Shakespeare’s Dictionary? Skepticism Abounds.

April 23, 2014

As birthday surprises go, this one’s a doozy. This week, just in time for William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, two rare-book dealers in New York City went public with the claim that they had come into possession of the Bard’s own annotated dictionary. If true, the news would cause jubilation among Shakespeareans around the globe. But scholars’ initial reactions have been more cautious than celebratory.

Under scrutiny is a copy of Jon Baret’s Alvearie, a "quadruple" or four-language dictionary published in London in 1580. The booksellers, George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler, bought it on eBay in April 2008. They studied and digitized their prize, and on April 21 unveiled it on a website, Shakespeare’s Beehive. ("Alvearie" means "beehive," hence the website’s name; users can browse the digitized images free but must register first.) They’ve also just published their own study of the book and its marginalia and annotations.

Adam Gopnik made the booksellers and their Alvearie the jumping-off point for a long and thoughtful New Yorker essay, "The Poet’s Hand," on our persistent hunger for talismans—manuscripts, portraits—with a direct connection to the man behind the plays. Meanwhile, the booksellers’ claim understandably caught the attention of leading newspapers in Britain and Australia. Word of "Shakespeare’s dictionary" spread like a virus on Twitter.

But skepticism spread almost as fast, at least among literary scholars. Jason Scott-Warren of the Centre for Material Texts at the University of Cambridge was among the first to post a reaction.

"I have spent an hour ogling the high-quality digital images that they have generously supplied on the project’s beautifully produced website," he wrote in an April 21 blog post for the center. "On the basis of a brief look, I’m happy to report that we can all go to bed at the usual time. There is absolutely no reason to believe that Shakespeare was the annotator of the volume."

Doubts About Handwriting

Grace Ioppolo, a professor of English at the University of Reading, expressed her own doubts in a series of tweets responding to the news. Ms. Ioppolo said that she and another manuscript expert had examined some handwriting samples from the annotated Alvearie in 2012. The dictionary "has no tie whatsoever to Shakespeare based on the handwriting of the annotations," she said in a tweet.

Jonathan Bate, provost of Worcester College at the University of Oxford and a leading Shakespeare scholar, is also among the academics who weren’t immediately persuaded. "On a quick glance at the web materials, I’m very skeptical," Mr. Bate wrote in an email to The Chronicle. "The handwriting certainly isn’t Shakespeare’s."

It’s likely to take scholars months or years to fully test the merits of Mr. Koppelman and Mr. Wechsler’s claim. Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, and Heather Wolfe, a paleography expert and the Folger’s curator of manuscripts, explained why in a lengthy post on the library’s research blog, The Collation. Mr. Witmore and Ms. Wolfe were able to read the booksellers’ study and do at least a first assessment of how scholars will approach the evidence.

In addition to analyzing the handwriting and marginal marks used by the annotator, the Folger experts wrote, researchers will ask questions like "How many of the words underlined or added in the margins of this copy of the Alvearie are used by Shakespeare and Shakespeare alone, as opposed to other early-modern writers? Further, how many of the words that are not marked or underlined in this copy of Baret are nevertheless present in Shakespeare’s works?"

Mr. Witmore and Ms. Wolfe laid out other scholarly approaches to the question as well.

"At this point, we as individual scholars feel that it is premature to join Koppelman and Wechsler in what they have described as their ‘leap of faith,’" Mr. Witmore and Ms. Wolfe wrote.

What’s not in doubt is that Mr. Koppelman and Mr. Wechsler have shared something intriguing with the world. Whoever marked up the volume, Mr. Witmore and Ms. Wolfe wrote, was clearly interested in "the poetic and associative possibilities of English, French, and other languages, an interest that reflects the more widespread humanist practice of ‘commonplacing’ one’s reading. (Commonplacing refers to the practice of recording words or phrases that a reader feels can be saved for later use in composition.)"

Such details make the book worth studying—deliberately and thoroughly, set in the larger, now well-developed context of book history and annotation studies. Whoever owned it, this particular dictionary is another example of how people in the early-modern period navigated and connected information, Mr. Witmore and Ms. Wolfe said in an interview. "We’re treating this as an opportunity to educate Shakespeare lovers everywhere about the sort of work that goes on to authenticate a book or document like this," Ms. Wolfe said.

To discover the dictionary Shakespeare used would be to find "the Rosetta Stone of the greatest writer in English history," Mr. Witmore said. "It is exactly the sort of thing that we would all want."

"But for that very reason," he added, "we want to be careful."