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Gotcha: handwriting betrays Bill

- Scholar claims proof Shakespeare wrote passages of Spanish Tragedy

Aug. 18: For nearly two centuries, scholars have debated whether some 325 lines in the 1602 quarto edition of Thomas Kyd’s play The Spanish Tragedy were, in fact, written by William Shakespeare.

Last year, the British scholar Brian Vickers used computer analysis to argue that the so-called Additional Passages were by Shakespeare, a claim hailed by some as the latest triumph of high-tech Elizabethan text mining.

But now, a professor at the University of Texas says he has found something closer to definitive proof using a more old-fashioned method: analysing Shakespeare’s messy handwriting.

In a terse four-page paper, to be published in the September issue of the journal Notes and Queries, Douglas Bruster argues that various idiosyncratic features of the Additional Passages — including some awkward lines that have struck some doubters as distinctly sub-Shakespearean — may be explained as print shop misreadings of Shakespeare’s penmanship.

“What we’ve got here isn’t bad writing, but bad handwriting,” Bruster said in a telephone interview.

Claiming Shakespeare authorship can be a perilous endeavour. In 1996, Donald Foster, a pioneer in computer-driven textual analysis, drew front-page headlines with his assertion that Shakespeare was the author of an obscure Elizabethan poem called A Funeral Elegy, only to quietly retract his argument six years later after analyses by Vickers and others linked it to a different author.

This time, editors of some prestigious scholarly editions are betting that Bruster’s cautiously methodical arguments, piled on top of previous work by Vickers and others, will make the attribution stick.

“We don’t have any absolute proof, but this is as close as you can get,” said Eric Rasmussen, a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and an editor, with Jonathan Bate, of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s edition of the complete Shakespeare.

“I think we can now say with some authority that, yes, this is Shakespeare,” Rasmussen said. “It has his fingerprints all over it.”

Rasmussen and Bate are including The Spanish Tragedy in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new edition of Shakespeare’s collaboratively authored plays, to be published in November. And Bruster plans to include the Additional Passages in his new edition of the Riverside Shakespeare (renamed the Bankside Shakespeare), coming in 2016.

If embraced by the broader world of Shakespeareans, the Additional Passages would become the first largely undisputed new addition to the canon since Shakespeare’s contributions to Edward III — another play that some have attributed to Kyd — began appearing in scholarly editions in the mid-1990s.

Acceptance is by no means assured. Three years ago, some scholars were sceptical when the Arden Shakespeare published Double Falsehood, an 18th-century play whose connection with a lost Shakespeare drama had long been debated, in its prestigious series.

Tiffany Stern, a professor of early modern drama at Oxford University and an advisory editor for the Arden Shakespeare, praised the empirical rigour of Bruster’s paper, but said that some new attributions were driven less by solid evidence than by publishers’ desire to offer “more Shakespeare” than their rivals.

“The arguments for The Spanish Tragedy are better than for most” putative Shakespeare collaborations, Stern said. “But I think we’re going a bit Shakespeare-attribution crazy and shoving a lot of stuff in that maybe shouldn’t be there.”

Elizabethan theater was intensely collaborative, with playwrights often punching up old plays or working with other dramatists to cobble together new ones, in the manner of Hollywood script doctors. The 1602 Additional Passages to The Spanish Tragedy, inserted more than a decade after Kyd wrote the original, updated the bloody revenge play with a bit of psychological realism, which had become fashionable. (It is not known whether Kyd, who died in 1594, ever met Shakespeare.)

The idea that Shakespeare may have written the Additional Passages — which include a Hamlet-like scene of a grief-maddened father discoursing on the death of his son — was first broached in 1833 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. But that claim remained a distinctly minority position well into the 20th century, even as scholars began using sophisticated computer software to detect subtle linguistic patterns that seemed to link the passages to Shakespeare’s other work.

Bruster said he himself was a sceptic until he read Vickers’s 2012 article, which presented voluminous circumstantial historical evidence alongside linguistic patterns unearthed by software designed to uncover student plagiarism.

“I had to rethink my entire position,” Bruster said. “His arguments based on literary history were just so strong.”

Bruster was less persuaded by the linguistic parallels, which he calls merely “suggestive”. And so he turned to perhaps the most literal source of authority: Shakespeare’s own pen.

Scholars have long cited the idiosyncrasies of Shakespeare’s handwriting — surviving mainly in three densely scribbled pages held in the British Library that are widely attributed to Shakespeare — to understand oddities in the earliest printed versions of his plays. (In the 1604 quarto version of Hamlet, for example, Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, is called “Gertrad” — probably a reflection, Rasmussen said, of Shakespeare’s tendency to close up his u’s and drop his final e’s.)

In his paper, Bruster identifies 24 broad spelling patterns — including shortened past tenses (like “blest” for “blessed”) and single medial consonants (like “sorow” instead of “sorrow”) — that occur both in the Additional Passages, for which no known manuscript survives, and the Shakespeare handwriting sample in the British Library. He also cites nine textual “corruptions” (like “creuie” instead of “creuic,” modernised as “crevice”) that he believes can be explained as misreadings of Shakespeare’s handwriting.

These irregularities, considered individually, are not necessarily unique to Shakespeare. But taken together, Bruster argues, they strongly suggest that the Additional Passages were set in type from pages written, in the most literal sense, by Shakespeare.

“What I’m getting at is the DNA of Shakespeare’s words themselves, the way he formed those words with his pen on the page,” he said.

A printer’s misreading, Bruster argues, may also explain a particularly clumsy and nongrammatical stretch in the Additional Passages. During a moving speech, the grieving father, Hieronimo, meditates on the nature of a father’s love for his son.

The 1602 quarto renders it: “What is there yet in a sonne? He must be fed,/Be thaught to goe, and speake I, or yet./Why might not a man loue a Calfe as well?”

But that baffling “I, or yet,” Bruster argues, is likely a misreading of “Ier” — an abbreviation indicating the line is spoken by Hieronimo, a name that in Shakespeare’s time was sometimes rendered as Ieronimo.

The passage, Bruster argues, should really read (with modernised spelling): “What is there yet in a son?/He must be fed, be taught to go, and speak./Yet why might not a man love a calf as well?”

Bruster once counted himself among the many scholars who have thought the passage in the quarto was simply too poorly written to be Shakespeare. “But once you realise that it’s Shakespeare’s handwriting that’s responsible for the misreading, it’s no longer a bad line,” Bruster said. “It’s actually a gorgeous passage.”

Finding some of Shakespeare’s lines embedded in another writer’s plays may not carry the frisson of announcing the discovery of a previously unknown poem entirely by Shakespeare. But Bruster’s paper reflects current scholarly interest in Shakespeare as a playwright who frequently collaborated with others — including, Vickers has controversially argued, on plays we think of as coming solely from his own pen.

“Shakespeare wasn’t a solitary genius, flying above everyone else,” Vickers said. “He was a working man of the theatre. If his company needed a new play, he’d get together with someone else and get it done.”

Words of caution

Swapan Chakravorty, a scholar of early modern English theatre and professor of English at Jadavpur University, feels one should carefully weigh the evidence.  He said: “Many claims have been made about the authorship of other Renaissance texts by Shakespeare.” He pointed out that in 1990, Eric Rasmussen had made a questionable claim for Shakespeare’s hand in a manuscript of Thomas Middleton’s The Lady’s Tragedy

The Spanish Tragedy passages in question are said to have been added in 1602. “Around that time Shakespeare had already written As You Like It and possibly Hamlet. It is unlikely that the same person would use an inferior style and language, as in the Additional Passages in The Spanish Tragedy, around the same time.”

Handwriting cannot be the only basis for determining authorship, he added. “It depends on the use of controls, that is, sufficient textual evidence of what a scribe or compositor was likely or not likely to do, especially in the choice of contractions of words and indifferent variants (such as ‘O’ and ‘Oh’). To establish authorship, a scholar must go through
all manuscript and printed sources to trace convincing patterns.”