For a long time, scholars have assumed that William Shakespeare (1564–1616) (below right) was not the only author of some famous plays that bear his name. A discerning reader does not need AI for that. An author’s unique style is like a fingerprint. Some scenes just don’t “sound like” his work (the technical term is “a stylistic departure”).
A second author proposed for Henry VIII (1623), John Fletcher (1579–1625), has been proposed as early as 1850. An AI algorithm, by motoring through a number of works of an author, can help by supporting or (not supporting) reasonable guesses in cases of doubt.
But first, let’s go back to 1623:
New research suggests Shakespeare didn’t pen the history play-turned-tragedy by himself. Since literary analyst James Spedding first raised the possibility in 1850, scholars have speculated that Henry VIII was actually a collaboration between the Bard and John Fletcher, who succeeded Shakespeare as house playwright of the King’s Men acting company. Now, an algorithm created by Petr Plecháč of Prague’s Czech Academy of Sciences has revealed that the inflammatory cannon scene—and roughly half of the play—were likely written by Fletcher. Plecháč’s findings are published in the pre-print server arXiv.
“The scenes that are written by Fletcher are creaky,” Grace Ioppolo, a Shakespearean scholar at the University of Reading, told BBC News’ Tim Masters in 2015, when the rebuilt Globe Theater was preparing to host the play once again. “You can see in some scenes it doesn’t have that Shakespearean touch that we are used to.” Theresa Machemer, “Artificial Intelligence Reveals Second Playwright’s Contributions to Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VIII’” at Smithsonian.com
Plecháč’s open access paper used AI to analyze the “most frequent words and most frequent rhythmic patterns” of four plays that we are pretty sure were composed individually by each author. Generally, people tend to reuse the same patterns of speech so a completely different pattern usually means a different author. But it would be very time-consuming to sit there and analyze it all. Fortunately, an algorithm has an indefinite amount of time for that kind of thing. And the algorithm scored Fletcher (left) as playing a role.
According to the computer, this scene was written by both authors, with Shakespeare solely responsible for the first scenes in Acts IV and V, and possibly for part of the fourth scene in Act V. The participation of Massinger is not indicated, Plechac concludes.Alison Flood, “AI ‘reveals Shakespeare and Fletcher’s different roles in Henry VIII’” at The Guardian
It may seem surprising to us today that authorship was so hard to establish centuries ago. But in Shakespeare’s day, there was no copyright protection and no commercial licensing of related products (shirts, mugs, bags, etc.). Not only that but authors could be tried and severely punished or executed for what they wrote. Systems that clearly identify authors were much more easily developed after freedom of expression and copyright became established principles.
At any rate, turning AI loose on some of these vexing problems should give literary scholars more to write about rather than less. The AI verdict may not always be right but for that very reason it is bound to be food for thought.
Further reading: Does AI challenge Biblical archeology? Sadly, many surviving documents are so damaged that they cannot be read using traditional methods. The more scrolls are deciphered using new AI methods, the more archeologists will have to study and write about.