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  • Title: King John: Textual Introduction
  • Author: Michael Best
  • ISBN: 978-1-55058-410-3

    Copyright Michael Best. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Michael Best
    Not Peer Reviewed

    King John: Textual Introduction

    Footnote: a question of authorship

    In his article, "King John Divided" (Literary and Linguistic Computing 19.2 [2004]: 181-95), Thomas Merriam argues that King John was written by two authors, one of whom displayed use of "stylistic markers" typical of Shakespeare, while the other's passages are clearly different. Merriam uses a number of statistical tests, employing "function words" (common words like"and," "I," "is," and so on) and other ways used to differentiate Shakespeare's usage from other writers. He refers to work by Gary Taylor in the Textual Companion to the Oxford Works (1986), and Elliott and Valenza (1996, 1988-89, 2001).

    The core of Merriam's conclusions is summed up in a table that lists passages by Shakespeare and "Non-Shakespeare" (184). An unexpected feature of this table is that it omits almost a third of the play: according to Merriam, 751 lines are by Shakespeare (28%), and 1156 lines by "non-Shakespeare" (42%). This leaves a total of 820 lines (30%) in a logical paradox, neither by Shakespeare nor not by Shakespeare. The table reads thus in simplified form--Merriam adds columns to provide act and scene lines from the Oxford and Arden editions, and lists potential sources for the passages; I have added a list of the passages his table omits, plus columns that add up the various totals and percentages.

    TLNs start TLN finish # of lines Authorship Total lines Percent
    146 290 145 Shakespeare
    407 503 97 Shakespeare
    1569 1850 282 Shakespeare
    1995 2164 170 Shakespeare
    2192 2248 57 Shakespeare 751 27.54%
    1 145 145 Non-Shakespeare
    291 406 116 Non-Shakespeare
    506 737 232 Non-Shakespeare
    997 1193 197 Non-Shakespeare
    1851 1994 144 Non-Shakespeare
    2249 2570 322 Non-Shakespeare 1156 42.39%
    738 996 259 Nobody
    1194 1568 375 Nobody
    2165 2191 27 Nobody
    2571 2729 159 Nobody 820 30.07%
    2727 100%

    85 Statistical tests of the kind Merriam is employing must rely on sufficiently large chunks of data if they are to be meaningful. The table indicates that two of the passages attributed to Shakespeare are less than 100 lines in length (one, attributed to the paradoxical "Nobody" is only 27 lines long). The number of words in these passages is well under a thousand; Hugh Craig has established a block of 2,000 words as a statistically minimal sample of text for analysis of common words (Ellegård argues for a safer 4,000; qtd Craig and Kinney 27). Merriam's selection of smaller chunks, together with the omission of almost a third of the text, suggests that his statistics are vulnerable to precisely the kinds of normal variation that makes the samples invalid in statistical tests. Craig has run his own battery of tests on the two samples of "Shakespeare" and "Non-Shakespeare" from King John (but not on the missing "Nobody" samples, since they were not provided). His conclusion was that his tests do not give "any decided direction on the problem. They did not confirm the hypothesis, but they do not disconfirm it either" (private response to Merriam, 2009).

    In a more recent piece, "Feminine Endings in King John" (2009), Merriam returns to the fray with evidence from the frequency of feminine endings in the two strands of the play he has identified as "Shakespeare" and "not Shakespeare." In this piece the whole of the play is included, with a new table. Once again the play is divided into sections, some of which are clearly too short to be amenable to reliable statistical analysis:

    section authorship TLN start TLN end # of lines feminine endings percent
    [1] Not Shakespeare 1 56 48.5 2 4.12
    2 Shakespeare 57 290 227.5 32 14.07
    [3] Not Shakespeare 294 406 106 3 2.83
    4 Shakespeare 408 503 91 5 5.49
    [5] Not Shakespeare 506 737 222 9 4.05
    6 Shakespeare 738 770 32.5 2 6.15
    [7] Not Shakespeare 771 819 48.5 1 2.06
    8 Shakespeare 821 881 57 4 7.02
    [9] Not Shakespeare 882 919 38 1 2.63
    10 Shakespeare 922 996 74 2 2.7
    [11] Not Shakespeare 1000 1281 273 6 2.2
    [11a] Not Shakespeare 1061 1106 44.5 2 4.49
    12 Shakespeare 1285 1525 223 15 6.73
    [13] Not Shakespeare 1526 1568 43 2 4.65
    14 Shakespeare 1571 1715 133 15 11.28
    [15] Not Shakespeare 1718 1783 66 7 10.61
    16 Shakespeare 1785 1904 114.5 6 5.24
    [17] Not Shakespeare 1906 1994 88 7 7.95
    18 Shakespeare 1997 2143 138.5 2 1.44
    [19] Not Shakespeare 2144 2164 20.5 0 0
    20 Shakespeare 2167 2196 29 2 6.9
    [21] Not Shakespeare 2198 2233 35.5 0 0
    [22] Not Shakespeare 2234 2436 194.5 5 2.57
    23 Shakespeare 2440 2457 17 1 5.88
    [24] Not Shakespeare 2460 2633 154 2 1.3
    25 Shakespeare 2635 2674 37 3 8.11
    [26] Not Shakespeare 2675 2729 54 1 1.85

    The statistical impossibility of providing reliable percentages where there are -- to state the most obvious example -- three instances of a single feminine ending (one in a passage of only 17 lines), is clear.

    Merriam's contention that many plays in the period were collaborative is unquestionably accurate--the earlier plays on Henry VI almost certainly involve some degree of collaborative authorship. However, his division of King John into multiple, relatively short components, attributing these in part to two different hands, does not provide clear evidence of multiple authorship.