Will’s Words?

Computer Finds Lost Shakespeare Play

Two University of Texas researchers have used computer analysis to prove that Shakespeare was at least a co-author of Double Falsehood, convincing many scholars.

04.13.15 5:15 PM ET

Nearly 300 years ago, an editor named Lewis Theobald published a drama called Double Falsehood that he called an adaptation of a lost Shakespeare play. Nobody believed him, primarily because any Shakespeare original was, indeed, lost.

Now, two University of Texas researchers say they have proof that the Bard really did write the play, in collaboration with playwright John Fletcher—not because of the composition of iambic pentameter soliloquies but largely because of how the writers used little words like a, the, of, by, for, thee, and ye. What’s more, the validation in a newly published article in the journal Psychological Science comes not from literary scholars but from social psychologists using a computer program.

Essentially, works by Shakespeare, Fletcher, and Theobald were fed into a computer and examined for each writer’s signature use of what researchers Ryan Boyd and James Pennebaker call “function” words—little words such as articles, prepositions, pronouns, and simple verbs such as will and be—as well as social words such as brother, sister, and mother. The computer determined what the researchers call “psychological fingerprints” for each writer, and then looked for them in Double Falsehood.

Pennebaker used this text analysis as a basis for his 2011 book The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, which determined, among other things, that President Obama uses I less than any other recent president and Lady Gaga’s tweets show her to be “a bit wild but also thoughtful and … somewhat prone to depression.”

But employing this computer program to authenticate Shakespeare? Surely literary scholars would react with a lather of indignation.

Actually, no. Boyd and Pennebaker were asked to take on the project at the behest of such a scholar, UC-Irvine professor emeritus Robert Folkenflik, and when their findings were presented at a UCLA conference last year, they were, according to their own and Folkenflik’s accounts, very well received.

Double Falsehood is a play most of us have never heard of. With its plot apparently drawn from the “Cardenio” episode early in Cervantes’s Don Quixote, but with the characters’ names changed, Double Falsehood concerns a duke’s two sons—one good and one a scoundrel—along with the sons’ friend Julio and two women as objects of various affections. Shakespeare aficionados will recognize familiar themes: disguise, shepherds, a nunnery and, finally, everybody marrying the right person in the end. The play was first performed in 1727 and published early the next year by Theobald, who had adapted Shakespeare’s Richard II and was, at the moment of the “lost” play’s debut, pretty well known for his wrangling with Alexander Pope over the right way to adapt and revise Shakespeare. Pope trashed Double Falsehood as clearly a fraud, and others piled on.

In recent years, though, scholars have begun giving credence to the idea that there was really a Shakespearean play that became Double Falsehood and that Fletcher, who also collaborated with Shakespeare on Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, contributed. Themes, structure, and word combinations have strongly suggested Shakespeare, and Folkenflik notes that there’s a historical record of Shakespeare’s company being paid for a Cardeno work that, despite the slight spelling difference, he thinks might amount to Cardenio, a play based on Cervantes. So, many of the scholars who packed into UCLA’s William Andrews Clark Memorial Library last year were already open to the idea that the Bard might have been behind Double Falsehood.

Boyd’s and Pennebaker’s approach to the authentication, though, was completely different from that of literary scholars. The two psychologists weren’t looking at what was written—the word combinations, the passages that echoed other Shakespearean plays—but, rather, the way the writers used the most basic of words. Their computer program places people on a sliding scale they call a categorical dynamic index. At the “dynamic” end are social people, narrative storytellers who tend to be outgoing. On the other, “categorical” end are those who engage in more structured thinking and who might tend to be considered stiffs. (Another recently published Pennebaker study, by the way, says categorical thinkers are more likely to get better grades in college.)

“We find that Shakespeare’s collaborator, Fletcher, was really far into the dynamic end, very social,” Boyd says. “At the other end of the spectrum is Theobald—very smart but probably somewhat of a jerk. Right in the center, we find Shakespeare.” Applying that formula to the text of Double Falsehood, Boyd says, it appears the first three acts were probably written, at least primarily, by Shakespeare. The end of the play still holds Shakespeare’s fingerprints, but also those of Fletcher. Theobald? He’s barely present, Boyd says.

“It’s almost certain he did get in there and fiddle with it. Even with that, it still comes across as Shakespeare and not Theobald,” Boyd says.

Pennebaker has been working with computer-assisted text analysis since the mid-’90s, applying it to more and different subject matters in the years since.

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“The idea behind it’s pretty simple,” he says. “It just counts words. Everyone’s writing style is almost like a fingerprint.”

Double Falsehood, he says, was fun to take on because its authenticity has been argued so long, to the point where “there have been careers made around this particular play.” Boyd says one scholar, a longtime skeptic of Shakespeare’s involvement in Double Falsehood, approached him after the UCLA conference and said he and Pennebaker had made a convincing case.

“I honestly had some people come up to me and say, ‘Gee, this is the best conference I ever attended,’” says Folkenflik, adding that he started as a skeptic about Theobald’s play being a revision of Shakespeare, “but at the same time I was finding things that wouldn’t be true of a simple hoax or forgery,” such as long passages or a “snappy bit of repartee” that rang of Shakespeare or Fletcher. The new psychological research, he says, has him more convinced than ever—at least until he finds evidence to the contrary—that Shakespeare wrote a Cardenio play that wound up as Double Falsehood.

“The more different methods we have of looking at some of these texts that are coming out the same way, making the same claims ….” Folkenflik says. “It’s almost like a unified theory.”

If, indeed, Shakespeare did write the Cardenio play on which Double Falsehood is based, it remains lost. What happened to it? Some think it burned in a fire. Other scholars think it might have been deliberately suppressed because it dealt with rape and racism. Pennebaker says Shakespeare might have been complicit in its suppression because he wasn’t very proud of it, saying that scholars at the UCLA conference largely felt it was a “shitty play.”

Folkenflik flinches at that term, preferring: “If it’s Shakespeare, it doesn’t show him at the top of his form,” noting that some of its performances, including one by the Royal Shakespeare Company, have drawn good reviews.

Meanwhile, Boyd is already starting to get emails from people with random manuscripts they’d like evaluated for Shakespeare’s psychological fingerprints.

So far, he says, “they definitely don’t look like Shakespeare.”