Shakespeare's Handwriting

One of the memorable images in the film Shakespeare in Love is of the playwright sitting, quill in hand, preparing to compose a script. But what do we actually know of Shakespeare’s handwriting? His work has been passed down to us through the printed quartos and folios of the 16th and 17th century, which have been avidly collected and closely studied; many literary manuscripts and personal papers of his contemporaries survive, along with examples of the English secretary hand Shakespeare would have learnt and used. But autograph manuscripts, those in Shakespeare’s hand itself, are few and far between. The general consensus is that only 6 of Shakespeare’s signatures have been identified and authenticated: 1 on his deposition in a law suit dated 11th May 1612, 2 on the mortgage and conveyance for his purchase of a house in Blackfriars, dated 10th March and 11th March 1613, 3 on his will, executed in 1616; along with three sheets of additions to the play Sir Thomas More (British Library Harleian MS. 7368), dating from the late 16th or early 17th century. This is thought to be the only known literary manuscript in Shakespeare’s hand.

So why have such scant manuscript records become so important and scrutinised? There are a number of reasons: anything associated with Shakespeare will attract a huge amount of attention no matter how little there is to see. The manuscript record became a key battleground in authorship disputes, with the paucity of material used as an argument against those who believe Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare in favour of various alternative authorship theories. Numerous studies have attempted to learn more about Shakespeare the man from his handwriting – the nature of his education and level of literacy, his skills as a scribe, the state of his health and medical conditions that may have affected his handwriting. The palaeographical study of Shakespeare’s handwriting is also essential for authentication, both of manuscripts believed to be autograph (i.e. The Sir Thomas More additions) and in exposing inevitable fakes and forgeries. Some of the first reproductions of Shakespeare’s signatures were produced in the works of Edmund Malone in the 1790s, including his extensive case against William Henry Ireland’s forgeries of Shakespeare plays and documents.

One of the most extensive studies of Shakespeare’s hand was published in the early twentieth century by palaeographer, and director and principal librarian of the British Museum, Edward Maunde Thompson. In 1916, he produced a monograph on Shakespeare’s hand with a comparison to the three pages of additions to Sir Thomas More; Thompson examines of each letter and abbreviation of the signatures, coming to the conclusion that Shakespeare’s hand was of the “common English type, with little to distinguish it from that of any number of ordinary hands of the same type written by Englishmen engaged in trade or commerce or other affairs of life”; he even goes as far as to state that the imperfections in the signatures of the three earlier legal documents can be attributed to his failure to write easily in embarrassing circumstances. But one of the key aspects of the monograph is the identification of individual features amongst the ordinary hand of the signatures: essential for the positive identification of a potential autograph manuscript.

Thompson revisited the subject in a chapter for A.W. Pollard’s Shakespeare’s hand in the play of Sir Thomas More, whose aim was to “strengthen the evidence of the existence of three pages written by Shakespeare in his own hand as part of the play of Sir Thomas More”. “In his own hand” could only be proved by Thompson’s palaeographical study, presenting the evidence for the unsinged additions being in the same hand as the six signatures. In both studies, Thompson identifies some interesting defining features of the signatures that are also found in the additions: an open ‘a’ linked to ‘h’ and formed with a spur at the back, delicate upstrokes used as flourishes on some letters, as seen on the ‘m’ and ‘w’ of the ‘by me’ signature of the will, and the use of a long Italian s alongside the standard long and short ‘s’ of the ordinary English secretary hand in three of Shakespeare’s signatures and twice in the additions. The imported Italian script had begun to replace the native English hand, and Shakespeare’s occasional adoption of the Italian long ‘s’, but no other characters, for Thompson, is a key peculiarity in common between the signatures and the additions.

The case is thorough, but as Thompson states, it can only ever be weighted: the manuscript additions are unsigned, and the samples for comparisons are few, written for an entirely different purpose over ten years later. They are inconsistent and compromised by the circumstances of their production: limited by space, formality and abbreviated. For him, and his fellow contributors to the 1923 case for Shakespeare’s hand, the weight of the palaeographical, bibliographic, orthographic and literary evidence was in favour of a positive identification. But until other possible Shakespeare autograph manuscripts come to light, it cannot be said to be beyond doubt.

For Thompson, the discovery of the More additions was the realisation of a forecast from the beginning of his career at the British Museum “in the enthusiasm of youth and the confidence of inexperience, that we might live to see the day … when one of Shakespeare’s original MSS. might emerge from the forgotten lumber of some Warwickshire manor-house”; in fact it emerged from the shelves of the museum itself, the type of discovery of which many who work with or admire rare books and manuscripts can only dream.

Blog post details

  • 1 Sep 2016

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