The authorship of Jacob and Esau, an interlude from the mid-sixteenth century, is disputed. In a recent essay John Curran writes that Nicholas Udall and William Hunnis are “the most prevalent candidates,” and after reviewing the evidence he says that he inclines towards Hunnis (Jacob and Esau and the Iconoclasm of Merit, SEL, 49, 2009, 285-309).

I will confess that I have only glanced at Jacob and Esau, but I think I have some pretty compelling evidence that Udall is much the likelier choice. In my tabulation of 48,618 pairwise combinations of plays by different authors in the EMD corpus, the combination of Udall’s Ralph Roister Doister and “anon’s” Jacob and Esau ranks fourth in the link weight of shared n-grams. Perhaps even more to the point, if we exclude the egregiously self-repeating Thomas Killigrew, this pairwise combination shares more or weightier n-grams than all but 17 out of 2367 combinations of two plays by the same author. It is just barely behind the link of the second and third parts of Henry VI, which is the weightiest play link in the Shakespeare canon.

A different way of stating the same facts is that the Roister-Jacob link sits ten standard deviations above the average for links between different-author plays and three standard deviations above the average for links between same-author plays. Something is going on here.

There is nothing particular striking about the single hexagram, four pentagrams and 22 tetragrams that occur in these, and only in these, two plays:

  • now I will get me in
  • I did it for no
  • I am at all assays
  • I come to see if
  • may be in a readiness
  • but as for my
  • a mischief on all
  • a shame take him
  • as good as ere
  • word in thy ear
  • yea that I have
  • that thou hast me
  • when thou wilt I
  • none other life with
  • not by and by
  • be found such a
  • say what you lust
  • speak out aloud I
  • I am a lad
  • to God I vow
  • I will again to
  • I shall to my
  • I pray you sweet
  • him in very deed
  • I feel no manner
  • I hear them speak
  • since I was borne

But their frequency rules out coincidence. As I showed in the discussion of two works by Gascoigne, the odds of getting between 10 and 15 shared tetra- or pentagrams in a random draw are on the order of of 1:10,000. The odds for getting two dozen are considerably worse.

If the odds don’t speak to you, look at the n-grams shared between Othello with either Hamlet or Measure for Measure:

Hamlet Othello

I know not is it

good my lord I would

my lord what ho

from you do you

it will away again

it so fell out

father and his friends

sight let it be

with the act of

what make you from


Othello Measure for Measure

I think thou dost and

here is a change indeed

he must die be it

why very well then

adieu we must not

but hark what noise

But perhaps Ralph Roister Doister and Jacob and Esay share a lot of n-grams because there is less variety in plays before 1560. There is something to that. The EMD corpus has only eleven texts before 1565, and their 55 pairwise combinations have relatively high values:

N Minimum 25% Median 75% 90% Maximum
55 0.990 2.890 5.900 10.070 18.16 29.860

Compared with the interquartile range for all plays (2,75 -5.79), the interquartile range for the early plays is shifted somewhat to the right, especially at the top (2.89-10.07).  But Roister-Jacob is the middle of a top trio with link weight values of 29.9,  28.9 and 26.4, which translate into 2.5 – 3 standard deviations above the average for plays before 1565. Roister-Jacob has marginally fewer shared n-grams than the translations  of the Senecan Thyestes and Trojan Women and marginally more shared n-grams than the Three Laws of Nature and Chief Promises of God Unto Man, both attributed to John Bale.

To sum up: the shared n-grams of Jacob and Esau and Ralph Roister Doister put this combination of plays into the company of plays that either exhibit clear traces of A borrowing from B or are known to be by the same author. Which is the case here? The unremarkable nature of shared n-grams points strongly to the second alternative.