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Vocabulary and Spelling
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Vocabulary and Spelling

A test on the vocabulary of the MS yielded interesting results. There are altogether 553 different words legible in the MS (illegible words and words we were obliged to guess at are omitted from the count), of which 29 are proper nouns and 15 are abbreviations of words which would normally be spelled out in full in a printed text. Eliminating the proper names, and such abbreviations as elsewhere are spelled in full, we are left with a vocabulary of 515 words. A reasonable test of Webster's possible authorship is to compare this vocabulary with Webster's usage, as


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derived from the concordance.[28] There are cautions to be observed here, since the concordance is based on an edited version of the texts (Lucas's), and while it concords some of the works in which Webster collaborated with other writers, it excludes the uncertain texts (Anything for a Quiet Life, A Cure for a Cuckold, and others even less likely). Nonetheless, it can yield some raw data.

Of the 515-word vocabulary of the MS, 388 words are found in the Webster concordance, an agreement rate of only 75%. At first sight a 25% disagreement rate would seem to rule out Webster's authorship. But the figures need to be refined. In addition to the 388 words which occur, another 59 occur but in different spellings. This leaves 65 words in the fragment which do not occur in the Webster concordance at all, a verbal novelty rate of 12.6%. This seems very large too, but a glance at the concordance will show that Webster enjoyed using words only once or twice. It seemed sensible to concord separately a passage of similar size to the MS from another work, and compare its rate of unique words.

This posed some stringent parameters. First, the passage ought to be unquestionably by Webster; second, it ought if possible to derive from foul papers; third, again if possible, it should have been set by a naive compositor,[29] fourth, it should involve subject-matter as close in style to that of the MS as possible. These conditions entailed choosing The White Devil for the experiment, the only unquestionable Webster text for which there is evidence of foul-papers copy,[30] and they entailed choosing a passage from the first few gatherings of the book, which were set by the naive Compositor N;[31] finally we settled on Act I scene ii as being closest in material and manner to the MS.

The passage chosen had a rather larger vocabulary than the MS: 595 words, of which only 7 were proper nouns, and none were abbreviations. After eliminating words which were spelled in more than one way, a vocabulary of 579 words was left. 29 of these words (5%) were spelled in ways not elsewhere found in the concordance, and no fewer than 52 words (9%) were unique. 9% of 579 is still not so large a percentage as the 12.6% of 515 of the MS, but it does not inhabit a different statistical world; on the contrary, it argues that there is no reason in the vocabulary to suggest that the MS could not have been written by Webster. Besides, there are other factors. If the number of unique words is expanded to include words that occur only elsewhere in The White Devil, the number rises from 52 to 63, or 10.9% (it is evident that Webster had a tendency to use a special vocabulary for each work).

A list of the 65 unique words in the MS follows (diplomatically transcribed), with some comments.


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  • alteration anticipation approaching attendant
  • attentively avowed bookish clapperclawe
  • condescending Conspiracie Converts damosell
  • discharging doubtefull easier enacted
  • expecting exhibited Exiles faultie
  • fauorite (and ffauorite) ffauorites fealing firde
  • foster grizlie hearted ieopardie
  • infallible inspecting innovate laconice
  • languishing marking mistresses myselfe
  • mysterie oblation owest pales
  • potle[*] pots priuado progenie
  • proscription quaffers resounding slight
  • soere (and soe're) spartan sphinx subscription
  • Tauerners thundring unlawfully unvolve
  • veritie vigilant virtue wedded
  • whosoeuer withdrawing

A first reaction to this list is that with very few exceptions ("clapperclawe", the latin laconice, "privado" [we now resume the conventional u/v, i/j spellings, and eliminate upper-case, for ease of comparison], and perhaps "unvolve"), the vocabulary is not unusual. Yet the impression is nothing more than that, and, it may be argued, is misleading. For instance, it is remarkable that in this short fragment there are no fewer than thirteen words which do not appear anywhere in Shakespeare: "attentively", "avowed", "condescending", "damosel" (though "damsel" and "damosella" do), "exhibited," "exiles" (though "exile" does), "innovate", "inspecting", "laconice", "privado", "quaffers", "resounding", "taverners", "unvolved"; other words are found in Shakespeare only once or twice. Nonetheless, the feeling persists that the vocabulary is not esoteric: indeed, it is rather surprising that Webster was able to do without some of these words: who would have guessed that "conspiracy", "doubtful", "favourite", "feeling", "mistresses", "myself", "mystery", "slight", and "virtue" did not form part of his vocabulary? Similarly, there are a few words in the MS which seem very characteristic of Webster, such as "intelligencers". But this leads us into stylistic comparisons, which are dealt with elsewhere.

A second impression, more persistent, is surprise at the number of verbal nouns in the list: no fewer than eleven. This is the sort of vocabulary feature which is virtually impossible to get statistical evidence upon without either a computer programme (which we do not have) or without very laborious manual searching and counting, which would hardly be worth the effort. So it must remain as an impression that the MS uses more verbal nouns than Webster habitually did.[32] A third impression, confirmed by inspection, is that a number of items on the list are unique only in a limited sense: other parts of the word occur elsewhere in Webster.


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Some details of these would be in order. It is true that, for instance, not only do "condescending", "fealing", "inspecting" and "languishing" not occur elsewhere in Webster, but neither do "condescend" or "condescension", "feeling" (there are some uses of "feelingly", but chiefly in Northward Ho!), or any forms of "inspect", or "languish". However, "discharge" and "discharged" occur, as do "enact", "exhibition", "exile", "expect", "innovation" (once, in Appius and Virginia), "mark(e)", "mistresse" (and the usual spelling, "mistris"), "my selfe", "owe", "proscribe" (also once, in Appius), "resound", "spie", "subscribed", "thunder", "unlawfull", "wed" and "wedding", and "withdraw". This makes the list of unique words sensibly less, and confirms the essential normality of the MS's vocabulary.

Let us turn now to spellings. Trevor Howard-Hill's aphorism, "all spellings are compositorial", must be kept very firmly in mind when comparing the spellings of a manuscript with those of printed texts: the raw statistics in such circumstances prove nothing whatever. Nonetheless, for the record, there are 59 words in the MS whose spellings differ from any of those recorded in the Webster concordance: 11.5% of the total. In the same passage from The White Devil, the parallel figures are 29 and 5%. These are larger figures than one would have expected in a printed text, but the high proportion of unique spellings may be attributed in part to the naive compositor, and in part to the large proportion of prose in the scene, which may well have tempted the compositor into some unusual justification-spellings.

Rather than list the unique spellings of the MS, it makes more sense to comment on the more significant examples. It will be easier to assimilate these if we arrange them (as it were) as the case for the prosecution against Webster's authorship, and the case for the defence. First, then, the prosecution: the MS's preference for "bee" over "be" (11 to 1) reverses the preferences of the printed texts (11.5 pages in the concordance of "be" compared with 2 pages of "bee"); likewise the MS's invariable "hee" (6 uses) disagrees with the statistics of the concordance (over 12 pages of "he" to 4 of "hee"). "Chaunge" in the MS is not found in Webster, where the word is always "change". "Companie" is always "company"; there is one "els" (as in the MS) to 37 uses of "else". In the MS "growe" occurs twice; in Webster it is always "grow"; similarly the MS uses "hande", Webster "hand". "Lett" is not found in Webster; nor is "myselfe" as a single word (invariably "my selfe"). The MS spells "noe" consistently; in the concordance there are six and a half pages of "no" to six individual uses of "noe"; even more telling is the fact that the concordance prints over eight pages of "so", and no instance of "soe", which the MS uses invariably (four times). "Putt", which the MS uses five times, occurs no-where


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in the printed canon, where the spelling is always "put"; another word with a doubled terminal consonant in the MS is "sett", which is invariably "set" in Webster.[33] The MS prefers "theare" (four times), a form unused in Webster. "Privat" is always "private" in Webster, and "wrongue" is always "wrong". This is only a selection of the spellings found in the MS which go against the common practice in Webster's printed texts.

Cross-examining, the defence properly points out that scribal spellings were, in the early seventeenth century, usually more archaic than compositor's spellings: the doubled consonants of "sett" and "putt", and the silent e at the end of "soe" and "noe" would be the first things a compositor would get rid of. It is interesting that most of the "bee" spellings in the concordance are from Compositor B in The White Devil, an early text in the Webster canon; the remainder derive from the Ho! plays (also early) and from Characters, a book set by compositors who did no other work on Webster. This suggests it is unwise to overlook the importance of house-styling: note for instance that while the MS spells "weele", a form that occurs quite frequently in The Devils Law-case and in Northward Ho!, in Appius and Virginia the usual form is "we'l"; in The White Devil it is "we'le", and in The Dutchesse of Malfy it is "we'll": evidence that many spellings are not so much compositorial as managerial. The defence rounds off its cross-examination by observing that the presence or absence of terminal silent e is too slight a reed to base any serious conclusions upon.

Turning now to its own case, the defence presents the following evidence. The MS follows Webster's preference for "hath" rather than "has", which does not appear in it. The combined word "infaith" which the MS uses is sufficiently unusual to remark upon its appearance in The White Devil and the Ho! plays. The MS's spelling "lesse" agrees with Webster's preferences, since "less" does not appear in the concordance; likewise the MS's "read", which appears four times to once for "reade", agrees with Webster's preferences. Anticipating the prosecution's complaint that such random agreements are inevitable, the defence cites the spelling "graund", as an honorific, which unusual form appears three times in the concordance, and "tyme", which to be sure occurs only once in Webster, but that once is in the verses to the portrait of King James and his progeny: verses which were engraved not typeset, and which for that reason may well preserve copy-spellings more exactly. Another similar case is the spelling "eare" (=ere), a form also found in the Portrait verses, and in The White Devil and Westward Ho!, both early texts.

The most that a fair judge can say in summing up this evidence is that it is equivocal. There are a fair number of spellings in the MS which cannot


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be matched in the printed Webster canon, but that fact alone is not at all surprising. The MS itself reveals a number of internal multiple spellings: "all" and "alle" ("alle" is not to be found in the concordance), "be" and "bee", "danger" and "daunger", "do" and "doe", "happie" and "happy", "heare" and "heere", "know" and "knowe", "maie" and "may", "read" and "reade", "recconings" and "reckoning", "run" and "runne", "safetie" and "safety", "theire" and "their", "waie" and "way". A seventeenth-century writer was under no compulsion to be consistent in his spellings, of course; neither was he likely, in a foul papers document like this, to vary spellings in order to fill out the lines. His mental attitude towards spellings thus was the reverse of a compositor's on these two crucial points. On the other hand there are no spelling usages in the MS which match any spectacularly unusual Websterian spelling that could help to clinch the case: disappointing, but not surprising, in view of the small size of the sample.

Nothing in the spellings found in the MS and not found in the concordance is so unusual as to be beyond the range of master-printer's or compositor's regularization, though some cases are certainly debatable. For instance, note the MS's spellings "all one" as two words (a form that occurs nowhere in Webster), for "alone" though it is possible that the spelling may reflect a pun, especially in view of the normal "alone" in the third line. Then there is "carreir" ("cariere" and "carreere" once each in The White Devil, and elsewhere not used), "choler" ("choller" once each in The Dutchesse of Malfy and The Devils Law-case), "curde" (once "cur'd", once "cur'de", thrice "cured"), "hart" (it occurs in Webster, chiefly in the Ho! plays, but the usual spelling is "heart"—note, however, the MS's "hearted"), "hight" ("height" or "heighth"), "hue" ("hew" twice), "howse" ("house"), "shune" (one "shunne", six "shun"), and others less telling. Probably little is to be gained by combing this evidence any more carefully. One must remember that the spellings in printed texts are not only compositorial, but may also reflect scribal practice (where printer's copy was a scribal transcript, as in the case of The Dutchesse of Malfy; the nature of printer's copy for some of Webster's plays is still an open question): two systems of spelling may well intervene between the author and the printed form, and the likelihood of drawing any correct inferences from such spellings as can be cited is thereby sensibly diminished.

The verdict, then, is that while the spelling-structures of the MS differ quite substantially from those found in Webster's published works, collectively the differences do not add up to a decisive case for the rejection of Webster as the author of the MS. Nor, it must be conceded plainly, do they provide any overwhelming ammunition to confirm it.[34]


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Another subject worthy of brief mention is the punctuation of the MS. In its 144 lines it uses 37 commas, 15 semicolons, 17 colons, 25 periods, 7 question-marks and one pair of inverted commas.[35] This is 101 punctuation marks for 144 lines, or an average of 0.71 punctuation marks per line. It is light punctuation, and as a reading of the transcript will show, not invariably helpful or intelligible punctuation, though often the pointing is vivid and characterful. The punctuation of that part of The White Devil set by Compositor N averaged 1.27 punctuation marks per line (by comparison with the much heavier punctuation, 1.5 marks per line, in those parts of the play set by Compositors A and B).[36] The most that can be said is that the punctuation is not unlike that of the early gatherings of The White Devil, but then as much might be said of any lightly punctuated dramatic manuscript. To put it another way, there is nothing in the punctuation of the MS which is in any way outré, or which cannot be matched in Webster.[37]