Who wrote Henry VIII? Scientists use artificial intelligence to work out how much of Shakespeare’s collaborative history play he actually wrote
- Experts have long thought someone else co-wrote Shakespeare’s Henry VIII
- Researchers believed parts of the play were written by John Fletcher
- Fletcher replaced Shakespeare as the house playwright for the King’s Men
- Petr Plecháč taught a machine learning algorithm work by both authors
- It determined the exact lines written by each of Fletcher and Shakespeare
Artificial intelligence has been used to determine how much of the play ‘Henry VIII’ was written by William Shakespeare and how much was penned by John Fletcher.
Fletcher replaced Shakespeare as the house playwright for acting troupe The King’s Men in 1616 and, while literary experts have long known Henry VIII was a collaborative work, they didn’t know how much of the work was written by Fletcher.
To solve the puzzle, Czech artificial intelligence researcher, Petr Plecháč, decided to train a machine-learning algorithm on the works of Shakespeare, Fletcher and other contemporary writers.
He then ‘let it loose’ on a the text of Henry VIII to see if it could determine the true authorship of each scene.
Mr Plecháč says the algorithm proves that Fletcher wrote several scenes – including much of the second act. It also found a lot of joint scenes and collaboration.
Fletcher replaced Shakespeare (pictured) as the house playwright for acting troupe The King’s Men when the bard died in 1616 and historians and literary experts have long claimed he co-wrote Henry VIII as his his writing style can be seen in the play
The theory that Fletcher contributed to Henry VIII was first proposed by literary analyst James Spedding in 1850 after he noticed similarities between Fletcher’s plays and parts of Henry VIII.
Spedding suggested that Fletcher regularly writes ‘ye’ instead of ‘you’ and ’em’ instead of ‘them’ which he says were linguistic characteristics found in Henry VIII.
‘Our results highly support the canonical division of the play between William Shakespeare and John Fletcher proposed by James Spedding,’ Mr Plecháč from the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague told the MIT Technology Review.
As part of its training, the algorithm was taught to recognise plays Fletcher wrote at the time, including Valentinian, Monsieur Thomas, The Woman’s Prize, and Bonduca.
It was also taught to recognise Shakespeare’s style by examining some of his other plays from the same period: The Tragedy of Coriolanus, The Tragedy of Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest.
Mr Plecháč also trained the algorithm to recognise the work of Philip Massinger, another suspected Shakespeare collaborator from the time.
‘The participation of Philip Massinger is rather unlikely,’ he said.
William Shakespeare wrote 37 plays over the course of his life. The theory that Fletcher contributed to Henry VIII was first proposed by literary analyst James Spedding in 1850 after he noticed similarities between Fletcher’s plays and parts of Henry VIII
The machine learning technique takes a body of the author’s work to train the algorithm then a smaller body of their work to test it on.
As an author’s style can change over their lifetime it had to be tested on work from a similar period, which is why there were a small subset of plays by each author involved in the testing process.
Once it has learned the author’s style and commonly used words and patterns, it can then recognise that pattern in works it has never seen – which is how it was able to determine line-by-line authorship of Henry VIII.
It was taught on the individual works of each of John Fletcher and William Shakespeare. For Shakespeare it studied Coriolanus, Cymbeline, Tempest and Winter’s Tale. This graphic shows Shakespeare wrote all four of those plays with ‘some’ contribution from Fletcher
For Fletcher it included Valentinian, Monsieur Thomas, Woman’s Prize and Bonduca. This graphic shows Fletcher wrote all four of those plays
It was able to determine which sections of Henry VIII were written by each author as seen in this graphic – Shakespeare’s contribution is in purple and Fletcher in green
Out of the 17 scenes in the play the algorithm found that seven were written exclusively by Shakespeare and five by Fletcher.
The algorithm found that Shakespeare wrote the first two scenes of the play, Fletcher likely wrote act 1 scene 3 through to act 2 scene 3 and then Shakespeare took over until act 3 scene 1.
Plecháč said: ‘We can thus state with high reliability that Henry VIII is a result of collaboration between William Shakespeare and John Fletcher.’
The paper has been published on arXiv.org.
WHO WAS JOHN FLETCHER?
John Fletcher replaced William Shakespeare as the house playwright for the King’s Men when Shakespeare died in 1616.
John Fletcher died of the plague in 1625 after producing dozens of plays
During his lifetime his fame rivalled Shakespeare’s. His plays were regularly performed at court and had a body of work including 50 pieces.
His work formed a large part of the King’s Men repertory until the theatre troupe was disbanded in 1642.
He collaborated on a number of plays with Francis Beaumont and Philip Massinger throughout his career and works on Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen and Cardenio with William Shakespeare.
He died of the plague in 1625.
- The Faithful Shepherdess
- Monsieur Thomas
- The Woman’s Prize
- The Chances
- Wit Without Money
- The Mad Lover
- The Loyal Subject
- The Humorous Lieutenant
- Women Pleased
- The Island Princess
- The Wild Goose Chase
- The Pilgrim
- A Wife for a Month
- Rule a Wife and Have a Wife