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Big Data meets the Shakespeare Code

William Shakespeare is no longer credited as the sole author of all of his plays. As was widely reported last week, Christopher Marlowe is now recognised as the co-author of three of the earlier works, specifically the Henry VI sequence. A player that hasn’t been credited in such a high profile manner, however, is Big Data, the technology behind a substantial part of the plays’ reattribution.

Big data analysis

The techniques applied sound relatively straightforward and consists of searching for strings of words. These, say a number of reports, would not be detectable by someone paying attention to the content, any more than a reader of this story could say how many times the author has used “and” and “but” without going back and counting.

The technology has no such scruples over paying attention to what’s actually being said or written, so it applied one test to see how many times “and”, “the” or “of” appeared in the text. It also checked combinations of nouns common to only the Henry plays and Marlowe’s published work, and also looked at minor function words, comparing Marlowe and Shakespeare.

The result is the conclusion that in addition to the eight works already known to be collaborations, the Oxford University Press will acknowledge Marlowe as a co-writer in its next edition. In fact the number of plays identified as collaborations will increase to 17, although there is no suggestion that anyone other than the Bard was the main writer.

Questions remain

Inevitably, not everyone is satisfied. A quick scan of the reportage shows that a number of commentators have accepted the reattribution unquestioningly, some have queried how it can be certain that Marlowe and not someone else was the collaborator and others have pointed to politically correct posturing. It’s also not the first time Shakespeare has had a co-writer.

There’s a lovely story that the 1929 movie adaptation of “The Taming of the Shrew” had the credit “With additional dialogue by Sam Taylor” – unfortunately there’s no evidence to prove this actually happens. “Co-written by Christopher Marlowe” looks set to stick and to change our impression of the Bard’s early years, and Big Data is behind that change.