June 05, 2015
As digital methods have become more central to literary study, Shakespeare’s works have proved a tempting testing ground. In a 2011 article, Ward E.Y. Elliott and Robert J. Valenza of Claremont McKenna College tackled the claim of Shakespeare’s widespread wordsmithing. They concluded that new words attributed to Shakespeare are “probably overcounted by a factor of at least two” — in part because early versions of the Oxford English Dictionary relied heavily on Shakespeare for textual citations. Indeed, as more works become digitized, Shakespeare’s number of first-use citations in the OED is dropping, from 3,200 at midcentury to around 2,000 today.
Meanwhile, in another 2011 article published in Shakespeare Quarterly, Hugh Craig, of the University of Newcastle in Australia, took on the belief that Shakespeare’s vocabulary is truly “beyond comparison,” aligning Shakespeare’s plays with about 100 others of the period to “dispel the myth of his exceptional vocabulary.” Craig found that, accounting for Shakespeare’s greater output and survival rate, he was not so different from his peers; on average, he employed a narrower variety of words per play than now-forgotten colleagues like Robert Greene and George Peele. “The truth is much simpler,” Craig wrote: “Shakespeare has a larger vocabulary because he has a larger canon.”