Did You Write a Shakespearean Sonnet?

By Eckler, A. Ross | Word Ways, August 2006 | Go to article overview

Did You Write a Shakespearean Sonnet?


Eckler, A. Ross, Word Ways


One can divide humanity into two groups--those who can be identified as the real author of a Shakespearean sonnet, and those who cannot. Willard Espy revealed in his book The Word's Gotten Out (Clarkson Potter, 1989) the method for establishing authorship: look for the first letter of a name anywhere in the first line of a given sonnet, the second letter of the name anywhere in the second line of the same sonnet, and so on until the full name is spelled out. Sure enough, WILLARD ESPY appears in Sonnet 114:

   or Whether doth my mind, being crown'd with you,
   drink up the monarch's plague, this flattery?
   or whether shaLl I say mine eye saith true,
   and that your Love taught it this alchemy,
   to mAke of monsters and things indigest
   such cheRubims as your sweet self resemble,
   creating every bad a perfect best
   as fast as objects to his beams assemble?
   o, 'tiS the first! 'Tis flatt'ry in my seeing,
   and my great mind most kingly drinks it uP.
   mine eYe well knows what with his gust is greeing.
   and to his palate doth preserve the cup.
   if it be poison'd, 'tis the lesser sin
   that mine eye loves it and doth first begin.

It was a near miss--the P in Espy is the last letter on the line!

How surprising is this result? Not very, it turns out. This essay assesses the mathematical likelihood, and provides the Word Ways reader with a method of determining whether a search through the 154 sonnets has a chance of revealing his name.

The letter frequencies of the sonnets more or less resemble those found in present-day English-language texts. However, to allow for differences due to vocabulary choice, the first 30 sonnets were examined to determine how many lines out of 420 contained each letter at least once. For the rare letters JQXZ, all 154 sonnets were examined. The resulting probabilities are given below, in the first column following the letter.

A .90 1/2

B .13 9

C .37 4

D .74 1

E .99+ 0

F .47 3

G .45 3

H .94 0

I .90 1/2

J .03 15

K .07 12

L .75 1

M .59 2

N .90 1/2

O .93 0

P .33 5

Q .02 17

R .87 1

S .93 0

T .97 0

U .68 2

V .10 10

W .56 2

X .02 16

Y .58 2

Z .01 21

To calculate quickly one's chance of success, select those integers from the rightmost column corresponding to the letters of one's name. If the sum is 19, there is an 80 per cent chance that at least one of the 154 sonnets will contain your name; if 24, 50 per cent; and if 28, only 20 per cent. …

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