April 23, 2014

Booksellers claim to have found Shakespeare’s annotated dictionary


Were these annotations made by William Shakespeare? Collectors think so and have put the whole 1580 book online at Shakespeare's Beehive.

Were these annotations made by William Shakespeare? Collectors think so and have put the whole 1580 book online at Shakespeare’s Beehive.

On the eve of his 450th birthday, two booksellers in New York have announced the discovery of a dictionary that they claim belonged to, and was annotated by, William Shakespeare. The copy of John Baret‘s An Alvearie or Quadruple Dictionarie, published in 1580, was bought off of Ebay in 2008 for $4050. Daniel Wechsler and George Koppelman have spent the years since studying the notations in the book, and gathering evidence for their theory that it belonged to Shakespeare himself.

On Shakespeare’s Beehive, a 300-page book and website set up by Wechsler and Koppelman, the booksellers have scanned the entire original dictionary; anyone who signs up can peruse the whole thing. They also list types of annotations that they found, including circles and underlinings. The Sydney Morning Herald explains:

There are subtle clues such as the eight examples where it is claimed he practised the letters W and S. There isn’t one smoking gun, rather their case rests on the sheer accumulation of examples that Shakespeare could only have found in Baret.

Wechsler and Koppelman know that the burden of proof, and the level of skepticism they’ll face, is high, and hope that making a digitized version of the dictionary available will strengthen their case.

Wechsler is prepared for the fact that no matter how strong the evidence, some people simply won’t believe them. As such, they’ve just published Shakespeare’s Beehive, a 300-page book outlining their case, which proves, at least, that the Alvearie was vital to the composition of many of Shakespeare’s plays and poems. And at most, it shows that this is one of the most significant finds in the history of literature.

He feels that by opening up the dictionary to scholars, it will only reveal further evidence. “If George and I can see this, what will they find?”

The Folger Shakespeare Library has yet to be convinced. They lay out the evidence they would require on their blog.

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.

Though the scholars at Folger have declined to follow Wechsler and Koppleman on their “leap of faith,” they don’t deny either the excitement of the discovery, or the fact that Shakespeare was influenced by Baret’s Alvearie. They’ve yet to determine, though, whether this particular copy belonged to Shakespeare. According to the blog, they’ll be looking at paleography, rare and peculiar words, associations, and marginalia when they study the text. They conclude with a generous statement about Wechsler and Koppelman’s contribution.

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.

Wechsler and Koppelman plan to sell the book (they are, after all, rare book dealers); if their claims are true, they could expect to get up to 100 million dollars.


Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.