Pop quiz: Whose signature is the rarest in the world? Answer: William Shakespeare’s.
Yes, the playwright who created Hamlet (1603), Romeo and Juliet (1597), and King Lear (1608), irrefutable master of English literature and stronghold of the Western canon, left behind no manuscripts and no letters — no handwritten trace of his copious life’s work, unless you count the long-disputed three pages of a manuscript at the British Library referred to as “Hand D” that may very well be his. Only six confirmed Shakespearean signatures survive, all on legal documents; his will contains the two additional words “By me.”
If any fragment with Shakespeare’s handwriting came to light, it would generate international headlines, and that scrap would be worth millions. In this sense, Shakespeare truly is the “holy grail” of the rare book world — not that anyone is actively looking. Shakespeare died in 1616; as the focus of scholars, collectors, and forgers for nearly 400 years, it’s impossible that anything of his might have slipped by unnoticed.
Or is it?
On the morning of April 29, 2008, George Koppelman, a former IBM software developer who founded Cultured Oyster Books about 15 years ago, ate a late breakfast in his New York City apartment and then sat down at his desk to begin the day’s work. He logged on to eBay and input some search terms that produced a curious result: a 16-century English folio dictionary with contemporary annotations. Neat, but not necessarily remarkable. Except, said Koppelman, the annotations “seemed to me as if they were intentionally entered as poetic fragments.”
The volume was a 1580 second edition of John Baret’s Alvearie, or Quadruple Dictionarie, not a dictionary as strictly defined, but more of a polyglot’s reference — each English word is listed alongside its French, Greek, and Latin equivalents. Whoever had owned and annotated it displayed a keen interest in language, so much so that Koppelman was captivated. He called his friend, Daniel Wechsler of Sanctuary Books in New York City, and told him about the auction listing. It was premature even to utter the name Shakespeare, but between the two of them they decided that “the combination of it being an Elizabethan dictionary with at least some degree of involvement from an owner of the period was enough to spark serious interest, and we had several conversations on how much we ought to bid,” said Wechsler.
Rare booksellers hazard situations like this all the time. “We knew that there was a slight chance it could be very special, but also that there are hundreds, even thousands, of anonymously annotated books from this period that go virtually unnoticed,” said Koppelman.
They placed a high bid of $4,300 and narrowly won it. If it was the Bard’s book, it was certainly a bargain-basement price. When the bubble-wrapped folio arrived in the mail shortly thereafter, both men realized they had a long road ahead — “not days, weeks, or even months, but years,” in Wechsler’s words. As respected dealers (both members of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America), it would have been career suicide to make any hasty pronouncements about having purchased Shakespeare’s dictionary on eBay. Instead, they discreetly dove into the type of meticulous, multifaceted research experienced almost exclusively by PhD candidates.
First, perhaps, to reconcile the history: where was Shakespeare in the 1580s, and could he have owned this book? Shakespeare was born in 1564, raised in Stratford-upon-Avon, and married, at the age of eighteen, in 1582. Few records of his life survive, so his biography is largely the work of scholarly projection. No one knows exactly when he arrived in London, but the mid-to-late 1580s is the accepted estimate. That he worked in the theater and mingled with a “literary” crowd, even among the small circle of commercial printers, is also largely believed. Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker, “The printer Richard Field, a fellow-Stratfordian of around the same age, whose family was closely associated with the Shakespeares, was very likely a companion in Shakespeare’s early London scuffles.” Field didn’t publish the Alvearie — though he did later print the earliest editions of Shakespeare’s two long poems, “Venus and Adonis” and “The Rape of Lucrece” — but he likely did lend the playwright editions from his shop, which he used while writing, according to another Shakespeare biographer. Educated guesswork and isolated facts they may be, but it does appear that the Bard was in the right place at the right time to have had access to the Alvearie.
Next, the booksellers explored the handwriting. Elizabethan handwriting appears peculiar, even illegible, to modern eyes. (It’s worth noting that the Wikipedia entry for paleography, the study and interpretation of historic handwriting, is illustrated by a picture of Shakespeare’s will, indicating how difficult the script is to read.) Scholars tell us that Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have used secretary hand, a loopy style accomplished with strong up and down strokes of the pen, although there is so little evidence where Shakespeare is concerned that’s it tough to pin down what his penmanship was like. The annotations in the Alvearie, however, are not in secretary hand; they are in the slightly more readable but still sloping italic hand that was just beginning to emerge. Does this alone discount Shakespeare as annotator? The booksellers argue two points: 1) the Alvearie notes are in a mixed hand, and 2) annotations by their very nature are brief, so it makes sense that the annotator would have eschewed the flourishes of secretary hand while jotting in the margins.
Koppelman and Wechsler faced the most formidable — and gratifying — challenge in analyzing the actual text of the annotations. This entailed combing through each line of text, examining every speck of inky evidence. They categorized these annotations as either “spoken” annotations, meaning the annotator added full words, and “mute” annotations, meaning the slashes, circles, and bits of underlining made by him. Additionally, one of the blank leaves at the back contains an entire page of manuscript notes — words, phrases, and translations.
And this is where it got interesting for the duo, because, as Koppelman had noted upon first viewing select annotations, there seemed to be a reason that certain words were underlined or translated. The annotations were enigmatic, but following Koppelman’s earlier hunch about the poetic nature of the fragmentary phrases, the two booksellers have been able to demonstrate connections between some of the odd words and phrases that particularly interested the annotator with similar words and phrases that crop up in Shakespeare’s work. For example, a line in Hamlet reads, “Oh that this too too solid Flesh, would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!” The use of the word “resolve” perplexes in this context, unless you have Baret’s Alvearie handy, which defines “Thawe” as “resolve that which is frozen.” Moreover, the anonymous annotator showed his special interest in this word, inserting a “mute” annotation beside it.
The booksellers can offer up any number of such examples to prove their contention that Shakespeare himself marked up this book — the annotator’s fascination with “dive-dapper,” a small English bird that appears in Shakespeare’s “Venus and Adonis,” or how the annotator penned the weird hyphenated word Bucke-bacquet, which turns up in The Merry Wives of Windsor six times, on that blank back leaf — but it is impractical to describe the extent of their six-year investigation in a few paragraphs. Which is why they decided to write a book.
In April 2014, Koppelman and Wechsler went public with their findings. They published an illustrated book and accompanying website titled Shakespeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light, which boldly claimed that their humble copy of Baret’s Alvearie had languished in obscurity, “never previously studied or speculated upon,” and that having now been discovered and scrutinized was ready to be adored for what it was: a book annotated by Shakespeare. Their goal was to present their argument “in measured and non-polemical ways,” along with illustrations of the annotations that would invite readers to join the debate — but it was a risky proposition.
Before publication they had reached out to a small group of scholars and rare book trade colleagues and were “prepared for a variety of responses, including the most obvious one, which would be disbelief,” said Wechsler. Their reputations as rare book dealers would be put on the line. It was, said Wechsler, “an enormous risk, and that forced me to weigh all of the possibilities very carefully before I came to value the evidence in the annotations as confidently as I do.” Koppelman agreed, adding, “We would have been seriously naïve not to know what we were getting ourselves into. Neither one of us is what you would call an attention seeker.”
That said, the discovery did make international headlines, and the mixed reactions came in rather swiftly. The book world especially awaited acknowledgment from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., home to the world’s largest collection of Shakespeare research material, including 82 First Folios. Michael Witmore, director of the Folger, and Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts at the Folger, issued a joint response called “Buzz or honey?” in which they wrote, “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.’” It wasn’t an outright rebuttal; they noted that, “Shakespeare and other early modern writers used source books like the Alvearie to fire the imagination.” But proving that he used this one, they said, was going to require much more expert analysis.
Fair enough, said the booksellers. They had expected skepticism and even snap judgments, but by throwing the door wide open with a monograph that reproduces the annotations for all to see, they hoped to encourage research and debate. To that end, they update their blog with fresh insights, arguments, and counterarguments. So far, they remain confident that Shakespeare was the mystery annotator. “Of course we don’t deny the difficulty, perhaps impossibility, of ever fully proving our belief,” said Wechsler. “But we feel the argument for our conclusion has only been strengthened with new revelations and further research.”
It may be an insurmountable hurdle for some that this book — found on eBay, no less — contains the Bard’s marginalia. Had it been located in some neglected annex at the British Library, acceptance might have come more easily, but even the idea that an artifact of this caliber has been overlooked for nearly half a century is, perhaps, too much to absorb. Said Wechsler, “I think people fail to realize how many old books have survived and how many discoveries are still possible.”
Still others — a cynical crowd — might imagine that it’s all a ploy, not for fame but for financial gain. After all, if it were Shakespeare’s reference book, it would easily be worth enough to break the auction record for a printed book, currently holding at $14.2 million for the 1640 Bay Psalm Book. (The most expensive First Folio clocked in at $6.2 million, obviously without any authorial notes in manuscript — Shakespeare had been dead for seven years before this authoritative collection of his work appeared in print.) But selling the book quickly was never their aim, according to Koppelman and Wechsler. “Ideally, the book will eventually find a home as an important book in the collection of an institution such as the British Library or the Folger,” said Koppelman. “Regardless of where it goes next, we feel the most important thing is to be patient and encourage debate.”
In October of this year, 18 months after their initial announcement, the booksellers issued a second edition of their findings that includes more textual examples and “evidence that we believe is important to share and helps to solidify and advance the credibility of our arguments and our claim,” according to their blog. Readers who commit to the full 400-plus-page tome will undoubtedly credit the rigorousness of their approach and the guilelessness of their presentation.
As professional booksellers, Koppelman and Wechsler are always on the hunt for rare books. At the same time, this one was perhaps more than they bargained for. If another treasure turned up on his doorstep, what would he do? “As fulfilling as this has been, I would be tempted to put the book down, leaving the thrill of such a discovery for someone else to discover,” said Koppelman. Wechsler concurred. “I think it’s pretty safe to say I won’t ever find myself wrapped up in a find on par with this one.”
It’s true, our bardolatry is such that any discovery associated with William Shakespeare makes international headlines. In November 2014, media outlets clamored to cover the news that Saint-Omer library, a small public library in northern France, near Calais, found in its collection a First Folio (1623), the first published collection of 36 (out of 38) Shakespearean plays. It appears that the Saint-Omer library inherited the book when a nearby Jesuit college was expelled from France centuries ago and left the book behind. According to professor and Folio expert Eric Rasmussen, a Folio comes to light every decade or so, but this one was particularly surprising, and in good condition, even though it lacks the portrait frontispiece that typically signposts a Folio. Like the De revolutionibus editions traced by Owen Gingerich, First Folios are closely tracked, examined, and cataloged for textual or printing variations or marginalia — this one, for example, contains stage directions and the name Nevill inscribed at the front. “It’s a little like archaeology,” James Shapiro, a Shakespeare expert at Columbia University, told The New York Times. “Where we find a folio tells us a little bit more about who was reading Shakespeare, who was valuing him.” This addition brings the total number of extant copies of the First Folio to 233.
Excerpted with permission from Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places, to be published in December by Voyageur Press. Rare Books Uncovered contains 52 remarkable stories of rare books, manuscripts, and historical documents unearthed in barns, attics, flea markets, dumpsters, and other unexpected places.