Identifying an author

In the essay titled "A description of Shakespeare’s person", it has been formed a fairly good conception of what kind of person Shakespeare must have been. In "The first night of Ur-Hamlet" we can identify the probable author of the German play Printz Hamlet aus Dännemark and in "Why does Hamlet tarry?" the living model of Hamlet in Shakespeare’s play is shown. It is one and the same person, viz. William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby (1561-1642), who also agrees with the description in the essay about "Shakespeare’s person". There are epitaphs in Shakespeare’s style on monuments erected in honor of a son and a cousin of this same Lord Derby. In "Hamlet in three stages" we can see that Shakespeare must have based his Hamlet on the German Printz Hamlet. Finally, in "Prince Hamlet and Mr. Shakespeare" we note a number of similarities between Shakespeare and his Prince Hamlet--who at the same time personates Lord Derby.

Given all these facts, it would simplify the equation if we just considered the name "Shakespeare" as a pen name for Lord Derby. Such identification would answer a number of questions. Here are some of them: How did Shakespeare come across the German play and why did he use it as a master for his own drama? What came out of the comedies that Lord Derby reportedly wrote? Why are two epitaphs over members of the Stanley family written in Shakespearean style--but no other epitaphs? Why did Shakespeare write a comedy especially for the wedding of Lord Derby (viz. A Midsummer Night’s Dream)--but no wedding plays for other noblemen? To assume e.g. Christopher Marlowe to be the man behind Shakespeare’s mask would not give us a satisfactory answer to these questions.

The theory that Shakespeare is identical with Lord Derby is obviously a very useful theory. It brings clarity and order in the confusion about Printz Hamlet, the hypothetical Ur-Hamlet and the sundry versions of Hamlet. Not least, the description that emerged from "A description of Shakespeare’s person" tallies completely with Lord Derby. Much that has been inexplicable suddenly becomes lucid in the light of the Derby theory, especially if one bothers to look up more biographical data about the Earl.

The ordinary theatergoer naturally wants to know a few facts about the author of the play to be performed. For him or her it is quite sufficient to know that Shakespeare’s plays were written by Lord Derby, whose essential biographical facts are available. Some, however, may be curious to know if Shakespeare’s plays can be pinned conclusively to Derby. Is it possible to identify an author by means of his linguistic style in the way I imagined in my school days?

Of course it can be done. There are reliable methods to determine which one out of several known writers that has written a certain anonymous text. Using such methods, the Swede Alvar Ellegaard in the book Who was Junius? (1962) demonstrated that Sir Philip Francis (1740-1818) was the one who criticized King George III under the pseudonym "Junius". The methods for identificataion must be adapted to the material available for comparison. In the case of autograph texts, we may compare handwriting, spelling, punctuation, choice of words, mode of expression and vocabulary. Comparison of handwriting is the only means at hand when signatures are in question, and six signatures are the only specimens that can be attributed with certainty to the actor Shakspere.

In the case of Lord Derby the possibilities are quite different. Derby has left us a number of private letters, signed "Will Derby". If they, perchance, were written by a secretary from Derby’s dictation, they would none the less represent Derby’s choice of words and expressions. In the following we shall take a look at five of these letters containing altogether about 920 running words. They are available in facsimile in a book by A.W. Titherley.

These five letters contain altogether 30 linguistic locutions, not counting commonplace expressions. (See Appendix A, below.) Every one of these occurs also in Shakespeare’s works, some of them several times. Most of them are also recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary ("OED"). In many cases the dictionary gives Shakespeare as the source of the earliest example. Possibly Shakespeare has introduced as many as eleven of the 30 locutions in what is now regarded as "Oxford English". Shakespeare’s contemporary, the poet Edmund Spenser (1552-1599) used only seven of the 30, although his works contain about half a million words (compared to Shakespeare’s 900,000).

Each of the 30 locutions implies a special wording among a number of possible wordings meaning the same. The literary style of a writer appears especially in his choice of wordings. The 30 expressions that we are talking about have no direct connection to each other, but they all give a somewhat academic or diplomatic impression. Even in polite society they seem to have been rare, at least until Shakespeare used them, to judge from the information supplied by OED. To be sure, most of them are missing in Spenser’s works.

Now let us suppose that each of the 30 locutions was used by half the educated Englishmen at the time. In that case there is just about one chance in a billion (1:1,073,741,800) that another person (except Derby) should happen to use all the 30. Since we know that Shakespeare used them, this indicates what a court would regard as identity in a criminal case. When e.g. fingerprints are compared, 12 identical details are usually considered sufficient proof that two prints are made by the same finger. Here we have 30 identities and most of them were probably used by a much smaller proportion of the contemporary writers than the assumed 50 percent.

Anyway, let us out of pure curiosity consider some other aspects as well. One of the letters by Derby’s hand is longer than the rest and contains 398 running words. This letter is dated July 10, 1596, and is well suited for comparison. Take for instance the proportion of running words made up from the 43 most frequent words (the, and, I, to, of, etc.) in Shakespeare’s works. This proportion is 40 percent in Shakespeare and 39.5 percent in the letter.

Likewise with the most infrequent words, such that occur less than 20 times in Shakespeare’s works. These words make up 10 percent of all the running words in the works. The letter contains 39 words that occur less than 20 times in the works, which makes 9.8 percent of 398. (Not included in the 39 are 13 names relevant for the letter but totally irrelevant for Shakespeare’s literary production.) These percentages vary from writer to writer but here they coincide.

Since the letter from 1596 is handwritten, most probably by Derby himself, it can also be compared with the only autograph text attributed to Shakespeare the author. This text consists of an addition to the unfinished play Sir Thomas More. For brevity’s sake we will call it the "STM-addition". I suspect that the entire play Sir Thomas More is by Shakespeare alias Derby (and copied clean by secretaries). The literary historian Thomas Merriam at the University of Edinburgh even asserts that he has proved it by means of 41 locutions typical of Shakespeare. There is, however, no general acceptance of Shakespeare’s authorship yet. The STM-addition, however, is so crammed with typical Shakespearian wordings that there can be no doubt about its authenticity. A short excerpt may be enough to demonstrate the dramatic style of the author.

The Mayor:_____Hold in the King’s name, hold.

Surrey:________Frends, masters, countrymen!

The Mayor:_____Peace, how, peace, I charge you keep _____________the peace.

Earl of S:______My masters countrymen.

Williamson:____The noble Earl of Shrowsbury, let’s hear

_____________ him.

Betts:_________We’ll hear the Earl of Surrey.

Lincoln:_______The Earle of Shrowsbury.

Betts: _________We’ll hear both.

All:___________Both, both, both, both!

(Punctuation added, spelling modernized.)

The STM-addition appears to be written rather swiftly and carelessly, and it contains so many cancellations and changes that it must needs be a first draft. In this respect it stands out from the rest of the play, which is most obviously a clean copy written in other hands (from drafts and dictation). Therefore, it seems quite certain that the STM-addition represents a specimen of the author William Shakespeare’s own handwriting, his spelling and his choice of words.

To identify a handwriting requires great proficiency and it would be presumptuous for me even to try. What a layman can do in this field is confined to what can be measured in millimeters and degrees. As far as this goes the STM-addition tallies with Derby’s letters. The spacing is the same (5.5 mm), the height of the small letters is the same (1.0 mm) the slope of the lines is the same (1° to 2°), the bending of the lines is the same (none) and the height of the stem of the two longest letters (f and s) is the same (10.0 mm), etc. There is on the whole nothing that contradicts the possibility that the two specimens are written by the same person. This is, however, far from a proof of identity.

When it comes to the spelling, there is no need for specially trained experts. The peculiarities are many and striking and they point strongly towards identity. In both cases the endings -ness and -tion are spelled -nes and -cion, and the words house, if and it are spelled howse, yf and yt. The word he is sometimes spelled hee and the word the is reduced to th’ before a vowel. The same five words are in both cases represented by the same five abridgements. Theoretically, the word city could be spelled either city, cyty, citi, cytie, citie, citty, cytty, citti, cyttie, cittie, City, Cyty, Citi, Cytie, Citie, Citty, Cytty, Citti, Cyttie or Cittie. The first of these 20 spellings (city) was common, although at least three writers are found to have spelled cittie. Derby chose Cytty and so did the author of the STM-addition. Nobody else has been noted for this oddity.

Some of the peculiarities that are shared by the STM-addition and Derby’s letters have also slipped into the printed versions of Shakespeare’s plays. This has happened in spite of the typographers’ intention to correct departures from the standard spelling of the period. Here and there in the quartos we find an odd Countrey among the many cases of country, and likewise fower, com, theise instead of four, come and these.

It is obvious that the printing offices aimed at a spelling standard that corresponded to the usage among the great majority of writers. It follows that the peculiarities that we have seen above were used by a minority. Every writer certainly had his idiosyncrasies, but the probability of finding two persons with ten oddities in common is only one in several thousands. There are more than ten peculiar spellings common to the STM-addition and Derby’s letters among them some very rare ones, e.g. Cytty. We can rest assured that both specimens were written by one and the same person.

A stone-cutter charged with the task of engraving a short text on a sepulcher would probably follow his template rather strictly--in any case more slavishly than the typo in the printing office. And just as expected, we find that the spelling in the epitaphs on the two Stanley sepulchers throughout follow the Derby/Shakespeare spelling standard. We find e.g. -nes, hart and tyme instead of -ness, heart and time and even a lone for alone. The last specimen may be regarded as a counterpart to the odd a levenpence for eleven pence in the STM-addition.

The autographed text of the STM-addition is generally accepted as written by Shakespeare. Curiously enough there is another handwritten text that is acknowledged as written by Derby although it is in the literary style of Shakespeare. It is an unnamed poem in nine stanzas that I have chosen to title "The Knack" because of its content. (See Appendix B.) At least the Encyclopædia Britannica states that the extant manuscript is of Derby’s hand. It is not a draft but a fair copy without changes or corrections. All the usual measures agree with those of Derby’s letters and of the STM-addition. The poem is written in the I-form and addressed to a thou, both persons obviously being wealthy men. Derby was one of the richest men in England and he certainly knew other rich men.

The spelling of the poem is typical of Derby. We find the abbreviations tht, wt, prson, and the ampersand (&), just as in the letters. Typical for Derby are also sone (=’soon’), trewe, tyme and inough. (Derby was probably somewhat dyslectic.) Theoretically, it is possible that one person composed the poem and that another made the now extant fair copy of it. "The Knack" is therefore not to be taken as a certain proof of Shakespeare’s identity with Derby.

What really determines this identity is the idiomatic style of Derby’s letters. We have seen that this style proves the identity in a way that would hold good even before a court of law. Anyway, let us out of pure curiosity look at some other aspects of style. Among the 920 running words in the Derby letters there are 11 words that are missing in the Shakespeare canon, proper names not included. Any 920 word passage at random from Shakespeare’s works contains between 7 and 22 words that are unique for that passage. At the same time these 920 words contain no less than 32 different words that are missing in the collected works of Edmund Spenser. The probability that Spenser should happen to use 32 or more "new" words in a passage like this is one to several millions. (Spenser had an extensive vocabulary, although not as wide as that of Shakespeare.) As far as the vocabulary is involved, Derby’s letters could have been written by Shakespeare but not by the contemporary poet Spenser.

One may perhaps wonder if educated Englishmen (other than Spenser) might have been in the habit of expressing themselves in the manner of Shakespeare. Both Edward de Vere (Earl of Oxford and Derby’s father-in-law) and the philosopher Francis Bacon have been nominated as alleged authors of Shakespeare’s works. Did they perhaps use the same idiom and vocabulary as Shakespeare in their private letters?

No, not by a long shot. These writers certainly could choose between various expressions meaning the same thing. Contrary to Derby, they did not always choose a Shakespearian locution. But if they used expressions of an "ordinary" character rather than the more sophisticated examples in Derby’s letters, we would expect to find a fraction of them in Shakespeare’s works. If their favorite wordings were common enough to be used by a third of all writers, then a third of them would turn up in Shakespeare. This is precisely what we find when we scrutinize the private letters of Lord Oxford, Francis Bacon and Lord Burghley. (See Appendix B.) Five out of Oxford’s 19 expressions (26 percent) are also used by Shakespeare, likewise 5 out of Bacon’s 18 expressions and 7 out of Burghley’s 18 (39 percent). Out of the 14 expressions found in the testament of Shakspere, the actor, only two occur in the works of Shakespare, the author.

The method to determine the "whodunit" in the world of literature thus proves to be effectual. It requires no specially trained experts, no computer, nor any other expensive equipment. It could well have been used in 1918 when Lefranc launched Lord Derby as the probable author of Shakespeare’s works.

Perhaps someone did in fact undertake to put Lefranc’s thesis to the test some 75 years ago in order to settle the controversy once and for all. In that case he or she was effectively reduced to silence. Quite possible, as we shall learn in the next chapter, Credence and Science.





Chambers, E. K., William Shakespeare, A Study of Facts and Problems, Oxford 1930, 1975.

Clayton, Thomas, The "Shakespearian" Addition in the Booke of Sir Thomas More, Dubuque 1969.

Ellegaard, Alvar, A Statiscal Method for Determining Authorship. Göteborg 1962.

Ellegaard, Alvar, Who was Junius?, Stockholm 1962.

Fowler, William Plumer, Shakespeare Revealed in Oxford’s Letters, Portsmouth, New Hampshire 1986.

Letters, Speeches, Charges, Advices, &c. of Francis Bacon, London 1763.

Osgood, Charles, A Concordance to the Poems of Edmund Spenser, Washington 1915.

Oxford English Dictionary 1-20, 1989.

Queen Elizabeth and her Times, A Series of Original Letters 1-2, London 1838.

Shakespeare Quartos in Collotype Facsimile 1-16, London 1939-75.

Spevack, Marvin, The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare, Cambridge, Mass. 1973.

Tannenbaum, Samuel A., The Booke of Sir Thomas Moore, New York 1927.

Thompson, E. M., Shakespeare’s Handwriting, Oxford 1916.

Titherley, A.W., Shakespeare’s Identity, Winchester 1952.

Appendix A

Stylistic expressions shared by Shakespeare and the 6th Earl of Derby but not by all the writers of their period.

The following 30 expressions are found both in the works of William Shakespeare and in one or more of five letters signed "Will Derby" and dated between 1595 and 1607. These are referred to as "DERBY" below. The expressions marked "OED" are listed in the Oxford English Dictionary and those marked "SPE" have been found in the works of Edmund Spenser. The works of Shakespeare are referrred to as "SHA" and each separate of them with its customary abbreviation.

  1. To see service (= to do military service). Used by DERBY in 1595. OED gives AWW (1601) and WT (1611) as the two first examples (both published in 1623). The next OED example is from the year 1778.

2. To write lines (= to write a letter, a poem or the like). OED: 1642.

3. To make bold (= to be bold). OED: 1393 and the next from WIV,

printed in 1602

4. To understand (= to learn) from or by a person. OED: 1611, but it is found in DERBY and SHA at earlier dates.

5. To receive (= take into the mind) disgrace, affliction or the like. OED gives MM (published 1623) as the first source. DERBY used it in 1605.

6. The hearing of a cause (in court). OED gives MM as first source.

7. To agree upon something. OED gives TIM (1623) as first source.

8. Testimony of love, intent or the like. OED: Milton (1667), but it is found in DERBY and SHA about 1607.

9. To be or to live at jar (= in discord). OED: 1552, 1586 and 1603.

10. To think meet.

11. To think fit. OED: 1611.

12. To pretend a title.

13. To put up (= endure, suffer quietly). OED: 1573.

14. To be to (= to intend to, to have to). OED: 1601.

15. To have someone heard, contented, etc. (= to hear, to content, etc.). OED: 1533.

16. To do no less.

17. In my absence (cf. during my absence).

18. Be fitting for someone. OED gives SHA as first example. SPE.

19. In someone’s behalf (= interest). OED quotes SHA. SPE.

20. To move (= to prompt, to incline) someone to something. SPE.

21. To present something unto someone. SPE.

22. To prefer a petition (or a suit) OED: 1580.

23. To account oneself. OED: 1579.

24. To leave (or refer) to someone’s discertion. OED: 1580.

25. To commit someone to God, etc. OED: 1568.

26. To ride (or spur) post (= with speed or haste). OED: 1549.

27. To seize upon something. OED: 1546.

28. To appoint to do something. SPE.

29. To acquaint someone with something. SPE.

30. In respect (= considering some circumstance). OED: 1530. SPE.


Appendix B

A poem attributed to William Shakespeare and found in a manuscript attributed to William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby.

(The version below is that of the manuscript, not the divergent one included in most "Complete Works". Spelling slightly modernized.)


("The Knack")

When tht thine eye hath chose the dame

& stall’d the deer that thou woudst strike

let reason rule things worthy blame

as well as fancy, partial like

take counsel of some other head

neither unwise nor yet unwayde.

And when thou com’st thy tale to tell

whet not thy tongue with filed talke

lest she some subtle practice smell

a cripple sone can find one halte (sone=’soon’)

but plainly say thou lov’st her well

and set thy prson forth to sell.

And to her will frame all thy wayes,

spare not to spend & chiefly there

where thy expences may sound thy praise

by ringinge always in her eare.

The strongest castell, tower or towne

the golden bullett hath beat downe.

Serve always wt assured truste,

& in thy suite be humble, trewe,

unless thy lady prove unjuste.

Seek never thou to change anewe,

When time doth serve then be not slacke

to proffer, though she put it backe.

What though her frowninge browes be bent

her cloudy lookes will clear ere nighte

and she perhaps will sone repent (sone=’soon’)

tht she dissembled her delighte

and twice desire ere it be daye

tht wt such scorn she put awaye.

What though she strive to trye her strengthe

& chide & brawl & saye the naye (the=’thee’)

her feeble force will yield at lengthe

& craft hath taught her thus to saye

had women been so stronge as men

in faithe you had not got it then.

Think women love to matche with men

and not to live so like a sainte.

Here is no heaven, they holye then

begin when age doth them attainte.

Were kissinge all the joyes in bedde,

one woman would another wedde.

The wiles and guyles that in them lurkes

dissembled wt an outward showe

the trickes & toyes & meanes to worke.

The cock tht treades them shall not knowe.

Have you not heard that sayed full ofte

a woman’s naye doth stand for noughte?

Now how enough--too muche I feare,

for if my lady hear this songe

she will not sticke to ringe my eare

to teache my tongue to be so longe.

Yet would she blushe, here be it saide,

to hear her secrets thus bewrayde.


(Source: A.W. Titherley, Shakespeare’s Identity, London 1952, p. 256.)

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