The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

Textual variants in Shakespeare’s love letter to Anne Hathaway

When Shakespeare was young and in love, he wrote a gushing letter to his bride-to-be, enclosing with it a lock of his hair and five verses. Or that’s what an audacious teenager in the 1790s would have us all believe.

The supposed love letter is the handiwork of forger William Henry Ireland. For those of you new to him, see Arthur Freeman’s account of his identification of the original Ireland forgeries at Harvard, and the Collation post on William Henry Ireland’s forged Shakespeare library by Arnold Hunt and me.

Ireland was meticulous in his impersonation of Shakespeare in this letter. Of “his” hair, he writes, “I praye you perfume thys mye poore Locke withe thye balmye Kysses,” and assures Anne that “no rude hande hathe knottedde itte thye Willys alone hathe done the worke.” Of “his” verses, he proclaims that “Neytherre the gyldedde bawble that envyronnes the heade of Majestye noe norre honourres moste weyghtye wulde give mee halfe the joye as didde thysse mye lyttle worke forre thee.” After further protestations of love, he bids her farewell until the next day.

Ireland’s letter survives in many contemporary autograph copies, including five copies at the Folger. They are all written in a bizarre version of secretary hand and are full of unorthodox spellings, even for the sixteenth century. The original version of the forged letter—the one “discovered” by Ireland and presented to his father, Samuel Ireland, is thought to be this one, now at Harvard:

 

Letter from William Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway, MS Hyde 60 (5), Houghton Library, Harvard University. Photo courtesy of John Overholt.
Letter from William Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway, MS Hyde 60 (5), Houghton Library, Harvard University. Photo courtesy of John Overholt.

After its “discovery,” William Henry’s proud father, Samuel Ireland, reproduced it in facsimile and as a printed transcription as part of the Miscellaneous papers and legal instruments under the hand and seal of William Shakespeare (London, 1796), in both a sumptuous folio and an affordable octavo edition.

Folger PR2950 A22 Cage copy 1. Anne Hathaway facsimile letter and transcription in the folio edition of Miscellaneous Instruments.
Folger PR2950 A22a Copy 1 Cage. Anne Hathaway facsimile letter and transcription in the folio edition of Miscellaneous Instruments (1796).

 

Folger PR2950 A22 Copy 3 Cage. Transcription of letter and verses in octavo edition of Miscellaneous Instruments (1796).
Folger PR2950 A22 Copy 3 Cage. Transcription of letter and verses in octavo edition of Miscellaneous Instruments (1796).

All five of the Folger copies of the love letter to Anne Hathaway were made by Ireland after Edmond Malone pronounced him a fraud in An Inquiry into the Authenticity of Certain Miscellaneous Papers and Legal Instruments (1796). Until last week, I had never actually focused on the text of the letter, or compared the various copies side by side. My assumption was that they all followed the text as it appears in Miscellaneous papers and legal instruments under the hand and seal of William Shakespeare. However, it turns out that Ireland’s copies of his forged letter from Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway have many textual variants.

These are the five copies at the Folger:

Folger MS W.b.496. Shakespeare's letter to Anne Hathaway, with facsimile on left and Ireland's autograph manuscript copy on right.
Folger MS W.b.496. Autograph copy of Ireland’s forged letter from Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway, with printed facsimile on left. (click on image to see in Luna)

 

Folger MS S.b.119.
Folger MS S.b.119. Autograph copy of Ireland’s forged letter from Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway, facing a printed transcription of it from the 1796 octavo edition of Miscellaneous Instruments. Photograph by Beth DeBold.

 

Folger MS S.b.118.
Folger MS S.b.118. Autograph copy of Ireland’s forged letter from Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway, made by Ireland for his wife, ca. 1805. Photograph by Beth DeBold.

 

Folger MS S.b.157. Autograph copy of Ireland's forged letter from Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway.
Folger MS S.b.157. Autograph copy of Ireland’s forged letter from Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway. Photograph by Beth DeBold.

 

Folger MS S.b.159. Folger MS S.b.119. Autograph copy of Ireland's forged letter from Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway.
Folger MS S.b.159. Autograph copy of Ireland’s forged letter from Shakespeare to Anne Hathaway. Photograph by Beth DeBold.

There are many small differences in lineation, and plenty of missing words and word-substitutions. There is also at least one mistranscription, which is delightfully confusing since Ireland is transcribing a text that he himself composed. The printed transcription in the octavo edition reads “thye balmye Eysses [eyes],” while all the manuscript versions, as well as the printed transcription in the folio edition and the facsimile of the original manuscript, read “thye balmye Kysses.” Is Ireland intentionally misreading his own handwriting in the octavo to make it seem as if he is the dutiful and innocent (mis)transcriber rather than forger?

Two of the versions, S.b.159 and S.b.118, are both missing an entire sentence, which is rendered in the printed transcription as “Neytherre the gyldedde bawble thatte envyronnes the heade of Majestye noe norre honourres moste weyghtye wulde give mee halfe the joye as didde thyffe mye lyttle worke forre thee.”

Another passage appears in many different variations. In the printed octavo transcription we have:

forre thou arte ass a talle Cedarre stretchynge forthe its branches ande succourynge smaller Plants fromme nyppynge Winneterre orr the boysterouse Wyndes. (Miscellaneous Instruments…)

The Harvard original forgery is nearly identical, except it has the word “the” before “smaller.” The grandest of the Folger copies, and the only version that I know of with an actual lock of hair affixed beneath it, is part of Folger MS W.b.496. It mirrors the Harvard original almost exactly, including the word “the” before “smaller.” It faces a facsimile of the letter from the 1796 folio edition, which Ireland presumably copied directly from when he created this iteration of the letter.

forre thou arte ass a talle Cedarre stretchynge forthe its branches ande succourynge the smallere Plantes fromme nyppynge Winneterre orr the boysterouse Wyndes. (W.b.496)

In Folger MS S.b.119 (presented by Ireland to John Byng in 1799), the letter faces the printed transcription, and, not surprisingly, mirrors it, lacking “the” before “smaller”:

forre thou arte ass a talle Cedarre stretchynge forthe its branches ande succourynge smaller Plants fromme nyppynge Winterre orr the boysterouse Wyndes. (S.b.119)

However, in Folger MSS S.b.118 (a volume of forgeries presented to his wife, ca. 1805), S.b.159, and S.b.157, Ireland seems to improvise from memory:

forre itte a feelynge lyke untoe the Cedarre thatte stretchethe forthe its loftye branches toe shelterre smallerre plantes fromme nyppynge Winterre orre the boysterouse windes. (S.b.118)

forre itte asse a feelynge like untoe the talle Cedarre stretchynge forthe its branches toe shelterre smallerre plantes fromme nyppynge Winterre orre the boysterouse wyndes. (S.b.159)

forre thou arte as a talle Cedarre stretchynge forthe its branches toe sheltere lowlie [shoots?] forre nippinge winterre ande the boysterouse windes. (S.b.157)

What do we do with these textual variants? Are some autograph copies of his forgeries more valuable than others because they are more complete, done with more care, or closer to the text and layout of the original forgery? Would the original recipients of the post-confession autograph copies of his forgeries have noticed or cared? Do we need to stop calling them copies and refer to them as versions? Ireland’s motivations and intentions defy understanding in so many ways. I’d love to hear from other holders of copies of the Anne Hathaway letter to see what other variants are out there. And then maybe we can turn to the verses…

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