April 03, 2016

Shakespeare’s World Revealed In 400-year-old Handwriting


Heather Wolfe isn’t a Shakespeare expert, but she can do something many Shakespeare scholars can’t: she can read his handwriting.

In 16th and 17th-century Eng­land, most documents were written in a style of cursive writing called secretary hand. To the untrained eye, it is nearly impenetrable. The h looks like a butcher’s hook; m, n, i and u often are indistinguishable. An s might look like the numeral 6 — or a carrot

Wolfe, curator of manuscripts and archivist at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, specialises in reading these documents. Now she is leading a project to digitise, transcribe and post online every known reference to Shakespeare and his family written in and around his lifetime. She is discovering details that have been overlooked for centuries, from mistranscriptions and mysterious seals to an unpublished document tucked away in the Venice state archives that describes Italian and French diplomats attending Pericles in London.

No handwritten drafts of Shakespeare’s plays survive — only published editions. But there do exist three pages that scholars believe Shakespeare wrote by hand to revise a play called Sir Thomas More by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle. Those pages are in secretary hand.

Wolfe’s project began when she was conducting research for an exhibition of 50 Shakespeare-related documents currently on view at the Folger for the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death. To prepare for the exhibition, she travelled to museums and libraries across Britain, examining and transcribing ­documents before they arrived at the Folger on loan.

At the Bodleian Library in Oxford, typing on her laptop, she made a transcription of an account by the astrologer Simon Forman, who in 1611 recorded his impressions — and the moral lessons — of four plays he had seen at the Globe Theatre. It is the most detailed surviving ­account of an audience member in Shakespeare’s time, and is frequently cited by Shakespeare experts.

Describing Autolycus, a peddler who tricks people out of money in The Winter’s Tale, Forman concludes: “Beware of trusting feigned beggars or fawning felons.”

For more than 80 years, scholars had been mistakenly citing the phrase as “fawning ­fellows”, repeating a mistranscription that ­appeared in EK Chambers’s William Shakespeare in 1930. (The author had confused an n for a u.)

Wolfe checked with Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine, editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library editions. They agreed with her reading, which depicts Autolycus as a more malicious character — a felon rather than a fellow.

“Because I’m not a Shakespearean, I’m very nervous to say anything new about Shakespeare,” Wolfe says. “It’s riding on top of hundreds of years of scholarship. To put yourself out there … feels a bit audacious.”

Wolfe, 44, was born in Atlanta and attended high school in Pennsylvania. After graduating, she felt she hadn’t studied enough Shakespeare, so she decided to pursue a masters in medieval and Renaissance literature at the University of Cambridge.

She thought she would be reading Shakespeare plays. Instead, she was immersed in the archives, learning how to read 400-year-old handwriting. “I had never heard of palaeography”, the study of historical handwriting, she says. “There is an addictive quality to it once you learn how to read it.”

She was hooked. She stayed at Cambridge to complete a PhD, then earned a masters of ­library science at the University of California. While she was in California, she called the ­director of the Folger and asked: “Do you ­believe in the concept of a scholar-librarian?” She joined the Folger’s staff in 2000.

The transcription project, called Shakespeare Documented, was launched online in late January at shakespearedocumented.org. So far, it includes 500 references in 400 documents from more than 30 institutions. Images of most of the documents have been posted online.

There is much that scholars still don’t know about Shakespeare. Generations have scoured texts from the period for even a passing reference to him. One of Wolfe’s biggest discoveries is a document that had been known to Shakespeare scholars only from a summary printed by His Majesty’s Stationery Office in London in 1908.

In 1616, a former Venetian ambassador to England, Antonio Foscarini, was put on trial in Venice, accused of being a convert to Protestantism, a drunkard, a womaniser and a theatregoer. (He was later acquitted on all charges.) The court proceedings included the 1617 deposition in London of his former interpreter, Odoardo Guazzo.

For more than 100 years, Shakespeare scholars have referred to the summary of this deposition, which briefly mentions a performance of Pericles attended by Foscarini’s predecessor.

Wolfe enlisted Carlo Bajetta, a Cambridge classmate who is now an English professor in Aosta, Italy, to track down and translate the original deposition in the Venice state archives. Written in Italian, the deposition offers a much more colourful account of the playgoing habits of London’s diplomatic class.

Speaking of Foscarini, the interpreter says, “I believe he went twice, or three times, but I never went with him, because he would go in private, thinking no one would recognise him.”
Foscarini’s predecessor as ambassador, by contrast, had invited counterparts from France and Florence to Pericles, and paid “more than 20 scudi” for the performance — equivalent to more than $1500 today, by one estimate.

“Wow,” says Harvard University professor Stephen Greenblatt, when told by The Wall Street Journal that Wolfe’s colleague had found the document. Greenblatt has written about the episode but did not know a more detailed account existed. “So many things are lost and have disappeared,” he says.

Wolfe is also examining physical aspects of the manuscripts to see what clues they might reveal. She hopes to inspect the watermarks on the playwright’s will at the National Archives in Britain to investigate whether he may have added another page after the marriage of his daughter.

She is also studying the oft-ignored back of documents to see how they were folded. (A letter folded into a tiny packet might be a personal one; another folded broadly might be professional.)

And she discovered that Shakespeare borrowed a seal from Henry Lawrence, the scribe’s servant, for his signature on the deed for his purchase of the Blackfriars Gatehouse in London on March 10, 1613, for £140. He paid £80 in cash. In a document dated the following day, Shakespeare secured a £60 mortgage on the same property from the seller, Henry Walker. He used the same seal.

There’s a possibility, Wolfe thinks, that both transactions may have happened on the same day, in the same room. This could lead to new insight on the nature of the exchange. “It gives us some answers but it also raises more questions,” says Folger director Michael Witmore.

By Jennifer Maloney


With thanks to The Australian

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