UW Today

This is an archived article.

January 23, 2003

‘Fingerprints’ shed light on Shakespeare works

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.


“I read Shakespeare’s sonnets as an undergraduate and fell in love with them,” said Brame, who has taught in the UW Linguistics Department for 32 years. “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. Brame has spent much of his time since then comparing works by Shakespeare to those by the author of the sonnet in question — 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 the manuscript to fellow linguist Popova, a lecturer in the Slavic Languages and Literature Department. Initially skeptical, she was won over by his arguments and began contributing to the evidence. The book was the result of their collaboration.


Brame and Popova aren’t the first to finger de Vere as the true Shakespeare, nor are they the first to use linguistic evidence to do it. What they have done that’s new, they say, is to develop a theory of linguistic fingerprinting that is more rigorous than past methodology.


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


Brame and Popova judged passages they compared based on what they call the four Cs: congruence, convergence, cumulation and cascade. The more of these elements are present, the more likely the author of the two passages being compared is the same. Their definition of each of the four Cs is:



  • Congruence: The two passages are similar in one or more linguistic categories, such as syntactical, lexical, semantic, rhyme, rhetorical figures.

  • Convergence: There are four or five different congruence types within one snippet of literature being compared.

  • Cumulation: This refers to the cumulative effect of converging congruences. It isn’t just one set of converging congruences, but two, three, four, five or more.

  • Cascade: You look at two works, you find one passage with converging congruences and another. Then you look at the second, with another kind of congruence and it takes you back to another passage from the first author.

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. One reason they’re sure their linguistic evidence is on the right track and that de Vere was the genuine author has to do with evidence from de Vere’s life.


“We looked at the life of Edward de Vere and compared that with what happens in the plays and sonnets and there’s an absolutely amazing congruence of the life with what’s written,” Brame said.


For example, in several places in the sonnets, the writer mentions that he is lame. According to Brame, de Vere writes in his correspondence that he is lame. Then there’s Hamlet.


“The Polonius character in Hamlet has been recognized by a number of orthodox scholars as modeled after William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the Lord High Treasurer to the crown,” Brame said. “If that’s true, then we should look at Ophelia, Polonius’ daughter and Hamlet’s lover. Ophelia should be modeled after the daughter of William Cecil, Ann Cecil. Ann Cecil was married to Edward de Vere. So that means that Hamlet really was modeled after Edward de Vere.”


Romeo and Juliet is similarly related to de Vere’s life. According to Brame, de Vere had a mistress named Ann Vavasor who bore him a child. The two were briefly jailed for their transgression.


“The aftermath of that was that the relatives of Ann Vavasor challenged Edward de Vere to a duel and there were fights on the streets of London,” Brame said. “Some of Edward de Vere’s retainers were killed and some of Vavasor’s relatives were killed. All this is a mirror of what happens in Romeo and Juliet.”


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 said. “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.


“The man behind the mask wrote under a variety of pseudonyms,” Brame said, “which is good news for those who love good literature, because there’s a lot of beautiful, wonderful work that’s nearly been lost because it doesn’t appear under this famous man’s name.”


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 pointed 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.