Shakespeare Authorship Question

I have been conducting quantitative empirical research on Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets since the early 1980s. All told, I have published 2 book chapters (Simonton, Taylor, & Cassandro, 1998; Simonton, 2009t), 1 encyclopedia entry (Simonton, 1999q; reprinted 2011), and 8 refereed journal articles (Simonton, 1983a, 1984l, 1986i, 1989d, 1990e, 1997j, 2004p, 2009y). At the beginning, I did not even know that any authorship controversy existed. As a consequence, my primary sources of information were traditional or “Stratfordian.” However, once my research became better known outside psychology, I began to receive emails from the “anti-Stratfordians” who explicitly doubted that the man from Stratford wrote the plays and poems traditionally attributed to him. So, how could I possibly use Stratfordian data?

At first, I was not very concerned about this question. Almost all of my empirical studies did not require data contingent on the resolution of this controversy. As a psychologist who studies creative genius, my primary interest was aesthetic: Why are some plays (or sonnets) vastly superior in dramatic (or poetic) impact to other plays (or sonnets)? I addressed this question via content analyses of a work’s thematic content and literary style (Simonton, 1986i, 1989d, 1990e). Hence, the author per se was irrelevant. One seeming exception to this assertion was my use of the Stratfordian play chronology in a study of how thematic content, poetic style, and aesthetic success varied as a function of the author’s age (Simonton, 1986i). Yet even this usage was noncommittal to the extent that the traditional chronology at least had the plays in roughly the correct order. Thus, the play chronology might be shifted backward by enough time (or even squished or expanded) to accommodate an alternative author without altering most of my empirical conclusions. The only genuine exception were those findings that concerned the relation between thematic content and concurrent political events (Simonton, 1983a). But because my Shakespeare research was always peripheral to my overall research program – still only accounting for much less than 3% of all my publications – it was never a question that kept me up at nights.

Then at the beginning of the 21st century I realized that if the true author turned out to be someone other than the traditional candidate, I could conduct some additional empirical studies that would remain impossible otherwise. These investigations would scrutinize the correlations between the life and the works. I had already much earlier examined how contemporary biographical events influenced the stylistic characteristics of compositions in the classical repertoire (Simonton, 1980d, 1986a), including a study that concentrated on the compositions of Ludwig van Beethoven (Simonton, 1987a). Yet this question could not be addressed for Shakespeare’s dramatic output because we knew so little about the author’s life. The paucity of biographical information is one of the reasons why anti-Stratfordians have questioned his authorship. I was especially interested in the candidacy of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, currently the most popular candidate and someone whose life is much better documented. However, such an inquiry could not begin without first determining a different chronology for the plays. As is well known, the traditional dates for the later plays inconveniently occur after Oxford’s death in 1604! The Oxfordians haven’t been very helpful because they have not yet reached any useful consensus. Quite the contrary, with respect to ordering, different Oxfordian chronologies each agree more with the Stratfordian chronology than they do with each other (Simonton, 2004p). Apparently, each Oxfordian takes the traditional dates as the baseline against which to present their idiosyncratic dissent. Making matters even worse, some Oxfordians simply assert that any attempt to order the plays chronologically is doomed to fail because the plays all underwent incessant revisions throughout his career, thus homogenizing the works with respect to both style and content. Yet I rejected that convenient excuse for the simple reason that extremely few creative geniuses do that sort of thing to the degree necessary to obscure an underlying chronological sequence. The norm is to move to the next great project rather than to constantly revise old projects.

Hence, I devised an objective and quantitative method to test alternative chronologies by assessing which of the rival datings established the strongest correspondence between conspicuous political events and thematic content dealing with the same or similar political events (Simonton, 2004p). Besides testing two alternative Oxfordian chronologies, I evaluated the Stratfordian chronology with different temporal shifts. To my surprise, the traditional chronology shifted just two years earlier provided the best fit, suggesting that it took an average of two years for the initial event-inspired idea to result in a finished play (subsequent revisions presumably making minimal impressions on the linkages). Neither Oxfordian chronology provided any correspondences even when shifted forward and backward. The Oxfordian chronologies also did much worse than the Stratfordian in accounting for stylistic changes in the plays – the tendency for the author’s poetry to become much more flexible, complex, novel, and unpredictable as his career progressed. Because this developmental tendency is specifically predicted by a major theory of artistic creativity, I had yet another reason for ruling Oxford out as a candidate. Lastly, because the career trajectory – the rise to a career peak and the gradual decline thereafter – was also found to agree with prior research and theory on creativity across the life span (Simonton, 1988a, 1997c), the scientific arguments against his candidacy were threefold. Whoever actually wrote the plays, it was patent that the traditional chronology is approximately correct in both relative and absolute terms. More specifically, the following plays, in whole or in part, were most likely written after Oxford died: Pericles, Anthony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Winter’s Tale, Tempest, Cymbaline, and Henry VIII (see Simonton, 2004p, Table 1). Given this empirical outcome, I then began a systematic search for some other candidate whose life would conform to the most plausible play chronology. The primary non-Stratfordian candidates seemed to be Francis Bacon, Henry Neville, and Will Stanley (the 6th Earl Derby). At present, I believe that Neville may provide the most reasonable alternative. Thanks to the current efforts of various scholars, recent research has only reinforced that belief. That said, I have found no convincing evidence disproving the Stratfordian attribution once and for all. Tradition may then provide the best default position.

I realize that my tolerance of ambiguity concerning such an important question is not widely appreciated. The issue has become so highly polarized that it is often difficult if not impossible to carry out a calm discussion of the pros and cons regarding each candidate. Perhaps because the Oxfordians believe that they are fighting against an entrenched establishment with supposed economic and professional self-interests at risk, Oxford’s advocates often become extremely hostile not only toward Stratfordians but also proponents of alternative candidates. In truth, I witnessed more ad hominem attacks here than in any other intellectual debate in which I have ever been  involved in as a scientist. It’s evidently not easy to discuss rationally whether The Tempest was really written in 1610 rather than before 1604 or whether “our ever-living poet” refers to God rather than a deceased sonnet author – and other such matters of decisive implications. On occasion, I get caught in the middle of the vicious crossfire, and can only try to escape, uttering Mercutio’s classic curse “A plague o’ both your houses!”

Perhaps the problem is that I’m approaching the authorship problem in a totally different manner – not as a humanistic scholar but rather as a behavioral scientist. In the latter case, it is actually considered advisable to entertain alternative hypotheses, to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each explanation. In a true Baconian, inductive fashion, no established fact should be omitted from the empirical evaluation. Such an investigative strategy allows the researcher to avoid confirmation biases. In contrast, the majority of the participants in the debate assume advocacy positions from the start, like lawyers arguing their cases in court. Perhaps the authorship question will only be resolved after we first “kill all the lawyers.”

Besides all that, there’s the bottom line: All of the research I’ve conducted over a quarter century plus remains completely valid so long as the traditional chronology is approximately correct. Failure to resolve the authorship question more completely only denies me the raw data necessary to conduct one or two empirical inquiries. I will never be able to connect thematic content and perhaps poetic style to underlying biographical events. That is all, and that’s ok.

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