Case S02E07 – Slowburn Shakespeare, part 5 of 6 – The Wings Wherewith We Fly


Did Shakespeare really write, well, Shakespeare? Or is the Swan of Avon a five century old con? Part 5 of this slowburn mini-series pitches the computational linguists against the forensic linguists in an effort to determine whether either side can work out who wrote Shakespeare. Below you will find data, audio credits, further reading, and a transcript of the podcast.

Audio credits

eddy – Spy
Kai Engel – Oneiri
Scott Holmes – Postcards
Aaron Dunn – Minuet – Notebook for Anna Magdalena (cropped)


Case S02E07: Slowburn Shakespeare, part 5 of 6 – The wings wherewith we fly

In the last four episodes we’ve covered a lot of ground – the arrival of the Shakespeare question, its very frosty reception in certain spheres, the difficulties of working with the data, and then five proposed theories for who actually wrote Shakespeare. Those theories included the cut-out. Seven Shakespeares in a trenchcoat hammering out classics in the dead of night. Except maybe not seven. Maybe six. Or eight. Or whatever. And maybe not in a trenchcoat. Maybe in a bathrobe. I don’t know. But definitely possibly in the dead of night. Anyway, when the conspiracy of Shakespeares fell out of grace, we moved onto one-man theories, starting with the cipher – a cryptic plot of marvellously secreted messages littered through Shakespeare’s works and tributes, breadcrumbs for the learned reader to find so that they could ultimately deduce that the identity of the true Shakespeare is… Sir Francis Bacon. But then this rapidly deteriorated into Bacon being the long-lost heir to the Tudor throne and things got even weirder after that, so we moved on to the one I called the monster, which I’m sure has pleased a lot of people to no end. Edward de Vere. Generally awful aristocrat and creator of, so it seems, absolutely no compelling evidence whatsoever. After he had disappointed pretty much everyone in pretty much everything, he cleared the stage to make way for my personal favourite, poet, spy, man-about-town who possibly faked his own death as theatrically as anything he ever wrote for stage, Christopher Marlowe. But as fun as Marlowe was, we had just one more candidate. Another aristocrat, yes, but he did actually have something going for him that the other nobles didn’t. He wasn’t just an empty bundle of inherited titles. He was also an adventurer – probably fighting tigers was less precarious than occupying a position juuust a bit too close to Elizabeth’s throne – and his name was William Stanley.

It’s important to note here, though, that honestly, I have still barely scratched the surface of this whole debate. It’s been raging for hundreds of years and countless people have written thousands of publications on it. The four individuals I’ve looked at are not the only candidates who have been put forward. You might even remember from the very first episode in this miniseries that some eighty names have been suggested. If you want to look up more stories of other possible Shakespeares, then take a look at Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Henry Neville, Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke, and Emilia Bassano, the daughter of Venetian merchants.

In this episode, however, we move on now, directly into my particular wheelhouse – on the one hand, using computers to assist us in our analysis of language, and on the other, forensic linguistics. Or, well… yeah. Anyway we’ll get there and I’ll try not to cry about it too much.


Welcome to en clair, an archive of forensic linguistics, literary detection, and language mysteries. You can find case notes about this episode, including credits, acknowledgements, and, far more than usual, many extra links to further reading at the blog. The web address is given at the end of this podcast.

The empty vessel

In 1991, the Shakespeare Clinic of Claremont Colleges published an article. In it, they claim that none of the long list of alleged authors – Marlowe, Bacon, de Vere, Raleigh, and so on – none of them could have written the Shakespeare canon. They also argue in turn that Shakespeare could not have written any of their writings. That’s yet another side theory, by the way – that lots of the works of, say, Bacon and de Vere and Raleigh were in fact penned by Shakespeare, and of course the converse theory has also been put forward – that, say, Bacon wrote many of the works attributed to de Vere and Neville and so on and so forth. This rabbithole just goes forever downwards, as you can imagine.

Back to the Shakespeare Clinic of Claremont Colleges. Much of their research was done using computer-based, quantitative methods, and their declaration was based on modal and conventional tests (Elliot & Valenza). According to their results, Walter Raleigh was the closest match to Shakespeare based on modal testing, but this only gave him a 2% chance of being the author (p. 502). Bacon, Marlowe, and de Vere, the three usual main candidates for authorship were all far more distant from the Shakespeare writings. According to these findings, Shakespeare’s poems have a few very strong characteristic modes that are reflected in all of his works, whereas many blocks of other authors’ works do not replicate this. So, parts of the study looked at the use of “compound words and open and feminine endings”, and found them far more frequently in Shakespeare’s canon than in the work of his contemporaries, whilst relative clauses were less frequent (p. 502). And these patterns were found to be almost entirely consistent throughout the works. Of course, there must always be a response from the other side, and in particular, Oxfordia – the supporters of de Vere – argued that the dissimilarities between de Vere and Shakespeare were just developmental (p. 503). But for those of you capable of keeping a billion facts in your brain throughout this whole miniseries, you might remember that this would then immediately clash with their other argument that the Shakespeare canon was actually written twenty years earlier than is now the common belief. That’s how they account for de Vere writing it, if you remember, to make the chronology fit. It’s all back in the third part if you want to go listen again. Anyway, in short, the Claremont view was that if it was improbable that a glover’s son wrote the works, it was even more improbable still that the likes of de Vere had written them (p. 506).

But interestingly, the Cleveland Clinic had a direct run-in with none other than Donald Foster. Foster’s name has already come up in another episode: S01E03 – Belle de Jour, but I’ll very briefly recap him here.

Donald Foster was a professor of English at New York’s Vassar College, and for much of his career he used a technique known as stylometry to look at… drumroll… Shakespearian authorship. Notably, though, he sometimes also applied similar techniques to high-profile modern data, including criminal investigations. That hasn’t always turned out quite so well. In 1996, he had what looks, on the surface, to be with identifying the author of an anonymous novel entitled Primary Colors. This was about Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992. But as always seems to happen, there are large grey areas in this case. In 1966 Foster was involved in the Unabomber case. I’m actually going to do a full miniseries on that, eventually, so I won’t say more here. In 1997 he was part of the JonBenét Ramsey murder case, but again, as I’ll discuss in a future podcast, Foster is said to have seriously compromised his position as an expert witness in the case, and is finally dismissed by the District Attorney, rendering his expert report on the ransom note useless. Four years later, Foster advises the FBI on the case of the 2001 Anthrax Attacks, and writes a piece for Vanity Fair linking government scientist and bioweapons expert, Dr Steven Hatfill with the attacks. Try to remember this bioweapons bit because it does come again in a few minutes in quite an awkward way. Anyway, back to the tiny tangent. Unfortunately, the culprit is someone else – you’ll find out who in the proper episode – and Dr Hatfill pursues substantial legal action against a list of individuals and organisations. This includes no less than the US Attorney General, Condé Nast Publications, Vassar College, and Donald Foster. Several of these cases, including Foster’s, result in out-of-court settlements. The Justice Department in particular agree to pay Dr Hatfill nearly $3m in cash and a two-decade-long annuity of $150,000 per annum. Finally, in the en clair episode I’ve so far done on him, in 2004 The Times newspaper ran a story in which Foster identified someone as the author of the anonymous Belle de Jour blog… but it turned out to be the wrong person.

You get the idea.

Another thing I’ve mentioned in passing in this miniseries, but now need to bring in properly is the existence of something known as the Shakespeare apocrypha. The apocrypha is almost exactly the opposite of the canon. The works in the canon are all the titles that most Stratfordians agree were penned by Shakespeare. But that leaves a little mess of plays and poems where there are hotter debates, and less definitive answers. Some of them have initials on, like WS. Some of them match the style but have no name on them. Some of them are now-discovered hoaxes and forgeries. Some were attributed to Shakespeare at first but then the First Folio didn’t include them so everyone dropped them like hot potatoes. The current apocryphal list generally consists of The Passionate Pilgrim, A Lover’s Complaint, To The Queen, Shall I Die, some epitaphs, and the Funeral Elegy, sometimes abbreviated to just Elegy – a poem that comes up again for the next short while.

The apocrypha is itself a living authorship question, but it’s subtly different to the one we’ve been looking at so far. Rather than trying to remove Shakespeare’s name from something in the canon that has been long attributed to him, like, say, Macbeth, and put someone else’s name on it, like, say, Christopher Marlowe, the arguments around the apocrypha tend to be, “Did Shakespeare write this?” or in other words, “Should this be part of the Shakespeare canon?” It’s all authorship, yes, but and you might think that the stakes around these fringe cases would be lower, but you’d be wrong. Imagine the feverish desire to discover a long-lost work of Shakespeare. I mean, just think how that would play out in the media. For the scholar themselves, it would be a career jackpot. It would make their name in the field forever. So if you think people are passionate about stopping works from being dragged out of the canon, they’re perhaps even more fiercely territorial about new works being added in. The fights between those striving to add a new work and those outright rejecting the idea have been spectacular. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to the point.

Donald Foster is this Shakespearian authorship analyst who has looked at some of the apocrypha, and he’s very unsurprisingly taken an interest in the work of the Claremont Colleges students. The students, too, have been analysing some of the apocryphal poetry. In their own words,

[Foster] is now famous for his Shakespeare ascription of a poem, Elegy by W.S., “discovered” in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (Foster, 1989, 1996). Foster thought our efforts to shorten the Shakespeare claimant list were misconceived and embarrassing, since no Shakespeare professional considered any non-Stratfordian claim open to rational examination or debate.

If I understand this, Foster is presented as arguing that the only valid question is ascribing things to Shakespeare, not removing ascriptions to Shakespeare already made by, well, people like him. In other words, suggesting alternative possible candidates is just ridiculous, and time spent on the question is time wasted. Aaaanyway, back to Claremont:

In 1996, when we were about to publish evidence contrary to his Elegy ascription, he became our most implacable critic and censor.

That’s a pretty harsh claim, so what did this criticism look like? Well, when the Claremont Colleges went to publish their paper entitled A Funeral Elegy and other controversies in 1996, after a long delay, it finally appeared in 1997. I apologise in advance for the ableist language I’m about to repeat, but according to Claremont, their article was repackaged, apparently without their knowledge, as a debate, and,

…with a sweeping, scathing denunciation of it by our old ally Donald Foster. Foster by that time had concluded that the Funeral Elegy was “Shakespeare’s beyond all reasonable doubt” and gotten it accepted as “possibly Shakespeare’s” in all three new American editions of Shakespeare’s Complete Works. He no longer took kindly to our evidence to the contrary but dismissed it categorically as “idiocy,” “madness,” and “foul vapor” (Foster, 1996a, 1998).

I actually went looking for the original source that supposedly contains these words, but I couldn’t find it. Instead, I found the 1998 rebuttal by Foster actually discussing those very words. The whole thing is such a mess. He says he never used the word – apologies for the ableist language again – never used the word “idiocy”, and, for what it’s worth, that is a pretty extraordinary thing for someone to do. It’s happened, of course. Even academics, or maybe, especially academics, have been outstandingly rude to each other over the years, so just because it’s remarkable doesn’t mean it’s impossible. But Foster does accept that he used the phrase “foul vapor” and then says it’s been taken out of context. Really, though? In that very same rebuttal, Foster doesn’t come off at all wonderfully. Just one quote from him should do, but there’s a link to the whole thing if you want to read it. He writes:

As a reluctant witness to massive sloppiness in the Claremont project and having been rebuffed in every effort to steer Elliott and Valenza [these are the two main Claremont people] … to steer Elliott and Valenza in more rational directions, I came to view the Shakespeare Clinic, long ago, as a fiasco.

I feel like Judge Judy here. Claremont students say this. Foster says that. The mud is flying. Everyone looks bad. Who do you believe. Let’s get back to the poem. In whatever precise terms, polite or pointed, Foster had confidently ascribed this apocryphal Funeral Elegy to Shakespeare, and thoroughly rained on the parade of these students who questioned his conclusion. The Claremont students acknowledged that they had really only looked at Elegy in passing, and so they revisited it in much more detail. Unlike a few other, shorter poems, this one was long enough to be subjected to several more of their tests, and according to them, of the thirty-six valid Shakespeare tests it was long enough to handle,

It flunks 24 of them, 17 of them by a wide margin, and in our view should not be ascribed to Shakespeare at all. We don’t see a scholarly consensus yet on FE – American editors still seem to think it could be Shakespeare’s, British do not. But hardly anyone besides Donald Foster thought it was Shakespeare’s when we began in 1987, so our general proposition stands.

How does this messy little sub-plot end? Well, when Foster originally attributed Funeral Elegy to Shakespeare, plenty of newspapers like The New York Times were very excited about it. As I said, you can just imagine it. A new work of Shakespeare. Linguistic sleuthing. It’s all very James Bond meets Indiana Jones. But in a library. Quietly. You know, with silencers and stuff. Indiana Bond and the Quantum of Sonnets. Anyway, you can imagine the excitement. Like when someone goes on Cash in the Attic and discovers that the old violin in granny’s bungalow is an immaculate Stradivarius. People get really emotionally invested in this kind of stuff.

But however excited the media or the public, other scholars seemingly did not share that same enthusiasm. Gilles Monsarrat and Brian Vickers – Vickers will come up again later so remember him if you can – Monsarratt and Vickers both undertake analyses of the poem, Elegy, and those analyses both reach similar conclusions. Monsarrat and Vickers publish their results in articles and books, and, in June 2002, Foster writes the following response on the Shaksper mailing list. Quick note: I’ve trimmed quite a lot of this for brevity. You can find the link to the original on the blog. So, Foster replies, thus:

In 1996, having ventured an attribution of W.S.’s “A Funeral Elegy” to Shakespeare, I was blasted in the pages of TLS. But Shakespeare’s authorship was not as easily disproved as some skeptics anticipated. Though several alternative attributions were advanced, they failed for a good reason. They were mistakes. Recently, though, the French scholar, G. D. Monsarrat, may have succeeded where English and American scholars have failed, demonstrating in an article in the *Review of English Studies* that the elegy looks like the work of the Jacobean dramatist, John Ford. I know good evidence when I see it and I predict that Monsarrat will carry the day. […] Years ago when Ford was first mentioned as a possible author, I scoffed at the attribution. […] Monsarrat’s hypothesis that Ford was employed as a ghost-writer for W.S. seems, to me, implausible for several reasons but I have no better solution to offer. Since 1997 I have had a second career in criminology and forensic linguistics. […] My experience in recent years with police detectives, FBI agents, lawyers, and juries has, I hope, made me a better scholar. Our courts have long exacted higher standards for the admissibility of evidence than literary journals. […] My experience with the anonymous documents in criminal investigations indicates that competent and trusted people-math professors, parents, biowarfare experts-often commit acts or write texts that you wouldn’t expect of them.

[Eeeerrrr, awkward… Anyway…]

Personal opinions cannot stand for evidence, nor can personal rhetoric. But in light of the evidence marshaled by Monsarrat, and possibly augmented by Brian Vickers’ forthcoming book, the jury need not hold forth much longer on Shakespeare’s authorship of “A Funeral Elegy.” The kinds of linguistic and intertextual evidence I myself most trust-and that informs Monsarrat’s essay-associate “W.S.” more strongly with Ford than with Shakespeare.

In short, after denouncing the Claremont students’ claims about the Elegy in whatever language he used, I don’t know, Foster himself then also had to concede to Monsarrat, Vickers, and everyone else, that, well, yeah, maybe Shakespeare didn’t write the poem after all. It’s a useful reminder that no matter high we get, it’s always best to speak softly, for the words we utter today may be the ones we eat tomorrow.

The stars are fire

At this point, we’ve considered a ton of evidence – some stronger, some kind of dubious – that disputes the authorship of the Shakespeare canon. Plenty that jumps right past the primary assumption that Shakespeare did not write his own works, and moves straight onto positing someone else. But in a miniseries like this, there’s an important inverse question that we really do need to ask. What about evidence that supports the argument that Shakespeare really did exist and that he really did write his own canon? Evidence that suggests the glover’s son actually was the real deal. As I have said so many times by now, lots of Shakespearean scholars generally see no reason to doubt the authorship of the canon, and that would be for a very simple reason: there really is quite a lot of evidence pointing towards the Shakespeare of Stratford being the author. But it’s good to look over some of the specific claims one by one – especially those fairly robust counterarguments for a majority of the points made by the Antis. So let’s go way, waaaay back to some of the very first contentions we covered, and for no especially good reason, we’ll start with the many ways he spelled his name.

In the Elizabethan period, spelling actually wasn’t standardized, and variation even in one’s own name was perfectly normal. I actually touched on that when I mentioned the many varieties of Shakespeare’s plays that exist. Spelling a surname like Shakespeare in six different ways really didn’t mean much. Also, some of the differences in his name can simply be put down to breviographs – shorthand methods for writing common clusters of letters. Think of Xmas, for instance. The X is a breviograph for christ-.

Another issue with the general Anti arguments is that quite often they are working on the absence of evidence. The missing school records are interpreted as him possibly not having much or any schooling at all. The will failing to directly mention his works and the theatre is taken to suggest that he didn’t have anything to do with them. The lost seven years are seen as evidence that he wasn’t writing, and so on. And when you think about it, that’s actually a fairly silly position, for lots of reasons. In fact, it’s an outright rhetorical fallacy with a fancy Latin name: argumentum ex silentio. I recommend a swish and flick of the wand as you perform that particular spell.

Anyway, back to the supposedly missing evidence. For a start, it’s extremely normal for the time to not know much about the biography of playwrights. We just didn’t keep such great records back then. Why would we. Paper-based, hand-written records are expensive to make, laborious to fill in, hard to constantly organise and properly search, they take up huge amounts of space after a while, and they’re massive hazards for pests and fires. And what would be the point? No one’s thinking five hundred years into the future when people like me are trying to stitch together a middle-aged man’s whole life from scraps of illegible parchment. So the lack of records is just not weird. Nor is it evidence of really anything other than how logistically and bureaucratically difficult it was to keep records in a pre-computer era. (Student of computing, I apologise for that remark, because I actually do have some insight into how difficult it is to store massive databases of sensibly-organised digitised records. Let’s move on and leave you to your grief.) And remember, too, that we know more about Shakespeare than we do about most other Elizabethan playwrights. So, is it possible that he didn’t go to the grammar school? Sure. Of course. Parents deny their children opportunities all the time, and sometimes for extraordinarily frivolous reasons. But as it is now, historically, education was seen as synonymous with class and consequence. It is difficult to imagine that his father, a high-ranking civic official, would have quixotically denied his son those very hallmarks of importance that would reflect back on himself. Later on, indeed, Shakespeare would work hard to have his father recognized as a gentleman – an actual title with material consequence in those days. Evidence, then, that issues of class and rank mattered in Shakespeare’s family. There are other hints, too, that he did attend the grammar school. In his works Shakespeare actually makes allusions to texts and teaching methods commonly used in grammar school. He mocks schoolmasters. But at the same time, remember what I said about this type of evidence. Shakespeare was renowned precisely because he created convincing characters – because he became someone else other than himself in the process of writing, so using the works as though they are biographical is extremely problematic. I can’t rap the Antis on the knuckles for it and then just do it myself like it’s all fine.

But there’s more to counter the Antis. Scholars have pointed out that the contemporaries of Shakespeare, such as Marlowe and Jonson came from similarly modest families, but supposedly nobody questions their authorship on that basis (Maranzani 2020; Friberg 2016; McCrum 2010). Well, actually, people do question their authorship, and I’ve alluded to it several times now, including just at the start of the Claremont subsaga, but to characterise it more fairly, there hasn’t been as much enthusiastic, impassioned, aggressive dedication to challenging their authorship. And even when it does happen, it’s usually bundled up as part of the Shakespeare question anyway.

And there’s still more. Like I already said, as far as we can tell, there were also no public claims during Shakespeare’s lifetime that he was merely a pseudonym. No one ever pointed out that Shakespeare and Bacon never appeared in the same room at the same time. Was Shakespeare the hero the gothic needed, but didn’t deserve? That was obviously a joke, not a coded message. Please don’t dig up your local pond on the back of that.

Anyway, what about those lofty inaccessible themes – royalty, courts, politics, law, medicine, science – all that stuff that Shakespeare supposedly couldn’t have known about or experienced for himself? Well he could learn as he went. And I’m also pretty sure he could probably just, you know, hold a conversation. It wasn’t impossible for him to talk to people who did have these experiences. To maybe even get experts or quasi-experts in those fields to vet his early drafts and correct any screaming errors. Just one example of this is when his daughter married Dr John Hall, a physician. After that, more medical references were made in the works. For his courtly information, he could easily have spoken to wealthier patrons and friends. Plenty of these were minor nobles, they were in his general acquaintance, and I’m sure at least some of them would have loved to instruct Shakespeare on the finer points of propriety. And once his plays started to become popular, he did then go on to perform in royal courts and for the aristocracy, which would have given him yet more insight. Furthermore, many plays were based on pre-existing stories, and he could have learned any amount from his own exposure to the works of others.

Also, many episodes ago I did mention that none of the ordinary watchers of his plays would have been able to hop on the internet to fact-check his plays. Well, had they, they might have spotted quite a litany of anachronistic and geographical and classical gaffes. As befits a man who probably hasn’t travelled the world and isn’t some sort of unparalleled repository of world knowledge, the canon contains any number of errors, and they are great. Shakespeare gifts the ancient Romans with mechanical clocks and billiards. I mean I can understand billiards – it’s just balls and sticks, but mechanical clocks is just magical. He gives Bohemia a coast and Elsinore cliffs. He describes a ship journey between two cities that are nextdoor to each other in the middle of a country – no ship needed – and so forth. He also makes other goofs besides, including not knowing how many classical names would scan and therefore screwing up their placement in verse In fact, in these very errors we have a tenuous link between Shakespeare and the grammar school that he supposedly might never have attended. One John Bretchgirdle had donated a copy of Thesaurus Linguae Romanae et Britannicae by Thomas Cooper to Stratford Grammar, and this book contained several errors. Some of these very same errors appear in Shakespeare’s plays. Of course, Shakespeare may have gotten hold of a copy of this book from elsewhere, or it could just be a coincidence, but the point is, this directly contradicts this bardolatrous idea that Shakespeare was an implacable godlike intellect who simply could not be a mere glover’s son. Instead, it rather supports the idea that he was a very gifted, but otherwise ordinary mortal who could indeed have been born in a market town, in possession of an unusually vivid flair for character-building and drama.

And besides all of this, we have so much evidence from the time that a dramatically-oriented William Shakespeare existed, and that this Shakespeare all over the theatre records and title-pages was probably the same one as the Stratford glover’s son. There is explicit testimony from actors he worked with, direct attributions by his contemporaries soon after his death, paintings, statues, elegies in celebration of his works and life within a few short years of his passing.

Unfortunately, far too many of the theories from the Antis don’t really bother to address all this evidence. After all, if you’re going to propose your own king, you have to take the crown from the current monarch first, and plenty of the theories simply walk right past all this rather inconvenient documentary record as if it doesn’t exist, or worse, they dismiss it as a gigantic hoax. Of course, in some sort of fantastic alternative reality, literally every bit of this evidence could have been planted and all historical records carefully modified to cover up the necessary insertions and deletions, but realistically, this is just not probable. It would be an operation to tax the highest levels of GCHQ, the NSA, and other shady abbreviations. When would it have been done? By whom? What for? And the always-important question: cui bono? Who benefits from such an expensive, elaborate, determined conspiracy? The cost-benefit analysis alone suggests that the only way this would happen would be if something about the person or people behind Shakespeare could have the power to potentially dethrone the reigning monarch, or destabilise the government, or something in that vein. Again, possible? Sure. Great fiction? Absolutely. I’d read that book all day. But plausible? Likely? Probable? Not really. And I feel reasonably confident answering in that way because of a principle I’ve mentioned several times now: Occam’s razor. This is a notion that, statistically, logically, universally, the simplest explanation is most likely to be the correct one. This is purely because the simpler events are statistically more likely to successfully happen versus the more complex ones. If the events are more complex, there are more things that can more easily go wrong. And in this case, the simplest theory, with by far the most evidence already in its favour, is that William Shakespeare, the Stratford glover’s son, is indeed the author of the works attributed to him.

So, haven’t we answered the authorship question then? That’s the end of the story, right?


Ha! Yeah, no, not quite.

Take him for all in all

In all of this, I’ve been delicately tiptoeing around, and sometimes stepping directly in, but not acknowledging, a really obvious issue. Might have actually been driving some of you mad, but hopefully this deals with it now.

The idea that Shakespeare independently wrote every word of every play and every poem with no creative input from anyone like some sort of feverish solitary genius is arguably as extreme as the idea that he wrote none of the works ascribed to him. For what it’s worth, I don’t think either position is the truth. As with so much in life, I suspect the answer is somewhere in the middle.

And in that middle we have, collaboration, in all its guises.

Collaboration was, and is, a common practice, especially amongst groups of artists and creatives working closely together on one or more projects. Innumerable films and TV shows have not just a few, but large teams of scriptwriters, some penning individual characters, or certain scenes, some working on entire episodes, some organising meta-level narrative arcs, others responsible purely for the jokes or the arguments or the clever insinuations, but all, hopefully, weaving together into a seamless tapestry of dialogue and description. And remember I’ve already mentioned that actors too sometimes have their input, suggesting that certain lines might work better if modified in some way. Even historical financial records back up this normality. Philip Henslowe, an Elizabethan theatre impresario, has regular records of payments to teams of writers, including on the play Sir Thomas More with its team of five authors and revisors. Amongst those revisors? Shakespeare. And when time pressures were mounting, work could even be subcontracted out to jobbing writers. In other words, disentangling quite who authored which word afterwards could be even messier than this whole miniseries has been so far. And to press, it’s been… really… long, already.

So it’s time, at long last, to step into the near-present, 2016, and the sudden, surprising new turn of events in the never-ending drama that is the Shakespeare authorship question.

End of part 5 of 6.

If you’re interested in more Shakespeare content, from linguists, at Lancaster, then search the internet for Future Learn, Shakespeare’s Language. This free online course is all about both revealing meanings and exploring myths, and as a bonus, you get introduced to corpus-based methods for analysing Shakespeare’s language. What’s not to love!


The episode was researched and fact-checked by my research assistant, Rebecca Jagodzinski, and my intern, Debbi Tomkinson, and it was narrated and produced by me, Dr Claire Hardaker. I am also extremely grateful for all the input I’ve had from the renowned Shakespeare authority, Jonathan Culpeper – creator of that online course I mentioned – who has patiently entertained this whole miniseries idea from inception to gruesome, bloody execution.

However, this work wouldn’t exist in its current form without the prior efforts of many others. You can find acknowledgements and references for those people at the blog. Also there you can find data, links, articles, pictures, older cases, and more besides.

The address for the blog is And you can follow the podcast on Twitter at _enclair. Or if you like, you can follow me on Twitter at DrClaireH.