quarta-feira, agosto 09, 2017

Mathematical Artifacts: "Shakespeare and Co.: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Dekker, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher and the Other Players in His Story" by Stanley Wells


As a Shakespeare dilettante, I find some of the attributions regarding collaborations slightly worrying. I'm not quite sure why this has been worthy of research. One of the more risible of 'evidence' put forward, I forget where, was that Middleton was co-author of “All's Well That Ends Well” (incidentally Wells also professes this attribution). The argument was: 'As an example, the word "ruttish" appears in the play, meaning lustful - and its only other usage at that time is in a work by Middleton' or something to that effect. So, creative writers are supposed never to have used a word only once in their entire oeuvre? This is quite typical of academics who have no idea how creative writers - and particularly dramatists - work. But the most preposterous of all must surely be their citing of the stage direction 'all': '"All" (preferred by Middleton) only occurs twice in the Folio - both times in All’s Well.' Playwrights were writing their plays on the hoof to impossible deadlines. Stylometric analysis is a method which has been seriously challenged and is evidently flawed because it takes no account of how writers write. Only a few obsessives really care, those of us who can bring ourselves to watch Shakespeare, generally just enjoy and don't really worry about whether he might have had assistance from this or that writer. We know he collaborated as a matter of habit, so one for the historians to mull over, the rest of us will focus on what is best, the often-astounding dialogue...

Statistics is a very dangerous tool for someone to use who is not experienced with the kind of mathematical artifacts which can be produced in complex analyses. It is VERY easy to amend the modelling parameters slightly to produce the answer you are hoping for, and few people will ever delve into the workings of a complex statistical algorithm to see whether the weights put on different variables are justifiable or not. In practice, skilled English professors are not going to have the mathematical experience to challenge the findings.

John von Neumann famously said, of graphical mathematical models: “With four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk.” By this he meant that one should not be impressed when a complex model fits a data set well. With enough parameters, you can fit any data set, even a requirement to draw an elephant on the output graph. I fear that this authorship assertion may turn out to be an elephant...I struggled with this when I was learning foreign languages. I had some naive hope that by applying mathematical modeling to some issues they could be put on a firmer footing than is usual in linguistics. It didn't take me very long to realize that what I was doing was merely recreating the limited data set available, by turning it into formulas rather than raw data. My formulas, simple as they were, described the data set with great accuracy. But if the data set would have been slightly different (say, by some anthropologist discovering some as-yet undocumented languages spoken in Papua New Guinea or somewhere), my formulas would have been slightly different too, and still be equally accurate. I did get very high marks on a paper I did on the subject, from a professor who clearly didn't know much about statistics (very few linguists do), but thought my approach was highly original, and encouraged me to explore it further. I gave up on linguistics soon after that. At least on that kind of linguistics. Sometimes, even mathematical physics, or anything very deeply mathematical is the same. It takes some years to be able to sort the dross and put it to one side.

But whatever the case, I confess to be a Marlowe admirer (not so much with Kyd, Fletcher or Beaumont):

'Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!
Come, Helen, come, give me my soul again.'

In “Shakespeare and Co.” by Stanley Wells

Those first two lines rank among the best in the English language.

If Shakespeare is not the author of his plays, it is remarkable that so many of his contemporaries accepted he was - Jonson, Heminges & Condell, even the bilious Greene in his own way accept Shakespeare as the author. Others might have contributed a few bits here and there, but Shakespeare was light years ahead of them. Marlowe was not always an astonishing dramatist himself - Faustus contains lots of rather naff comic scenes, in among the good bits. Barabus is presented as entirely unsympathetic and hateful, whereas Shakespeare makes Shylock human. Jonson was still writing plays about 'humours' when Shakespeare was writing Hamlet. Shakespeare's plays junked the unity of time and space conventions that his contemporaries valued. It's entirely likely that some parts of his plays were written by others - but no more than a passage here or there. There is something different about Shakespeare's plays that suggest they were the work of one, very unique, person. Out of interest, why does no-one question the authorship of Marlowe's plays, Jonson's, Fletcher’s, Beaumont’s? Maybe we should be looking for evidence of Will's handiwork in them, rather than expending so much time and energy trying to diminish the Shakespeare's achievements, just because he didn't go to bloody Oxford and his dad made gloves.

Then there's the actors - you think if Kemp, Burbage or Armin came up with a funny line or a nice plot twist, that Shakespeare would have been in any position to say "no, this work is evidence of my brilliance and none shall interfere!" I think not.

Then there's the editing. For the 12,542nd time, I tell you. Do you really think the plays are three hours long because anyone actually wanted to be on stage that long? No! Shakespeare wrote far more material than was needed because they would have edited every performance, using different scenes and different lines for different shows (especially useful when switching between playhouse and court). Is this not a form of authorship? But this is all detail. The big problem is more cultural - we primitively need to believe that a work of art is a window into a single brilliant artist's mind. It is this old fashioned need to see art almost biographically that holds us back. Put simply, we need to think differently about what literature is. This was a world with no copyright, where audiences would often miss the first half of a play, arriving halfway through with totally different attitudes to so many things. I think also a lot of it is snobbery. People don't want to believe that a man without a university education could write brilliant works. I'm sure in the future many will say a man from a London slum (Chaplin) could never have made such films or an uneducated man like Twain could be so wise. Maybe they didn't. Does it matter? The works are timeless.

Those who don't want to face it are fundamentalist Shakespearean scholars, and the town of Stratford-on-Avon, the livelihoods of both depend on the myths and legend. I thought Anonymous was brilliant by the way. Even if it wasn't true. Which it might have been. And it was good enough for Mark Rylance to appear in the film.

Another non-book, I fear. I'm gutted about this to be honest. It's like Milli Vanilli all over again. I threw out all their LPs, and have just tossed my original copy of the First Folio into the recycling. Nah, just kidding; I love Milli Vanilli… Some days when I wake up, I’m sometimes convinced I authored several Acts from Hamlet. But the computer always says, 'No.' Alas. No such luck…

2 comentários:

Book Stooge disse...

I am glad you brought up "statistics" and such. I'm a land surveyor and deal with distances and angles all day long. Let me tell you, angles and distances can lie like a politician. Take a 10 sided piece of property. We can run that with our instrument and we have to have a 1/10,000 closure, so we can have 1 foot of error for every 10,000 feet [1/3 of a meter, roughly]. Now, if something isn't correct, we'll come out under that 10K mark. But instead of running the whole thing again, the guy in the office will simply pick a different starting place, use the exact same numbers and BAM, suddenly we're all good. It still blows my mind, even now.

And as for "time and space", I was hoping you'd bring that up. I, Bookstooge McBookstooge, actually wrote ALL of Shakespeare's works for him. I simply sent them, with the awesome powers of my mind, into his head while he was sleeping. Honest. Which considering that I haven't even read all his stuff is even more amazing.

You enjoy your lip syncing duo. I'm for Enya myself...

Manuel Antão disse...

Man, you have me laughing out loud now! I needed it.

Nowadays most of the top brass not even low level maths can address. The analytics, patterns and predictive modeling are all done by computers and they just look at the results (*sigh*). Computers more and more do the heavy lifting and all that the "exec" does is respond to a preset list of options. A schoolkid could do all this - and they frequently do. No maths is required from the drone that operates this stuff. The problem takes place when the computer is "off the mark" for some reason. Then all hell breaks loose!

"Time and space": it's the story of the time-capsule all over gain...That reminds me of something: A mate of mine used to put time traveller as his occupation on every form he filled in with the justification that it he never stopped doing it, and he could do it with his eyes closed or hands tied behind his back or even when he was asleep.

lip syncing: "Ih habe genug" by Bach...