October 24, 2016 / 2:37 PM / a year ago

Scholars use Big Data to show Marlowe co-wrote three Shakespeare plays

LONDON (Reuters) - A new edition of William Shakespeare’s complete works will name Christopher Marlowe as co-author of three plays, shedding new light on the links between the two great playwrights after centuries of speculation and conspiracy theories.

Tourists watch actors perform at the house where William Shakespeare was born during celebrations to mark the 400th anniversary of the playwright's death in Stratford-Upon-Avon, Britain, April 23, 2016. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez/File Photo

Marlowe will be listed as co-author of the three Henry VI plays in the New Oxford Shakespeare, due to be published in several installments over the coming weeks by the Oxford University Press.

“Shakespeare has entered the world of Big Data and there are certain questions that we are now able to answer more confidently that people have been asking for a very long time,” Gary Taylor, one of the project’s senior editors, told Reuters.

The issue of whether Shakespeare wrote all the plays attributed to him has been the subject of endless conjecture, with one persistent theory being that they were actually written by Marlowe -- a notion rejected by Shakespeare scholars.

Taylor, a Florida State University professor, said academics had known for a long time that Shakespeare worked with other writers on some plays. The idea that he collaborated with Marlowe on the Henry VI plays had been debated for centuries, but had not been possible to demonstrate before.

Taylor said scholars had used databases of plays and other writings from the Elizabethan period, not just by Shakespeare or Marlowe but by many others working at the time, to search for distinctive words or combinations of words.

“That kind of Big Data was never available until very recently,” he said.

The academics who worked on the New Oxford Shakespeare, and others who had provided peer reviews of their findings, were extremely confident about Marlowe’s authorship of some parts of the Henry VI plays, Taylor said.

“There are parts that are very clearly by Shakespeare and there are parts that are very clearly by Marlowe,” he said, adding that most of the best-loved passages were by Shakespeare.

The New Oxford Shakespeare includes 44 plays, of which 17 are identified as having been written in collaboration with other authors. The previous edition of Shakespeare’s complete works by the same publisher, issued in 1986, identified eight of 39 plays as collaborative.

Taylor said that collaboration between playwrights was entirely normal in the Elizabethan period, and there was no suggestion of any great secret or conspiracy regarding Shakespeare’s work with Marlowe.

The author of “The Jew of Malta”, “Doctor Faustus” and “Edward II”, Marlowe passed into British popular culture as Shakespeare’s great rival, but Taylor said that was speculation.

“It’s possible they loved each other, it’s possible they hated each other. We have no way of knowing,” he said. “Rivals can collaborate.”

Editing by Robin Pomeroy

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