Scribbling Shows It's by Shakespeare ; Analysis of Handwriting Points to Collaboration in 1602 Play, Scholar Says

By Schuessler, Jennifer | International Herald Tribune, August 13, 2013 | Go to article overview

Scribbling Shows It's by Shakespeare ; Analysis of Handwriting Points to Collaboration in 1602 Play, Scholar Says


Schuessler, Jennifer, International Herald Tribune


Scholars have debated whether some 325 lines in a 1602 edition of Thomas Kyd's play "Spanish Tragedy" were written by Shakespeare. A scholar found his proof in the poet's bad penmanship.

For nearly two centuries, scholars have debated whether some 325 lines in the 1602 quarto edition of Thomas Kyd's play "Spanish Tragedy" were, in fact, written by Shakespeare.

Last year, the British scholar Brian Vickers used computer analysis to argue that the so-called Additional Passages were by Shakespeare, a claim hailed by some as the latest triumph of high- tech Shakespearean text mining.

But now, a scholar at the University of Texas, Austin, claims to have found something closer to definitive proof using a more old- fashioned method: analyzing Shakespeare's messy handwriting.

In a terse four-page paper, to be published in the September issue of the journal Notes & Queries, Douglas Bruster argues that various idiosyncratic features of the Additional Passages -- including some awkward lines that have struck some doubters as distinctly sub-Shakespearean -- may be explained as print-shop misreadings of Shakespeare's penmanship.

"What we've got here isn't bad writing, but bad handwriting," Mr. Bruster said in a telephone interview.

Claiming Shakespeare authorship can be a perilous endeavor. In 1996, Donald Foster, a pioneer in computer-driven textual analysis, drew front-page headlines with his assertion that Shakespeare was the author of an obscure Elizabethan poem called "A Funeral Elegy," only to quietly retract his argument six years later after analyses by Mr. Vickers and others linked it to a different author.

This time, editors of some leading scholarly editions are betting that Mr. Bruster's cautiously methodical arguments, piled on top of previous work by Mr. Vickers and others, will make the attribution stick.

"We don't have any absolute proof, but this is as close as you can get," said Eric Rasmussen, a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and an editor, with Jonathan Bate, of the Royal Shakespeare Company's edition of the complete Shakespeare.

"I think we can now say with some authority that, yes, this is Shakespeare," Mr. Rasmussen said. "It has his fingerprints all over it."

Mr. Rasmussen and Mr. Bate are including "The Spanish Tragedy" in the Royal Shakespeare Company's new edition of Shakespeare's collaboratively written plays, to be published in November. And Mr. Bruster plans to include the Additional Passages in his new edition of the Riverside Shakespeare (renamed the Bankside Shakespeare), coming in 2016.

If embraced by the broader world of Shakespeareans, the Additional Passages would become the first largely undisputed new addition to the canon since his additions to Kyd's play "Edward III" began appearing in scholarly editions in the mid-1990s.

Acceptance is by no means assured. Three years ago, some eyebrows went up after the Arden Shakespeare published "Double Falsehood," an 18th-century play long believed by some to contain parts of a lost play by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, in its prestigious series.

Tiffany Stern, a professor of early modern drama at the University of Oxford and an advisory editor for the Arden Shakespeare, praised the empirical rigor of Mr. Bruster's paper, but she said that some new attributions were driven less by solid evidence than by publishers' desire to offer "more Shakespeare" than their rivals.

"The arguments for 'The Spanish Tragedy' are better than for most" putative Shakespeare collaborations, Ms. Stern said. "But I think we're going a bit Shakespeare-attribution crazy and shoving a lot of stuff in that maybe shouldn't be there."

Elizabethan theater was intensely collaborative, with playwrights often punching up old plays or working with other dramatists to cobble together new ones, in the manner of Hollywood script doctors. The 1602 Additional Passages to "The Spanish Tragedy," inserted more than a decade after Kyd wrote the original, updated the bloody revenge play with some newly fashionable psychological realism. …

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