Buzz or honey? Shakespeare’s Beehive raises questions

Shakespeare’s birthday week begins with a bang: two New York booksellers, George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler, announced that they have found Shakespeare’s dictionary. In their new book, Shakespeare’s Beehive, Koppelman and Wechsler present their reasons for believing that William Shakespeare is the annotator of their copy of John Baret’s Alvearie, a 1580 dictionary that scholars have linked to Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Because Koppelman and Wechsler are claiming to have discovered something new about Shakespeare, their ideas will receive significant attention in the popular press. Adam Gopnik’s recent story in the New Yorker, “The Poet’s Hand,” provides eloquent testimony to the ongoing interest in discoveries about Shakespeare, an interest that led our founders, Henry and Emily Folger, to establish the Folger Shakespeare Library here in Washington.

Title page of Koppelman and Wechsler’s copy of Baret’s Alvearie. Used with permission of George Koppelman.

Title page of Koppelman and Wechsler’s copy of Baret’s Alvearie. Used with permission of George Koppelman.

Even the most skeptical scholar would be thrilled to find a new piece of documentary evidence about William Shakespeare. Scholars, however, will only support the identification of Shakespeare as annotator if they feel it would be unreasonable to doubt that identification. This is a fairly high evidentiary standard, since it requires one to treat skeptically the idea that this handwriting is Shakespeare’s and to seek out counterexamples that might prove it false.

As the library of record for Shakespeare and the leading documentary source for his works, the Folger will be one of the places where Koppelman and Wechsler’s claims are evaluated by scholars. Those unfamiliar with early modern books and manuscripts will be curious about the techniques that scholars at the Folger and elsewhere hope to use to explore the identity of the Alvearie annotator.

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.” Having ourselves worked extensively with collection materials and digital corpora, we have written this blog post in order to highlight research methods that we expect will be used to evaluate Koppelman and Wechsler’s claims. Regardless of the identity of the annotator, the book that Koppelman and Wechsler (hereafter K&W) have turned up is fascinating. The person who annotated this copy of Baret 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.) The marks in this copy of the Alvearie are consistent with this collecting or “commonplacing” impulse; they could also be the marks of someone revising for another edition, adding words and cross-references to make the book more up-to-date and user-friendly. 

What is new or controversial about K&W’s claim? They are not simply saying that Shakespeare consulted Baret’s Alvearie at some point in his life. As they note in their study, T. W. Baldwin made this argument some time ago, with real success.1 We know that Shakespeare and other early modern writers used source books like the Alvearie to fire the imagination. Shakespeare’s fascination with proverbs in his plays, for example, can be traced back to some of the printed proverb collections that were becoming popular in the sixteenth century. As the lexicographer John Considine has demonstrated, dictionaries were an important source of proverbs during this period, since they offered up proverbial sayings to illustrate the meanings of words.2 We should not be surprised, then, to learn that Shakespeare read and perhaps was influenced by a book such as Baret’s Alvearie: it supplied him with a trove of sayings, associations, and conceits that many writers trained in the humanist tradition would have been keen to mine for their own texts.

What is new here is the idea that a particular copy of Baret was annotated by Shakespeare and that his annotations are distinctive enough to provide (1) a paleographic link with other known examples of Shakespeare’s handwriting and (2) a kind of associative map to verbal patterns in Shakespeare’s poems and plays. K&W focus on the character, content, and arrangement of the marks on the pages of this book, since they are claiming that this annotator, by highlighting certain words in the text or reacting to them in marginal annotations, gives us a unique pattern of associations that identify him as Shakespeare. That identification is possible on the basis of a number of similarities—of handwriting, of words, and of associations—which are assumed to link the marks in this book to published works or autograph manuscripts of Shakespeare. If scholars find these similarities compelling, they will be looking to provide good answers to the following questions.

1) Paleography. Can we reasonably exclude other, non-Shakespearean candidates for annotator based on the writing that appears in this book? Is there enough of a sample of William Shakespeare’s writing to exclude these other possibilities? As K&W note, it is notoriously difficult to draw conclusions about a writer’s style of handwriting based on marginalia alone. Further compounding the problem of identification is the fact that all surviving snippets of Shakespeare’s handwriting—his signatures and possibly a few pages from a collaboratively-written play manuscript—are in secretary hand, while the majority of annotations in the Alvearie are in an italic script. However, there are thousands of examples of books annotated in a mixture of italic and secretary scripts, and scholars will need to test the Alvearie against these.

2) Rare and peculiar words. 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? Are these proportions different, and to what degree?

3) Associations. K&W write of “textual proximity in Baret mirroring textual proximity in Shakespeare” (107). As we know from studies of other resources used by early modern writers, it is in the nature of a dictionary to list commonly associated words (including synonyms and words that co-occur in proverbs or adages). How likely is it that Baret’s Alvearie—as opposed to proverbial wisdom and common association—is the only possible source for Shakespearean associations? Again, following the line of questioning above, how often do spatially proximate combinations of words that are not underlined in Baret nevertheless co-occur in Shakespeare’s works? How often do the proximate marked words in Baret occur near one another in writers other than Shakespeare?

4) Marginalia. How typical or unique are the annotator’s use of slashes, circles, trefoils, and underlinings? Is the cross-referencing, translation, and supplementation suggestive of revision for a later edition or of creating a treasury of words for personal use? How do the annotations compare to those of well-known Elizabethan annotators such John Dee, whose marginalia is the subject of a major study by Bill Sherman, or Gabriel Harvey, whose marginalia has also been the subject of book-length studies and critical enquiry?3 Are there links between those annotations and those of other annotators whose books have not been introduced for comparison?

Many resources will be brought to bear on these questions, resources that are used daily in a research library like ours. Other annotated early modern dictionaries and other printed books will surely be consulted for comparison, as will digital databases that record uses of words in early modern books and manuscripts. The latter resource will allow for systematic proximity searches and comparisons of “nearby words” found both in Shakespeare and in texts by other early modern writers, including those who are not writing for the theater.

All scholars of early modern books and literate culture should be interested in Koppelman and Wechsler’s copy of Baret’s dictionary. The owners of this book have done the world a service by creating a website where these annotations can be studied. Whatever their source, the annotations in Koppelman and Wechsler’s copy of Baret’s Alvearie provide a rich picture of one person’s reaction to the formidable textual resources that were becoming available to English readers with the growth of printing and humanist culture. Everyone has a reason to celebrate the survival of this book, and indeed, all early modern books that have been preserved to illuminate this remarkable moment in our past.

  1. T. W. Baldwin, William Shakespeare’s small Latine & lesse Greeke (U Illinois P, 1944). []
  2. John Considine, “Wisdom-literature in Early Modern England,” Renaissance Studies 13:3 (1999): 325-342. []
  3. William H. Sherman, John Dee: The Politics of Reading and Writing in the English Renaissance (U Massachusetts P, 1997); Virginia F. Stern, Gabriel Harvey: His Life, Marginalia, and Library (Clarendon P, 1979). []

Author: Michael Witmore

MICHAEL WITMORE is Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

23 Comments

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  2. So… the English-French associations in the annotations that you mention? I couldn’t help but notice that what’s described as three instances of the “IHS” monogram after three instances of the word “Yew tree” is, in fact, an uppercase italic “I” and a lowercase italic “f” — the French word “If” — meaning “Yew tree.” Not so much a sign of Catholicism as a sign of a dictionary, it seems.

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  7. This is a fascinating book, with excellent digitized images that have been made publicly available. It’s intriguing to see the additional words the annotator adds, usually in the correct alphabetical location. Some early reader took the book very seriously indeed.

    Naturally, it is as impossible to identify the handwriting as that of Shakespeare as it is in the case of Hand D, given the questionable nature of the signatures on the will.

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  9. A fascinating page at the beginning of the book, instructing users how to use the newfangled arabic numerals and how to do arithmetic with them. A healthy reminder that this was new stuff to Elizabethans, whose default mode was roman numerals.

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  16. One of the scholarly issues has to do with the bias associated with 21st century investigators being more interested in some 16th century people than others. The book owners, like many others today, are fascinated by Shakespeare, and the thought that the book might have been owned by him is one that would naturally arise. However, the thought that the book might have been owned by a little-known poet or an unknown teacher or a student who died at the age of 23 would not occur to them (or us).

    Once one has a hypothesis in mind, it is natural to then look for evidence that supports it. (This is a widely supported finding in the psychology of judgment and studies of scientists.) Even if one is critical, one is still checking the words against the work of Shakespeare and not against that little-known poet or unknown teacher, and so one is much more likely to conclude that Shakespeare had something to do with the book. As the authors of the post above note, it is important to consider negative evidence as well as positive evidence.

    Perhaps there is some kind of automatized way to form concordances between the dictionary and many other 16th-century authors in a way that does not privilege one of them above the others.

  17. hi-I thought Shakespeare may have taken the calepina (cooper) dictionary from the Stratford Grammar school to London. The chained lexicon disappeared then the Bard went to London. It was never found but he used this dictionary not the Alvearie for his poems and plays. Shakespeare never left the UK and could not have known about Egypt, Denmark and scrubbed fro the Cooper. Your thoughts please. Thanks JMR

    • We know from his will that in 1565 the vicar of Stratford, John Bretchgirdle, bequeathed his copy of Thomas Cooper’s Latin/English thesaurus to Stratford’s grammar school for “the common vse of the scholars.” What happened to it is anyone’s guess. The English Short Title Catalogue (http://estc.bl.uk/) records about 40 surviving copies of the 1565 edition and 20 editions of the 1552 edition.

  18. While it is possible that this dictionary could have been used by a writer, it is also possible that it could have been used by a reader. A Shakespeare fan could have used it to look up the hard words in the plays, and there are plenty of them; all those words Shakespeare devised himself, or put to new use

  19. On the basis of this excellent discussion – not, that is, having been able (yet!) to consider affording the book itself, – I wonder if the reverse corollary has been considered. Do we have revealed, in this copy of Baret, a READER of Shakespeare’s Folio, possibly in the 17th century, who has been intensively looking up the vocabulary used in the Folio, then annotating on the basis of that? An early Bardolater, in fact? The pervasive correspondence between the two works can cut both ways.

  20. Sorry to have overlooked the previous by Mr Doherty to similar effect. What I was trying to say was that there is an objective test of whether Shakespeare or not; in that the alternative has to be not only a reader but a First Folio user (or just possible Second); and that difference in usage does have a large chance, surely, of being quantifiable?

    • I’m not going to weigh in on whether this annotator is a reader of a Folio, but do think there are ways of establishing the likelihood that the Folio is the *only* source/destination of the annotations, and that is a search for similar annotations elsewhere in the corpus of early English print.

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