Monday, April 21, 2014

Was this Shakespeare's Dictionary?

Henry Wessells at The Endless Bookshelf is one of the first to review a beautiful and fascinating book that may also reveal one of the most remarkable literary discoveries of our time: Shakespeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light by George Koppelman & Daniel Wechsler, Axletree Books (2014).

The authors acquired a copy of an Elizabethan folio dictionary, An Alvearie or Quadruple Dictionary, containing four different tongues, namely English, Latine, Greeke and French Newlie enriched with varietie of Wordes, Phrases, Proverbs, and divers lightsome observations of Grammar (etc) by John Baret (1580), annotated in a contemporary hand. Its marginalia, they argue, relates closely to phrases found in Shakespeare’s plays, some of them unique to him, others rarely found elsewhere. They weigh plenty of other options, and objections, but advance an astonishing conclusion: this copy must have belonged to Shakespeare. Those are his annotations, in his hand.

Short of finding Cardenio, or a note from Baron Verulam admitting to a celebrated alias, this has to be, if sustained, the ultimate Grail of Shakespeare studies. The analysis and debate it will occasion is only the beginning. If it comes to be accepted, it will tell us much about Shakespeare’s literary practice, sources, and ways of thinking, and add to our understanding of the man. But even for those who doubt the attribution, the relationship between the dictionary and the plays will require some explanation, and raise many questions. One result will surely be, as Henry notes, to send many people back to read the plays anew, and wonder at a vocabulary and phraseology suddenly requickened.

And Henry also notes, “on grounds of original content and beautiful design, and for launching ideas that will resonate where ever English is remembered”, the book should certainly be one of the most memorable of the year.

(George Koppelman ran the literary imprint Seven Woods Press, and became a rare bookseller as Cultured Oyster Books. Dan Weschler is also the editor of Strange & Wonderful: An Informal Visual History of Manuscript Books and Albums, from his own Sanctuary Books imprint strangeandwonderfulbooks)

Update: Michael Witmore and Heather Wolfe of the Folger Shakespeare Library discuss the book here.

Mark Valentine


  1. Couldn't an alternative be someone using the dictionary while watching/reading Shakespeare's plays and making marginal notes for their own reference? I think the ownership claim is a bit dodgy.

    1. Yes. But I understand the authors consider this & explain why not.

    2. I don't accept the premise nor the arguments(s). The authors start out with a wishful preconceived notion of what they are trying to prove and accept and reject "facts" based on the wishful thinking inherent in their hypothesis. I'm still highly skeptical.

  2. This sounds fascinating. Thank you for sharing it with us, Mark.