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Big debate about Shakespeare finally settled by big data: Marlowe gets his due

A rendering of William Shakespeare (iStock)

For many, many years, scholars have wondered whether William Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by Shakespeare, or at least if they were written solely by the man we now colloquially refer to as the Bard.

Although the arguments about his authorship have raged for two centuries, his plays have been printed and reprinted and reprinted again, bearing his name. Now, for the first time and with a bit of help from computers and big data, the Oxford University Press will add Christopher Marlowe as a co-author in all three “Henry VI” plays (Parts 1, 2 and 3).

Marlowe was a contemporary and, some say, rival of Shakespeare’s. As the Poetry Foundation put it, “The achievement of Christopher Marlowe, poet and dramatist, was enormous — surpassed only by that of his exact contemporary, Shakespeare.”

Rivals though they may have been, scholars have long thought Shakespeare might have collaborated with Marlowe, among other contemporary writers.

After all, as the New York Times noted, playwriting then was structured much the way scriptwriting is today — an author received an advance to write an outline, then the theater that owned the outline would hire different writers to fill in different parts, depending on what they wrote well (the way comedian Patton Oswalt, for example, might be called in to add jokes to a finished script).

“Shakespeare, like other geniuses, recognized the value of other people,” Gary Taylor, a professor at Florida State University and one of the editors who led the research, told the Associated Press. “What is Shakespeare famous for? Writing dialogue — interactions between two people. You would expect in his life there would be dialogue with other people.”

To find out if collaboration occurred, 23 international scholars performed text analysis by scanning through Marlowe’s (and other contemporary writers’) works, creating computerized data sets of the words and phrases he would repeat, along with how he did so — all of the idiosyncrasies that comprise one’s writing. Once they had a solid sample set of unique patterns, the Times noted, they cross-referenced it with Shakespeare’s plays.

The result? Seventeen of 44 of Shakespeare’s works probably had some sort of input from others. The three “Henry VI” plays proved to have enough of Marlowe’s literary footprint that his name deserved to be added as a co-author, Taylor contended.

“We have been able to verify Marlowe’s presence in those three plays strongly and clearly enough,” Taylor told the Guardian. “We can now be confident that they didn’t just influence each other, but they worked with each other. Rivals sometimes collaborate.”

Not everyone agreed, of course. One scholar guessed Shakespeare might have worked with the actors who were close to Marlowe.

“I believe Shakespeare collaborated with all kinds of people … but I would be very surprised if Marlowe was one of them,” Carol Rutter, professor of Shakespeare and performance studies at the University of Warwick, told BBC News. “Yes, Shakespeare collaborated. But it’s much more likely that he started his career working for a company where he was already an actor, and collaborated not with another playwright but with the actors — who will have had Marlowe very much in their heads, on the stage, in their voices.”

But, she added, not agreeing is half the fun.

“We have really stopped thinking about the richness of the writing experience in the early modern theatre, and by crediting Marlowe, people like Gary Taylor are making us attend to that,” Rutter added.

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