Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? Stanford professor lets you decide


Paul Gabrielsen in Stanford News (via Jennifer Ouellette):

Poor William Shakespeare is having an identity crisis.

Most people are content to accept that an Englishman with that name was born in 1564, died in 1616 and wrote plays, sonnets and poems in the interim that changed English literature forever.

Some, however, see things differently. They don't doubt that the man from Stratford-upon-Avon existed, or that the plays attributed to Shakespeare are foundational and sublime. But elements of the Shakespeare canon are incompatible with his known biography, they say. An intimate knowledge of court affairs. Fluency in French. Familiarity with Italy. Shakespeare, they claim, was not written by Shakespeare.

Both sides hold heated opinions in the centuries-old debate, but in the absence of definitive physical evidence, the decision is up to you, says Stanford University's Peter Sturrock.

In his new book, AKA Shakespeare: A Scientific Approach to the Authorship Question, Sturrock explores the argument through the eyes of four fictional characters, each with a different perspective on the debate. They voice their opinions on 25 pieces of evidence, but Sturrock invites readers to weigh in as well and arrive at their own conclusion.

Sturrock, 88, is a professor emeritus of applied physics and an eminent astrophysicist. While writing his 2009 memoir, A Tale of Two Sciences, he revisited his early pastime of writing poetry.

“The only poem I could remember was a parody of that famous sonnet, 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' My parody began, inevitably, 'Shall I compare thee to a winter's night?' and it went on from there.”

This led him to re-read all 154 of the Bard's sonnets, which he felt were autobiographical.

“But once you start asking what the sonnets are all about, you are automatically led to the question: Who was the author anyway?”

The authorship question, he reasoned, could be addressed by a scientific approach. Years before, while studying pulsars, Sturrock devised a new method to process information using statistics. His method was based on a statistical concept known as Bayes' theorem, which states that probabilities change depending on the information you have.