Plagiarism-detection software was created with lazy, sneaky college students in mind – not the likes of William Shakespeare. Yet the software may have settled a centuries-old mystery over the authorship of an unattributed play from the late 1500s called The Reign of Edward III. Literature scholars have long debated whether the play was written by Shakespeare – some bits are incredibly Bard-like, but others don’t resemble his style at all. The verdict, according to one expert: the play is likely a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd, another popular playwright of his time.
Sir Brian Vickers, a literature professor at the University of London, came to his conclusion after using plagiarism-detection software – as well as his own expertise – to compare writing patterns between Edward III and Shakespeare’s body of work. Plagiarism software isn’t new; college professors have been using it to catch cheats for more than a decade. It is, however, growing increasingly sophisticated, enabling a scholar like Vickers to investigate the provenance of unattributed works of literature. With a program called Pl@giarism, Vickers detected 200 strings of three or more words in Edward III that matched phrases in Shakespeare’s other works. Usually, works by two different authors will only have about 20 matching strings. “With this method we see the way authors use and reuse the same phrases and metaphors, like chunks of fabric in a weave,” says Vickers. “If you have enough of them, you can identify one fabric as Scottish tweed and another as plain gray cloth.” (No insult intended to Kyd.)