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Researchers Attribute Long-Disputed Play to Shakespeare — Without Even Reading It

A Fort Worth staging of 'Double Falsehood' directed by Jason Morgan.

An 18th Century play widely attributed to British playwright Lewis Theobald was actually co-written by William Shakespeare, according to two University of Texas researchers.

Through their investigation, UT psychology Professor James Pennebaker and graduate student Ryan Boyd found that the bard likely wrote the first three acts, while the final two were probably written by collaborator and fellow playwright John Fletcher. The pair determined this without even reading the play. 

“There was a conscious decision when I did this, which was ‘I want to go in and just look at the numbers to get a sense of who very likely wrote it,’” Pennebaker says. “I didn’t want to be biased by the actual words that were written.”

The debate over who wrote the play “Double Falsehood” has been going on for years. Based loosely on a segment of Cervantes' "Don Quixote," Theobald published the play in 1728, claiming he adapted it from a combination of three Shakespeare plays.

Pennebaker and Boyd said they relied on computers to analyze phrases in the writing. Boyd said Shakespeare often used everyday phrases in specific ways that differed from the way Theobald used them — terms like “what is the,” “what is your,” and “that he is,” according to Boyd.

“Shakespeare had his own distinctive style of the use of these forgettable words,” Pennebaker says. “That’s what a computer is so good at looking at.”

Boyd said this research method, which is fairly new, creates models of how a specific person thinks. Researchers look at the phrases a person uses and the topics that person talks about in order to create a model of how the person thinks. This analysis looked at 33 plays written by Shakespeare — 12 penned by Theobald and nine from Fletcher — to determine the differences in their writing styles.

The same type of research could uncover the author of any kind of writing, according to Boyd.

“We could take people’s emails, we could take people’s social media status updates, and from that get a really strong understanding of who that person is,” Boyd says.

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