Plagiarism Software Solves Mystery of "Unknown" Shakespeare Play

By Boonsri Dickinson | October 21, 2009 4:18 pm

ShakespeareThese days, professors are well acquainted with the threat of plagiarism from their students. But teachers quickly learned to enlist computer programs to help them catch cheaters. And now, a University of London literature professor, Sir Brian Vickers, is expanding the use of plagiarism software to determine the authors of literature that remains un-bylined.

The program, aptly named Pl@giarism, compared the play The Reign of Edward III to Shakespeare’s collection of work by looking for patterns in the number of times similar phrases appeared in both. The plagiarism software counted the number of times at least three strings of “trademark” Shakespeare words appeared in the play, such as “art thy self.” The program doesn’t look for a predetermined set of words, but looks for patterns. So when Edward III was compared to the works of other authors, the program only determined a match of 20 strings, while it found 200 strings in common with the Bard’s work, making it clear that Edward III was, indeed, written by Shakespeare.

Time reports:

Among Shakespeare’s recycled bits of phrases: “come in person hither,” “pale queene of night,” “thou art thy selfe,” “author of my blood” and even the whole phrase “lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.” Other matching strings are less compelling, but are nevertheless an essential part of distinguishing the author’s linguistic fingerprint, says Vickers. The professor also matched more than 200 strings of words between Edward III and Kyd’s earlier works — at this point in his career, he had only three plays to his name.

Therefore, it appears Kyd wrote 60 percent of the play, and Shakespeare wrote the rest.

That said, don’t expect non-literature buffs to take on the task of deciphering un-attributed works anytime soon: It took Vickers 40 years of learning about Shakespeare and two whole years to crack the Edward III case.

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Image: flickr/ Tonynetone

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology Attacks!
  • Art

    What a handsome portrait. What about the rumors that Shakespeare, himself, was a plagiarist?

  • Cory

    Completely circumstantial. In light of a lack of compelling evidence to overturn the commonly held notion of the Bard as a literary genius, we might as well just stick to the story even with its occasional holes and leaps of faith.

  • Shawn Charland

    This is a very important subject.

    I caught two government of Canada scientists plagiarising my work and republishing internationally – not only a theft of my words, but also theft of credit of invention. In the end it cost me my career as well as a great deal of money. They eventually fixed the report, but the damage to me was irreparable.

    It would be interesting to see an article about the *consequences* of plagiarism, which establishes the *reason* for not doing it. Consequences for (e.g.) the scientific community, the plagiarist, the victim, the respective agencies, friends, families, the medical system, mental health, lost work due to depression/loss of sleep, etc. It’s quite a laundry list. And it’s as real as the chair you’re sitting on right now.

  • Pingback: Linguistic analysis isn’t hooey | The Silicon Underground()


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