Shakespeare turned 450 on Wednesday, April 23 (or thereabouts–nobody knows for sure). Happy birthday, Will! There was some big birthday news, or a big claim that made news, anyway. Two NYC booksellers announced that they have an annotated dictionary, a 1580 copy of Baret’s Alvearie, which they believe belonged to the Bard.
To find the dictionary Shakespeare used would be to find what one scholar calls “the Rosetta stone of the greatest writer in English history.” But is the booksellers’ claim more than wishful thinking? Read on, MacDuff!
*The booksellers in question, George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler, posted a digitized copy of their find on a just-unveiled website, Shakespeare’s Beehive. It’s free to peruse the digital pages of their Alvearie (it’s a neat find no matter who owned it) but you have to register first. Koppelman and Wechsler also published a study in which they make the case for their claim.
*Scholars, however, have been skeptical, as I explained in a quick story for the Chronicle (“Shakespeare’s Dictionary? Skepticism Abounds.”)
*Probably my favorite story about the Alvearie so far has been this one by Robinson Meyer in the Atlantic, both for its detail and for its headline: “Booksellers: We Got Shakespeare’s Personal Dictionary on eBay.”
*The best explanation yet of how scholars will assess Koppelman and Wechsler’s claims came from Michael Witmore, the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, and Heather Wolfe, the library’s curator of manuscripts and an expert on paleography. Their post on the Folger’s Collation blog is worth reading in full (“Buzz or Honey? Shakespeare’s Beehive Raises Questions“).
*The most meditative treatment came from Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker. Gopnik’s piece “The Poet’s Hand” (subscription required to read the whole thing) goes into gentle detail about Koppelman and Wechsler and the history of their eBay find, then moves on to mull why we’re still so fascinated by any talisman that might have a direct connection to the elusive playwright.
*For much more about Baret’s Alvearie and the uses and fascinations of Renaissance dictionaries, see this outstanding post by Andrew Keener (@keenera), a graduate student at Northwestern:
Altogether, this collaborative effort at multilingual lexicography stands at the center of debates about Renaissance language-learning and education in England, incorporating the work of Latinists, French instructors, and students at Cambridge.
So, if we stop worrying about Shakespeare, Koppelman and Wechsler’s copy of the Alvearie can tell us something useful about the relationship between language-learning and book use in the Renaissance.
And that’s a pretty neat birthday present for Shakespeare’s 450th.