Can Monkeys Write Shakespeare? – Ooh, Interesting! Fascinating Facts

January 17, 2020

We at Sternberg Clarke absolutely love Shakespeare. We often do themed Shakespeare events, book entertainment at the Globe Theatre and go and see Shakespeare plays around London as and when we can. Although we love the bard, we have to acknowledge the classic theorem that argues monkeys could write his plays if given enough time. But is this true?

The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter would, if given enough time, manage to write the complete works of Shakespeare. In fact if given an infinite amount of time, the monkey would almost surely type every possible word and text an infinite number of times. After all infinity is a long, long time and there are multiple chances for the monkey to get it right. Even so, the probability is close to zero that a money could type out a complete work such as Hamlet. Or could they? Some students decided to put the classic mathematical theorem to the test.

For some unknown reason in 2003, students and lecturers at the University of Plymouth wanted to put the infinite monkey theorem to the test. Do not worry dear reader, the monkeys aren’t still typing to this day. The students sought £2,000 worth of funding from the Arts Council to conduct their experiment at Paignton Zoo, which was enough to purchase equipment for six monkeys and to follow their journey over a month. Just how many pages of Shakespeare would the monkeys manage to write?

Elmo, Gum, Heather, Holly, Mistletoe and Rowan were watched around the clock by students and the results certainly seem to suggest that an infinite amount of time would be far more useful than just a month. During the course of the experiment, the monkeys managed to type five pages of text, the vast majority of which were simply the letter ‘S’ over and over again. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

That being said, towards the end of the experiment the monkeys apparently discovered the letter A, J, L and M but still unfortunately failed come up with anything ‘remotely resembling a word’. At the time, the Paignton Zoo scientific officer Dr Amy Plowman suggested that the experiment was of ‘little scientific value’ but suggested that thanks to the results it can be established that ‘the infinite monkey theory is flawed’.

We at Sternberg Clarke think it harsh to compare one month to infinity but we must admit the monkeys really would have to improve a lot over a few thousand years to even come close to Shakespeare. Although arguably that’s exactly what evolution managed to do…

Photo by Jamie Haughton on Unsplash


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By Henry Fosdike