April 4, 2017
A 400-year-old critique of Shakespeare was just discovered in England: Is not that strange?
by Susan Rella
Did you know that every time a manuscript specialist quivers at a new discovery, a publishing professional gets their wings?
OK, maybe not. But it definitely makes everyone a little exuberantly dizzy around the water cooler. In a story so rad that I assumed it was an April Fool’s Day prank, a seventeenth-century “Shakespearean notebook” was recently featured on Antiques Roadshow, leaving the appraiser (and, likely, Sunday’s viewers) absolutely gobsmacked.
Penned by (apparently) the world’s first Shakespearean scholar, the tiny, handwritten notebook is entitled “Shakespeare: Comedies and Tragedies,” and was discovered at home by the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of eighteenth-century antiquarian John Loveday.
What makes the discovery so amazing is the dating of the notebook. Written in what Matthew Haley, head of books and manuscripts at Bonhams, describes as “a seventeenth-century hand,” the journal offers a peek at one of Shakespeare’s contemporary critics — either a 1600s-style Ben Brantley, traveling to the plays as they were first performed and jotting down notes; or a 1600s-style Michiko Kakutani, reviewing one of the first printed editions soon after publication.
Either way, this discovery is ludicrously astounding once one realizes how little of the population was literate at the time, not to mention how English Lit, as a subject of study, wasn’t invented until the early twentieth century. According to Haley, “Nobody started to edit Shakespeare’s works in an academic way or comparing texts until the eighteenth century… people weren’t looking at him in an academic, analytical way. But maybe this note-taker was.”
Although the text is nearly illegible, it’s currently being carefully transcribed, partly in the hope that it will reveal differences between the Shakespeare we have been studying for centuries and the plays as they were originally performed. Ultimately, the notebook may have implications for the authorship issue. As Haley points out, “it might be that he quotes something that appears in the 1632 second folio that doesn’t appear in the 1623 first.”
There are so many possibilities that it’s no wonder Haley was trembling when he saw the historical find (seriously, check out the video; he’s so adorably giddy). Haley, who valued the notebook at more than £30,000, called the find one of the highlights of Antiques Roadshow “by a fairly good stretch.” And, just in case you were concerned that this story isn’t British enough, Haley added this description of his emotional state: “I was completely knocked for six” — proving the Bard correct that some men do have greatness thrust upon them.
Susan Rella is the managing editor at Melville House, and a former bookseller.