Part 7 of "Critically Examining Oxfordian Claims"

Now, I'd like to discuss Don Foster's SHAXICON database, which is currently being prepared for publication, hopefully in 1996. Ward Elliot's study provides negative evidence; it indicates that none of the claimants tested wrote the works of Shakespeare. Foster's study, though, provides positive evidence of a new and ingenious kind; he has been able to show that the person who wrote the plays almost certainly acted in them, or at the very least, this person memorized one role (or several smaller roles) in each play. He has done this by cataloguing all the "rare words" in Shakespeare (those which occur 12 times or fewer in the canonical plays), indexed not only by the play they appear in, but by the character who speaks them. In each play there is one role (or in many cases two or more smaller roles) which disproportionately affects the vocabulary of all later plays, in that the words spoken by that character consistently occur in later plays more often than we would expect by chance; this is the role that Shakespeare memorized for performance. For example, take Hamlet. Using SHAXICON, you can go through each of the other plays one by one, in each case making a list of the rare words which occur both in that play and in Hamlet. In the plays written earlier than Hamlet, the shared rare words are divided proportionally among all the characters; that is, if a character speaks 5 percent of the words in Hamlet, he will also speak roughly 5 percent of the rare words shared by the two plays. In the plays written after Hamlet, though, the shared rare words are disproportionately concentrated in the roles of the Ghost and the First Player; the words spoken by these two characters were much more in the forefront of Shakespeare's mind when he was writing the later plays. This works remarkably well all across the canon; the rare-word patterns consistently pick out the same role(s) in each play as the one Shakespeare memorized. When two are more roles are identified as Shakespeare's, these are in virtually every case characters who never appear on stage together and are thus easily doubled; in the few cases where there is a possible conflict, other evidence indicates that the text we have is revised. The two roles which seventeenth century theater gossip said Shakespeare played in his own plays --- the Ghost in Hamlet and Adam in As You Like It --- are both identified by the rare-word patterns as Shakespeare's roles. The roles identified as Shakespeare's are remarkably uniform: in almost all cases they are father figures, kings, or allegorical chorus-like figures, and in almost every case a Shakespeare role is among the first characters to come on stage, and the first or second to speak. There is considerably more to SHAXICON than I've indicated here, but I've given the most important points. The Summer 1995 issue of The Shakespeare Newsletter contains an article by Don Foster describing the project more fully, and Foster's web page contains a detailed description.

At this point, Oxfordians usually object that this method presupposes the order in which the plays were written in order to work, and thus assumes something that (according to Oxfordians) is far from settled. This would be a valid objection if it were true, but it isn't. Foster's study does NOT depend on our knowing the order of the plays ahead of time; it automatically accounts for the relative order of the plays and would work just as well if we had no idea of their order (though it might take longer to interpret the results); in fact, it can be used as evidence in some cases for disputed orderings. Allow me to explain it a little more fully, abstracting away from complications and rough edges. You take a play, say Hamlet. One by one, you compare it to each of the other plays in the canon according to Foster's shared rare word tests. Roughly speaking, the other plays will divide into two groups. In the first group, the shared rare words will be divided proportionally among all the characters in Hamlet. Lo and behold, this group consists of the plays which, according to the traditional chronology, were written before Hamlet. In the second group, the shared rare words are disproportionately concentrated in the roles of the Ghost and the Player King. Lo and behold, these are the plays which according to the standard chronology were written after Hamlet. Hmmm. Now, take another play, say 1 Henry 4. You also compare it one by one to each other play in the canon according to the rare word test. These, too, will divide into two groups. The first group will have the shared rare words distributed proportionally among the parts; this group will consist of a subset of the parallel group for Hamlet, and will include those plays which according to standard chronology were written before 1 Henry 4. The second group will, in each case, have the shared rare words disproportionately concentrated in the role of King Henry. This group will consist of the analogous group for Hamlet, plus the plays which, according to the standard chronology, were written between 1 Henry 4 and Hamlet --- 2 Henry 4, Twelfth Night, etc. It doesn't matter whether we know ahead of time whether 1 Henry 4 or Hamlet was written first --- the pattern of rare words tells us by itself. The above is oversimplified, of course, but I hope it makes it clear what the study really does, and that it does not rely on knowing the order of the plays ahead of time.

Now, all this is pretty strong circumstantial evidence that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote these plays, since we know that he was an actor and sharer in the theater company which produced them. (And of course everybody said at the time that he was the author, but I'm applying Oxfordian standards and ignoring that.) But in addition, SHAXICON provides evidence about the dating of the plays, and it correlates remarkably well with the external evidence to confirm, for the most part, the orthodox dating of the plays. For example, we know from the cast lists in the Ben Jonson First Folio that William Shakespeare acted in Jonson's Every Man in His Humour (1598) and Sejanus (1603). Don Foster has entered these two plays in the SHAXICON database, and the rare-word patterns indicate that the author of Shakespeare's plays acted in both of them, in the roles of Old Kno'well (Every Man In) and Macro and Sabinius (Sejanus). (Coincidentally, tradition --- first recorded by Thomas Davies in 1785 --- says that Shakespeare played Old Kno'well in Johnson's Every Man In.) Furthermore, we have documentary evidence that Every Man In was performed in 1598 and 1604, and words from this play come pouring into the Shakespeare plays which, according to the standard chronology, were written in 1598 and 1604; similarly, we know that Sejanus was acted in 1603, and words from this play appear disproportionately in Shakespeare's plays which, according to the standard chronology, were written around then. In fact, wherever we have documentation of a performance of a Shakespeare play during his lifetime, SHAXICON indicates that the play in question was being performed in the appropriate year. For a detailed explanation of the use of SHAXICON for dating plays and identifying sources, see the essay on Romeo and Juliet on Don Foster's web page.

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