Shakespeare’s Dictionary? Skepticism Abounds.

tags: Shakespeare



As birthday surprises go, this one’s a doozy. This week, just in time for William Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, two rare-book dealers in New York City went public with the claim that they had come into possession of the Bard’s own annotated dictionary. If true, the news would cause jubilation among Shakespeareans around the globe. But scholars’ initial reactions have been more cautious than celebratory.

Under scrutiny is a copy of Jon Baret’s Alvearie, a "quadruple" or four-language dictionary published in London in 1580. The booksellers, George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler, bought it on eBay in April 2008. They studied and digitized their prize, and on April 21 unveiled it on a website,Shakespeare’s Beehive. ("Alvearie" means "beehive," hence the website’s name; users can browse the digitized images free but must register first.) They’ve also just published their own study of the book and its marginalia and annotations.

Adam Gopnik made the booksellers and their Alvearie the jumping-off point for a long and thoughtful New Yorker essay, "The Poet’s Hand," on our persistent hunger for talismans—manuscripts, portraits—with a direct connection to the man behind the plays. Meanwhile, the booksellers’ claim understandably caught the attention of leading newspapers in Britain and Australia. Word of "Shakespeare’s dictionary" spread like a virus on Twitter.

But skepticism spread almost as fast, at least among literary scholars. Jason Scott-Warren of the Centre for Material Texts at the University of Cambridge was among the first to post a reaction.




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