Lefties or Righties? The handwriting of Shakespeare’s publishers

Guest blogger, Ben Higgins, writes…

Graphology – the scientific-sounding name for guessing a person’s character traits from their handwriting – is rubbish. This from an official forensic handwriting analyst during a fascinating talk at the CEMS conference on Describing Early Modern Handwriting last week. For me, this was something of a relief. My crabby little scrawl is far, far worse than the reasonably neat italic of Edward Blount who probably lead the group that published the First Folio. Blount’s writing is pictured below on a short receipt in the State Papers archive – the scrap survives because Blount was a key trade contact for several leading diplomats, dealing not just in books and manuscripts, but an eclectic assortment of artworks, seeds, and treacle.

Edward Blount hand

Samples of handwriting for all four (or five, if you count both Jaggards) publishers of Shakespeare’s folio do survive, scattered around. And, though we can’t tell how organised, religious or in love they were in 1623 from these samples, Tom Davis, the forensic expert I mentioned earlier (his website gives an insight into a truly remarkable career), did mention you can usually tell if someone is right- or left-handed, by the direction of their short, horizontal strokes. The cross of a lower-case t, for instance, or the bar in an upper-case A. If you’re a leftie, you probably cross these letters with a stroke moving from right to left; the reverse is also true.

Blount Crossed tees

Edward Blount, then, was probably right-handed, like me. See the way his stroke fades out to the right of those two ts? A bit of a shame that; he also published first editions of Montaigne, Marlowe, Charron and Cervantes, and I’d quite like him to have been a creative-genius leftie type.

And the other publishers? I don’t have a proper sample of Isaac Jaggard‘s handwriting to hand, I’m afraid, but a closer look at the ts and As of the other two (John Smethwick and William Aspley), confirms they were also probably right-handed chaps.

John Smethwick's italic handwriting and signature, from his original will

John Smethwick’s italic handwriting and signature, from his original will

William Aspley's hand and signature, also from his original will

William Aspley’s hand and signature, also from his original will

Three quick final points about this handwriting: the first a disclaimer. Pip Willcox, digital editor of the Sprint for Shakespeare project, reminds me that in the nineteenth century, students were discouraged from writing left-handed. I don’t know whether this disapproval was already entrenched in the Elizabethan grammar schools Shakespeare’s publishers attended, but would love to hear from anyone who does.

Secondly – the reason handwriting samples survive for each of the folio publishers is because they were an elite bunch. Their signatures appear on official documents, in diplomatic correspondence, and most of them accrued a large enough estate to warrant writing a will.

The majority of stationers from this time left little or no traces in the documentary archive, and this is one index to the significance of the folio syndicate within their peer group.

Secondly, in his will, dated 1640 and pictured above, William Aspley specifically named his most valuable copyrights in bequests to relatives. Several authors and works are mentioned: the theologian John Boys (the dean of Canterbury, not the Cambridge Greek professor), the French philosopher Pierre Charron, and the popular preacher Roger Fenton. Shakespeare, however, did not make this list. Meaning that by 1640, Aspley thought it was not worth specifically naming Shakespeare’s plays in his bequests. Which in hindsight, given the bidding wars over Shakespeare’s rights in the time of Jacob Tonson, his relatives may not have thanked him for.

Ben Higgins

 

The First Folio: what is left out

Guest blogger, Elizabeth Scott-Baumann, writes…

Without the First Folio we would not have almost twenty plays by Shakespeare. The Tempest, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra, and many more plays, had not been printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime and are available to us only because of the Folio, and the initiative and ambition of its facilitators John Heminge and Henry Condell. It might seem churlish, then, to comment on what is left out – but it also tells us something about the preferences of the folio-makers, the early modern printing trade, and Shakespeare’s reputation in his lifetime. The first folio does not include Two Noble Kinsmen, Edward III, Sir Thomas More and Pericles (added in the third folio); these are all now thought to be at least partially by Shakespeare. But more striking than this is the omission of Shakespeare’s poems, Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which were all printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and under his name.

Why was this? One argument is that the Folio is a work composed by actors not poets. Heminge and Condell had known and worked with Shakespeare, and saw him – and wanted the public to see him – as a man of the theatre. But the reason is probably less ideological and more financial. The texts of those plays which had not been published were owned by the group of actors who produced the Folio. The poems, however, had already been published in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and the right to print them passed hands several times in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. At the time of the Folio’s creation, the right to print them was owned by Roger Jackson and John Parker (Venus and Adonis and Lucrece), and Thomas Thorpe for Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Before the publication of the folio, and especially in the earlier phase of his career in the 1590s, Shakespeare was more famous for his poetry than his drama, and especially for the titillating classical poem, Venus and Adonis (1593). Instead of praising the characters, plots and action of his drama, early commentators spoke of Shakespeare’s poetic style. In 1598, Francis Meres famously referred to Shakespeare as “mellifluous and honey-tongued … witness his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugared sonnets”. John Milton may have been picking up on such praise, his poem in the Folio admires “sweetest Shakespeare fancies childe”. Michael Schoenfeldt has said that “Shakespeare’s greatest publishing success in his lifetime was Venus and Adonis”.

In 1599 the printer William Jaggard cashed in on the success of Shakespeare’s poems by producing a collection which claimed to be by Shakespeare: The Passionate Pilgrim. Jaggard marketed this collection of largely non-Shakespearean verse on the basis of its Shakespearean style, and he included poems that are about Venus and Adonis and also poems in the Venus and Adonis stanza, suggesting the popularity and ubiquity of Shakespeare’s first printed poem and the public appetite for more of the same.

During his lifetime, Shakespeare was a print poet in a way that he was not a print dramatist. There is an irony that the omission of the narrative poems from the Folio was due to their popularity, but it has contributed to them becoming the least popular of all Shakespeare’s works– a trend that is only now being reversed.

Elizabeth Scott-Baumann
University of Leicester