Academic The Language Issue William Moessinger

Shakespeare and Spreadsheets: Researching “Pause Patterns” in Shakespeare’s Works

Written by William Moessinger 

Studying English literature may involve hours of reading and writing thoughtful analyses that explore subtle textual details and overarching socio-political themes. To many, this seems like a daunting set of tasks, preferring the rigid certainty of mathematics and science. However, one English professor has spent months utilizing and examining quantitative data, as opposed to abstract critical thought, to study arguably the most important writer of the English language: William Shakespeare.

For about as long as Shakespearean academia has existed, scholars have noted a discernible shift in style over the course of Shakespeare’s career, particularly in how he placed his pauses. In the earlier phases of his bibliography, Shakespeare exhibited a preference for placing his pauses after the fourth syllable in his iambic lines, however as his writing career progressed, he gradually shifted the emphasis of his pauses from the fourth syllable to the sixth, resulting in what scholars have characterized as a “longer” line.

His style transitioned from:

“Thou art a fool; if Echo were as fleet,”

to

“To be, or not to be, that is the question,”

to

“Unto my end of stealing them. But, gracious sir.”

At a certain point scholars started asking if by collecting this kind of “pause data” on a systematic and large scale they could establish a clearer picture of Shakespeare’s chronology. In the 1960s, Estonian writer Ants Oras capitalized on this idea and began tabulating Shakespeare’s lines for pause counts, documenting how many pauses a line may contain and where these pauses fall within the lines.

Perhaps the most advantageous aspect of this research is that it offers an objective approach for establishing chronology. The results Oras derived back in 1960, while they revealed new possibilities, were mostly consistent with prior theories of the playwright’s evolving style, giving credibility to pause counts as a way of studying Shakespeare. He was able to prove that a playwright’s pause pattern is like a fingerprint, personal and revealing, while offering new revelations into the world of the past.

[Oras] was able to prove that a playwright’s pause pattern is like a fingerprint, personal and revealing, while offering new revelations into the world of the past.

Now that we have more refined and efficient instruments, Professor Douglas Bruster has decided to revisit Oras’ research to explore new revelations and hypotheses regarding authorship, timeline, and publication methods.

“Oras worked at a moment in Shakespeare studies when we knew less about Shakespeare’s collaborations and which part of which texts he wrote,” said Bruster. “[Oras] also worked before the advent of desktop computing, which limited the kinds of questions he could both ask and answer.”

One of Bruster’s main focuses is the possibility of collaborative authorship for plays thought to have been written solely by Shakespeare. A text’s publication date is often defined by sole authorship and inflexible dates describing when a work was written and published, however this is a dangerous assumption in light of the fact that there are occasionally multiple points in a text’s development, or multiple authors.

For example, scholars have often suspected that Titus Andronicus was a collaboration between William Shakespeare and George Peele, despite the fact that Shakespeare claimed sole authorship. Pause pattern data has helped give scientific credibility to this hypothesis, as the sections supposedly written by Peele are much closer to Peele’s pause pattern than Shakespeare’s.

shakespeare1

By taking different writers’ “fingerprints” from different points in their career and comparing them, Bruster hopes to establish a complete portrait of the Shakespeare’s bibliography that illustrates all the collaborations, discrepancies, and intricacies that earlier assumptions about his body of work fail to address.

“I’d like to generate a more substantial portrait of Shakespeare’s career, especially its beginning and end,” said Bruster. “What did Shakespeare write, exactly, and in what order? Only when we have firmer answers to such questions can a plausible story about his life and work be told.”

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