You are here

Analyzing "Fingerprints" in Shakespeare's Writing

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Find someone’s fingerprints at the scene of a crime and you know they were there. Fingerprints are unique, no two alike. Michael Brame and Galina Popova have found fingerprints all over Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, but they aren’t Shakespeare’s.

Of course, since Brame and Popova are linguists, the fingerprints in question are in the language, not physically on the page. But the language isn’t the only place they’ve found evidence. They make their case in a recently published book, Shakespeare’s Fingerprints.

Michael Brame and Galina Popova

Michael Brame and Galina Popova.

“I read Shakespeare’s sonnets as an undergraduate and fell in love with them,” says Brame, professor of linguistics. “But one day in Powell’s bookstore I found a collection of Elizabethan poetry, and one of the sonnets sounded like Shakespeare but wasn’t written by Shakespeare. So I thought, ‘I’m going to look into this.’”

That was 10 years ago. Since then, Brame has spent much of his time comparing works by Shakespeare to those by the author of the sonnet — Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. His conclusion: “Whoever wrote Edward de Vere’s poetry also wrote Shakespeare’s plays and poems.”

Brame wrote up his ideas and showed his manuscript to Popova, lecturer of Slavic languages and literature. Initially skeptical, she was won over by his arguments and began contributing to the evidence.

Brame and Popova aren’t the first to finger de Vere as the true Shakespeare. But they have developed a theory of linguistic fingerprinting that they consider more rigorous than past methodology.

“Other scholars have typically just taken two snippets from the writings and said, ‘Look how similar these are,’” Popova says.

Brame and Popova judged passages they compared based on what they call the four Cs: congruence, convergence, cumulation, and cascade. All of these concern similarities in passages—and the frequency of those similarities—in one or more linguistic categories, including syntactical, lexical, semantic, rhyme, and rhetorical figures.

Using the four Cs, Brame and Popova say, they were convinced that the works of William Shakespeare and those of Edward de Vere were written by the same person. They also considered evidence from de Vere’s life and found “an absolutely amazing congruence of the life with what’s written.”

In the sonnets, the writer mentions that he is lame. According to Brame, de Vere writes in his correspondence that he is lame. The Polonius character in Hamlet has been recognized by orthodox scholars as modeled after William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the Lord High Treasurer to the crown—de Vere’s father-in-law.

Romeo and Juliet also bears a resemblence to de Vere’s life, which included a grudge between two families—leading to a duel and deaths on both sides—when de Vere and his mistress, who bore him a child, were briefly jailed for their transgression.

But if Edward de Vere really did write the wonderful plays and sonnets we now attribute to Shakespeare, why would he not take credit for them? Brame and Popova believe it’s because he was more interested in advancing the language than advancing himself.

“English at that time was considered a barbaric language,” Brame says. “But the Tudor regime wanted to reach the masses, because this was a period when mercantilism takes off. So Tudor officials wanted to elevate English to a higher status.”

Since de Vere was a part of the Tudor court, he took up the cause and borrowed the names of some real people from his time—including Shakespeare—to use as pseudonyms, Brame and Popova say, thus giving the impression that a whole group of talented writers were plying their trade in English.

Of course, de Vere’s reasons for the deception weren’t entirely unselfish. “If he had written something like Hamlet under his own name, it would have been very easy to trace the personalities behind the characters,” Popova points out. “Polonius, for example, doesn’t come out looking good.”

And as every married man knows, it’s not a good idea to alienate your father-in-law, especially if he holds the purse strings of your country.