Shakespeare and the computer: a whodunnit
Up until about three weeks ago, nothing seemed more unlikely than the addition of another play to the Shakespeare canon. But now, owing to the findings of Professor Thomas Merriam and his computer, such an addition looms as a real possibility in the case of "sir Thomas More."Skip to next paragraph
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Did Shakespeare write it?
If legitimate, the question is the most important one that could be asked about any work.
Computer or no computer, no one will ever know for sure in this case -- barring the unlikely finding of outside confirmation -- and the critics may safely be expected to argue about the problem for at least a century. (And a mere hundred years is really a conservative estimate, as Shakespeare controversies go.)
The real question, instead, is: Will the Merriam computer's finding be accepted by the scholarly establishment as good evidence, and will "Sir Thomas More" therefore win a place in future editions of Shakespeare's works?
We already know, I think, that the answer is yes.
First of all, Merriam's method already enjoys guarded respect by literary scholars. Its evidence was accepted in the case of Shakespeare's authorship of "Titus Andronicus" by the editors of that play's New Variorum Edition. ("Titus, " however, was already canonical -- if shakily -- and "Sir Thomas More" is not.)
Second, critics have for the most part been friendly to "Sir Thomas More" during the 20th century on aesthetic grounds. Few have ever given Shakespeare over 150 lines of the play, as there was no evidence that he deserved greater attribution. But most knowledgeable readers have held it to be a pretty good play by Elizabethan standards.
Before Merriam, the play was thought by experts to be a cut-and-paste job by one major author and three or four revisers. Shakespeare was thought -- on the basis of handwritting -- to be the author of one or two speeches. But Merriam now claims that the multiple handwriting is not an important consideration -- that it was scribal work, not creative work, even though some men known to have been palywrights did it.
So, unless we get proof of fallacy in Merriam or his machine, the expert's consensus will probably be that the computer's analysis of 41 "unconscious signatures" of authorial syntax captures the better part of the argument.
If, then, Shakespeare is to be credited with "Sir Thomas More" (or with most of it, anyway), the next question is bound to be: So what?
That is, does this play -- which few living people have ever read in its entirety, and which no one (to my knowledge) has ever seen on the stage -- tell us anything new and important about the greatest of English poets and his work?
Here again, I answer yes. For it happens that "Sir Thomas More" gives us a hero unlike any other in the drama of the English Renaissance.
If this hero is Shakespeare's, then we learn that Shakespeare was trying at a very early point in his career (1593, according to Merriam) to do something supremely difficult. He was attempting to create a hero made up of two traits which dramatists have always had trouble in gluing togetehr successfully: high honor and continual mirth. And he succeeded.
The More of this play is the realized apotheosis of those two qualities made one. (There is no ready label for the resulting amalgam.) If he is Shakespeare's apotheosis -- even granting that the real Thomas More's blending of the two traits gave the dramatist a clear "source" prototype for the character -- then Shakespeare has once and for all rebutted his harshest critic, George Bernard Shaw.
GBS, to put it as mildly as possible, hated Shakespeare. He once snarled that Shakespeare "wrote for the theater because. . . he understood nothing and believed nothing. . . . Thirty-six big plays in five blank verse acts, and. . . not a single hero! Only one man in them all who believes in life, enjoys life, thinks life worth living. . . ; and that man -- Falstaff!"