History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

14 March 2016

Documenting Shakespeare -- Word by Word

As a classically trained actress who has a strong background in the Shakespearean canon, with years of experience as both performer and scholar dissecting the nuances of individual roles as well as entire texts, I remain an unashamed Stratfordian. Which means that I believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Not Francis Bacon. Not the Earl of Oxford. Not Amelia Bassano, daughter of a Jewish Venetian courtier (though that would be really cool; and I know there are a few good historical novels in that idea). And not your great aunt Lula.

Yet historians, academics, theatre directors, and armchair time travelers alike continue to debate whether the Bard's oeuvre is just too damn brilliant to  be attributed to a nearly unlettered (except that he wasn't: he had rather a comprehensive education for a youth at the time) guy -- who came from nothing (except that he didn't: his father was not just a glover -- he was an alderman, quite a respected local office).

These disputes may soon be settled, via the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.

Since the year 2000, Dr. Heather Wolfe, a multi-degreed expert in paleography, the study of historical, handwriting, has been working on SHAKESPEARE DOCUMENTED, a project at the Folger that transcribes every contemporary (to his era) mention of William Shakespeare.  Shakespeare Documented will digitize and post online every known reference to Shakespeare and his family written in and around his lifetime, resulting in a treasure chest of information that will be a phenomenal boon to scholars, historians, and performers the world over.

None of Shakespeare's plays exist in autograph (handwritten) form; only typset published versions are extant. However, scholars believe that there are three pages he wrote to revise a play by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle. The penmanship is known as "secretary hand," a style of cursive common in 16th and 17th c. England.

Dr. Wolfe is an expert at deciphering secretary hand. At the Bodleian Library in Oxford, she transcribed a 1611 account written by the astrologer Simon Forman, who recorded his impressions of four plays he'd seen at the Globe. Forman's impressions are currently the most detailed eyewitness account of an audience member of Shakespeare's era.

On May 15, 1611, Forman saw THE WINTER'S TALE, Shakespeare's dark fantasy/romance, which explores the evils of jealousy.  Citing Autolycus, the peddler who tricks people out of money, Forman wrote, "Beware of trusting feigned beggars and fawning felons." For decades, scholars, misreading Forman's handwriting, believed he had written the word "fellows," and academic texts continued to print the error. But after careful study of the "secretary hand," Dr. Wolfe concluded, and colleagues agreed, that the word was "felons," which is a more accurate description of the character of Autolycus,

Bust of Foscarini

Another of Dr. Wolfe's major discoveries is a document referencing the playgoing habits of the Venetian ambassador to England, Antonio diNicolo Foscarini (who evidently saw more than one performance of PERICLES) -- incognito. In 1616, the year of Shakespeare's death, Foscarini was placed on trial in Venice.  His crimes: conversion to Protestantism, being a drunkard, a womanizer, and a theatregoer. In the original trial deposition (now in the Venice State archives) Foscarini's interpreteter stated "I believe he went twice or three times, but I never went with him, because he would go in private, thinking no one would recognize him."

Shakespeare's gravestone

Where do you weigh in? Do you think Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare?


Blogger PK the Bookeemonster said...

Stratfordian. Absolutely.

1:06 PM  

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