Today is Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. To celebrate, let's contemplate the alleged discovery of the playwright's dictionary. Perhaps we could use it to look up “big whoop.” Apparently, a pair of New York-based antiquarian booksellers bought ye olde dictionary off eBay in 2008 and have since taken pains to authenticate it. Though Shakespeare’s name isn’t written anywhere within its pages (obviously, these were the days before our tradition of exes making off with one’s books when moving out), the booksellers make their case for its ownership in their new book, Shakespeare’s Beehive.
Why isn’t their book titled Shakespeare’s Dictionary you ask? I looked it up. The contested reference (which should never have been removed from the library in the first place) was originally published by 16th century scholar John Baret as “An alvearie or quadruple dictionarie, containing foure sundrie tongues: namelie, English, Latine, Greeke, and French; newlie enriched with varietie of wordes, phrases, proverbs, and divers lightsome observations of grammar.”
Beyond its spelling being up for grabs, the title was too long, so scholars truncated it to “Alvearie,” which is a synonym for beehive. Still confused? I think it’s a metaphor – Baret’s lexicological effort is the result of sending his student drones out to the collect “word nectar,” which they returned to the hive and converted into sweet dictionary honey. Baret, I’m assuming, was the queen bee. Also, there’s a beehive illustration on the title page. Moreover, I submit that this is where the term “spelling bee” comes from. And yes, I’m the first to connect those dots.
Six years ago, Daniel Wechsler and George Koppelman placed their fateful bid of $4300 on eBay for the “Alvearie” and scored it for $250 less. Their claims that the dictionary was once Shakespeare’s are predicated on thousands of handwritten annotations made throughout its pages and at least eight examples of the initials W and S randomly scrawled hither and yon.
To some Shakespeare scholars, Wechsler and Koppelman’s means of authentication is tantamount to finding an old Yellow Pages in the freebies section of Craigslist and, upon finding the pages for “alcohol” and “firearms” dogeared, declaring it as Hemingway’s. Other scholars of the bard are more sanguine, not least of which because it affords them the opportunity to write more papers, sell more MFAs and generally stay in business.
The Shakespeare racket had been in decline since the ubiquitous authorship debate hath been clawed in the clutch of Age. Also, the 20th anniversary of Keanu Reeves’ critically-lambasted appearance in Much Ado About Nothing received nary a nod from anyone last year. Except me (I did my usual ritual with the flaming pentagram, etc.).
Should Shakespeare’s Beehive indeed be found authentic it will likely spawn an industry of literary Indiana Joneses combing through the online backwaters searching for Shakespeare’s laundry lists. Someday, we may herald the discovery of a scrap of parchment on which is written in Shakespeare’s hand, “2 doublets, 2 breeches, 3 collars, no starch.” Then we’ll see a raft of papers and scholarly tomes explaining how the dirty laundry may have informed Ophelia’s observation of “Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced...” Methinks he spilled some mead.
What no one has mentioned throughout this Shakespeare's beehive business is the fact that, even if Shakespeare had used the dictionary in question, he apparently found it lacking. Over the course of his career, Shakespeare contributed 1,700 words to the English language, none of which were in Baret’s book. What he really needed was a thesaurus, which will probably show up on eBay soon.
That said, if Shakespeare did have a thesaurus, he might not have made up the word “puking,” which is useful for describing what he’d do if he knew about some of the scholarship that goes on in his name. Happy Birthday, Will.