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Artificial intelligence helps find prominent Spanish playwright Lope de Vega as the author of a play from a manuscript written years after his death

Artificial intelligence helped discover that Lope de Vega, one of the most prolific authors in Spanish literature, wrote La francesa Laura, according to a manuscript of the play written many years after his death in 1635.

La Francesa Laura
First page of a manuscript of La Francesa Laura, a play now identified as having been written by Lope de Vega | © Biblioteca Nacional de España

Artificial intelligence helped find the unknown author of La francesa Laura (The French  Laura), the Spanish National Library announced on January 31. The play was written by Lope de Vega, one of the most famous authors in Spanish literature history.

Yet, the manuscript of the play dates back to the late 17th century, many years after the playwright’s death in 1635.

Researchers from the University of Vienna and the University of Valladolid identified him as the original author with the help of machine learning, according to their results on Anuario Lope de Vega, a peer-review journal dedicated to the knowledge of the works of Lope de Vega. They analyzed the text using stylometry, a technique that studies the linguistic style of written language as each writer uses specific words in various proportions.

The manuscript was digitized and compared to a database of about 2,800 other plays, mostly from the 17th century and the Spanish Golden Age, a flourishing period for arts and literature in Spain between the 16th and the 17th century under the mighty Spanish Empire.

The author of Fuenteovejuna (The Sheep Well) and The Dog in the Manger was identified as the father of La francesa Laura among the 350 other playwrights included in the database. The 100 works identified by the software as the closest to La francesa Laura were almost all written by Lope de Vega.

Could the machine be biased by the extensive work of Lope de Vega, one of the most prolific writers in literature history? Researchers then submitted initial results to more traditional methods of philology, the linguistic study of texts, and conducted by experts which validated the conclusions.

“AI has been a great ally for the historical-philological discipline, an aid for solving problems and for optimizing time and processes with unprecedented processing power, and has managed to find a needle in a haystack,” according to the Spanish National Library, which had the play stored since 1882 without knowing its author.

The play was most probably written between 1628 and 1630, five to seven years before Lope de Vega’s death. Positive traits and flattery to the French people seem to indicate it was written around the end of the Thirty Years’ War. During a short period of time, the French and Spanish kingdoms were allies against the English kingdom at the end of the 1620s.

The plot takes place in France and revolves around Laura, daughter of the Duke of Brittany and married to Count Arnaldo. But the heir to the French throne falls in love with her and sets out to woo her at any cost. Laura resists the charms of the dauphin, but her husband is suspicious and even orders to have her poisoned. Laura’s faithfulness ends up being proven and happiness is eventually back in the couple.

Germán Vega, one of the researchers who led to the discovery, points out to El Pais that the manuscript is a copy dedicated for use by theaters, not the original transcript. It is not Lope de Vega’s handwriting, which explains why the manuscript dates back to after his death. It has been written by three different hands, one per act, at the end of the 17th century.

A digitized version of the manuscript of the play is available on the Spanish digital library. Spanish publishing house Gredo will print and release for sale La Francesa Laura in the coming months in Spain.

The same research technique was able to identify Lope de Vega as the author of Mujeres y criados a few years ago. Authors of hundreds of other artworks stored in the national library have yet to be identified.

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