Shakespeare Plays May Reveal The Playwright's Psychology And Prove Creator Of Manuscript

Using text-analyzing software, researchers are now able to identify Shakespeare's psychological signature, along with other plays he may have written. Marcel "MadJo" de Jong, CC BY-SA 2.0

Shakespeare’s writings have always been a psychologist’s goldmine, from the stormy breakdowns of King Leer to the questionable insanity of Hamlet and his underlying Oedipal Complex, The Bard was a master of the human mind before it was even a field of legitimate study. But what about the psychology of Shakespeare himself? Can we find anything within his writings to further help us identify who Shakespeare the man was, and even more than that, can it help us uncover other works of his not previously attributed to him?

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin are striving to do just that, using psychological theory and text-analyzing software to establish Shakespeare’s unique psychological signature. Through this study, published in Psychological Science, researchers also discovered something to shake up the literary world: Shakespeare may be the author of the long-contested play, Double Falsehood.

While applying a psychological lens to literary analysis is not new, this novel scientific approach will aid in developing an author’s psychological marker to help distinguish his work from others. “Research in psychology has shown that some of the core features of who a person is at their deepest level can be revealed based on how they use language,” said researcher Ryan Boyd, of the University of Texas, in a press release. “With our new study, we show that you can actually take a lot of this information and put it together at once to understand an author like Shakespeare rather deeply.”

Collaborating with James Pennebaker, also of UT-Austin, Boyd went beyond examining authorship via word counts and linguistic regularities to define a psychological profile. “This research shows that it is indeed possible to start modeling peoples’ mental worlds in much more complete ways. We don’t need a time machine and a survey form to figure out what type of person Shakespeare was — we can determine that very accurately just based on how he wrote using methods that are objective and easy to do,” Boyd said.

In order to gauge Shakespeare’s psychological signifiers, researchers’ software examined the playwright’s use of function words (pronouns, articles, propositions, etc.) and words that belong to specific categories that distinguish content (emotions, family, sensory perception, religion). As a result, the software was able to identify characteristic themes of Shakespeare’s work, creating Shakespeare’s signature as an author.

Going beyond this, researchers examined the work to determine its “categorical” nature; categorical writing is distinguished as writing saturated with nouns, articles, and prepositions. It indicates a more analytical way of thinking. Those who rate high on categorical thinking tend to be more of problem-solving types, remaining emotionally distant in everyday situations. On the contrary, people who rate low are easy going, live-in-the-moment types who are more focused on socializing.   

This analysis, when applied to Shakespeare, helped researchers determine the likelihood that Shakespeare actually wrote Double Falsehood. Originally attributed to Lewis Theobald, Double Falsehood was published in 1728 under the auspices that Theobald’s work had been influenced by three Shakespeare manuscripts. These manuscripts had been lost, however, most likely due to a fire. Since then, authorship of Double Falsehood has been widely contested. Some believe it to be a Shakespeare original, while others still attribute the work to Theobald.

By examining 33 plays by Shakespeare, 12 by Theobald and nine by John Fletcher, a colleague of Shakespeare, researchers were able to establish a psychological signature for each playwright. Boyd and Pennebaker then turned their analysis toward Double Falsehood, using the software to determine the play’s psychological signature and which playwright it most closely resembled.

Looking at the play in its entirety, the software unanimously claimed Shakespeare as the author. Despite this, Theobald was signaled out as the best match when the software examined the play specifically for content words; this, however, was only one of the three statistical approaches researchers used.

Boyd and Pennebaker then broke the play down into acts, and analyzed them individually. This offered a more complex view, as Shakespeare seemed the likely author for the first three acts, while the fourth and fifth yielded both Shakespeare and Fletcher as likely candidates. Theobald, however, seemed out of the running entirely. By using these methods of research that identified author’s psychological profile, Boyd and Pennebaker discovered that the author of Double Falsehood was most likely social and well educated. These qualities do not match up to Theobald, who was known to be rigid and abrasive.

Overall, Boyd and Pennebaker feel this is a new step in psychological analysis of texts, allowing us further insight into the minds of the author. “I’ve always held huge admiration for scholars who grapple with literature,” Boyd said. “There is a great deal of detective work that goes into figuring out who the authors really are ‘deep down,’ their motivations, their lives, and how these factors are embedded within their work. We demonstrate with our current work that an incredible amount of this information can be extracted automatically from language.”

Source: Boyd R, Pennebaker J. Did Shakespeare Write Double Falsehood? Identifying Individuals By Creating Psychological Signatures With Text Analysis. Psychological Science. 2015. 

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