A play by another name smells as sweet

"I'm 90 percent sure that Shakespeare wrote "The Books of Sir Thomas More.' . . . Overall, the play was his." In a nation where the accepted canon of Shakespearean plays is almost as sacrosanct as "the Book of common Prayer," those are fighting words.

But Thomas Merriam, a lecturer in history at Basingstoke Technical College and a distinctly unpugnacious man, seeks no quarrel. He is simply convinced that the handwritten manuscript of a play now in the British Museum is not by anthony Munday or Thomas Dekker or Henry Chettle (playwrights whose handwriting appears in the manuscript) but by the bard himself.

As he relaxes his Lincolnesque frame in his modest kitchen, he explains his latest piece of detective work: a computer- assisted study of literary "fingerprinting" showing an uncanny resemblance between the manuscript's style and Shakespeare's own.

It is one of his few moments to relax. Since the Observer front-paged his discovery June 6 -- before he himself had time to publish it in a scholarly journal -- the world's press has flocked to this market town to see whether a Harvard-educated American really can tell a hawk from a handsaw or is simply making much ado about nothing.

His method, based on the stylometric analysis developed by Dr. Andrew Morton of the University of Edinburgh, studies the unconscious stylistic habits of an author -- the way in which commonplace word combinations appear in characteristic usages.

Ignoring Shakespeare's great and powerful images -- to the acute distaste of traditional literary critics -- Mr. Merriam hones in on the humblest aspects of his style. He searches for the use of "and" or "but" as the first word of a sentence, for example.

His premise, supported by others working in linguistics, is that a poet gives little thought to such trivial constructions. They therefore provide the most genuine markers of individual style, uninfluenced either by contemporary literary conventions or by the particular thing the poet is trying to say.

Not surprisingly, in a land where Shakespearean scholarship attains rigorous standards, Mr. Merriam's discovery has come under sharp criticism. some lump him into the same tub as those who think Shakespeare was the 17th Earl of Oxford or that Francis Bacon wrote his mightiest lines.

Others complain that he has compared the manuscript to those plays in the Shakespeare canon -- like Pericles and Titus Andronicus -- whose authorship is not indisputable.

And still others, worried that a play of such indifferent quality as "The Books" would blot the bard's reputation, continue to hold that people, not computers, are the best judges of literature.

Mr. Merriam admits that his findings constitute only a "working paper." For, in the age-old English tradition of back-shed inventors and garret hobbyists, he has done his work in his spare time, on a small college computer and a hand-held calculator, with no research funds. "I can't even get into the Reading University library," he says.

He now awaits further confirmation from Dr. Morton's computer. After that, he will seek a publisher -- no easy task in this cross-disciplinary venture. Literary scholars and editors, he says, "are by tradition and inclination inclined to be skeptical of any mathematization of literature."

"On the other hand," he adds, "you have the statisticians who know very little about Shakespeare."

But the quiet-spoken Mr. Merriam, while fielding calls from Oxford dons and Canadian radio networks, seems ready to let his challengers bear the burden of proving him wrong. Having been catapulted into public prominence, he may well share a more than-computerized response to the lines that Shakespeare (?) put in Sir Thomas More's mouth:

"More rest enjoys the subject meanly bred, than he that bears, the kingdom in his head."

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