WHAT A PIECE OF WORK
The idea that Shakespeare’s personal dictionary has been found is too fantastic to be true, argues
SHAKESPEARE turned 450 this year. There wasn’t quite the ballyhoo of the quatercentenary in 1964, which included Richard Burton’s recordbreaking Hamlet on Broadway, but it still seemed a startling coup when two antiquarian booksellers in New York, George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler, declared they had found Shakespeare’s own dictionary, complete with his annotations.
Well, like everyone else with a heavy investment in Shakespeare, I’ve been pondering their evidence since the news broke in April and their claim seems to be nonsense — though nonsense of a delicious kind.
What Koppelman and Wechsler were brandishing with delight for the world to see was a copy of An Alvearie, also known as Quadruple Dictionarie, a 1580 dictionary of sorts compiled by Elizabethan lexicographer John Baret.
Alvearie is a variation of apiary, as in beehive, and refers to the stored honey of words, and Baret’s work is in fact a kind of usage guide rather than a source for distinguishing shades of meaning. It is a kind of quadruple storehouse of language because it gives quotations not only in English but in Latin, Greek and French.
This particular edition is a source of joy to its owners, who bought it on eBay for $US43,000 in 2008, because in it particular words are marked and it also includes the odd jotting. After studying the book closely, Koppelman and Wechsler are convinced these are in Shakespeare’s handwriting.
It is worth pointing out that the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, the foremost scholarly institution when it comes to the Bard, say with a good deal of painstaking caution that it is “premature” to join the booksellers in their “act of faith”. And that’s bending over backwards to be fair. Oxford Shakespeare expert Jonathan Bate said: “On a quick glance … the handwriting is certainly not Shakespeare’s.”
Well, quick glances do not provide certitude, which is why the Folger people are treading so carefully, but what Bate is responding to is the fact the handwriting doesn’t look like the tiny bits of Shakespeare’s script we have, such as the signatures.
To begin with, Shakespeare wrote in what is known as secretary hand while most of the annotations are in italic script, the ancestor of the cursive script people used before handwriting degenerated into joined-up printing, which was the phase before the computer took over almost completely. The handwriting does not seem to look to the unlettered eye (or indeed to the scholarly expert one) like Shakespeare’s.
You can have a look at Shakespeare’s Beehive, a website Koppelman and Wechsler have set up that includes high-resolution facsimiles of every page from their Alvearie. They have also produced a hardcover book, Shakespeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light ($80), and an e-book ($16). The website is www.shakespearesbeehive.com.
What the two put a lot of faith in is the proximity of certain words in the book. So we see examples of “Go fetch trenchers” as an instance of the verb to fetch and this reminds the authors of Caliban’s “Nor fetch in firing/ At requiring/ Nor scrape trenches, nor wash dish.”
It reminds me of it too — but is that not essentially because for the Shakespeare enthusiast the text (in this case The Tempest) is intimately known, and this creates a kind of hallucinatory halo around the fact given words in ordinary use will have natural, practical applications. Everything in Shakespeare sounds like a quotation. It sounds familiar from its literary context, but its familiarity has a prior richness and strangeness from its connotation.
Here is Koppelman and Wechsler’s conclusion: While we may never know … the argument for Shakespeare as annotator is more than any example or collection of examples. Such a case as the one just provided merely elaborates the process by which verbal
This is heady stuff. It’s worth bearing in mind, though, the cynical remark in James Joyce’s Ulysses: “Shakespeare, the happy hunting ground of all minds that have lost their balance.” Shakespeare is an extraordinarily great writer and he is also far and away the writer with whom we as English-speaking people are most familiar. If we add to this the fact the work we are looking at is a word book from almost precisely his period — he was 16 when Baret was published and he was writing for the stage parallels and echoes were located time and time again. Ultimately it was the combination of all the evidence, evidence which includes distinct personal traces and the overpowering suggestiveness of the tracking blank, that allowed for the probability that Shakespeare was the annotator and not a nameless annotator (neither familiar nor unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s work) marking his copy of Baret over an indeterminate, but clearly substantial, period of time. within 10 years of Alvearie’s publication — it’s not hard to see how Koppelman and Wechsler could be so dazzled by the image they seemed to see through a glass darkly.
“Through a glass, darkly” is, of course, a famous quotation from Corinthians I when St Paul talks about love (or “charity”) as the thing that can move mountains. Some of us may remember when we spoke as children some adult saying to us, “You might think that’s Shakespeare, but it’s actually the Bible.”
Why? Well, partly because, as Harold Bloom has observed, only the Bible presents as comprehensive a vision of life, as variegated a panorama, as the works of Shakespeare. But also because Shakespeare and the King James Bible share a timeslot and both come from the heroical Renaissance period of modern English.
The enthusiasts for Baret’s dictionary as the seedbed for Shakespeare’s verbal achievements — particularly (and improbably) this particular copy he supposedly marked — make much of an entry under the word “resolve”.