Posted By Roger Stritmatter 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.