Other Than That, Mrs. Lincoln, How Was the Play? Enough Already with Double Falsehood (Part 3 of 3)

for the first post in this series, click here; for the second, click here.

Believe it or not, I could go on talking about Double Falsehood for many, many more posts; the issues it raises, as opposed to the play itself, are that significant. I’ll be coming back to them in other contexts again and again, but for now, since it’s Shakespeare’s birthday, it is time to step away from this problematic text and turn back to the real stuff. So I’m going to look briefly at one final line of inquiry and then say what I think it all means.

Here we come to the most technical subject I’m likely ever to discuss in this blog, but I’ll keep it simple. The question “Who wrote what?” has concerned scholars for a long time, and not just about Double Falsehood. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some looked for a quantitative approach. All writers adopt certain ways of saying things as it were subconsciously. Find these, and you have markers of a particular writer’s style that are both idiosyncratic and subtle enough to be hard to forge. Find enough, and you can tell one writer apart from another more objectively than you can using intuitions about “style.” To take a really crude example, Shakespeare was of the generation that used “hath” instead of “has”; his younger colleague Fletcher tends to use “has.” Scholars throughout the twentieth century performed heroic feats collocating these markers (particularly the wonderfully named Ants Oras), but when databases were developed the field really took off. Particularly when it’s a database that’s being analyzed, we call this technique stylometric analysis.

Applied to Shakespeare, here’s the idea: you look for markers in the texts we know to be his that are not found in texts we know to be by others, and apply them to problematic texts. Obviously, this isn’t some kind of magic technique, and it isn’t really science, but the method is scientific and there are already results that are statistically significant. Stylometric analysis appears to have confirmed that Shakespeare and Fletcher did collaborate on Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen, and that Shakespeare and George Wilkins collaborated on Pericles, dividing the labor where intuition says (the clunky early acts are Wilkins’s, the brothel scene is Shakespeare’s). It even caused Jonathan Bate, who edited the  Arden Third Titus Andronicus, to change his mind about whether Shakespeare had a collaborator on that play. Most of all, it has been applied to the authorship controversy, where its results are universally and conclusively against the claims of Oxford. (As James Shapiro notes in his magisterial Contested Will, Oxfordians are just barely beginning to come to grips with these results.)

As you would expect, stylometry has been brought to bear on Double Falsehood. It’s an irresistible test case, even though you wouldn’t expect it to yield conclusive results (as my account should indicate, it’s not going to deliver line-by-line attributions, and you need a certain amount of text to make it work at all). If Double Falsehood is really the palimpsest it’s supposed to be, the results should be all over the map. And so they are, but Professor Hammond doesn’t acknowledge this. His discussion is desultory, relying on only two sources. He ignores Vickers’s skepticism and seems unaware of the work of Ward Elliott and Robert Valenza, whose “Oxford by the Numbers” is the most comprehensive stylometric analysis of Shakespeare, and which concludes (incidentally) that Double Falsehood hasn’t got any Shakespeare in it. And truly bizarrely, without citing any other analysis, he says that “The other [than “has” versus “hath”] most prominent identifier of Fletcher’s style is his addiction to the feminine ending.” A feminine ending occurs when a line in iambic pentameter, the usual blank verse line we see all the time in Shakespeare (for example, Portia’s The QUAL-i-TY of MER-cy IS not STRAIN’D) has an extra unstressed syllable at the end. So Hamlet:

How ALL oc-CAS-ions DO in-FORM a-GAINST me.

 What’s bizarre is that if you look at anybody else who does stylometric analysis, they’ll tell you that the feminine ending is a marker for Shakespeare and that it got more pronounced as his career went on. Check out Figure 1 in this article by Elloitt and Valenza, which shows that in the early 1610s Shakespeare was using at least 30%, as much as almost 40%, feminine endings. So at the least, I don’t know what Hammond’s table of feminine endings in Double Falsehood is supposed to prove.

The takeaway? There may be stylometric evidence that indicates that Shakespeare had a hand in Double Falsehood (I particularly need to look at Jonathan Hope’s The Authorship of Shakespeare’s Plays, which alas is not in the Toronto Public Library; from what I can gather via Google Books, Hope has what he thinks is a marker that doesn’t vary under revision under other hands, and he seems to think it shows at least one scene may be by Shakespeare) but Hammond doesn’t present it, at least not effectively. We’ll revisit this issue.

Which brings us to the bottom line. How is Double Falsehood the play? Whether or not it’s got Shakespeare in it, is it readable or performable?

I haven’t seen it performed and after reading it I don’t particularly want to. The self-appointed “Shakespeare Cop” Ron Rosenbaum, the novelist Delia Sherman, the writer Kate Maltby, a Vermont poet and Shakespeare aficionado, and the reviewers for the New York Times and the Telegraph I linked to in my first post are equally unenthusiastic. (Disclosure: I am one of the commenters to the Vermont poet’s post, which is where I learned about the Arden edition.) A plot summary makes it easy to see why. A young man is sent away from court and the young woman he loves. His bosom buddy takes it as an excuse to court the young woman. (We know the bosom buddy is the villain because he raped another woman before the play begins.) Bosom buddy colludes with woman’s father to force her to marry, but just before the vows are pronounced the hero, who is hiding behind an arras, springs out. End of Act I. Act II, the hero wanders around mad in the Andalusian mountains, where he encounters the raped woman, who has disguised herself as a shepherd (enduring another rape attempt by the patriarch of the clan that’s taken her in). Bosom buddy/bad guy’s brother shows up just in time, and everybody is gathered together for a conclusion of multiple unmaskings and a happy ending. So let’s see: bosom buddies at each others’ throats over a woman but reconciled at the end in bromantic fashion? Check. Ludicrous scenes with shepherds and a disguised wronged woman? Check. Madman wandering around untended outdoors? Check. Eavesdropper hiding behind an arras? Check. What we’ve got is a mashup, mostly of The Two Gentlemen of Verona and Cymbeline, with lots of other Shakespeare plays thrown in, including Lear and Hamlet (where else has anybody ever hidden behind an arras?). It reads like a parody of Shakespeare, only Shakespeare parodied himself much better in Cymbeline. (But if Shakespeare only supplied the plot, as Professor Stern’s research may indicate, that actually fits.) The result might be funny, if played as broadly as the Beyond the Fringe troupe would, but the holes in the plot (how do Julio, the hero, and Violante, the raped shepherdess, know each other? How does Roderick, the good brother, know where to be at every moment? And so on. Professor Hammond and others plead that there are (utterly conjectural) cut scenes that explain these gaps—but the cuts were supposedly made by people who wanted to make the play more performable, not less; what did they think they were doing?

The Restoration rewrites of Shakespeare’s plays—Nahum Tate’s Lear, Davenant’s revisions (be glad I haven’t taken you through his The Law Against Lovers, a mashup of Measure for Measure with Much Ado About Nothing! But in this context I can’t resist a quote from Wikipedia: “Oddly, Davenant was able to represent The Law Against Lovers as his own work; he apparently had jumbled up Shakespeare so successfully that his audience did not recognize what they were seeing and hearing.”)—are oddities. Double Falsehood is a double oddity because it exists at a further remove still, filtered through Theobald’s revision. Nobody thinks those other Restoration revisions worth performing today and nobody would think Double Falsehood worth bothering with if it weren’t for the ghost of Cardenio flickering around its edges.

I can’t fault the Classic Stage Company in the least for putting on Double Falsehood because they used it as a teaching moment; as the Times review observes, they brought in an array of scholars to talk about the genuinely fascinating and complex issues this text raises about how Shakespeare’s plays, and others, got written and transmitted. Similarly, the Royal Shakespeare Company has just started what it calls a reimagining of Cardenio, plugging the theatrical gaps with Cervantes, and despite the publicity for “Shakespeare’s Lost Play” there’s potential for education and entertainment. Greg Doran’s interview is hilariously egomaniacal, as he gives himself way too much credit for “discovering” Double Falsehood and the 1612 translation of Don Quixote the author of Cardenio used, but there’s no question of false pretenses; if anything, the contrary.

The Union Theatre production I linked to in my first post, though, says that Double Falsehood is by “William Shakespeare and John Fletcher”—and it just isn’t. There may be any number of Shapirovian layers under what we have, but what we have is by Lewis Theobald. It does nobody any good, except the union Theatre’s box office, to pretend otherwise. Similarly, it really pains me to say this but I think it irresponsible at best of the Arden editors to include Double Falsehood in the Arden Shakespeare, rather than their Arden Early Modern Drama series, or rather than inventing a new series such as “Shakespeare Apocrypha” (where, if truth be told, Sir Thomas More, the manuscript that has about 200 lines in what many think is Shakespeare’s handwriting, would also belong; its Arden came out in February, while Measure for Measure, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream still await their Third Series editions).

And why does any of this matter? After all, nobody’s lost an eye. But I don’t think I can put it better than Kate Maltby did in her review of the Union Theatre production that I linked to above:

This may seem like it should only matter to the Chamber of Commerce of Stratford on Avon. In fact, it should matter to everyone who thinks that Romeo and Juliet has the power to change lives. Because if a teenager is dragged to Double Falsehood and leaves with a lifelong conviction that ‘Shakespeare’ is pallid and dull, they may never get a chance to engage with the real thing. And that’s a loss to all of us.

As we wish Will a happy 447th, I can only say: Amen.

5 responses to “Other Than That, Mrs. Lincoln, How Was the Play? Enough Already with Double Falsehood (Part 3 of 3)

  1. Pingback: Spam, Spam, Spam, Shakespeare and Spam: Double Falsehood, One Dead Unjugged Rabbitfish Later (Part 2 of 3) | shakesyear

  2. Pingback: Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Baked Beans, Spam, Egg, Sausage, and Double Falsehood: Hasn’t Got Much Shakespeare in It (Part 1 of 3) | shakesyear

  3. I’ve been meaning to revisit this subject and your post is encouraging me to do so. I also need to write a 3 of 3. 🙂 Contact me via my E-Mail and I will send you the relevant pages from The Authorship of Shakespeare’s Plays.

    I think you come down where a lot of scholars land – just plain skeptical.

  4. Thanks for your blog on this Play. I’m currently doing my PhD on Shakespeare and have gone through the whole range of emotions with this play, finally coming to the same conclusion that you did about its placement in the Arden Shakespeare – my thought was that they start a new line (because it doesn’t, in my mind belong in an early modern series either) and call it a ‘Legacy Play’ not only would it more accurately describe its relationship to the actual canon (and in the process not leave readers with the suspicion that they were tricked) it would also open Arden up to publishing other adaptations like Tate’s and Davenant’s which are used in Shakespeare Afterlives courses (like on my MA course) and are often quite entertaining.

    Hammond’s reluctance to deal with the stylometric analysis is not new from what I can tell. I’ve had to do a bit of reading of these studies including Vickers and a bit of Hope and I have generally found that those who do stylometrics do stylometrics and those who don’t only touch on them lightly- if at all. While Bate did adjust his position on Titus, you will find that even his engagement with the data is tenuous (you may want to take a look in the TLS archives where Vickers likes to do a lot of his exposing of what he perceives as “disintegrationist’ theories.) However, and this is where my little dissertation pops in, you might want to notice that ‘authorship’ as far as Vickers is concerned happens in isolation of the multitude of other agents in both the playhouse and the printing house who are involved with the transmission of the texts as we get them- even in their first editions. In short, he asserts that all work begins and ends with the playwright. This is just hard to fathom in lieu of what we know about textual transmission in the time. I study the role of printers and compositors and the changes they make to these texts and if you saw how much the mechanical and human practices/preferences can come into play as they set these plays, it becomes difficult to ignore the collective agency involved. Not that I’m arguing against playwrights, all I’m saying is that it is wrong to not acknowledge the larger process. I can’t help but think this is part of the reason why stylometrics are not largely engaged with. While I think they can add support, it seems like they ought to be just one tool in the arsenal. Well enough of my lecture, I need to actually get back to work 🙂 No doubt you will develop your own opinion of this as you go through the canon. Best of luck with your reading – I look forward to following along 🙂

  5. Thanks for your kind words and this lovely comment! You’ve so clearly set out some of the broader issues I’ve promised I’ll talk about later (I do want to give Double Falsehood a rest, but I’ll get back to them.) Your comment about the stylometrists is especially interesting. When I first heard of them, I was tremendously excited to learn that there was a scholarly practice that paid attention to the conditions of writing plays instead of assuming that Shakespeare was some Great Man on High taking dictation, like the Lowells, only from God. Now that you point it out I can see how they’re indeed not so attentive to the conditions of transmission (and in fact how they would have to downplay them, because they raise uncomfortable questions about the stylometric program). I remember how struck I was, too, by the fact that as soon as you delve into the context of the plays you discover how much there is to know about the scriveners, compositors, and so on of just the First Folio. So you’re absolutely right to focus on them. Do you find that people’s eyes at first glaze over when you tell them what your dissertation is about, but once they really get it they are fascinated? Because I find it just that kind of topic.

    I totally endorse your conclusion that stylometrics should be just one tool in the arsenal. And also that there’s no play without a playwright, but we absolutely need to take into account the host of factors that affect him (alas, it always was a “him” in this period; imagine Gwyneth Paltrow disguised as Ben Jonson) and how his work gets transmitted. So the very best of luck with your dissertation, and please comment whenever you get a break from it!