The Shakespeare Code: English Professor Confirms the Bard’s Hand in ‘The Spanish Tragedy’

Aug. 13, 2013

AUSTIN, Texas — For centuries, scholars have been searching for answers to a literary mystery: Who wrote the five additional passages in Thomas Kyd’s “The Spanish Tragedy”?

Mounting arguments point to William Shakespeare, but English professor Douglas Bruster has recently found evidence confirming that the 325 additional lines are indeed the work of the Bard.

According to Bruster’s textual analysis, published in the July online issue of Notes and Queries, the proof lies in Shakespeare’s trademark misspellings and the bad handwriting behind them.

Douglas Bruster, professor of English (photography by Marsha Miller)

“This is the clinching evidence we need to admit the additional passages into the Shakespeare canon,” says Bruster. “It’s not every day we get to identify new writing by Shakespeare, so this is an exciting moment.”

Bruster examined Shakespeare’s spelling habits in the manuscript pages of the 16th-century play “Sir Thomas More.” Using Shakespeare’s contributions as a guide, he identified 24 points of similarity between “Sir Thomas More” and “The Spanish Tragedy,” a play republished, with new material, at about the time of “Hamlet.”

The findings reveal that Shakespeare’s spelling was both old-fashioned and idiosyncratic. For example, with words like “spotless” and “darkness” Shakespeare would use a single “s.” Past-tense words like “wrapped” and “blessed” he ended with a “t” (i.e., “wrapt,” “blest”). Also telling is his habit of spelling the same word in two different ways (i.e., “alley” spelled “allie” and “allye” in the same line).

Shakespeare’s contributions to the revised version of Kyd’s play were first suspected in 1833 by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the noted poet, philosopher and literary critic. Yet the cold case has remained unsolved owing to a number of awkward lines in the additions. Like a game of telephone, Shakespeare’s words got lost in translation, resulting in phrases that barely resemble the original, Bruster says.

“One line in particular literally kept me up at night wondering what Shakespeare was doing,” Bruster says. “Then I realized that the copyist or printer had misread his handwriting. It turns out that the worst line in the additional passages wasn’t what Shakespeare wrote. Once you recognize what the line originally said, the beauty of his verse rises to the surface.”

Watch Professor Douglas Bruster explain how he knew that a short section of a Thomas Kyd play, “The Spanish Tragedy,” was actually written by William Shakespeare. The scholar also reads the “new” work.

For more information, contact: Jessica Sinn, College of Liberal Arts, 512-471-2404; Douglas Bruster, Department of English, 512-471-3635, bruster@mail.utexas.edu

2 Comments to "The Shakespeare Code: English Professor Confirms the Bard’s Hand in ‘The Spanish Tragedy’"

1.  Richard M. Waugaman, M.D. said on Aug. 14, 2013

As I wrote to Professor Bruster,
" I was delighted to learn of your new N&Q article in today's New York Times. I want to be among the first to congratulate you, and to point out that the spelling variants you have identified all occur in the 70-odd surviving letters of Edward de Vere.

Berkeley's Alan Nelson (Emeritus, English) drew attention to this (arguing that de Vere couldn't spell well enough to have written the canon); he cited de Vere's dozen ways of spelling half-penny as an extreme example.

De Vere also spelled "satisfies" five different ways, and "small" four different ways.

As you say, Elizabethan spelling was notoriously variable, so nothing can be proved with this. Nor can de Vere's authorship be disproved by his penchant for variable spelling.

Tangentially, I might mention that William Sherman observed regular use of the same sort of manicule for each early reader. De Vere violates this pattern in his 14 manicules in his Whole Book of Psalms. Each of the 14 is distinctively unique.

Alan generously provides the full list of all of de Vere's spellings on Alan's website.

Have you heard of Elizabethan spelling bees? Neither have I. My surmise, though, is that the only possible way they'd work is to give the prize to the person who could invent the largest number of plausible but previously unused spellings."

Richard M. Waugaman, M.D.
Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Faculty Expert on Shakespeare for Media Contacts, Georgetown University

2.  Marie Merkel said on Aug. 14, 2013

Fascinating theory, which I hope will get more hard scrutiny than what we've been seeing in the press elsewhere. Perhaps someone might be able to clarify just what Prof. Bruster compared. Am I correct in assuming he examined Hand D in the manuscript of Sir Thomas More to the PRINTED additions to The Spanish Tragedy?