Department of English

New Shakespeare research from Douglas Bruster makes front page of New York Times

Wed, August 14, 2013
New Shakespeare research from Douglas Bruster makes front page of New York Times
Douglas Bruster, photograph by Marsha Miller

The internet is buzzing over Professor Douglas Bruster’s new research, which confirms through analysis of Shakespeare’s handwriting quirks that the bard contributed five additional passages to Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy.  The research is about to be published in the September issue of Notes and Queries, but the New York Times broke the story on its front page Tuesday, August 13, 2013. In addition to the Times piece, UT’s video interview with Bruster, posted the same day, sparked a conversation across social media platforms about this exciting new research.  Since then, it has caught like wild fire and news outlets around the country have churned out article after article.  Follow the links below the  Q & A to read the coverage.

For more information about the research, read the New York Times article, “Much Ado About Who: Is it Really Shakespeare?” and listen to the interview on UT’s Know page, “New Shakespeare Prose Found in Old Play.”  You can find out more about Bruster’s process and what this research means to Shakespeare studies in the Q & A below.

Q & A

What drew you to this research?  

The Additional Passages first struck me as too rough to be Shakespeare's. Brian Vickers's 2012 article changed my mind--not only by gathering previous research (by Warren Stevenson, Hugh Craig, and others), but by adducing many new parallels between the Additional Passages and Shakespeare's known work. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was the first to suggest that they were Shakespeare's, in 1833.

Why do you think this research is important?  What does it mean to tie Shakespeare to The Spanish Tragedy?

The research adds a material dimension to the argument for authorship; it demonstrates that the way the words were spelled--even written--was consistent with Shakespeare's known practice. Added to the verbal and phrasal parallels, it helps solidify the case for Shakespeare's authorship.  

We've known for some time that Shakespeare's Hamlet takes on a story that Thomas Kyd had already treated. We've also known that he worked with Kyd on the history play, Edward III. If Shakespeare also contributed to Arden of Faversham (as is suspected), this would make Kyd a partner to him in the theater, and perhaps even a mentor.

What do you think Shakespeare brings to The Spanish Tragedy?  How do his additions shape the play?

The Additional Passages are "star" turns for Richard Burbage, the actor who played Hieronimo. Over 80% of the new words are spoken by Hieronimo. They add more psychological depth, irony, wit, and even aggression to the role. 

Why do you think attribution studies are of such high interest right now?

We've got more and better tools to study language than at any time in the past.

In the New York Times piece, Tiffany Stern expresses concern that maybe scholars have become a bit too inclusive in their work on attribution.  Do you share Stern's concern that scholars are "shoving a lot of stuff in there that maybe shouldn't be"?

Attribution is always worked out in public. Stern's skepticism is good, for Shakespeare is our most important author. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Now that you've done this handwriting analysis, do you think there are other plays it might be applied to?  Do you have any plans to tackle other Shakespeare apocrypha?  

By themselves, arguments about spelling and handwriting can be only suggestive. In this case, they help us firm up a case that has been in the making for 180 years. It may be the case that other texts need different tests to determine their authorship. Ward Elliott, of the Claremont Shakespeare Clinic, and Marina Tarlinskaja, our foremost authority on Shakespeare's versification, have added to a thoughtful conversation amongst scholars on these issues. To these names I would add Brian Vickers, Hugh Craig, and MacDonald P. Jackson. It's a busy field, and we get things right only when ideas are tested by other scholars.

Media Coverage

YouTube video: Professor Bruster explains it all.

"Shakespeare wrote lines in Thomas Kyd play, research finds" by Liz Bury, The Guardian

"The Play You Didn't Know Shakespeare Helped Write" by Allie Jones, The Atlantic Wire

"Sloppy Handwriting Provides New Evidence in Shakespeare Debate" at The Daily Beast 

"Book News: Handwriting Offers Clues in Shakespeare Debate" by Annalisa Quinn, "The Daily Two Way," NPR

"UT Professor Solves a 400-Year-Old Mystery" by Rose Cahalan, The Alcalde

"'Bad Handwriting' May Settle Shakespeare Mystery" by Kate Seamons, Newser

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