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...as for the Shakespearian MS., who could have made bold, any time within these last hundred and sixty years, to proclaim that he who would set eyes upon it need only raise his hand and take it down from its shelf in the Department of Manuscripts of the British Museum?
This is one of the classics of Shakespeariana and indeed of palæography, and you can now read it here. Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, one of the world's experts of his day, looked carefully at the six surviving signatures of William Shakespeare, and the three pages of the manuscript of Sir Thomas More which were written in a different hand to the others and sounded a bit Shakespearian; and concludes that they are by the same person. His description of how the letters are formed is meticulous, especially given that there are not that many letters in six signatures (one prefixed by the words "By me") to analyse. Scholars continue to debate whether or not Thomspon was right, and no doubt there is wishful thinking on both sides. In fact, why not judge for yourself:

The six "William"s from the six signatures:
W1
W2
W3
W4
W5
W6
the words "of Wisdome" from the Sir Thomas More manuscript:
ofWisdome
The six "Shakespeare"s from the six signatures:
S1
S2
S3
S4
S5
S6
The word "Serjant" (="Sergeant") from the Sir Thomas More manuscript:
Serjant

Stage directions for Shrewsbury and Surrey from the Sir Thomas More manuscript:
ShrewsburymaiorSurreymayerrSurrey
The word "By" from Shakespeare's will:
B1
The words "Bushell and Beeff" from the Sir Thomas More manuscript:
BushellandBeeff

I think this illustrates how fiendishly difficult these judgements are. I dabbled in palæography myself in times past and can appreciate just how difficult it is to get one's eye in, and certainly don't feel I can challenge Thompson's verdict, which has made me all too aware of how little I know about the normal variation of individual handwriting around 1600. I have deliberately looked only at the capital letters above, because they are easiest on the unaccustomed eye; it should be noted that Thompson makes his case much more on the lower case letters, 'a' in particular. It's quite a short book and pretty lucid in explaining why Thompson comes to the judgement he did.

I dug this up because I was reviewing the comments on my last Shakespeare post. Not surprisingly, this summary of Thompson's research is not just a distortion but almost entirely inaccurate. This is the biggest problem with engaging with the Oxfordians (and the anti-Stratfordians in general): many of them simply lie about what is in the record, and are never called out by their own side even when the lies are blatant. The 9-11 Truthers are similar (I had a brush with them a few months back).

Of course, for those of who who think that Shakespeare actually wrote the plays that have his name attached to them, it doesn't really matter very much whether or not three more pages of a play that was not printed or performed for centuries after his death can be added to the list of his works. For those who are desperate to prove that the William Shakespeare of the documentary record, whose signature appears on four legal documents (a witness deposition, two property records and three on his will), was not the same bloke who wrote the plays, it is obviously problematic if that bloke actually did write three pages of a play. But they have bigger problems to contend with.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
eglantine_br
Jul. 14th, 2013 02:30 pm (UTC)
Interesting. I find their handwriting difficult at best. I can read the italic hand at regular speed-- but the secretary messes me up.

It seems to me, that the simplest thing is that everyone is who they said they were. Shakespeare was himself, and wrote his plays. Also poor Marlowe was himself, and died in 1593, as described. (Although I think he was murdered on purpose.)

Oftentimes writers seem quite ordinary when they are about the town suing people, (as Shakespeare did.) He probably just seemed like a regular guy. But I bet he was very good at getting other people to talk about themselves. And I bet he asked a lot of very good questions.
gareth_rees
Jul. 14th, 2013 06:42 pm (UTC)
Two questions: blinding, controls?
nwhyte
Jul. 14th, 2013 08:05 pm (UTC)
One question in response: how?
gareth_rees
Jul. 15th, 2013 03:10 pm (UTC)
Cut the signatures into individual letters; mix randomly with other handwriting samples from the period. Ask experts to group the samples for each letter by person.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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