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March 18, 2013

Who wrote Shakespeare's plays? Stanford professor lets you decide

Stanford astrophysicist's new book takes a statistical approach to the Shakespeare authorship question and, after presenting evidence, asks readers to decide for themselves.

By Paul Gabrielsen

Stanford astrophysicist Peter Sturrock uses statistics to tackle the question of who wrote Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Poor William Shakespeare is having an identity crisis.

Most people are content to accept that an Englishman with that name was born in 1564, died in 1616 and wrote plays, sonnets and poems in the interim that changed English literature forever.

Some, however, see things differently. They don't doubt that the man from Stratford-upon-Avon existed, or that the plays attributed to Shakespeare are foundational and sublime. But elements of the Shakespeare canon are incompatible with his known biography, they say. An intimate knowledge of court affairs. Fluency in French. Familiarity with Italy. Shakespeare, they claim, was not written by Shakespeare.

Both sides hold heated opinions in the centuries-old debate, but in the absence of definitive physical evidence, the decision is up to you, says Stanford University's Peter Sturrock.

In his new book, AKA Shakespeare: A Scientific Approach to the Authorship Question, Sturrock explores the argument through the eyes of four fictional characters, each with a different perspective on the debate. They voice their opinions on 25 pieces of evidence, but Sturrock invites readers to weigh in as well and arrive at their own conclusion.

Sturrock, 88, is a professor emeritus of applied physics and an eminent astrophysicist. While writing his 2009 memoir, A Tale of Two Sciences, he revisited his early pastime of writing poetry.

"The only poem I could remember was a parody of that famous sonnet, 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' My parody began, inevitably, 'Shall I compare thee to a winter's night?' and it went on from there."

This led him to re-read all 154 of the Bard's sonnets, which he felt were autobiographical.

"But once you start asking what the sonnets are all about, you are automatically led to the question: Who was the author anyway?"

The authorship question, he reasoned, could be addressed by a scientific approach. Years before, while studying pulsars, Sturrock devised a new method to process information using statistics. His method was based on a statistical concept known as Bayes' theorem, which states that probabilities change depending on the information you have.

Sturrock describes the concept in his book: If you reach into a bag with 99 white balls and 1 black ball, you would say that the odds of picking the black ball are 1 in 100. But if you know the black ball is cracked, you have new information, and your odds improve dramatically. Using Bayesian statistics, Sturrock can incorporate information from both theory and data in his analysis.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, is the leading alternative candidate, Sturrock said, so his characters choose between Shakespeare, Oxford and a possible third, unknown author, dubbed "Ignotus."

"The evidence comes in many forms," Sturrock said. "From the plays, from the sonnets, from editorial comments in the First Folio [1623 collection of the plays], from the dedication of the sonnets, and so on."

As his book progresses, Sturrock's characters weigh in on 25 questions surrounding the authorship controversy. Was the writer of the plays educated or not? Could Shakespeare write legibly, given the quality of his known signatures? Is there a secret message on a monument in the Holy Trinity Church at Stratford-upon-Avon? Each response is factored into the character's "degree of belief" in each of the three candidates.

Sturrock invites readers to tabulate their own responses and beliefs into charts in the book. An online tool, "Prospero," connected to the book's website, allows readers to calculate their final degrees of belief.

Although Sturrock wants readers to arrive at their own conclusions, he does have an opinion.

"As I thumb through the 25 charts [of characters' evolving degrees of belief], I see Shakespeare going down and down and Oxford going up and up," he said.

There must be a right answer. Somebody wrote those plays. One of Sturrock's characters asks if it really matters who. "Knowing the plays were written by Lord X or Lady Y will not change one word in any of those plays," she says. "So why is it important? What difference would it make?"

After all, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet …"

Paul Gabrielsen is an intern at Stanford News Service.



Peter Sturrock, Applied Physics: (650) 723-1438,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,

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