Much Ado About Who: Is It Really Shakespeare?
Further Proof of Shakespeare’s Hand in ‘The Spanish Tragedy’
By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER
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 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: analyzing 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,” Mr. Bruster said in a telephone interview.
Claiming Shakespeare authorship can be a perilous endeavor. 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 Mr. Vickers and others linked it to a different author.
This time, editors of some prestigious scholarly editions are betting that Mr. Bruster’s cautiously methodical arguments, piled on top of previous work by Mr. 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,” Mr. Rasmussen said. “It has his fingerprints all over it.”
Mr. Rasmussen and Mr. 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 Mr. 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 skeptical 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 rigor of Mr. 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, Ms. 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.
Mr. Bruster said he himself was a skeptic until he read Mr. 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,” Mr. Bruster said. “His arguments based on literary history were just so strong.”
Mr. 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.