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:
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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- The Changeling (Middleton & Rowley; dir. Jackie Maxwell) Stratford, July 2017
- How to Kill a Great Theatre: The Tragedy of the Volksbühne
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- British Theatre under the Influence (of much more than The Roman Tragedies)
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