The Play’s The Thing: Shakespeare Subjected to Plagiarism Software

William Shakespeare, the Elizabethan playwright (Credit: Wikimedia)

By now, students across the nation are resentfully familiar with computer programs—like the popular turnitin.com—designed to detect plagiarism in academic work. An English professor recently used such software to investigate the authorship of the unattributed Elizabethan play, The Reign of King Edward III. Scholars have long suspected William Shakespeare as the author and—according to the new computer analysis—he most likely had a hand (and quill) in its creation.

The program Pl@giarism allowed Brian Vickers of the University of London to compare the mystery play with all of Shakespeare’s works preceding its anonymous 1596 publication. He found over 200 matches of phrases longer than three words. Comparing texts by different authors usually identifies fewer than 20 matches. Vickers found even more parallels to works by Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Kyd, suggesting a collaborative effort.

Wait a minute. Clearly Shakespeare influenced this play—but who’s to say it was true teamwork? Maybe Kyd, suffering a bit of writer’s block, felt entitled to “borrow” from a similarly respected peer. Perhaps Shakespeare’s deadline was so near, he plucked a few phrases from his colleague’s works. After all, the software Vickers used is intended to catch plagiarism, not collaboration!

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