A 400-year-old Shakespearean mystery
William Shakespeare was honored the world over yesterday on the 400th anniversary of his death. What if this man of words left behind a treasured book of words? And what if two experts believe they OWN that book of words? Questions for us to ponder -- with Martha Teichner:
We think we know William Shakespeare, but the truth is, he's really a mystery.
What little is known about Shakespeare, the man, comes from public records -- for example, that he was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, in 1564, and that his father, John Shakespeare, was a prosperous glove maker and wool dealer.
John Shakespeare served on the town council. "He became mayor of Stratford, or bailiff as it was called in 1568," said Paul Edmondson, head of research and knowledge at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon.
But it's in New York City, far from Shakespeare's hometown, that two rare booksellers -- George Koppelman and Dan Wechsler -- think that they've lucked into one of the great "what if" stories ever -- a major Shakespeare discovery.
What if the marked-up old book they bought on eBay for $4,300 in 2008, a kind of dictionary published in 1580 called "Baret's Alvearie," actually belonged to William Shakespeare?
They brought their find to the Morgan Library in New York City in the summer of 2014, to show to Paul Edmondson.
The proof, Koppelman and Wechsler believe, is in the handwritten scribblings in the margins, and how they seem suspiciously similar to wordings in Shakespeare's writings.
The title, "Alvearie," means beehive. Baret was a Cambridge University professor who sent out his students -- calling them his "diligent bees" -- to collect words and their uses.
Teichner asked, "Does this feel as if it might be Shakespeare?"
"I wouldn't say that it might be Shakespeare, but I would say I wouldn't rule that possibility out," Edmundson replied. "If these are the annotations of Shakespeare's that are before us, then of course it's truly astonishing. But objectively, there's a lot of work to be done on this book."
It was published when Shakespeare was 16. Until around the age of 13, he attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Stratford. More than 400 years later, the school is still in use.
It was there that Shakespeare would have learned Latin and Greek, and a little bit of rhetoric," according to headmaster Bennet Carr.
In spite of all the images of Shakespeare around, especially in Stratford, what we think he looked like is largely based on a likeness printed in the first folio -- the first compilation of Shakespeare's plays published in 1623, seven years after his death.
"It really is the truest portrait we know, or that survives, of him," said Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
Teichner asked of the Baret, "If it wasn't annotated by Shakespeare, who else would've done all those annotations?"
"There are literally thousands of candidates," Wolfe replied.
Complicating our mystery is the fact that the only verified samples of Shakespeare's handwriting are signatures, which bear little resemblance to each other, let alone the jottings in the book.
Michael Witmore, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library -- the largest collection of original documents connected to the Bard -- says the job of scholars is to be dubious.
"You need to show that it would be unreasonable to doubt that it was him, and that's a very high threshold for proof," Witmore said. "And that's what's different about having an academic community go and look at this book as opposed to anybody else. You're looking for bad news."
To which Dan Wechsler and George Koppelman say, "Bring it on."
"I have yet to read, and George has yet to read, an argument that takes our best examples seriously," Wechsler said.
The two, at their own expense, published a book detailing their evidence, "Shakespeare's Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light." They've digitized the Alvearie page by page, and put it online so skeptics can study it.
They can only trace its ownership back to the mid-1800s. There is no DNA -- no "C.S.I." magic -- to prove or disprove their claim, only databases that can be checked to see whether the notes are commonplace phrases or unique to Shakespeare.
But there is this: The uniquely scribbled letters W and S, repeated several times. Because it was William Shakespeare's book? Or just coincidence?
"Maybe it is," said Wechsler. "But I feel like there's just too much there."
Soon, the Alvearie will come through the door of the vault deep below the Folger Shakespeare Library, where their books and manuscripts are kept. The Folger has agreed to accept it on loan.
There, three stories underground, scholars will be able to see it, touch it, and compare it to other books from the period, such as the Huluot Dictionary which came out in 1572 - and which, Teichner discovered, has handwriting everywhere.
As for Koppelman and Wechsler, whoever heard of booksellers thrilled NOT to sell a book?
"If someone offered us a price right now, and says, you know, you have to basically find a way to cancel your loan agreement with the Folger, and I'll write you such and such a check, that would not work for us,' Wechsler said.
"You know, we're confident in the work we've done and we'd like to see it validated," Koppelman added.
Validation, at best, will be a kind of consensus, because four hundred years after his death, Shakespeare hasn't left us much -- except, of course, his words.
For more info:
- Shakespeare's Beehive (registration required to view Shakespeare's dictionary)
- Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, D.C.
- Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-Upon-Avon, England
- Shakespeare's Globe, London
- King Edward VI School, Stratford-Upon-Avon, England
- Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-Upon-Avon, England
- Royal Shakespeare Company
- The Morgan Library & Museum, New York City
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