How the wisdom of crowds could solve the mystery of Shakespeare’s ‘lost plays’

Crowdwise. Shutterstock

Are the many wiser than the few? Are the masses cleverer than the expert? This is a question which has in recent years attracted an explosion of interest, perhaps most famously popularised by James Surowiecki’s 2004 book, The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few.

The idea is often traced to a paper published in 1907 in the science journal, Nature, by Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin and all-round polymath. In that paper, titled Vox Populi (Voice of the People), he demonstrated the results of a simple averaging of all the entries into a competition to guess the weight of an ox at a country fair.

He found that that the average (mean) guess was 1,197 pounds, just one pound off the actual weight of 1,198 pounds. This power of “crowd wisdom” to outperform even expert individuals has been demonstrated in numerous examples since, from locating a submarine missing in the Atlantic Ocean to predicting the outcome of national elections and even papal conclaves.

Harnessing the power of the mob

Nowadays, the way that we often harness the wisdom of the crowd is through the use of prediction markets, which are speculative markets created or employed for the purpose of aggregating information and making forecasts. These markets have been used to predict uncertain outcomes ranging from the spread of infectious diseases to the demand for hospital services to the box office success of movies, to the probability of meeting internal project deadlines. The insights gained also have many potentially valuable applications for public policy more generally.

It’s hard to beat the fascination of watching the power of crowd wisdom, however, when it’s demonstrated in the raw, when an actual crowd demonstrates its dominance over the experts. We can go back a lot further than the days of Galton’s ox for a powerful example, and it involves a late 18th-century tale of William Shakespeare and a “lost play”. The play was called Vortigern and Rowena, and was widely proclaimed as a lost work of the Bard.

Making sense of the past: William Shakespeare. Shutterstock

It was championed by James Boswell, the acclaimed diarist and biographer of Samuel Johnson; Henry James Pye, the poet laureate; another noted poet, James Bland Burges; critic and classical scholar Joseph Warton, and the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. To widespread delight, Vortigern and Rowena opened to a packed, enthusiastic audience on the evening of April 2, 1796. The part of Vortigern himself was played by no less a light than the acclaimed Shakespearean actor, John Philip Kemble.

The widespread excitement and anticipation among the audience soon turned, however, to bemusement and then literal disbelief, so that by the time Kemble was drawn to hint at his own opinion, repeating with emphasis Vortigern’s line “and when this solemn mockery is o’er”, the catcalls of the audience told their own story. One performance before a crowd of ordinary theatregoers was enough to kill off any notion that this was a genuine work of the Bard of Avon. The real author, William-Henry Ireland, soon admitted to the hoax and promptly left for France.

A lesson learned

So what can we learn here about the wisdom of crowds? Is it perhaps the case that Shakespeare is to be played, not read, and the 18th-century experts who examined it simply took it on trust that it would appear better when played than read? Could it be that the real experts were the performers who had played much of the canon of the authentic William Shakespeare – and that their sceptical performances tipped the wink to the theatregoing crowd? Or could it be that the crowd simply was as wise as its reaction suggests? Whatever is the case, of something we can be sure. One crowd of paying spectators was enough. Vortigern and Rowena didn’t open for a second day.

Which brings us forward to the modern day and the strange cases of two other “lost plays”, Love’s Labour’s Won and Cardenio. The former has never been found, but is regarded by some experts as never lost but simply an alternative name for an existing play. This was an idea picked up by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2014, in their performance of Much Ado About Nothing under that name.

There has also been a great deal of recent scholarly interest in the idea that the early 18th-century play, Double Falsehood, was penned in large part by William Shakespeare, and is actually the lost play Cardenio, or at least closely based on it. How much truth is there in this idea? Although there is increasing support for the theory, the experts are divided. So how can we solve the mystery of such “lost plays”? Perhaps the best way is to stage them – and leave the final judgement to the wisdom of the crowd.