The date has been checked: It’s no longer April 1, and everything that happens from here on in is not our fault.
The story so far: In 1728 a writer and playwright by the name of Lewis Theobold claimed to have created the completed manuscript of Cardenio, a lost play William Shakespeare is said to have written with John Fletcher, based on a section from Don Quixote. He renamed it Double Falsehood; or The Distressed Lovers (which he spelled Double Falshood; or, The Distrest Lovers at the time).
It is set in Andalusia, Spain, and concerns a tryst between a Duke and a peasant girl. There is tragedy and comedy, and women dressed as men, and yet despite all of these common conceits to Shakespeare’s comedies, people were openly suspicious of Theobold’s claim to have adapted the play from three original manuscripts that had subsequently been destroyed in a house fire.
Ever since, the argument has raged over whether the play counts as a true lost classic by the Bard, or just a clever spoof designed to hoodwink the public. The play was published as part of the Arden collection of Shakespeare plays in 2010, for example, but critics suggested this did nothing but undermine Arden’s reputation.
But now that reputation is restored after sterling work by researchers at the University of Texas, who have cross-referenced Double Falsehood with 33 Shakespeare plays, 12 plays by Theobold and nine by John Fletcher, to put together a complete picture not only of the sort of themes Shakespeare used, but the tricks of language he particularly liked to employ.
In a report for Psychological Science, Ryan Boyd and James Pennebaker examined how Shakespeare used language functionally (with pronouns and prepositions), and they put various experiences and attitudes (such as emotion, family, religion and feedback from the senses) into content categories and examined the language he used to describe them. And as they say in the clickbait headlines, what they discovered next blew their minds.
Every quality bar one drew a closer parallel with Shakespeare’s writing than with the others.
Ryan Boyd told the Independent: “Going into the research without any real background knowledge, I had just kind of assumed that it was going to be a pretty cut and dry case of a fake Shakespeare play, which would have been really interesting in and of itself.
“Honestly, I was surprised to see such a strong signal for Shakespeare showing through in the results.”
And broadly speaking, their findings have been welcomed as a step towards the rehabilitation of Double Falsehood as genuine, although even true believers are quick to point out potential flaws in the research, like Professor Brean Hammond of the University of Nottingham:
He said: “I think that Shakespeare’s DNA can be found in the play so anything that supports that view is good in my opinion,” before suggesting that the content categories chosen could give a biased view, and might “draw suspicion.”
Now, can I interest anyone in this great lost Beatles song I’ve just made u… er, discovered?
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