet periodically to discuss the authorship question.

"It's quite clever thinking," Carol Sue Lipman, president of the Roundtable, said about the research.

But Stratfordians, those who hold fast to the notion that "the man from Stratford" was the real Shakespeare, generally dismiss computer tests as ham-handed attempts to translate aesthetic qualities into numerical values.

Debating the Bard's true identity is "absurd," said Robert Faggen, a literature professor at Claremont McKenna. "It's not what people who study and teach literature do," he said.

Louis Marder, a retired University of Illinois professor and editor of the Shakespeare Newsletter, ridiculed the computer's findings.

"Raleigh was never a poet, never a dramatist," he said. "He didn't have the time to sit down to write plays. Greville? He may have written one play, but it certainly wasn't Shakespearean. To say Elizabeth was Shakespeare is like saying George Bush wrote 'The Old Man and the Sea.' You have to have a limit somewhere."

Charlton Ogburn, a leading proponent of the Earl of Oxford as the Bard, also dismissed the computer studies. "It seems to me the way to determine authorship is by taking circumstantial evidence and comparing it with what comes out of the plays," he said from his home in Beaufort, S.C. There is much evidence linking Oxford to both the writing of the plays and to references in them, he contended.

Despite the damaging effects of his own research, even Elliott is convinced that someone other than Shakespeare is the true author.

"There's just a mismatch between what we know about Shakespeare and what we know about the guy who wrote the plays and poetry," said Elliott, who persists in pronouncing the name of the "Avon guy" as SHACK-spear.

The author of the plays, he said, would have had to have detailed knowledge of European geography, falconry, court manners, three or four foreign languages and dozens of other esoteric subjects. He also had a vocabulary of 17,000 words--"twice that of John Milton's," Elliott said.

Nothing in the records indicates that Shakespeare, whose hometown was considered a rustic backwater by 16th-Century Londoners, went to school or even owned books, Elliott said.

Elliott got the idea of using computer techniques after a pair of University of Chicago statisticians used computers in 1985 to determine the authenticity of a newly discovered poem thought to have been written by Shakespeare. Ronald Thisted and Brad Efron compared rare words known to have been used by Shakespeare with words in the newly discovered poem and found a match.

There isn't enough pure Shakespearean poetry--95% of his work is plays--to draw convincing conclusions, said Robert Valenza, a Claremont McKenna computer science professor working on the project. "The test has too much jitter" or inconsistency when applied to small chunks of text, he said.

The project has developed an array of 17 tests to compare Shakespeare's poems with those of his contemporaries in the search for evidence of common authorship. (Few of the claimants were themselves known playwrights, so it was inappropriate to use Shakespeare's plays for comparisons.)

Tests have focused on, among other factors, Shakespeare's use of feminine endings (lines of poetry ending on unstressed syllables), open lines (lines not "tucked in" at the end by some form of punctuation), exclamation marks, compound words and relative clauses.

Clinic computers have measured the frequency with which each appeared in Shakespeare compared to the frequency with which each appeared in the poems of his contemporaries.

The results have varied, with each contender getting either a "pass" or "flunk," Elliott said. Three or four "flunks" out of the nine tests completed so far generally disqualify a claimant, he said.

But the "big" test, Elliott said, was introduced last fall.

Valenza, 38, a Columbia-trained mathematician, devised a way of measuring an unpredictable inner "structure" in chunks of poetry, based on the use of 52 of Shakespeare's favorite words--such unextraordinary words as "about," "lovers" and "secret."

Using methods employed by radar technicians to identify a communications signal in "a typically noisy environment," Valenza explained, he charted word relationships on bar graphs. The result was a consistent "hidden structure" in Shakespeare's poems that was rarely matched in those of his contemporaries.

Elliott and Valenza have circulated their findings among other computer scientists, with largely positive notices, they say.

Harvard statistician Frederick Mosteller, who has done computer analyses of prose works, said he was impressed by Elliott and Valenza's work.

Elliott is not prepared to limit the challengers for Bardship to Raleigh, Greville and Elizabeth. Claimants who never published poems include Mary, Queen of Scots, Anne Hathaway (the Stratford man's wife) and the Earls of Derby and Rutland.

"We've done nothing to prove anyone wrote anything," he said. "But we've gone a long way toward disproving that the strongest claimants have written Shakespeare's poems."

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