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A Shakespeare Play You’ve Never Heard Of

A new method of analysis finds Double Falsehood was very likely co-written by the Bard.
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William Shakespeare's birthplace. (Photo: Elliott Brown/Flickr)

William Shakespeare's birthplace. (Photo: Elliott Brown/Flickr)

“What’s in a name?” William Shakespeare asks in Romeo and Juliet. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."

By that logic, it matters little whose name is attached to the play Double Falsehood, which was published in 1728 and is practically unknown today. If it’s a well-written, compelling work, it should get produced no matter who wrote it.

In reality, however, we’re uniquely drawn to plays thought to be authored by the Bard of Avon. If he is, as many assert, the greatest writer in the English language, anything he penned is automatically of interest.

Well, we can tentatively add another play to the Shakespeare canon. Using a unique form of text analysis, in which they weigh the “psychological signatures” of three possible authors, psychologists Ryan L. Boyd and James Pennebaker of the University of Texas-Austin conclude Double Falsehood was written largely by the man who brought us Twelfth Night and King Lear.

If the Bard of Avon is, as many assert, the greatest writer in the English language, anything he penned is automatically of interest.

“Multiple analytic approaches converged in suggesting that Double Falsehood’s psychological style and content architecture predominantly resemble those of Shakespeare,” Boyd and Pennebaker write in the journal Psychological Science.

The researchers also found signs that point to the involvement of John Fletcher, who co-authored Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen with Shakespeare. This suggests Double Falsehood (under its original title, The History of Cardenio) was likely another collaboration between the two men.

Double Falsehood was originally published in London, more than a century after Shakespeare’s death, by Lewis Theobald. He claimed “it was based on three original manuscripts of a play that he had discovered, all written by Shakespeare,” the researchers note.

Since those originals were destroyed, apparently in a fire, scholars have been arguing for centuries over whether it was written by the Bard, or by Theobald himself, who presumably could draw more attention and make more money by offering an unknown Shakespeare play for sale.

To try to answer that question, Boyd and Pennebaker closely looked at 54 plays: 33 of Shakespeare’s, nine by Fletcher and 12 by Theobold. While they used some common methods of analyzing texts, including average sentence length, and the use of “low base-rate tell words”—words used infrequently by the general public but favored, for whatever reason, by a particular author.

They also created a “psychological signature” of each of the writers, in part by determining how “categorical” each of their writing styles were. Authors on one end of this spectrum “tend to use nouns, articles, and prepositions at high rates,” they write; this reflects their tendency “to be analytic or formal in their thinking.” Those on the other end use disproportionate number of pronouns and adverbs, reflecting the fact they are “dynamic thinkers (who) tend to live more in the here-and-now.”

Taking all this into account, “we found a consistent psychological signature that is consistent with the writing of Shakespeare and Fletcher,” the researchers conclude. (For the record, both came out on the dynamic-thinker side of the spectrum, Fletcher more so than Shakespeare.)

“Results generally showed a strong presence of Shakespeare’s signature in the early parts of Double Falsehood; apparent contributions from Fletcher were greatest in the final two acts,” they report. “Theobald’s signature had only a small presence,” making it highly unlikely the play is his “whole-cloth forgery.”

“Going into the research ... I just kind of assumed that it was going to be a pretty cut-and-dry case of a fake Shakespeare play,” Boyd admitted to the Association for Psychological Science. “I was surprised to see such a strong signal for Shakespeare showing through in the results.”

Then again, the Bard himself implied that his secrets could be found by tearing apart his texts. After all, when Hamlet is asked what he is reading, he simply replies: “Words, words, words.”

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.