The Shakespeare Files

By Ward Elliott

In the fall of 1987, Ward Elliott, the Burnet C. Wohlford Professor of American Political Institutions, originated the Claremont Shakespeare Clinic, an authorship roundtable that grabbed national headlines based on undergraduates' research of credible Shakespeare claimants. We asked Elliott, who holds a law degree and teaches public law and policy at CMC, to update us on his recent participation in a summer conference at the University of Tennessee, devoted to the case of Shakespearean authorship. His paper, along with those of the other Shakespeare conference participants, will be published in a coming issue of the Tennessee Law Review.

Who wrote Shakespeare? The question happened to be the title  of a high-level Shakespeare authorship debate at the University   of Tennessee in June, where I was a principal speaker.

Since the 1900s, thousands of books and articles have been written on the question, doubting that the lowly William Shakespeare—the Stratford glover's son, London bit actor, and theater shareholder—could have written the poems and plays of William Shakespeare, considered the greatest writer of all time. The contrast between Shakespeare's supposedly humdrum, grasping, mercantile documents and the all-surpassing sophistication and learning of the plays, has seemed too great for many to believe. Surely, many have argued, a more credible author would be a traveled, polished, educated noble much like Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, today's leading claimant to be the True Shakespeare. As Sigmund Freud put it: "The man from Stratford ... seems to have nothing at all to justify his claim, whereas Oxford has almost everything."

Freud, Mark Twain, and John Galsworthy were prominent anti-Stratfordians of the early 20th century. They were followed by a host of lawyers, members of Parliament, and Washington notables, including foreign-policy counselor Paul Nitze and Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

The controversy still rages on the media, and among the general public—everywhere, in fact, but in modern English departments. These have always considered the question of who wrote Shakespeare to be of interest only to hobbyist amateurs, suitable for the National Enquirer, or possibly for Harper's, but hardly for the Shakespeare Quarterly. As for postmodern English departments, they have shunned not only Shakespeare, but every other kind of authorship question since the Death of the Author was proclaimed in the 1960s.

It is my belief, however, that the general public and its lawyerly elites have never accepted these views, thus prompting the dozens of authorship debates held in the U.S. and Great Britain. The most recent and most ambitious of such debates took place in Knoxville, Tenn., in June, when the University of Tennessee College of Law presented a two-day conference, Who Wrote Shakespeare? An Evidentiary Puzzle. Tennessee lawyers, counting for about half of the 150-member audience, sought Continuing Legal Education credit for new techniques of handling evidence, while the remaining onlookers—card-carrying supporters of the Earl of Oxford ("Oxfordians")—paid $125 a ticket for what promised to be the star-studded Super Bowl of authorship debate.

Of particular significance was the inclusion of more, and better-informed, speakers. Anti-Stratfordian panelists included three of the Shakespeare Oxford Society's top speakers and writers—one a practicing lit professor, and the other two published by respected presses. Like Freud, they were convinced, after years of study, that the sublime Shakespeare looked just like the sublime Oxford, and not at all like the grubby Stratford man.

Anti-Oxfordian panelists included the two top Oxford specialists in the world: UC Berkeley's Alan H. Nelson, (Monstrous Adversary: The Life of Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, 2003), and Georgetown College's Steven May, editor of Oxford's collected poems. Both argued that Shakespeare looked much more like the Stratford man of record than like the Oxford of record. Oxford, more than Shakespeare, was the one whose letters were grasping and mercantile, they noted. His own formal education fizzled out without distinction at age 13; his Oxford and Cambridge diplomas turned out to be ceremonial souvenirs, not earned degrees; and his known poems look not at all like Shakespeare's.

As a third and very different Oxford skeptic, I was the only one to apply quantitative, stylometric, internal evidence based on measured profiles of Shakespeare's writing habits. I was pleased to be returning to a law ambiance, but even more pleased to be presenting findings drawing on the original work of the Claremont Shakespeare Clinic, a series of student- run teams originally funded by the Sloan Foundation, which ran from 1987 to 1994. With much effort and ingenuity, the students compiled what is still probably the largest common-spelling, computer-ready Elizabethan poem and play archive in existence, new computer techniques to shorten the list of credible, testable claimants.

Succeeding beyond anyone's expectations, they shortened the plausible claimant list from 37 to zero, and eliminated every play and poem of the Shakespeare Apocrypha as Shakespeare's. Among the clinic rejects was A Funeral Elegy by W.S., the great "Shakespeare find" of the 1990s, touted in all three U.S. Complete Shakespeare Works editions of the decade. When the students announced that their tests eliminated Oxford, Bacon, and Marlowe, they were a worldwide media sensation, covered on ABC, NBC, BBC, and several other networks, and reported in Science magazine, and more than 100 newspapers here and abroad.

When the students left, I joined clinic co-advisor Robert J. Valenza, the W.M. Keck Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science, in developing and extending their work into a dozen articles on Shakespeare authorship in leading journals, including Shakespeare Quarterly itself, and defended it successfully against blistering attacks by critics. We are now updating and consolidating the articles into a book: Shakespeare By the Numbers.

If the authorship question could be decided by objective evidence, the clinic's tests should have settled it—not by proving directly that Shakespeare wrote the plays, but by disproving every available, testable, alternative. If writing the Sonnets were a crime, none of the claimants could possibly have committed it. More simply, "If the shoe doesn't fit, you must acquit."

On the other hand, after 17 years of cutting-edge authorship research, neither Professor Valenza nor I subscribe at all to the conventional, lit-department notion that authorship questions are boring, uninteresting, passé, or suitable only for amateurs. Authorship does matter deeply to ordinary people, especially if the author could be Shakespeare. It should matter even more to people who study Shakespeare for a living.

Our tests say they shouldn't have to suffer more wrangling over the claimants we tested and "acquitted," nor over A Funeral Elegy, which we were the first to challenge by the numbers.

But they should care whether it was Shakespeare who wrote A Lover's Complaint, all of Titus Andronicus, or any of Edward III. Our tests raise doubts about the "consensus" view of all of these. If authorship matters, then computer evidence like ours matters, too, because it can actually settle some serious questions which conventional evidence has left in doubt, or raise new questions where the evidence ought to be in doubt, but isn't.

Shakespeare tells us "The blood more stirs to rouse a lion than to start a hare." He's right, absolutely. I see no way that mistaking a false Shakespeare poem or play for a real one can help anyone to understand it better.


Shakespeare Authorship Roundtable Bibliography

History of Claremont Shakespeare Clinic

Professor Elliott's PowerPoint Slides from the Conference

CMC Shakespeare Golden-Ear Test


In the forthcoming book, Shakespeare by the Numbers, CMC professors Ward Elliott and Robert Valenza present findings based on research conducted by the Claremont Shakespeare Clinic. Among them:

  • Shakespeare's writings do show consistent, countable, profile-fitting patterns, suggesting that, whoever he was, he was a single individual, not a committee.

  • Shakespeare used more hyphens, feminine endings, and open lines than most others, and fewer relative clauses; all of his known poems were written between the 10th and 14th grade-level. Others' poems fit some, but not all, of these profiles.

  • Fitting a given Shakespeare profile does not prove your poem is by Shakespeare, any more than fitting a size-4 slipper could prove that you are Cinderella. You could as well be Tiny Tim. But not fitting the slipper profile puts your claim in trouble, and the trouble gets much bigger, very quickly, if you don't fit two, three or four identifying profiles—not just shoe size, but hat size, belt size, and eye color, for example.

  • Valenza's latest calculations show that the odds of not fitting six profiles in 14 tests, such as A Funeral Elegy, or seven, like Oxford's poems, are infinitesimal compared to the farthest outlier block from Shakespeare's own baseline, which has only one narrow rejection. "Unless Oxford's writing habits changed abruptly, miraculously, and simultaneously in seven different ways in the 1590s," says Elliott, "he can't be Shakespeare. Nor can any of the other claimants we tested."