Fingerprints from Shakespeare's Hand? - I

Previously unpublished; © the estate of eric sams



     How did Shakespeare's hand actually write, i.e. form its letters? The accredited data consist of six signatures and three autograph pages in Sir Thomas More. In signing his surname in six different spellings, and his first name in five, the mature Shakespeare used more than 40 distinct characters, though he needed only eleven.1 His undated More scene deploys 24 small letters and 15 capitals in at least 45 and 20 different forms respectively, together with two distinct styles of penmanship.2 Of that scene's 480 different words (types), no fewer than 64 (or 13%) are varied into no fewer than 148 distinct spellings, whether of words (e.g. Comand/Comaund) or stems (e.g. still/stilnes).

     But even these striking facts fall far short of the indescribably chaotic variance visible within the actual extant documents, with their quirky alterations, contractions, embellishments, deletions, omissions and errors. Shakespeare's hand leaves its own clear and characteristic fingerprints of profusely Protean multiformity.

     A few of their plentiful loops and whorls can be instantly identified from the primary sources cited; thus 'Shake' is also 'Shak' in the signatures, while 'shrieve' (=sheriff) also appears in More as 'shreef', 'shreeve' 'Shreiff', 'Shreiue' and 'Shreue', all within the same few lines. But each monosyllable, in either context, must surely stand for the same sound. So the poet spelt phonetically, as befits the disadvantaged countryman described by his contemporaries and first biographers. That hand and that voice should surely be identifiable. But the modern academic image of Shakespeare as a highly-educated late-developer3 has eclipsed the evidence that once shone out for all the world to see. Further, the documents themselves are now eroded or inaccessible.

     But they can be supplemented from other sources, such as the Sonnets. These are his, or anyone's, all-time best-sellers. Yet no scholar has ever sought to relate their well-known 1609 Quarto first edition to his much-reproduced manuscript in the signatures or Sir Thomas More. Instead, the Quarto's curious quirks are blamed on the hypothetical activities of imaginary 'compositors'4 or 'copyists', just as so-called 'Bad' Quartos are blamed on the hypothetical activities of imaginary 'traitor-actors'5 or equally dishonest publishers. But all such notions are mere modern inventions. The contemporary documents tell a very different story; Shakespeare's creative variance was innate and habitual, and it lasted lifelong. The More pages (as shown e.g. by the carefully-drawn lines separating the speeches) were intended for performance or indeed publication. But such a manuscript, however typical, must have been a compositor's or copyist's nightmare, especially after any further redrafting in the light of rehearsal or performance.

     So, in the absence of positive proof, no outside agency should ever be accused of adding to these already copious convolutions. On the contrary, any non-authorial changes would be far more likely to aim at consistency. There are, moreover, good reasons (such as fatigue, uncertainty, or respect for a famous poet, together with the sheer weight of variance) why authorial idiosyncrasies might be expected to escape a compositor's eye and persist in print. So any text set up from Shakespeare's hand should show traces of the same recognisable fingerprints. Conversely, and even more strongly, the presence of such fingerprints in comparable profusion argues an imprint originating from Shakespeare's own hand - especially in a text which cannot have been altered for any theatrical reason, such as the Sonnets in their 1609 first edition.

     This contains some 3,239 different words, of which no fewer than 432 (or 13%) are varied into 910 different spellings - in exactly the same revealingly high proportions as theMore pages, and hence prima facie from the same hand. For example, the Fair Friend is a 'Master Mistris' (20.2), while the Dark Lady herself appears as 'my Mistersse' (sic, 127.9) and 'my Mistres' (130.1,8,12) and perhaps also as 'my mistres' (153.9, 14) or 'my Mistrisse' (154.12), while Nature is a 'soueraine misteres' (126.5). One tug at any such thread unravels whole skeins of variance, such as the alternative forms 'maister' (106.8) and 'soueraigne' (153.8), while 'Mistersse' represents an added slip of the poet's pen, or the compositor's hand. Such details are no doubt unpredictable; but the pattern is characteristic and constant, with the immediate inference that the Sonnets Q 1609 were set up from authorial copy.

     Detailed analysis confirms this conclusion. Thus the More writer's minim downstrokes are so misleading that they have deceived professional palaeographers and editors into misinterpreting 'mountainish' as the meaningless 'momtanish'; so the Sonnets compositors cannot be condemned for misprinting 'ruined' as the meaningless 'rnw'd'. But Shakespeare himself would surely have noticed such solecisms; so their plentiful presence in the Sonnets Quarto shows that he played no part in the proof-reading process. That would leave the compositors a free hand in amending any of the obsolescent More spellings like 'yf' and 'yt' to 'if' and 'it', as praxis required by 1609. And the apostrophes in 'rnw'd' and other such preterites were also presumably supplied in the printing-house; no such features are discernible in More. Mainly, however, the sensible rule would surely be 'set what you see'. So the Sonnets continue such More idiosyncrasies as capital for small initial c, as in Charter, or medial y for i, as in 'ryot' or 'rysing'. Among many such examples, those three actual words, thus spelt, occur in both sources. They plainly imply that Shakespeare was an old-fashioned speller whose minuscule c was indistinct. Other unusual orthography also persists; thus 'banckes', 'basterd', 'graunt', 'hart' (=heart), 'ore' (=o'er), 'trew' are again actual shared occurrences. Thus the hand visible in the More MS is also discernible behind the 1609 Sonnets.

     This may well explain other features of that latter printing. For example, much has been made of its supposed contrast between 'you' or 'thou', as formal or intimate styles of address respectively; but perhaps these words merely exemplified the poet's hundredfold habit of variance. Similarly some of the many supposed misprints found in the Sonnets may also be adventitious variants, such as 'duly' for modern 'dully'. Here too is the evident cause of one famous misreading, namely 'their' some fourteen times in contexts which demand 'thy'. This too has been blamed4 on a hypothetical copyist, conjured up because no such error occurs in other Shakespeare first editions. But any economical explanation is far preferable, as the rational principle of Ockham's Razor6 requires; for example, the Sonnets printers were unfamiliar with Shakespeare's hand.

     In fact, the same anomaly had already twice deceived a different printing-house some thirteen years earlier, in the 1596 first edition of Edward III, a play increasingly attributed to Shakespeare in its entirety.7 Its text twice misprints 'thy' as 'their'. But it correctly prints 'thy' 153 times. So does the 1609 Sonnets, 252 times. Prima facie, therefore, that word, like so many others, was written in two or more different ways, one of which looked very like 'their' in the same hand; and that hand was Shakespeare's own, in both sources. Like the Sonnets, but in even greater profusion, Edward III also contains the More interchangeability of capital C and small c, or i and y, again sometimes in the same words, and indeed the same variants Countrie/Country as well as if/yf. Other shared characteristics include minim errors, identifiable from such palpable misprints as 'said' for 'sand' in Edward III. And, on an even more lavish scale than the handwritten More and the printed Sonnets,Edward III varies some 600, or a massive 15%, of its c. 4000 different words into no fewer than 1300 separate spellings.  

     The cycle of comparisons can be completed by a further close examination of Edward III 1596 and the Sonnets 1609. In the former source, the peculiar shared error already mentioned, the written word 'thy' misprinted as 'their', occurs in a scene often denied to Shakespeare; so that denial is also prima facie wrong, and the scene in question (III.i), like the rest of the play, was written by Shakespeare in every sense. And this is confirmed by the hundreds of other revealing idiosyncrasies common to the play and the Sonnets, such as 'a farre' in two words, 'Antique' with a capital A, and some 275 other examples of shared variance from modern orthography, as well as 100 doublets containing at least one such component (al/all, angel/angell etc.) and two triplets (such as sommer/summer/Summer). These actual overlaps amid the same degree of variability surely show the same hand; and it points to a new approach from a new direction.

     This route may also bring researchers close enough to hear Shakespeare's own voice. In his phonetic spellings, the variants grant/graunt for example must make the same sound, like Shak/Shake. 'Graunt' appears in all the three texts under review; 'grant' is used as an alternative in the Sonnets and also in Edward III. This identity is confirmed by seriant/seriaunt (=sergeant) in More, false/faulse, falt/fault and slander/slaunder in theSonnets and falts/faults and inchanted/inchaunted in Edward III. Similarly 'ol' and 'oul' signify the same vowel in both printed texts. As it happens, no such variant occurs in the More pages; but each of the other two sources has bold/bould, gold/gould, hold/hould, and old/ould. Readers can hear as well as see the phonemes of a Warwickshire poet.

     Of course more investigations are needed. Thus paleographers might care to explain what actual letter-formations led to the misreading of 'thy' as 'their',8 and to consider how Shakespeare's manuscript and its preparation for printing might have developed over the years. Now is the time; old-spelling concordances and databases are either available or readily computable. Meanwhile there are interesting and testable inferences to be drawn. Thus an orthography compatible with educational disadvantage and a Warwickshire background is entirely incompatible with other claimants such as Francis Bacon, or Edward de Vere. It corresponds so closely with the spellings found in the Quarto edition of Othello, conversely, as to corroborate the view9 that this text too was set up from Shakespeare's own manuscript. Similar tests can be applied to other early manuscripts and editions, including the so-called 'Bad Quartos', which are long overdue for rehabilitation. The kind and degree of variability apparent in the Spevack 'Bad Quarto' concordances10 lends further support to the commonsense view that these too were set up from authorial holograph, not from the hazy recollections of 'traitor-actors' or the equally hypothetical and implausible activities of 'compositors' or 'copyists'. If one hand suffices, then one hand it is; Shakespeare's. 



1 viz. a,e,h,i,k,l,m,p,r,s,S,W; see also E.B. Everitt The Young Shakespeare, 1954, 43.


2as set forth by Maunde Thompson inShakespeare's Hand in the Play of Sir Thomas More, ed. A. Pollard, Cambridge University Press, 1923, pp. 57-112.


3 e.g. 'more thoroughly trained in classical rhetoric and Roman (if not Greek) literature than most present-day holders of a university degree in classics' (Wells, Oxford Complete Works 1986, xiv) whose very earliest play was that sophisticated comedy of high life The Two Gentlemen of Verona (ibid. 1).


4as asserted by McD. Jackson in a poorly-researched and implausible thesis, ('Punctuation and the compositors of Shakespeare's Sonnets, 1609', The Library, fifth series, 30 (1975), 1-24), treated as totally true by such influential editors of the Sonnets as John Kerrigan (Penguin, 1986, 429ff.) and G. Blakemore Evans (Cambridge University Press 1996, 276ff)


5as accepted and asserted, in defiance of rationality (see note 6 below) by every modern Shakespeare series and by almost all academic commentators, most recently Vickers.


6 This old but sharp instrument of thought is returning to favour among Shakespeare scholars, after a century of neglect. But it needs careful handling; thus it should be applied to reasoning in general, not solely to one selected instance (such as the identity of Henry Wriothesley as the patron of theSonnets, in Jonathan Bate's The Genius of Shakespeare, 1997, 47-49). The words used by William of Ockham (c.1285-c.1350) arepluralitas non est ponenda sine necessitate(plurality is not to be posited without necessity) or frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora (it is vain to attribute several causes to what can be explained by fewer). So if the known single entity 'Shakespeare' suffices to account for the observed facts, it is vain to invoke additional unevidenced entities such as 'copyists' or 'traitor-actors'.


7 see E.Sams, Shakespeare's Edward IIIan early play restored to the canon, Yale University Press, 1996; the complete text is also included, together with an introduction by J. Tobin and textual notes. in the recent re-issue of The Riverside Shakespeare, Hoghton Mifflin, 1997.


8Surely not, pace Malone (The Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, 1790) followed by Evans (op.cit. 281), the supposed misreading of a contracted form of 'thy', such as 'yie instead of a contracted form of 'their' such as 'yer'. No such contractions have ever been observed in any printed work of the period, or any printers' copy, or any manuscript of the required date; and Evans's notion (ibid.) of a quirky 'scribe' indulgently re-employed by Shakespeare after a ten-year interval defies so many applications of Ockham's Razor as to defy comment. The economical explanation is that Shakespeare's habitual variability included two ways of writing 'thy', one of which typically varied the 'y' into 'ie', with a terminal flourish that looked like 'thier' to compositors (such as those employed by Burby for Edward III in 1596, or by Thorpe for the Sonnets in 1609), who were entirely unfamiliar with the eccentricities of Shakespeare's manuscript; so they amended 'thier', an entirely possible spelling of 'their', to that more orthodox form.


9E. Honigmann, The Texts of Othello and Shakespearean Revision, 1996.


10 M. Spevack, A Shakespeare Concordance, Hildesheim viii, 'Bad Quartos' pp. 175-200.