MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

A Shakespeare Forgery or Rediscovery? The Latest Take on Double Falsehood


The controversy over the play known as Double Falsehood; or, The Distrest Lovers — a 1727 drama by Lewis Theobald (1688–1744) — is back in the news. Theobald famously claimed he’d adapted his play from a now-lost Shakespeare manuscript, and scholars have been at it ever since. It turns out that Double Falsehood likely represents double authorship.

Based on an episode from Cervantes’ Don Quixote — who died less than two weeks before Shakespeare (if you adjust the traditional date of the Bard’s death to the Gregorian calendar) — Double Falsehood is also one of the candidates that has been speculatively identified with the long-lost play known as The History of Cardenio. The latter play is believed to have been a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, a playwright for the King’s Men company. Cardenio was performed by the company in 1613 but was subsequently lost.

The controversy over Double Falsehood is therefore hardly new; nor is the more or less definitive claim of Shakespearean involvement. But this latest crack at identifying Falsehood‘s true authorship uses the tools of modern psychology and linguistic statistics.

Most of the news reports refer to the authors of the study by the catchall term “researchers at the University of Texas in Austin.” It’s worth nothing that said researchers — Ryan L. Boyd and James W. Pennebaker — are actually professors of psychology, not literary critics or Elizabethan scholars. Their research has been published in the journal Psychological Science.

From the Abstract:

Specifically, we created a psychological signature from each author’s language and statistically compared the features of each signature with those of “Double Falsehood”’s signature. Multiple analytic approaches converged in suggesting that “Double Falsehood”’s psychological style and content architecture predominantly resemble those of Shakespeare, showing some similarity with Fletcher’s signature and only traces of Theobald’s.

Closer inspection revealed that Shakespeare’s influence is most apparent early in the play, whereas Fletcher’s is most apparent in later acts. “Double Falsehood” has a psychological signature consistent with that expected to be present in the long-lost play “The History of Cardenio,” cowritten by Shakespeare and Fletcher.

Soon after Theobald made his claim in the 18th century, Alexander Pope declared it must be a forgery, and there will surely be skeptics who remain unpersuaded by this latest analysis. Still, the method of a kind of creating a kind textual psychological profile to identify Shakespeare’s “Weltanschauung” is pretty intriguing.

Now if only they could devise a study to put to rest the silly claims of the Shakespeare truthers once and for all…

Filed under: Shakespeare


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