As I argued in a post last week, academic Shakespeareans need to confront those who make it their mission to convince the public that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays Shakespeare wrote. We can’t afford to ignore these claims, lest we appear scared, indifferent, or silently consenting. But unlike some of my colleagues, I think we need to begin not by critiquing the anti-Stratfordian factions, but in a mode of critical self-analysis. I believe we cannot effectively take a stand unless we examine the flaws in our own practices — some of which actively aid the anti-Shakespearean cause.

The tendency to discuss Shakespeare in isolation from other dramatists (if not in isolation from his cultural surrounds) is one feature of mainstream scholarship that mirrors a similarly exclusive focus on the part of the self-proclaimed skeptics. This parallel is partly what I had in mind when I called Bardolatry anti-Stratfordianism’s twin in my last post. It’s no coincidence that historically, the authorship controversy only came into being once Shakespeare had been elevated to the status of unparalleled genius, and it certainly seems to me that people writing in praise of Shakespeare have done almost as much damage as those out to undermine his authorial identity.

Thankfully, there are sound intellectual reasons for examining our own exclusivist biases, quite independently of any engagement with the evil twin. Many early modernists have long argued against a critical tradition that removes Shakespeare from his literary and theatre historical contexts, distorts the perception of his works, and neglects the writings of other, equally interesting authors (many of whose works consequently are not available in annotated, modernized, and cheap editions, putting them yet further out of the average reader’s reach). The entire project of the Oxford Middleton can be seen as an effort to chip away at Shakespeare’s perceived singularity, and the same can be said of the forthcoming Cambridge Jonson. And yet books on Shakespeare are still being published in much larger numbers than books on other early modern dramatists, and Shakespeare studies continue to focus at least heuristically on his works as of their own kind, without rigorously contextualizing them.

There are many reasons for this, even good ones, and as a general imperative the demand to “always contextualize” makes little sense. However, I do think that we have something of a collective responsibility to redress the public perception of Shakespeare as unique, utterly exceptional, singular — a perception that has its beginnings not in Ben Jonson’s 1623 homage to his former colleague (an appropriately effusive document, given its timing and purpose, not a work of literary history or criticism), but in Coleridge’s early-19th-century assessment of Shakespeare’s works as beyond comparison with others. So, in that PSA spirit, here’s the first in a series of posts on common Shakespeare myths.

The Language Machine

No other aspect of Shakespeare’s writing has been more often declared incomparable than his supposedly unrivaled vocabulary. The claim that Shakespeare coined more new words than anyone else — in its most extreme form, that he invented half the words in the language — is just a more exaggerated version of the same idea: that no other writer was as poetically inspired; as much in charge of, rather than subject to, language; a master, a wizard, a king of words. (For my critique of some recent assertions about Shakespeare’s invented words, see this post from a few months ago.)

David Crystal has recently argued that Shakespeare’s much-fêted verbal prodigiousness is something of a red herring. For one thing, the most frequently bandied-about figure of 30,000 words is inflated to the extent that it counts all variant forms of a word separately: so Shakespeare doesn’t just get credit for knowing the word “ask,” but also for knowing how to conjugate it (ask’st, asks, asketh, asked, asking) — six for the price of one. If one only counts the kind of different words registered as dictionary headwords (ask as a noun and ask as a verb, for instance), the size of Shakespeare’s vocabulary shrinks to between 17,000 and 20,000. For his time, that was indeed an impressive number. Nowadays, though, because of how much English has expanded, it would make for an unusually limited vocabulary; Crystal estimates that “most of us use at least 50,000 words” (3).

Without a context, though, we can’t know just how unusual Shakespeare’s command of his language was among his peers. Crystal only comparison is to the 1611 Authorized Version of the English Bible, the King James Bible, which is about as long as Shakespeare’s complete works, at 880,000 words; the KJV makes do with a mere 6000 words (excluding proper names). But given the genre and what Crystal describes as the translation’s “deliberately … conservative style” (6), that comparison is somewhat less than illuminating. Still, it underpins Crystal’s not unreasonable conclusion that Shakespeare’s vocabulary is as large as it is because his works (unlike the Bible) cover so many subjects, situations, and kinds of characters; it’s not that he knew far more words than anyone else, it’s that he wrote about more topics than almost anyone else, which required him to draw on an unusually broad range of lexicons.

Crystal’s analysis provides a welcome corrective to the kind of myth-making one can find elsewhere. But in a very recent essay, Hugh Craig goes some steps further in dealing the vocabulary-myth an impressive and hopefully fatal blow. Unlike almost all previous critics, Craig actually compares Shakespeare to his peers: other playwrights. The handful of earlier writers on the subject who had done any comparative work were quickly forced to explain away their findings (such as Louis Ule’s discoveries — in 1977, that Thomas Nashe used proportionately more words in Summer’s Last Will and Testament than Shakespeare did in any of his plays; and in 1985, that Marlowe’s vocabulary was proportionately larger than Shakespeare’s). Craig systematically compares Shakespeare’s plays to those of his contemporaries, with striking results.

In order to allow for a fair comparison, Craig equalizes his samples by only analyzing the first 10,000 words of every play. Shakespeare still ends up with a much larger number of such 10,000-word-segments than anyone else (with 28 commonly-agreed-upon singly-authored texts); Jonson and Middleton follow with 12 each. But among the 13 playwrights with at least three titles to their name, Shakespeare does not stand out as commanding a particularly large vocabulary. On average, he uses 1,664 different words per text — compared to Webster’s 1,827, Dekker’s 1,772 or Jonson’s 1,727; he comes in seventh in the group. Shakespeare neither wrote the play with the fewest different words (Chapman did), nor the one with the most (Dekker claims that accolade). Craig’s conclusion? “Shakespeare has a larger vocabulary because he has a larger canon” (63) — it’s not a matter of greater variety of subject-matters or characters, but simply a matter of more surviving plays and the almost inevitable introduction of new words with each new composition.

But Craig doesn’t stop there. He also investigates how unusual the words in Shakespeare’s vocabulary were, again with striking results. It turns out Shakespeare is nothing like the most extravagant users of English among early modern playwrights. John Marston, on the other hand, avoided common words like no-one else and was nearly unrivalled in his love for odd terms — which can’t really come as a surprise to anyone who regularly ventures beyond the confines of the bardic canon. Shakespeare, on the other hand, was perfectly average in his practice: most of his plays are uncommonly common in their mix of usual and unusual words, and in the frequency with which they use particular words (when compared to the frequency with which those words are used by other authors). Shakespeare’s vocabulary is almost aggressively normal.

The Gentle Craft

Two things stand out to me in Craig’s analysis. The obvious one is how directly his arguments contradict the notion that Shakespeare was exceptionally knowledgeable. As Craig and others suggest, Shakespeare’s artistry lies in the inventive ways he uses his words — his knack for putting simple words in the service of a complex thought, or for arranging usual terms in an unusual way; his ability to connect images and ideas, to use words to bring thought, things, and people to an imaginary life. That, however, seems to me much closer to a talent than to a skill.

The second conclusion to draw from Craig’s data has almost nothing to do with Shakespeare. I’ll put it in list form. Here is his table of playwrights ranked by how many different words they use on average:

1. Webster
2. Dekker
3. Peele
4. Marlowe
5. Jonson
6. Greene
7. Shakespeare
8. Lyly
9. Chapman
10. Heywood
11. Middleton
12. Fletcher
13. Wilson

Or, expressed differently:

1. Coach-maker’s son, no university education, probably attended the Middle Temple
2. Of obscure, possibly Dutch, origin
3. Clerk’s son, B.A. and M.A., Oxford
4. Cobbler’s son, B.A. and M.A., Cambridge
5. Bricklayer’s son (to all intents and purposes), no university education
6. Saddler’s or innkeeper’s son, B.A. and M.A., Cambridge; M.A., Oxford
7. Glover’s son, no university education
8. Notary’s son (and from a leading humanist family), B.A. and M.A., Oxford
9. Yeoman’s son, no evidence of university education
10. Rector’s son, some university education (Cambridge), degree uncertain; though possibly for a while Fellow of Peterhouse
11. Bricklayer’s son, some university education (Oxford), but no degree
12. Minister’s (later bishop’s) son, almost certainly B.A. and M.A. (Cambridge)
13. Of obscure origin; a yeoman

In other words, there appears to be no direct connection between levels of formal education and verbal prodigiousness: Fletcher, as a bishop’s son surely the most culturally elevated of the thirteen, barely ranks above obscure Robert Wilson in vocabulary. It may seem predictable that university wits like Greene, Marlowe, or Peele should be fonder of verbal variety than Shakespeare, but that Dekker uses over 100 more distinct words per play than him may come as a surprise. Webster and his more Baroque register, Jonson and his ambition to display his autodidactically acquired learning — it makes sense that such writers made use of more words than the man who supposedly had a larger vocabulary than anyone, ever, once one steps outside the echo-chamber of Bardolatry. And of course not a single person on Craig’s list can boast an aristocratic background. The most prodigious of them all, John Webster, may even have continued to run his father’s coach-making business at the same time as he was writing the most verbally rich plays of his age.

Obviously Shakespeare’s plays are anything but plainspoken. But they use a somewhat more restrained register than those of his peers, and that very restraint may in fact be one of the aspects of his craft that has allowed the plays to remain popular for as long as they have. Precisely because they aren’t overloaded with learning, stuffed with the kind of fustian Marston was so fond of — precisely because they weren’t quite as of their time as some of his colleague’s works, Shakespeare’s texts have retained a somewhat greater degree of familiarity. But none of that points to an author of unusual social distinction or uncommon erudition. Quite the opposite.

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23 Responses to Shakespearean Mythbusting I: The Fantasy of the Unsurpassed Vocabulary

  1. Alien says:

    Probably a statistical analysis showed Shakespeare, and other great writers of the time, and most gentle folk of the time had vastly greater vocabulary than the 140 character generation. Am sure you have a wonderful vocab, but your pamphlet suggests its all all about self-comparison. Believe it. Shakespeare tops you. Which still leaves you better than most. I guess.

  2. [...] proper names). Some people credit Shakespeare with a vocabulary of 27,000-30,000 words, but this estimate, others [...]

  3. Andrew says:

    I am struck by your interpretation of Hugh Craig’s data in the ninth paragraph. Given that Shakespeare’s number different words in the first 10,000 words of each work isn’t exceptional among his peers, and yet over his entire canon his total vocabulary is remarkable, that implies that he did not repeat the use of many words from his early works in his later. So, presumably, he is learning new words and pushing them to his active vocabulary?

    Hello. Reality check. I don’t know many folks who do this as they get older. Frankly, in the case of my aging wicked stepmother, not only the words remain the same, but also the content! But I digress.

    I note this because, in contrast to the general argument of this essay that Shakespeare was a He not a They (which I’m not denying), why isn’t it true that this particular bit of data actually serves to bolster the counter argument? Independent of all the other points you make, It is more likely that his *changing* vocabulary over the years (while his ACTIVE vocabulary remains roughly constant: I assume the individual deviation from 1664 different words per text average remains relatively constant otherwise Craig would have reported it) is explained by different new writers using Shakespeare’s name, not intellectual growth and development.

  4. [...] You see, modern life has made us more intelligent; we are better educated than at any other point in human history; IQ scores have advanced considerably, causing the test to be ‘re-normed’ so that scores today are comparable to the past. Contrary to what is commonly thought, the average literate person today has a vocabulary about 2-3 times greater than Shakespeare. (source) [...]

  5. [...] some common myths about Shakespeare’s vocabulary (its size and originality – and see Holger Syme on this too) – and went on to argue that Shakespeare’s originality might lie in his [...]

  6. pete langman says:

    Firstly, I like the post, and generally agree that we owe it to ourselves to be as self-critical as the anti-stratfordians are incoherent.
    Secondly, I wonder on the influence of the OED here, especially with regards neologism: how many words are given a Shakespearean nativity because their real genesis simply wasn’t on the list of prescribed sources?
    Thirdly, I collapse in agreement with Bill Kinsley, but would go further. Any writer would surely plunder his network and their network for suitable information? Ben and Will in the pub. Will asks Ben about some thorny law issue. Ben shrugs his shoulders: ‘I’ll ask Francis’. Obviously beyond proof, but as plausible speculation for supposedly arcane or specialised knowledge, it beats de Vere into a small hat.

  7. [...] Unlike the previous two “myths” I’ve challenged here (that of Shakespeare’s enormous vocabulary and that of his astonishing erudition), the myth of Burbage’s instant and unwavering stardom [...]

  8. Robert says:

    Yes, I should have typed didn’t.

  9. Robert says:

    I have a problem with bring up another myth under a posting about Shakespeare’s unsurpassed vocabulary. I’m not saying it isn’t possible Will and Ben met over beers at the Mermaid, but there is no evidence they did. On the other hand, I agree that playwrights during this period wrote in isolation. It is a good bet, they knew what their fellow writers were writing.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Do you mean they didn’t write in isolation?

      I agree that building an actual specific argument on the claim that Will may have got something from Ben over beers would be foolhardy. But nothing we know of the period suggests that playwrights didn’t talk to each other. Quite the opposite. And turning stuff you read into stories to tell is still a normal literate/oral culture crossover, and was doubtless much more prevalent in Shakespeare’s time. Basically, I think that unless there are extended close verbal parallels, we can’t really assume that Shakespeare had read, let alone owned, the book we identify as his source.

  10. mitchel says:

    Odd that not a single Oxfordian has commented to parse that glovers of the Elizabethan era were by far the lowliest of the low, that a prerequisite of the occupation was illiteracy, that cobblers, saddlers and bricklayers, middling as they were, were obliged to special, secret educations glovists were denied – or something like that.

    • Bill Kinsley says:

      This isn’t really on the topic of Shakespeare’s vocabulary, but it’s something that’s been bothering me for years. Why is it always assumed that if Shakespeare borrowed the plot of Novella A for one of his plays he must have sat down and read the book cover to cover. Isn’t the following scenario equally plausible?
      Shakespeare and Jonson are enjoying a beer in the Mermaid Tavern. Jonson says, “Hey, Will, I read an interesting little book t’other day, thinking I could use it for a play.It turned out not to be quite my cup of tea, but maybe you could use it. There’s these two guys . . . and the plot runs like this: . . .” Wouldn’t that be enough to inspire an imagination like Shakespeare’s?

      • Holger Syme says:

        YES.

        I’ll write about this in my next post — I completely agree that source studies as a whole is oddly content to think of the author as a relatively isolated figure working only with what he (in this case) could glean from books. It’s a profoundly odd approach, given everything we know about London’s theatrical scene in Shakespeare’s time — and especially given the recent interest in collaborative authorship.

  11. Great post Holger – for those who want to read more on this, there is a parallel paper to Craig’s by Ward Elliott and Robert Valenza (who run the Shakespeare Clinic):

    Ward E. Y. Elliott and Robert J. Valenza, 2011, ‘Shakespeare’s vocabulary: did it dwarf all others?’, in Mireille Ravassat and Jonathan Culpepper (eds), *Stylistics and Shakespeare’s Language: Transdisciplinary Approaches* (Continuum)

    The two papers were written independently, but show similar results. I briefly discuss these, and a couple of other accounts of Shakespeare’s “special” vocabulary in an essay I wrote for the Open University – it will eventually appear on Strathclyde University’s research portal, ‘Strathprints’ if you search for my name, though it isn’t up yet.

    If you are desperate to read an essay trying to explain the problematic statistics of word-counting via reference to the goal-scoring records of Newcastle United’s three greatest strikers, email me and I’ll send you a copy.

    Jonathan Hope, Strathclyde University

  12. Holger Syme says:

    Hi William,

    I doubt Shakespeare is exceptional or consistent in the tendency you describe. I certainly doubt he’d top Jonson’s willingness to switch registers from play to play. In any case, the numbers don’t show that Shakespeare used an extraordinary number of distinct words in any play, or an exceptionally large number of new/fresh words play-to-play.

    I agree that one might want to distinguish more sharply between active and passive vocabulary, though I’m not exactly sure writing necessarily represents the former — I’m positive I use a far less varied vocabulary in speech. But I’m also not sure that it necessarily follows that there was a wealth of everyday discourse that doesn’t show up in the plays; Shakespeare seems very adept at incorporating colloquial and locally specific lingo into his works (as do Jonson and Middleton). There is an important basic point, though: we may know 50,000 words, even if we use far fewer; Shakespeare may have used around 20,000 words, even though he knew more than that. But we can know far more words now than Shakespeare ever could know, because English has at least quadrupled its vocabulary over the past 400 years.

    I don’t disagree that the Romantic idolization of Shakespeare has roots in Milton’s specific praise (both in the second folio and in L’Allegro), but Milton doesn’t seem to consider Shakespeare unique or singular — he praises and even envies him for a number of specific talents. Johnson, similarly, for all his praise, was obviously perfectly willing to criticize and correct (the “Preface to Shakespeare” is a remarkably balanced account, full of enthusiasm but also of sober judgements — and a testimony to how much of the history of early modern drama the 18th century had already forgotten). The same is true of other early editors (Pope etc.). The notion that Shakespeare is unlike anyone else and beyond comparison only becomes gospel in the 19th century. I don’t think you can seriously make the case that Shakespeare was commonly considered greater than Jonson in the seventeenth century.

    • crowleypaul says:

      Holger, you remark:
      ” . . . I don’t disagree that the Romantic idolization of Shakespeare has roots in Milton’s specific praise (both in the second folio and in L’Allegro), but Milton doesn’t seem to consider Shakespeare unique or singular — he praises and even envies him for a number of specific talents. Johnson, similarly, for all his praise, was obviously perfectly willing to criticize and correct (the “Preface to Shakespeare” is a remarkably balanced account, full of enthusiasm but also of sober judgements — and a testimony to how much of the history of early modern drama the 18th century had already forgotten). The same is true of other early editors (Pope etc.). The notion that Shakespeare is unlike anyone else and beyond comparison only becomes gospel in the 19th century. I don’t think you can seriously make the case that Shakespeare was commonly considered greater than Jonson in the seventeenth century. . . ”

      You don’t seem to be aware of the famous meeting in Eton College around 1635:

      ” . . . No writer on Eton can afford to omit a quotation from the account given by Charles Gildon to Dryden in 1694 how John Hales upheld the supremacy of Shakespeare in literature : —

      ” Mr. Hales of Eaton affirni’d that he wou’d shew all the Poets of Antiquity outdone by Shakespear, in all the Topics, and Common Places made use of in Poetry. The Enemies of Shakespear would by no means yield him so much Excellence : so that it came to a Resolution of a trial of skill upon that Subject ; the place agreed on for the Dispute was Mr. Hales’s Chamber at Eaton ; a great many Books were sent down by the Enemies of this Poet, and on the appointed day my Lord Falkland, Sir John Suckling, and all the Persons of Quality that had Wit and Learning, and interested themselves in the Quarrel, met there, and upon a thorough Disquisition of the point, the Judges chosen by agreement out of this Learned and Ingenious Assembly unanimously gave the Preference to Shakespear. And the Greek and Roman Poets were adjudg”d to Vail at least their Glory in that of the English Hero. . .”

      http://www.archive.org/stream/historyofetoncol00custuoft/historyofetoncol00custuoft_djvu.txt

      This is one meeting that happens to be recorded No doubt there were many others of which there is no record, which came to much the same conclusion: that Shake-speare exceeded the Greek and Roman poets.

      The (or, at least, My) Oxfordian argument is that there were two very different accounts about the poet Shake-speare ‘dispersed’ from ~1598. There was IA) that for the ignorant common herd, in which Jonson was a major ‘disperser’. Jonson’s words have to be read in this light. We have to ask about whom he was talking and what meaning he was trying to convey and to whom. Then there was (B) that discussed among the few who knew the true story — and a small number at that Eton meeting were probably among them. (I’m fairly sure that Milton was not; he knew the poet only from his reading.)

      Paul.

      • Eric Johnson-DeBaufre says:

        Paul,

        The full text of the passage you quote (and the other relevant documents from Dryden and Gildon) can be found in Brian Vickers’ William Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage. If you had read it you would observe that Gildon is responding to the objections to Shakespeare and Jonson that Thomas Rymer had laid out in his Short View of Tragedy. Here Gildon cites a meeting at Eton (which Vickers notes may or may not have taken place–there is no documentary evidence for it) in order to defend Shakespeare against Rymer’s belief that modern tragedies are inferior to those of the ancients. Does Gildon’s defense show that seventeenth century writers revered Shakespeare? Absolutely. Does it prove that they regarded him as superior to all of his contemporaries? Not at all. Here is John Dryden in 1693, addressing, like Gildon, Rymer’s disparagement of Shakespeare: “But there is another sort of Insects, more venomous that the former, those who manifestly aim at the destruction of our Poeticall Church and State, who allow nothing to their Country-Men, either of this or of the former Age. These attack the Living by raking up the Ashes of the Dead, well knowing that if they can subvert their Original Title to the Stage we who claim under them must fall of course. Peace be to the Venerable Shades of Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson. None of the Living will presume to have any competition with them: as they were our Predecesseurs so they were our Masters….in the Drama we have not arriv’d to the pitch of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson.” NB: Shakespeare and Jonson, not simply Shakespeare, although, as Gildon’s apology confirms, Shakespeare was held in very high regard.

        Why Jonson and Shakespeare?–because, quite contrary to your fanciful speculations about the existence of “two very different accounts” about Shakespeare (excuse me, Shake-speare), the latter was regarded as lacking the scholarly erudition displayed so conspicuously (and so self-consciously) by the former. Indeed, part of Gildon’s whole project is to challenge this dominant understanding of Shakespeare by insisting on his acquaintance with and use of classical writers. If there was a dual understanding of Shakespeare in the late 16ht and early 17th century (as you, without a trace of evidence, assert), it was clearly dead on the ground by 1693.

        Finally, I suggest that you replace all instances of “argument” (as in, “The (or, at least, My) Oxfordian argument…”) with “assertion,” since arguments require evidence and all you have provided is a late 17th century reference to a meeting that may or may not have taken place. And even if it did, it tells us precisely nothing other than that there was an eruption of intense patriotic feeling around Shakespeare that took place at an English school at a moment in the early 17th century. Evidence of a secret group of Shake-speare illuminati? Hardly.

        • crowleypaul says:

          Eric Johnson-DeBaufre says:
          ” . . . The full text of the passage you quote (and the other relevant documents from Dryden and Gildon) can be found in Brian Vickers’ William Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage. If you had read it you would observe that Gildon is responding to the objections to Shakespeare and Jonson that Thomas Rymer had laid out in his Short View of Tragedy. Here Gildon cites a meeting at Eton (which Vickers notes may or may not have taken place–there is no documentary evidence for it) in order to defend Shakespeare against Rymer’s belief that modern tragedies are inferior to those of the ancients. Does Gildon’s defense show that seventeenth century writers revered Shakespeare? Absolutely. Does it prove that they regarded him as superior to all of his contemporaries? Not at all. . . ”

          We can take Gildon’s account as being substantially true, or as contrived (i.e. an invented lie). It is too definite and detailed for any other choice. While the meeting was some 60 years before this report, there would have been plenty alive who had attended or heard of it (as scholars at Eton, or as their siblings or children), and many who knew the chief participants, and whether or not such views accorded with their expressed opinions. Gildon would hardly have risked denunciations from (say) the Lord Chief Justice, or the Archbishop of Canterbury, that “We attended the school for all of that decade, and are certain that no such meeting took place”.

          To accept that Gildon has provided a reasonable account of this meeting is to accept as proved that SOME mid-17th century writers regarded Shake-speare as not merely superior to all of his contemporaries, but as superior to ALL writers of ALL time.

          ” . . If there was a dual understanding of Shakespeare in the late 16ht and early 17th century (as you, without a trace of evidence, assert), it was clearly dead on the ground by 1693. . . ”

          To describe the appreciation of Shake-speare around 1610 as a ‘dual understanding’ is to muddy the waters. You might as well say that there was a ‘dual understanding’ of Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity in 1905 after two others had read (and understood) his paper. There was the public understanding — much as there is today. Then there was a tiny group who knew what the plays were really about. Their understanding was ‘dead on the ground’ from the very start — exactly as they intended it should be.

          ” . . Finally, I suggest that you replace all instances of “argument” (as in, “The (or, at least, My) Oxfordian argument…”) with “assertion,” since arguments require evidence and all you have provided is a late 17th century reference to a meeting that may or may not have taken place. . . ”

          I am not allowed on this forum to state any more than you see. I get ‘moderated’. If you want an open debate go to https://groups.google.com/group/humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare/topics?hl=en, preferably using a newsreader (rather than Google and the web). It has all the disadvantages of an unmoderated group, but with newsreader programs you can use various tools to minimise the nuisance levels. Do a search on “bozo bin” (if Holger will permit the display of such a low phrase).

          ” . . And even if it did, it tells us precisely nothing other than that there was an eruption of intense patriotic feeling around Shakespeare that took place at an English school at a moment in the early 17th century. Evidence of a secret group of Shake-speare illuminati? Hardly. . . ”

          This is wildly misconceived. Firstly, if the world then was as you, Holger, Vickers, et al., prefer to describe it — devoid of any special regard for the Bard — then any “eruption of intense patriotic feeling” would have been about Spenser or Jonson or Marlowe, or someone else, or all of them, with no particular mention of Shake-speare. Secondly, in fact English patriotism was at a remarkably low ebb in the 1630s. Parliament was suspended. The government could not raises taxes. Luckily for England, its potential enemies were crippled by internal dissension. Thirdly, those mentioned as attending the meeting were of the highest repute, both as scholars and poets: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Hales, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucius_Cary,_2nd_Viscount_Falkland, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Suckling_%28poet%29.

          Paul.

          • Eric Johnson-DeBaufre says:

            Against all better judgment (and to the detriment of the substantial work I have to do), I will wade in once again to address your serious misunderstandings of both this quote (which you take as evidence of the existence of a form of secret gnosis about Shakespeare) and of my position.

            We can take Gildon’s account as being substantially true, or as contrived (i.e. an invented lie). It is too definite and detailed for any other choice.

            Will you admit this binary (substantially true v. invented lie) is flawed since it leaves no room for the possibility that Gildon is recirculating a memorial reconstruction of a report that he has received and believes to be true? However, belief that x is true (here true = x occurred at time t1) does not tell us anything reliably historical (i.e. that x really did occur at t1). It merely tells us something about the status of x as a belief in the mind of a particular perceiver.

            Gildon makes it clear in at least two places in his essay that he is relying on his memory of the testimony of others for his claims about the meeting at Eton: “I shall give some Account of what I have heard from your Mouth, Sir, about the noble Triumph he gain’d over all the Ancients by the Judgment of the ablest Critics of that time. The Matter of Fact (if my Memory fail me not) was this…” (the sentences you quoted about the trial at Eton immediately follow). Immediately following his report of the triumph of the “English Hero,” Gildon writes, “I cou’d wish, Sir, that you [Dryden] wou’d give the Public a juster Account of this Affair, in Vindication of that Poet I know you extreamly [sic] esteem, and whom none but you excels.”

            Although we can’t (and I know you won’t) rule out the possibility that Gildon heard this story from Dryden’s mouth–James Winn notes in his John Dryden and His World (Yale UP, 1987) that Gildon “paid the old poet [Dryden] visits and wrote him a flattering letter dated 10 May 1693″–no records of their conversation survive, so it is likely that Gildon got this idea from Dryden’s published work that refers to Hales, the Of Dramatick Poesie, an Essay (1668). There Dryden writes that, “The consideration of this [i.e. Shakespeare's greatness despite his occasional 'serious swelling into Bombast'] made Mr. Hales of Eaton say, That there was no subject of which any Poet ever writ, but he would produce it much better treated of in Shakespeare; and however others are now generally prefer’d before him, yet the Age wherein he liv’d, which had contemporaries with him, Fletcher and Johnson never equall’d them to him in their esteem: And in the last Kings Court, when Ben’s reputation was at highest, Sir John Suckling, and with him the greater part of the Courtiers, set our Shakespeare far above him.” No mention is made here of a trial at Eton, only that Hales reverenced Shakespeare above his contemporaries and that this opinion was shared by Suckling and “the greater part of the Courtiers” during the reign of Charles I. As John Freehafer’s “Shakespeare, the Ancients, and Hales of Eaton” (Shakespeare Quarterly 23.1 [1972]: 63-68) notes, the idea of a trial at Eton seems to be Gildon’s invention, an embellishment of Dryden’s comments on Hales’s remarks about Shakespeare and Nahum Tate’s preface to The Loyal General (1680) where he writes to Edward Tayler, “I cannot forget the strong desire I have heard you express to see the Common Places of our Shakespeare, compar’d with the most famous of the Ancients. This indeed were a Task worthy the greatest Critique. Our learned Hales was wont to assert, That since the time of Orpheus and the Oldest Poets, no Common Place has been touch’d upon, where our Author has not perform’d as well. Our Laureat [Dryden] has thrown in his Testimony, and declar’d, that Shakespeare was a Man that of all Men had the largest and most comprehensive Soul” (quoted in Vickers, William Shakespeare: The Critical Heritage, 1623-1692, p. 341).

            What is interesting about Tate’s 1680 preface is that it contains the seed, I would argue, for Gildon’s later invention of the 1630s trial at Eton. Tate refers to Tayler’s desire to see such a comparison of Shakespeare and the Ancients take place, in effect a desire for a trial of the two around their treatment of “Common Places.” What is clear is that this trial is desired and not that it has already taken place, otherwise Tate would have said so in his very next reference to Hales. However, he does not. Gildon seems to have taken Tate’s reference to Tayler’s desire to see a competition take place–one in which Shakespeare would be weighed against both his contemporaries and the ancients in their treatment of common places–and turned it into an actual trial which he has placed in the 1630s. The quotes from Dryden and Tate make it clear how such a mistake could have happened.

            What I think seems reasonable is that Hales really did esteem Shakespeare, whether as superior merely to his contemporaries or to the writers of antiquity is less certain. Assuming the latter—-something I have no problem granting, by the way; contrary to your specious claim that I believe no one in the period had any special regard for Shakespeare, I feel quite certain that many very likely did—-does this tell us anything about what they thought about Shakespeare’s learning as compared with either his contemporaries or with the ancients? No. To grant that some seventeenth century writers held Shakespeare’s work in higher regard than the writings of antiquity is to acknowledge that tastes varied, not that all those with such tastes believed Shakespeare to possess superior learning. Indeed, as I tried to point out earlier, it seemed part of Gildon’s special project to swim against the tide of contemporary critical opinion and argue that Shakespeare was more learned in the writings of the ancients than previous critics had recognized.

            Finally, let me suggest that Gildon’s quote demonstrates precisely the kind of patriotic fervor you want to discountenance. Note Gildon’s conclusion to the Hales story: “And the Greek & Roman Poets were adjudg’d to Vail at least their Glory in that to English Hero.” What could be clearer than this? Gildon here pits not merely the comparatively “modern” but also the native-born Shakespeare against the foreign poets of the past. Pride in the products and triumph of native genius becomes a fairly familiar part of the quarrel between the Ancients (e.g. Rymer) and the Moderns, a quarrel in which not only ideas about progress but also proto-nationalist and religio-political outlooks were also at issue.

            If I have time, I will respond later to the other problems in your argument, especially those which demonstrate why Oxfordianism seems impervious to standards of evidence-based reasoning, but for now I am done.

            Cheers,

            Eric

  13. William says:

    Your comment answered one question of mine, sort of — which is how much does this take into account Shakespeare’s tendency to use a specialized and systematic vocabulary or lingo in each play, so that you might find that if you looked at the number of different words in any groups of three plays of Shakespeare, compared to the other groups of three, he might pull ahead. But you’re suggesting that the evidence shows otherwise, I take it.

    But as to Shakespeare’s only using 20,000 words when we use 50,000? I doubt many of us use 50,000 in writing, even the most colorful writers. (IIRC there are 65,000 different words in Ulysses, which studiously seeks out arcane vocabulary.) Think of all the everyday language that never makes it into the plays. It’s only if Crystal takes the old-fashioned view that Shakespeare covers life in all its variety that he could think we know Shakespeare’s full vocabulary.

    And then as to who first treated Shakespeare as exceptional? That was way before Coleridge – Milton, e.g. in the commendatory verse to the Third Folio, which seems meant pretty seriously; and Doctor Johnson (to say nothing of earlier critics and editors). I love Middleton and Dekker and Marlowe, but really Shakespeare only more or less contemporary more or less peers are Spenser and Milton.

  14. crowleypaul says:

    Holger, you write:
    ” . . In order to allow for a fair comparison, Craig equalizes his samples by only analyzing the first 10,000 words of every play. Shakespeare still ends up with a much larger number of such 10,000-word-segments than anyone else (with 28 commonly-agreed-upon singly-authored texts); Jonson and Middleton follow with 12 each. But among the 13 playwrights with at least three titles to their name, Shakespeare does not stand out as commanding a particularly large vocabulary. On average, he uses 1,664 different words per text — compared to Webster’s 1,827, Dekker’s 1,772 or Jonson’s 1,727; he comes in seventh in the group. . . .”

    For those of us without access to the paper would you please explain what ‘different’ means in this context. On the face of it, this measure would favour those who wrote the fewest plays (and it seems to). That is, if I write one play, then all my words will be ‘different’. If I write two, the words in the second play can be ‘different’ only from those in the first. Whereas by the time I have reached the 236th episode of my version of ‘Friends’ there won’t be many new words, let alone new plots, characterisations or much else.

    I presume Craig has dealt with this somewhat tricky statistical problem — but how?

    Paul.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Um… Paul, those are the average numbers of different words per play. Not the average number of new words introduced per play. So the number of plays any one of those authors wrote shouldn’t really matter (there are as many authors with small surviving oeuvres at the bottom of the list as at the top).

      Given the different sizes of oeuvres, using anything other than averages dramatically advantages authors who wrote more, or of whose works more survive. According to Craig, Jonson, with 17 plays to his name, has a vocabulary of around 18,500 compared to Craig’s estimate of just over 20,000 for Shakespeare (for whom he counts 28 plays), and a simple calculation will show you that this translates into a significantly higher per-play average in Jonson’s case (though Craig’s more sophisticated method yields more reliable results, as it adjusts for differences in play length).

      Craig also compares the rate at which Shakespeare, Jonson, and Middleton introduce “fresh” words from play to play (this calculation is a little more troubling to me, as he relies on a fairly conjectural chronology, but the overall picture isn’t really affected by that); this tabulation shows that they all add words to their vocabulary at more or less the same rate, though Jonson fairly consistently comes out on top. There is more of a marked levelling-off in Shakespeare’s case than for the other two authors, which again confirms Craig’s argument that others used more unusual words and employed a larger vocabulary than Shakespeare.