WHAT A PIECE OF WORK

The idea that Shake­speare’s per­sonal dic­tio­nary has been found is too fan­tas­tic to be true, ar­gues

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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”.

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