Shakespeare, the Linguistic Monster

Posted By on April 10, 2016

For at least two centuries after his death, the author of the Shakespearean plays was still regarded as a monster by the conventional literary critics, almost all of whom espoused notions of classical form and genre as paramount aesthetic considerations and a requirement for good art.

Shakespeare’s Gothic influence, his defiance of genre, his profound insight into human psychology and sympathy for the outcast, his readiness to inter-fuse the comic with the tragic, all somehow counted against him among the literary cognoscenti. He was a monster. Who else but a monster would subject his audiences to laughter in the middle of King Lear or Macbeth, or not see that nature had ordained Cordelia to marry Kent?

But the literary evidence suggests that in another, parallel sense, Shakespeare had been monster from the start.

In an age still highly conscious of the history of words, when English intellectuals patrolled the boundaries between English and other languages quite faithfully to prevent unduly combining elements of one language with another, which was felt to be a kind of linguistic miscegenation, coining your words too creatively could get you in trouble. It was one thing to be enriched by words from another language – 16th century England, especially during the last years of Elizabeth, was a veritable love-fest from that of view.

What was not done without at least raising some eyebrows of elders, is to, say, put a Latin prefix on a Saxon stem, as in bi-fold, a word apparently first used by the Earl of Oxford in  1601 letter to Robert Cecil,  although first credited by the OED to “Shakespeare” in Troilus and Cressida.  This was something no normal writer would do. Its the sort of thing Edward de Vere and “Shakespeare” keep having in common.

Its not the only one.  In fact, de Vere seems to have had a particular predilection for being the first user of a number of words the OED credits Shakespeare with inventing. Look at this:

word Shakespeare source Oxford’s use
Disgraced Two Gentlemen, 1591 1576
Despairing Two Gentlemen, 1591 Before 1566
bifold Troilus and Cressida, 1601 1601

There is doubtless more where these come from as I am certain that no one has really compiled a total data base of all of Oxford’s vocabulary and exhaustively searched for others. But even from those three words, the biographer in me somehow wants to come forth and start.

Those are not just any words.

Disgraced is what the author of Sonnet 29 assures us he is. A major leitmotif in the plays, disgrace is almost always viewed in Shakespeare from an explicitly or implicitly aristocratic point of view.

Despairing is another emotional throughline in Shakespeare, as well as a sin warned against in marked annotations in the de Vere Geneva Bible.

Bifold? My oh my.

Speaking of the things these two guys have in common, I was rereading some of Nina Green’s excellent baseline work on the topic of Oxford’s distinctly “Shakespearean” vocabulary, from which the previous examples are been drawn, and realized that  the work was long overdue to be featured in a blog post here.

That’s for the simple reason that after many years it is still the most telling and significant application of linguistics to the Shakespearean problem. It may not be very sophisticated from the point of view of professional linguists, but it does systematically illustrate one simple but very important question: How close is Oxford’s vocabulary to Shakespeare?

Green started her work by compiling a lexical map of Oxford’s vocabulary, starting with 49 prose documents totaling 29,700 words, and sixteen poems totaling 3,050 words, and made vocabulary lists from them.

Green then performed various tests on this vocabulary, including comparing the Oxford vocabulary list to the vocabulary of Shakespeare in Bartlett’s Concordance and Schmidt’s Shakespeare Lexicon, with “surprising results”:

only 165 of the 2316 lexical words in Oxford’s prose vocabulary, and 24 of the 942 lexical words in the vocabulary of his youthful poems, are not found in Shakespeare. To put it another way, 93% of Oxford’s prose vocabulary, and 97.5% of the vocabulary of his sixteen youthful poems, are identical with the vocabulary of Shakespeare.

But Green was just warming up. What about comparing the Oxford vocabulary to a list of Elliott Slater’s “Shakespeare Rare Words”?

Slater’s “Rare Word Test,” which includes about 6,000 words used between two and nine times in Shakespeare, sometimes supplemented with the list of about 2,000 words used only once, is by now a standard in the field of Shakespearean literary forensics.

It is one test that should in lieu of definitively more reliable measures, be used when hypothesizing that any particular “Questioned Document” or body of questioned documents should be deemed “Shakespearean.”

What Green found on this score is even more remarkable:

639 of the 2316 lexical words in Oxford’s prose vocabulary, and 145 of the 942 lexical words in the vocabulary of his youthful poetry, are Shakespeare “rare words.” To put it another way, 27% of Oxford’s prose vocabulary, and 15% of his poetry vocabulary, are comprised of Shakespeare rare words.

According to Green, the average per Shakespeare play is 32%.

Given the constraints of poetic form, Oxford’s early age when by far the greater part of his poetry was written, and the general plasticity of prose in Shakespeare’s hand, especially as regards vocabulary, it is not surprising to me that Oxford’s letters — written over the extent of his entire life and being written also in prose, come much closer to the Shakespearean average of rare words (27-32%) than  his poetry does. In any case, having read the letters in some cases many times over the last twenty years, I can only concur with Green’s conclusion that her study

demonstrates that Oxford’s lexical vocabulary coincides with Shakespeare’s to a remarkable degree, and is in every way the equal of Shakespeare’s in both its richness and its innovative use of language.

Now, all of this could be put into much better perspective by some enterprising Stratfordian graduate students with a friend in computer science. All they’d have to do is run a few  batches of contemporary letter writers of approximately the same size as Oxford’s batch, and test their vocabulary for its fitness to the Shakespeare Rare Word list. It would not be difficult to do and they would be famous, at least in the fishbowl of academic Shakespeare studies.

Then again, what if the results came out much lower than Oxford?  Or the rate of SRW was way too high, when Oxford is about right (see note below).

That what be really bad, I know.

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


3 Responses to “Shakespeare, the Linguistic Monster”

  1. Note on “Shakespeare Rare Words” in Oxford.

    Using these numbers we may compute that the number of “new Shakespeare words” in Oxford’s prose is

    165/29,700 = .00555

    For the poems it is about five times higher:

    24/942= .0254

    Boyd, Jackson et al. (

    state that the predicted value for the Shakespearean text should be 11,000/885,000, or .0124

    In their tests not one non-Shakespearean text could be rejected on the basis of having too few new Shakespeare words, only by having too many. So how many is “too many”? That’s not as easy to see from their book as one might like, but it is interesting to note that the predicted value for the Sh. play falls rather neatly between the two figures for Oxford’s prose and his poetry.

    Using the figures from Vickers ( we find that the Lover’s Complaint has a predicted new Shakespeare word value of

    55/2,579, = .0213,

    But has an actual value of

    88/2,579 = .0341.

    I’m not sure why the predicated value for LC is higher than the .0124 indicated above, but we may be fairly sure that this is the range (.0124-.0213) in which we want to see a text to confirm “Shakespearean” origins, and we are also told by Boyd, Jackson et al. that although many non-Shakespearean samples were excluded for having too many New Shakespeare words, none were excluded for having too few. We can see then that Oxford’s corpus as a whole, based on these numbers, is highly Shakespearean, because in fact in contains a somewhat lower than expected rate of New Shakespeare words.

  2. richard waugaman says:

    Excellent, Roger. This is powerful indeed. And thanks for the link to Nina Green’s important article.

    One of the founders of Renaissance humanist philology, Lorenzo Valla, helped prove that the Vatican’s “Donation of Constantine” was a much later forgery. Philological tools have been a neglected weapon in the Oxfordian arsenal.

    Last summer, I had lunch with a Shakespeare scholar who was doing a fellowship at the Folger. She expressed dismay that I’m a post-Stratfordian. The one piece of evidence I brought up that gave her pause was the close connections between Shakespeare’s quirky spellings, and the same unusual spellings in de Vere’s letters.

    • Hi Richard,

      Thanks for the comment. Oxfordians and post-Stratfordians generally need a much more focused and well-organized approach to the linguistic evidence. This posting is just a small encouragement towards that end, especially since Diana Price has now nailed the Hand D question so impressively in the Journal of Early Modern Studies (about which I am preparing another blog).

      As far as I’m concerned, Fowler proved in 1984 that the linguistic evidence is totally supportive of Oxford. In 2011 I debated Ross Barber, who in the middle of the debate started spouting Stratfordian nonsense about how impossible it was for Oxford to be Sh. because their linguistic usages were so different. I suggested she read Fowler before commenting on that topic again in public. I don’t know if she did so or if it gave her reason to re-evaluate how unconvincing such claims are to those who know the evidence.

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