Shakespeare, more or less

THE Beinecke Library at Yale and the Huntington in California have notorious forgeries of Shakespeare's autographs. So does the Folger in Washington, D.C., but there, as a reward for the noncasual eye, one may discover the real thing. At the Folger a traditional Shakespearean scholar may peruse volumes published in Shakespeare's lifetime (1564-1616). One of these is a famous source for Shakespeare's ``The Tempest'' - a 1603 translation by John Florio of Montaigne's ``Essays'' containing a description of cannibals and a speech Shakespeare puts in the mouth of Gonzalo. In March 1983 (as described in a paper given in Berlin at the 1986 World Shakespeare Conference) I discovered that the Folger copy of Montaigne contains a Shakespearean signature similar to the one in the copy owned by the British Library and thought by it to be real up to 1917. By that date no similar one had been found on any document, so it was discounted.

Presuming the Folger to be also likely discountable I examined the volume. The signature was undeniably done by the same person as the one in London. One like it at the Huntington is a clear forgery of the British one. So I proceeded to see if anything else in the American copy provided more corroborating evidence. There are no errors in the execution of the letters; the enlarged dotted ``W'' produces loops rather than points in the base; and the signature contains a medieval ``r.'' All are features not attempted successfully by any known forgers.

Turning to the title page I noticed another signature in the top right-hand corner, that of Catherine Barnard. Shakespeare's granddaughter by her second marriage became Lady Barnard.

Thus provenance alone made the book traceable from Shakespeare female descendants. The Barnards produced surgeons with fine libraries (Charles, 1650-1711). We know Swift purchased books from these collections, as did Edmund Malone (1741-1812), whose personal bookplate is in the Folger volume. In the back cover George Chalmers (1742-1825) affixed his bookplate. These were noted collectors of Shakespeareana. A famous collector of Elizabethan handwriting, Robert Curzon (1810-1873), signs as next owner and dates his possession 1850.

The British Museum had announced its find in 1838, although visible in private hands before the discovery that it was a source for ``The Tempest.'' Hence Curzon encased the volume in an elaborate leatherbound box made by Riviere & Son of London with gilt letters proclaiming ``Florio's Montaigne Shakespeare's Copy.''

Neither the British nor the new American signature was ever compared with the other and no one knew of Curzon's until the boxed volume was purchased by Mr. Folger in 1921. Note that if anyone in America checked with the British one after 1917, he or she would be told it was a forgery.

Now with its lineage discerned and with a 17th-century signature of a Shakespeare relative unknown until later centuries by potential forgers there is little reason to doubt the authenticity of the Folger signature. On the contrary, it helps confirm the one in the British Library. Therefore here are two new authentic signatures. A good day's find in the Folger - given that only six or seven beyond doubt are known to exist up until now.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Shakespeare, more or less
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today