Booksellers: We Got Shakespeare's Personal Dictionary on eBay

But scholars say the handwriting in the margins may tell a different story.
Title page of the contested copy of An Alvearie (Koppelman, via the Folger Shakespeare Library)

Scholars say that William Shakespeare used as many as 30,000 different words in his plays and poetry. They further estimate that he knew about a quarter of all the words circulating in English during his lifetime.

This is remarkable, and it raises a question: How did he learn them? Some, we know, he invented; some he borrowed from Latin or French. But others he simply looked up, in any one of a number of reference books available to Londoners in the late 16th century.

Now, two New York City booksellers say they have found one of those books. And it's not just any guide: This is William Shakespeare’s dictionary, owned and annotated by the man himself.

For more than half a century, many scholars have believed that Shakespeare consulted a 1580 dictionary published in London called An Alvearie, or Quadruple Dictionarie. Assembled by Cambridge Latin instructor John Baret, the Alvearie was one of the most popular dictionaries of its time. It was "quadruple" because it covered four languages: English, Latin, Greek, and French.

T. W. Baldwin, the first critic who argued for Shakespeare’s use of Alvearie, made no claim that the Bard used a certain copy. The evidence, he said, just pointed to Shakespeare consulting some copy of the reference guide for his work.

Other scholars have agreed. In 1996, Stanford professor Patricia Parker wrote that Hamlet’s speech to the players resembled Baret’s ideas about interpretation.

Now, two antiquarians, George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler, believe they’ve found the copy. It surfaced on eBay, naturally, where the book's 1580 publication date and a seller's reference to "contemporary annotations" caught Koppelman's eye. Suspecting the book was what he now believes it to be, Koppelman paid $4,300 for it in 2008, he told the New Yorker.

Once he and Wechsler had their hands on the Alvearie, they studied its annotations for evidence that Shakespeare himself had scoured and marked up the pages. 

This, they say, is indeed Shakespeare’s Alvearie.

Koppelman and Wechsler announce their work in a new book of their own, Shakespeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light. It seems to be half-reproduction of the alleged dictionary and half-discussion, and it’s accompanied by a website that itself includes photographs of the Alvearie.

Already, though, senior Shakespeare scholars have publicly doubted the announcement. There isn’t yet a preponderance of evidence, they say, to prove this book was the Bard’s.

If the two booksellers are right, the finding could add a great deal of knowledge to contemporary understandings of Shakespeare. Although he has given rise to reams of scholarship and speculation, the material legacy of William Shakespeare—the objects known to have been owned or touched by him—is pretty slim. Scholars know him to have signed all of six legal documents, and he perhaps hand-wrote three pages of an unpublished play

A whole new annotated book, and a proverbial dictionary at that, would be a major find.  

The Case for the Dictionary

But let’s step back. What makes Koppelman and Wechsler  so sure this Alvearie is Shakespeare’s?

According to Henry Wessells, another antiquarian who had early access to their work, Koppelman and Wechsler see Shakespeare’s hand in two kinds of annotations. First, there are mute annotations: handwritten “underlinings, slashes, and other small marks” that don’t accompany any added words. Then, there are small spoken annotations, new handwritten words commenting on the dictionary.

The second half of the new book by Koppelman and Wechsler, writes Wessells, links these two kinds of annotations to notes and ideas in the plays. In other words, where Parker matched Hamlet’s theatrical directing and Baret’s ideas about interpretation, Koppelman and Wechsler say they've found annotations in the Alvearie that support the idea that Shakespeare borrowed ideas from it for Hamlet. They believe Shakespeare didn't just use the Alvearie as a writing reference, but considered the dictionary's guidance on language usage in how thought about the interplay between language and theater. 

Wessells writes that he’s a long-time friend of one of the two antiquarians. In a blog post, he says he supports their theory, though out of the strength of the evidence, not his relationship with one of the authors. Fair enough—early modern English bookselling is a small word—especially since Wessells makes it clear that he lacks the specialized knowledge to specifically confirm the Alvearie claim.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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