Recovering Shakespeare’s Signature?

The number of verified signatures by William Shakespeare might just increase this week.  A group of undergaduate researchers at the University of Mississippi led by Professor Gregory Heyworth recently performed an incredibly fascinating spectrum analysis of the so-called Lambarde signature of William Shakespeare at the Folger Library.  This signature, unique in comparison  to the other six known Shakespearean autographs, could actually give us a glimpse, however small, of the poet from Stratford’s personal library. While we may never know if this signature does indeed belong to Shakespeare, the results from these images could go a long way towards at least convincing scholars that it isn’t a fake.

Ars Technica spoke with Professor Heyworth earlier this week to learn a bit more about this project:

Heyworth takes pains to state in no uncertain terms that it may never be possible to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is by Shakespeare. However, if the spectral fingerprinting they did on this signature is consistent across other known signatures, it would come very close to definitive proof. If, however, it is consistent with known forgeries, that too would be a near-definitive judgment.

“The so-called Lambarde signature on the Archaionomia that we imaged was suspected by its first owner in the 1940s of having been by famed 18th century forger William Henry Ireland. [...] We know that Ireland used a special formulation of ink combined with acid and paper-marbling fluid for all his forgeries. Inks all refract light differently, according to their chemical composition. Multispectral imaging, then, combined with spectral analysis of particular spots, yields data indicating the unique refraction of light at various wavelengths. I call this a multispectral fingerprint, although it is not as exact.”

I’m not a Shakespeare scholar myself, but I have to admit that I’m fascinated by the possible implications of Shakespeare’s signature in a fairly obscure legal text.  Andrew Henning, the Ole Miss senior who spearheaded the project, also speaking with Ars Technica argues for a possible interpretation:

“For one, [...] it suggests that, at the very least, Shakespeare possessed and was actively reading legal texts. Some might even argue that it draws a strong line indicating that Shakespeare was in some way involved in the English legal system.”

And this may certainly be the case.  Many of Shakespeare’s plays involve legal issues, but why would he have chosen this text?  Looking for an expert on the subject, I spoke with MARCO director and Shakespeare scholar Heather Hirschfeld to get her take on this story.  Dr. Hirschfeld, while pointing out that the signature does seem a bit “off” in comparison to some of the others, did remind me of the importance of not only contemporary, but early law codes to Shakespeare and his contemporary playwrights.  And it is the early nature of Lambarde’s book that chiefly concerns me.

Ink showing through from recto to verso side of leaf (image has been reversed left to right)

Ink showing through from recto to verso side of leaf (image has been reversed left to right). Photo from The Folger Library

I do quite a bit of work with the English vernacular antiquarians of the Elizabethan age, so I’m actually a bit more comfortable these days with the work of Lambarde and others like him than Shakespeare, so I have absolutely no understanding of why Shakespeare would own and even sign (perhaps annotate too?) a dual-language (that is, Anglo-Saxon English and Latin) edition of the laws of Cnut and various other pre-Conquest kings.  Not only is it questionable just how thorough Shakespeare’s Latin was, it is almost never discussed whether or not he knew even a few words of Old English (and why would it be?).  Yet here is a book, ostensibly his, which was printed both to showcase the new Anglo-Saxon typefaces developed by Matthew Parker and John Day and to demonstrate the ancient models of Saxon law codes to a new audience.  While Lambarde was the first to do this, he certainly wasn’t the only antiquarian to take an interest in finding Anglo-Saxon legal precedents and presenting them to the public.  Symonds D’Ewes, for one, enthralled other members of parliament with his readings of various laws of Alfred and Aethelred, in the original language, to whomever would listen.

But what would Shakespeare be doing with this book?  Honestly, it seems that if this research rules out the more likely forgeries, there will be more questions raised than answers.  And that might just be the mark of really great scholarship.  So, many thanks to both Ole Miss and the Folger Library for putting this technology to some fascinating uses.


Source: Ole Miss Z!NG via The Collation and Ars Technica

Scott Bevill

Scott Bevill

R. Scott Bevill (English) is a PhD candidate in Anglo-Saxon and early modern literature. His research interests include paleography, antiquarianism, the Anglo-Saxon classroom, and medievalisms. His current research involves the wider implications of the 16th century antiquarian mood on early modern historiography, poetics, and politics.

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One Comment on “Recovering Shakespeare’s Signature?

  1. If Shakespeare did not himself study law, there is evidence that he was in conversation with a number of poets and playwrights who studied law at the Inns of Court. We know that Thomas Lodge, who claimed residancy at Lincoln’s Inn from 1589-1595 had a rich and varied social life centered arouns the great Hall at Lincoln’s Inn, the King’s Head tavern in Fleet Street, and the playhouses. We also have evidence that this fostered his association with John Busbie, publisher, Philip Henslowe, Robert Greene, Michael Drayton, Edmund Spenser, Thomas Nashe, Samuel Daniel and Matthew Royden. Thomas Edwards was a fellow at Lincoln’s Inn in 1587, John Marston resided at the Middle Temple in 1595, and the playwright George Gascoigne resided at Gray’s Inn. Additionally, Francis Beaumont and his brother John were both at the Inner Temple in 1602. The Inns were more than just law schools, they were the center of fashionable society during Shakespeare’s time. Naturally, he would have rubbed shoulders with other writers who were quite familiar with the workings of English law – Hirschfeld is spot on. Given Shakespeare’s concern with English history, it doesn’t seem unusual that he would have gone digging into the past in this manner. Although he wasn’t as traditionally schooled as  many of his contemporary’s, Jonson’s claim that he had “small Latin and less Greek” is rather unfair, particularly when you consider the ongoing self-education of these writers and the extensive records we have of literary communities during the Renaissance who delved into history, philosophy, mathematics and astronomy. Chapman, for example, is entirely self-taught, and his translations of Homer are extraordinary. This is a fascinating piece Scott and indeed raises a number of pertinent questions. I do wonder about Hirschfeld’s comment that the signature is “a bit off” . . . hmmmm



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