Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Colloquial and Dysfunctional Two Gentlemen

In a previous post, Two Late Dates for The Two Gentlemen of Verona, I discussed the curious fact that two recent stylometric studies had come up with composition dates for The Two Gentlemen of Verona completely at odds with the commonly held belief that the play is a very youthful Shakespeare work, possibly even his first. In one study, MacDonald Jackson demonstrated that using speech length as a chronological indicator for Shakespeare’s plays, Two Gentlemen, far from being his first play, was ranked as Shakespeare’s fifteenth play, putting it roughly around the date of late 1597/early 1598 I had proposed in my paper Why A Dog? A Late Date For The Two Gentlemen Of Verona. In the other study, Neal Fox, Omran Ehmoda and Eugene Charniak, using a different stylometric technique that classified Shakespeare’s plays into two categories - ‘early or ‘late’ - placed Two Gentlemen in the late category, meaning it had more characteristics in common with plays written in the second half than the first half of Shakespeare’s career.

The now conventional wisdom that Two Gentlemen may have been Shakespeare's first play (check the blurb that accompanies every new production of the play) is in large part due to the authority invested by the casual observer in the 'Oxford Chronology' put forward by Gary Taylor in his (with Stanley Wells) William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion. Under the Oxford chronology, Two Gentlemen is dated 1590-1, along with The Taming of the Shrew, and is either Shakespeare’s first or second play (Taylor places it as the first).
Given the influence of Taylor's chronology, I recently decided to revisit the The Canon and Chronology of Shakespeare's Plays section of the Textual Companion to see how Two Gentlemen had brushed up in the various stylometric studies that Taylor mentions there. Much to my surprise I found that in addition to referencing a range of studies by others, Taylor had conducted two studies himself, and in both of them Two Gentlemen came out as a serious outlier. Somehow, over the last few years I'd managed to forget these two studies, so I'm going to belatedly discuss them now.
One of Taylor's studies involved the application of a "colloquialism-in-verse" test to determine the chronology of Shakespeare's works (for the relevance of colloquialisms as a chronology test see my Stylistic Markers in Guy of Warwick). Based on the use of colloquialisms like ‘t, th’, ‘em, ‘ll etc, Taylor calculated a “colloquialism quotient" for each play, with As You Like It as a reference point. A negative quotient meant that a play was calculated to be earlier than As You Like It, and a positive quotient that it was later. The more negative the quotient, the earlier the play was, and the more positive the quotient, the later the play was.
As a broad chronological test this seems fine, as can be seen in Taylor’s own graph of the results shown below (ordered by the dates in Taylor's chronology, so Two Gentlemen appears first). There is clearly a general movement towards a greater use of colloquialisms as Shakespeare's career progresses.

Now let's look specifically at Two Gentlemen. I have highlighted in red its exact quotient value under Taylor's test. You should be able to see clearly enough that there are actually a large number of plays with a more negative quotient than Two Gentlemen i.e. based on this colloquialism-in-verse test, they are earlier than Two Gentlemen. To spare you needless squinting at the graph, I have listed all the plays ranked earlier than Two Gentlemen below:

  • 1 Henry 6
  • King John
  • Titus Andronicus
  • 1 Henry 4
  • 2 Henry 4
  • Merchant of Venice
  • Richard 3
  • Merry Wives of Windsor
  • Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Much Ado About Nothing
  • Henry 5
  • Richard 2
  • Comedy of Errors
  • Duke of York (3 Henry 6)
  • Julius Caesar
Under Taylor’s chronological test, there are sixteen Shakespeare plays ranked as being earlier than Two Gentlemen. Now I know that tests like these can't be expected to produce pin-point accuracy with the ranking of individual plays, and Taylor himself would never claim as much. But sixteen plays ranked earlier? I wonder if this gave Taylor pause when he decided that Two Gentlemen was Shakespeare's first play. If it did, he doesn't mention it. His only comment is that the result is 'ambiguous'. Personally, I'd call the result highly suspicious, and point out that it just happens to place Two Gentlemen pretty much in the same late position as MacDonald Jackson's chronological test using an entirely different approach.

Taylor’s other test was an authorship test, not a chronological test, but the result for Two Gentlemen was such a massive outlier that it raises serious questions about the play in general. Taylor used a function word test, a common and reasonably reliable test of authorship. Concentrating on ten function words, he highlighted cases where the frequency of a particular function word in a play was well outside the norm for Shakespeare (defined as outside two statistical deviations). The result for Two Gentlemen was quite remarkable. Out of ten function words examined three were outside the norm for Shakespeare: ‘for’ (extremely high frequency), ‘that’ (extremely high frequency) and ‘the’ (extremely low frequency). How remarkable this is can be seen when you realize that the vast majority of the other plays have no function words outside the norm, and the handful that do (As You Like It, Henry 5, Twelfth Night, King Lear and Coriolanus) have only one function word outside the norm. That Two Gentlemen has three makes it a very, very serious outlier.

How do we explain why Two Gentlemen is so extraordinarily abnormal here compared to the rest of the canon? Taylor's methodology did come in for some criticism, but none of it impacts on these particular results. Why is the use of 'for' and 'that' so high, but the use of 'the' so low? And why is the use of 'for' so high? It is almost three standard deviations away from the Shakespearean norm, a level of deviation that Taylor himself describes as "highly suspicious".

Given that Taylor's function word test was for authorship, the obvious conclusion is that the results for Two Gentlemen are pointing to collaboration. Surprisingly, Taylor himself didn't suggest anything of the kind, even as a possibility. But it's hard to avoid the thought. Maybe the disintegrationists were right after all, and there are parts of the play written by someone other than Shakespeare? Someone with different function word proclivities.

Frankly, that's not a conclusion I'm comfortable with, if only because the arguments for it are usually subjective and involve a crude sectioning of the play into the parts the arguers like (therefore by Shakespeare) and the parts they don't like (therefore by anyone-other-than-the-immortal-Bard). Still, Taylor's function word test is an objective analysis, so we have to at least countenance the possibility that it is genuinely pointing to collaborative authorship in Two Gentlemen. This intriguing play just got more intriguing.