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."

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!"

Very few people have ever agreed with or given much credence to Shaw's blistering criticism -- even a man of Shaw's stature is dwarfed next to Shakespeare. Yet buried underneath his rage in this passage there lies a point. For elsewhere in Shakespeare, as elsewhere in the Renaissance drama, you do not find sustained portrayals of strong heroes who combine a dual commitment to honor and to Joie de vivre.m

Most characters in Shakespeare are not heroic at all. Of those who are, none can be heroic and mirthful at once for over a very few lines.

But Sir Thomas More is the embodiment of honor and merriment combined; and he uses both traits (they are really hard-earned achievementsm ) for the furtherance of order.

For us today, it can seem paradoxical that Renaisance writers could create such passionate poetry on the subject of order. Order can seem a most uninspiring idea to us. The paradox's secret is that people are always most passionate about that which they most fear to lose. Order, to Renaissance people, meant cosmos, and the antonym of cosmos is chaos. They worried much over losing the shaky bit of cosmos which at times was theirs, for they did not want its only alternative.

To most of them, a strong and reasonably humane monarch was seen as the best security. The fear of societal chaos is the "deep" theme -- unspoken but omnipresent -- in all of Shakespeare's work.

Now, it is a very good thing that the character of More is as strong and interesting as it is, for the play itself is certainly not up to Shakespeare's usual standard.

It is not, for example, as good as his other early work from around 1593 (e.g. "Love's Labors Lost" and the three "Henry VI" plays), viewed in terms of poetry and dramatic tension. The characterization of More might have come close to satisfying Shaw, but the play which contains it would have provided him with still more anti-Shakespearean weaponry. Many who come to read it and see it will doubtless feel, for example, that it pales beside Robert Bolt's "A Man For All Seasons": Shakespeare's(?) More is better; but Bolt's play is better.

Also, as is not generally known, Henry had come to hate More so much that he confiscated most of Sir Thomas's goods at the time of the execution and gave them to his daughter Elizabeth.m Some people in the audience could well be expected by Elizabeth to remember that in 1593. It was not to be done in any way faithful to history -- and could not be brought to the boards as good drama -- under a Tudor reign. And if Professor Merriam is right, the play was written a full 10 years before that reign would end.

No wonder that it was shelved -- only to reappear in 1844, when its dusty and tattered old manuscript was stumbled upon in the British Museum, with Tilney's warning still glaring out from page 1. As Ben Jonson said in 1601, the poets of his time had been rather tragically shackled with "an inventin freer than the time." The irony is that the shackles of the 1590s still bind the play today. It is a lackluster piece of work inside which a great character -- and perhaps the greatest of English playwrights and poets -- is struggling with all his heart to get out.

If we assume Shakespeare's authorship of "Sir Thomas More," then what we finally learn about Shakespeare himself from the play is that he waged two early struggles as an emerging public artist on a harshly political stage: to create a great heroic character and to get him on the stage. With "Sir Thomas More," it seems that he won the first and lost the second.

The rest, as they say, is history; but he never again attempted to make a character like this play's More. Instead, I believe that pieces of More show up later -- transmuted into the dramatic gold of the variously fragmented hearts of Hamlet, Prince Hal, Falstaff, Ulysses, Lear's fool, and (very near the end) Prospero himself. This last is of course a thesis beyond proof, but I have had enormous fun, over the past three weeks, in watching myself become converted to it. I hope that it prompts readers to hunt up the play and to share in the fun of reading it as a likely example of Shakespeare's early art.

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