A Bee in My Bonnet: Two Posts I Never Quite Finished

Because Shakespeare is both popular and misunderstood, every year there are stories that aren’t really worthy of the ink spilled upon them. Here are two I almost wrote about at length before I decided it just wasn’t worth it.

A First Folio Found!

As you may remember, just at the end of last month a First Folio was discovered in the library of the French town of Saint-Omer. Wonderful news, and congratulations to Professor Eric Rasmussen, the distinguished scholar of the First Folio who authenticated the discovery—but worthy of no more than a passing mention, right? So I thought, until I saw this article in the Independent.

Now, I understand the impulse to hope that an eminent person is one of your coreligionists. Growing up Catholic in South Philadelphia when nuns ruled the Earth, I rejoiced every time I learned that some actor or politician was Catholic. The problem here is that the discovery of this book has absolutely no bearing on the question whether Shakespeare was a secret Catholic. Professor Rasmussen says: “People have been making vague arguments, but now for the first time we have a connection between the Jesuit college network and Shakespeare . . . the links become a little more substantial when you have this paper trail.” Um, no. no they don’t. The link is between this copy of the First Folio and the Jesuit college, not Shakespeare, who after all died in 1616, seven years before the Folio was published, and could have had nothing whatsoever to do with its distribution. (For once the comments, most of which make this point in some way or other, are—barely—worth reading.)

This still wouldn’t be worth a post if the argumentation weren’t so typical in Shakespeare studies. The ratio of wishful thinking to credible analysis is still far, far too high. Witness the Arden Shakespeare’s publication of Double Falsehood. Or the current fad of discovering the fingerprints of Middleton all over what sometimes seems to be every play from Shakespeare’s midcareer. Or Will in the World, where Shakespeare’s alleged Catholicism is the subject of some of Stephen Greenblatt’s most untethered speculations.

Sting Like a Bee?

But the story of the First Folio pales beside what I suppose was the biggest headline grabber of 2014 in Shakespeare studies; the announcement, timed to coincide with the birthday coverage, of “Shakespeare’s Beehive,” a 1580 dictionary with extensive annotations claimed by the owners to be in Shakespeare’s hand. For me, this story fell apart at the first and lightest touch. The owners are booksellers who bought the book on eBay, for crying out loud. Since they stand to profit by several orders of magnitude if they sell the book as belonging to Shakespeare, they face the weightiest possible burden of proof to authenticate it. (Even if they fail to sell the book, you can buy a $75 facsimile on their website; this is all too obviously a for-profit attribution.)

Equally important, these booksellers are nonscholars. Even apart from their self-interest, one immediately asks what authority their attribution can command. I would have expected, at the very least, that they would have addressed this glaring question head on. They would have shown the book to an acknowledged expert on Shakespeare and Elizabethan/Jacobean paleography and stamped that expert’s positive opinion on every press release. Did they?

Well, yes and no. Yes, they showed it to an expert. No, she unequivocally rejected the attribution to Shakespeare. Professor Grace Ioppolo of the University of Reading, who among other things has edited Measure for Measure, and is a paleographer, inspected the dictionary in 2012. Let’s let her speak for herself in a storified series of tweets (I’m afraid I’m too lazy to embed them, a process WordPress makes unnecessarily complicated. Take it up with them, but click and read: it’s worth it.).

To me, this screams “case closed.” There’s nothing more to be said about the booksellers’ claims unless an equally qualified expert were to come forward and contradict Professor Ioppolo, with equally persuasive evidence. But to my knowledge, the booksellers have never produced such an expert or acknowledged Professor Ioppolo’s assessment. In my view, they have not even tried to meet their burden of proof and must not be taken seriously.

In a world in which truth matters, journalists would have been falling over each other to interview Professor Ioppolo (let alone other scholars with better publicists). I have found no such interviews and only one piece of journalism (as opposed to several bloggers) that even mentions her series of tweets. Far more typical is this piece, in which the dreadfully overrated Adam Gopnik provides a master class in what’s wrong with journalism today. The Upper West Side has indeed changed for the worse, but I for one don’t see why this observation should open a piece ostensibly about a seventeenth-century text. But then this isn’t journalism: it is a piece of puffery in which the booksellers are made out to be lovable New York characters, as if Gopnik were actually Joseph Mitchell or A. J. Liebling. The only problem is that they have no answer to the three devastating objections Gopnik records, except for this peroration:

But I will always think that this was his copy,” Wechsler said. “Always. Whether or not this is given credibility in the scholarly community. But, of course, I hope it will be. I don’t want to be some guy mumbling and grumbling on Eighty-sixth Street! But negativity from the scholarly community? Hey, they can’t agree on anything. Why should they choose this book to get their start?

Why should they indeed? Just because it’s so obviously not what it’s claimed to be? And in fact those who have gone on record do agree. I have not found any serious Shakespeare scholar who endorses the booksellers’ claims. For example, Jonathan Bate saw the scans and said “On a quick glance at the web materials, I’m very sceptical . . .the handwriting certainly isn’t Shakespeare’s.”

The only possible verdict? Another triumph for wishful thinking and shoddy journalism (have you heard anything about this book since April?). And an injustice to Professor Ioppolo, which I hope this post does a tiny bit to rectify.

Let’s try to do better in 2015, shall we?

Comments are closed.