Baye’s and Shakespeare

It’s always a pleasure when I find my classes coinciding, even across schools and discipline. As an English major who hasn’t taken a math course in over two years, I found the Baye’s theorem hard to grasp and completely unrelated to my main studies. However, I stumbled across this article: Who Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays? Standford Professor Let’s You Decide, by Paul Gabrielsen. There is a widely known debate about the identity of the ‘true’ author of Shakespeare’s great works. While many believe that Shakespeare is who we believe him to be, others assert that Shakespeare’s known biographies would render that impossible. 

Both sides hold heated opinions in the centuries-old debate, but in the absence of definitive physical evidence, the decision is up to you, says Stanford University’s Peter Sturrock.

In his new book, AKA Shakespeare: A Scientific Approach to the Authorship Question, Sturrock explores the argument through the eyes of four fictional characters, each with a different perspective on the debate. They voice their opinions on 25 pieces of evidence, but Sturrock invites readers to weigh in as well and arrive at their own conclusion. (Gabrielsen)

Sturrock is a professor of emeritus of applied physics and an “eminent astrophysicist” started reading Shakespeare’s 150 sonnets and felt that they were autobiographical. 

He grew curious about the true author of these sonnets and proposed that one may find out using a method he developed based on Bayes’ theorem. Bayes’ theorem just states that probabilities as we know it is incomplete; as in the probabilities of a certain outcome/situation will change depending on the information available. For instance, if you were to pick a card, the probability that you would draw a black card is generally 50/50. But perhaps one black card was torn? This new information would affect the probability in some way.

Interestingly enough, Sturrock can use this theorem to try and find the true author! Currently, the second most likely to be Shakespeare, is Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. Sturrock draws evidence from the plays, sonnets, the editorial comments of the 1623 collection of plays, and other first hand texts. Using this information, Sturrock updates the probability on who the man behind Shakespeare really is. Sturrock has speculated that Oxford is becoming more and more likely to be the actual Shakespeare who tortured us in high school. This article helped my understanding of the Bayes’ theory and I found it extremely interesting that my studies in Economics can be applied to anything, including English.