Review of Shakespeare’s Beehive, Part 1

April 26, 2014

George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler. Shakepeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light. New York: Axeltree Books, 2014. Kindle ed.


Last week, Shakespeare fans celebrated the Bard’s 450th birthday, and two New York antiquarian booksellers announced that they had discovered a copy of an Elizabethan dictionary annotated by the birthday boy.

In 2008, George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler purchased a copy of the second edition of John Baret’s Alvearie, or Quadruple Dictionarie, containing four sundrie tongues: namelie English, Latine, Greeke and French on Ebay for over $4000. This copy was annotated in what Koppelman and Wechsler believe is a late Elizabethan or early Jacobean hand.


Over the years, several scholars, particularly T. W. Baldwin (in William Shakespeare’s Small Latine and Lesse Greeke) have suggested that Shakespeare was probably familiar with and may have owned a copy of Baret’s Alvearie*, along with Thomas Cooper’s Thesaurus. Koppelman and Wechsler go one step farther: they believe Shakespeare owned their copy of the Alvearie and that the annotations are in his hand. If this were true, the volume would be of immeasurable value to Shakespeare scholars; in a more literal, monetary sense, it would also be of immeasurable value to Koppelman and Wechsler.

Baret defines each word or phrase in English, then provides the equivalents in Latin, French and Greek. He also includes quotations and aphorisms in all languages. The annotator has added two types of annotations. Koppelman and Wechsler call the first type “mute” and the second “spoken.” The mute annotations include underlined words and phrases, slash marks by major headwords, circles by subsidiary headwords, and other marks. The spoken annotations are additions: words and phrases as cross-references to other entries, corrections, or additional quotations and aphorisms, including biblical quotations in English.

On their website, (free registration required), Koppelman and Wechsler have provided a zoomable digitized copy of the Alvearie, as well as a compilation of all the annotations. Regardless of the identity of the annotator, this is of huge value to scholars. A complete digitized copy is useful in itself, and the annotations provide valuable insights about how such a dictionary was used in the Early Modern period.

Why do Koppelman believe the annotator was Shakespeare, and how strong is their evidence? They present their case in their newly published book, also called Shakespeare’s Beehive, which they present as an (extremely) extended catalog description of the their copy of Baret.

Although I wrote my MA thesis on The Tempest, and Shakespeare was a test area on my Ph.D. written and oral exams, Shakespeare and Renaissance literature are not my primary areas of study. I am not an expert on paleography or textual studies. However, I know enough to be profoundly skeptical of Koppelman and Wechsler’s argument and deeply unimpressed by their evidence. Even before examining the evidence in detail, I noticed some red flags that caused me to question their methodology. In their introductory chapters, they are extremely defensive about arguments that no one, as far as I know, has actually made. Of course, when mounting an argument, it is necessary to anticipate possible objections, but Koppelman and Wechsler’s arguments have a strong whiff of straw about them.

For instance, Wechsler is quoted in several stories as saying that scholars “were extremely helpful giving advice, but it was also clear that they weren’t about to jeopardise their reputations with such a claim.” He and Koppelman make similar comments in their book. They even suggest that they won’t be taken seriously because they are booksellers, not scholars:

For two booksellers in Manhattan to purchase, out of the blue, a heavily annotated book from the library of all libraries, on Ebay… it’s understandable that no one would give that a chance.

Much the same thing is said by proponents of Bigfoot, Young Earth Creationism, psychics, Reiki, or any other fringe belief. Why don’t experts in the relevant field back the fringe-proponent up? Because they wouldn’t get tenure, they wouldn’t get published, they’d be mocked and ostracized, they’re in on it, they’re pawns of Big Whatever, they’re closed-minded, they don’t pay attention to amateurs.

But who are these scholars who won’t support Koppelman and Wechsler? They don’t say. In general, they have gotten sympathetic coverage, and scholars have been cautious but not dismissive. Stephen Greenblatt is quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying, “It would reinforce, in a fascinating way, Shakespeare’s passion for language. We know that Shakespeare had an eye out for unusual words – but we have only limited knowledge of where he went to find them.” He adds, however, that he has “not had time to weigh the evidence.” Shakespeare scholars would love to find a copy of absolutely anything annotated by Shakespeare. Seriously, they would be absolutely giddy with delight over the Elizabethan equivalent of “roflmao” next to a dirty joke.

But just because they want something to be true doesn’t mean it is true. Good scholars are cautious. Good scholars do not accept an extraordinary claim within days of its announcement. Michael Witmore and Heather Wolfe of the Folger Shakespeare Library responded to Koppelman and Wechsler’s announcement:

Even the most skeptical scholar would be thrilled to find a new piece of documentary evidence about William Shakespeare. Scholars, however, will only support the identification of Shakespeare as annotator if they feel it would be unreasonable to doubt that identification. This is a fairly high evidentiary standard, since it requires on to treat skeptically the idea that this handwriting is Shakespeare’s and to seek out counterexamples that might prove it false.

This is exactly how scholars in any field should respond to an extraordinary claim. They go on to explain the research methods that will likely be used to assess Koppelman and Wechlser’s claims. These are rigorous and time-consuming, as they should be. Such a high evidentiary bar diminishes the possibility of confirmation bias and cherry picking.

Koppelman and Wechsler also use straw man arguments when discussing the the handwriting of the annotator. The only universally accepted genuine examples of Shakespeare’s handwriting are six signatures on legal documents. All of the signatures are in Secretary hand. Other examples of handwriting that are sometimes attributed to Shakespeare–some other signatures, including signatures in books, and Hand D of the manuscript of the collaborative play Sir Thomas More–are also in Secretary hand. Most of the “spoken” annotations in the Alvearie (and almost all of the annotations in English) are in Italic script. As far as paleography is concerned, this is problematic, but not in the way Koppelman and Wechsler suggest. They argue at length against the suggestion that Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have been capable of writing in Italic script. They don’t, however, quote or cite anyone who has actually made this argument.

They even compare this supposed insistence on Shakespeare’s exclusive use of Secretary hand with those who deny Shakespeare’s authorship:

The overriding question…is whether Shakespeare should forever be categorically denied an ability to use both scripts based principally on his Stratford background. Does this not seem oddly in perverse harmony with someone who argues that a provincial boy from Stratford as author is incompatible with one of the great speeches in, say, Henry V?

I suppose it is possible that scholars have argued that Shakespeare couldn’t have ever used Italic script because of his humble background, but Koppelman and Wechsler provide no evidence that this is so. The association between conventional scholars and Shakespeare-deniers is particularly ironic, since Shakespeare-deniers rely, to a large extent, on confirmation bias and cherry-picked evidence. As we shall see, these are techniques at which Koppelman and Wechsler also excel.

This straw man argument also disguises the real paleographic problem: it is very difficult to compare two different styles of handwriting. With only six rather variable signatures to use as comparison, study of Shakespeare’s handwriting is ridiculously difficult anyway. But Koppelman and Wechsler skirt the issue by focusing on irrelevancies and side issues. They lament, for instance, that people (presumably scholars) will demand scientific proof. They also hint that the general public may be more sympathetic:

Understandably, things bend heavily, even necessarily, under the burden of proof in the quest for any namable [sic] annotator, because we live in an age where an enormous amount of trust is placed in the ability to test and prove something scientifically. In the absence of scientific proof, evidence – no matter the strength – is often deemed unreliable, regardless of how it registers in the court of public opinion. It follows, then, that an inability to precisely test ink from the Elizabethan period will make for a wobbly case in the quest for answers as to the exact age of the annotations in our Baret, let alone to the still more complicated determination of who has added the ink to the pages.

I hardly know where to begin. There is the idea that “scientific proof” is somehow different from–and more definitive than–“evidence.” When a formal distinction is made between “proof” and “evidence,” mathematics and law usually get custody of “proof.” Scientific conclusions–no matter the strength of the evidence–are always provisional. In addition, why would anyone expect “scientific proof” when the relevant field is not a science? One could certainly make the case that the methods and evidence used in the Humanities are often unfairly denigrated in comparison to those used in the sciences, but that is not the issue here.

Scientific testing of the ink would only be relevant if the annotations were suspected forgeries. Again, this does not seem to be the case. Even so, scientific testing would be of limited value–it could show a forger used ink not available during the Renaissance, but precise dating of the ink would be much trickier. There are many non-scientific methods for dating texts, manuscripts, literary works, and handwriting. They have been around for ages and have become refined over time. They do not rely on scientific testing. They are not always 100% reliable, but they work fairly well. In some cases they can provide a narrower date than C14 dating, and they are less destructive. Again, this focus on science is a straw man.

The real issue is the difficulty of comparing Shakespeare’s hand to the annotator’s hand. Because of the different scripts, the comparison may be impossible. More accurately, it may be possible to say with a degree of certainty that Shakespeare did not write the annotations, but the chances are vanishingly small that an examination of the writing will suggest the likelihood that Shakespeare is the annotator.

Let’s consider why the accepted signatures are accepted: they are on official legal documents. That’s pretty much it. It’s the nature of the documents that assures authenticity. They form a pathetically small and poor sample for handwriting comparison. No other alleged example of Shakespeare’s handwriting has been accepted based on a comparison with the signatures. Let us look for a moment at Hand D in Sir Thomas More. For many years, many scholars have suggested that this handwritten passage is the work of Shakespeare: that it matches his style and some of his idiosyncratic spellings, and that it is consistent with his handwriting. The corrections suggest that it is an authorial hand: if Shakespeare is the author, it is his hand; if it is his hand, Shakespeare is the author.

Hand D has been studied and studied and studied. It has been subjected to two computational stylometric studies (that’s sciencey). One, by Hugh Craig and Arthur Kinney, concluded that it was the work of Shakespeare; the other, by Ward E. Elliott and Robert J. Valenza of the Claremont Shakespeare Clinic, concluded that it was not.** All that study, and the jury is still out.

That’s how high the evidentiary bar is. That is how high it should be. Koppelman and Wechsler’s straw man arguments attempt to lower the bar, to trump objections that haven’t even been made yet. Bias in favor of science or against amateur booksellers doesn’t matter. Evidence matters. In my next post, we will examine the evidence.

*Latin for beehive. His students, like bees, went off to find the nectar of words and then returned to him with the fruits of their labor.

**For a discussion of the stylometric studies, see MacDonald P. Jackson, “Authorship and the evidence of stylometric,” in Shakespeare beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy, ed. Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells. Cambridge UP, 2013.


Note: this essay is cross-posted at Skepticality.

Skeptical Humanities on The Token Skeptic Podcast

December 31, 2011

Even and I were recently interviewed by Kylie Sturgess, whose work we admire immoderately. Her podcast is The Token Skeptic, and the episode in question is about the film Anonymous:

We’ve worked with Kylie in the past. We were on a couple of panels together at this year’s Dragon*Con. She’s also the editor of the Young Australian Skeptics’ only recently published Skeptical Blog Anthology, and we have a piece in there. GO BUY IT NAOW! While it’s great that a lot of the big names are represented, they also give voice to a number of clever and insightful yet less well-known skeptics. An excellent snapshot of an important period in skeptical history, I think. Check it out!


This Week in Conspiracy (11 December 2011)

December 12, 2011

I sit here a sparrowfart away from death, but not even my impending demise will stop me from bringing you another week in conspiracy.

While it is perfectly obvious to everyone that Ben Jonson wrote all of Shakespeare’s plays, it is less known that Ben Jonson’s plays were written by a teen-age girl in Sunderland, who mysteriously disappeared, leaving no trace of her existence, which is clear proof that she wrote them. The plays of Marlowe were actually written by a chambermaid named Marlene, who faked her own orgasm, and then her own death in a Deptford tavern brawl. Queen Elizabeth, who was obviously a man, conspired to have Shakespeare named as the author of his plays, because how could a man who had only a grammar-school education and spoke Latin and a little Greek possibly have written something as bad as “All’s Well That Ends Well”? It makes no sense. It was obviously an upper-class twit who wished to disguise his identity so that Vanessa Redgrave could get a job in her old age.

My fave Pak conspiracy theory was from a respected journo: “But who is behind the theory about Pakistanis loving conspiracy theories?” @jemima_khan

Conspiracy Theory of the Week:

This is not really a conspiracy theory of the week. It just needed to be sectioned off from the rest of the round-up. You see, Luke Rudkowski went to the dentist. He was a sexist, horrid, pig-ignorant prick at all points:

  • LukeRudkowski: dentist was dumb but she was cute and for some strange reason was rubbing her boobs in my face. awkward, did that ever happen to anyone Original Tweet:
  • LukeRudkowski: the dentist tried to tell me that mercury is not bad for me, i told her to break a mercury thermometer and put it her month Original Tweet:
  • Luke Rudkowski Been radiated 14 times by this 1970s looking Machine. Anyway i can avoid it minutes ago
  • mrthatguydude Dave @LukeRudkowski – 10x the mind control. 25 minutes ago Retweeted by LukeRudkowski
  • LukeRudkowski Starting to think the dential industry is apart of the nwo eugenics plan. Lol but seriously radiation mercury and fluoride wtf 22 minutes ago
  • LukeRudkowski Luke Rudkowski Not a good sight when your sitting in a dentists chair 30 minutes ago

Yeah, I’m sure she wanted to get with the tinfoil wearing man-pig in her chair. LOL.


This Week in Conspiracy (7 Nov 2011)

November 7, 2011

We survived CSICon, and the audience survived my epic spiel (which was never certain). I met some pretty fab folks and enjoyed myself mightily. Eve did too. But just because we played hooky for a few days doesn’t mean that I could help but see the crazy stuff that streamed in on my mail, twitter, and reader feeds.

Let get it on.

This Week in I Made More as a Graduate Student than Anonymous Has Pulled In

I’m pretty sure that Anonymous is losing money hand over fist in the American market. This is as it should be.

And the other crazy:

Twit of the week:

This came from the @poopy_poo, who is the soul of the age: “@davidicke I hope all your 13,000 followers will be attending wembley next year mr Icke, very excited to be coming :-)”


A Review of Anonymous, Commonly Attributed to John Orloff

November 7, 2011

As the closing credits rolled on Anonymous and Eve and I shouted our disapproval at the names that appeared on the screen (“Shame!” “Fail!” “Weak!”), a pair of old ladies in front of us started laughing.

“We were here for the 3:00 show,” one of them told us, “but the power went out. So they gave us free passes to see it again. I’m glad they did because I didn’t know what was going on the first time I saw it!”

And that’s the movie in a nutshell, a turd in a teapot, a tale told by an idiot, directed by a total spazz, and performed by a troupe of misguided failures.

The story was incoherent. Queen Elizabeth is a total ho, boinking everything that moves in her court. This includes her bastard son, the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. Yuck and REALLY? (Several times in the movie, as Elizabeth was having a snit fit, Eve and I would turn to each other and say in our Queenie voice, “Who’s Queen?” Only really super cool people will laugh at that joke.)

The story was not told chronologically, which was a problem. It starts in the modern era, at a play or a lecture or something called “Anonymous.” It’s not clear. But what you do get, right out of the gate, is a completely useless series of questions by the character Underinformed Git (played by himself, Derek Jacobi), “Why aren’t books mentioned in Shakespeare’s will?” (What part of the “the whole damned estate” don’t you get, Rollo?) So, we were 2 minutes in, and I already wanted to kick a puppy.

Then we go almost to the end of the narrative proper, when Ben Jonson is getting done over good by the local constabulary for reasons that are not clear until the end. He’s hiding the plays written by de Vere-as-Shake-Speare. Jonson must be in on it because he is someone with credibility whose actual work (his elegy on Shakespeare faces the famous woodcut in the First Folio) totally f’in demolishes the Oxfordian fantasy before it got started. And then there is the little problem of the “Sweet Swan of Avon” elegy written, also by Jonson. Oh and the fact that Shakespeare was publishing long after de Vere was worm food. The solution? Make Jonson a conspirator and give him all of the plays to leak to Shakespeare slowly after de Vere’s death. Aaand your evidence for this is….apparently that you need it to be just so.

So, uh, then they are performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and everyone in court knows that it was written by a Bieber-aged de Vere…but then they all apparently forget that. My horse-drawn carriage has already thrown a wheel in that plot-hole.

Oxford is orphaned and raised by the Cecils who are advisors to the Queen. Turns out, go figure, that de Vere is smarter than all his tutors. The scene in which we are introduced to his Greek tutor, Latin tutor, cosmology tutor, etc. serves no functional purpose to the plot; it actually only underlines for Oxfordian cultists that de Vere had exactly the type of education they think that you need to write Shakespeare’s work. There were little nods to the in-group like that throughout the movie. For instance, you pan across Oxford’s office and see a falcon, you can almost hear Emmerich wondering out loud about how Shakespeare could know the vocabulary related to falconry if he was a bumpkin. And then you can almost hear a whoosh and a smack as I lose it.

OH! The movie is so insulting to the playwrights of the age. They were basically all hacks and they sat together in the peanut gallery. The treatment of Shakespeare was basically defamation. Shakespeare was slightly less fluent in English than Jesse Ventura, perpetually drunk, and usually whoring. They even suggested that Shakespeare killed Christopher Marlowe! Anything you can do to make him look bad, s’pose. At one point the playwrights are at their whore-and-ale house, the Randy Badger (or something), and Jonson throws down, daring Shakespeare to write his name. Lamest. Challenge. Ever.

Did I mention that it made no sense and that it left two old ladies very confused?

There was one really phenomenal aspect to the film, however, the mustaches. Whoever did the facial arrangements should get an Oscar(tm). If you could roll that clip I brought…..

“F’in roses how do they work?” –Wm. Shkspere

First the Queen dumps him and then there’s a rebellion. Ed’s having a crappy day.

It’s been only 3 days, and I forget who this is. Well acted, my friend. But look at that beard!

Bad guy who is not Shakespeare.

“Fauntleroy, why do you never return my text messages?”

Lord Melchett: “BAAAAAAAAAA!”

“What would you, the audience, do?”

Seriously, Shakespeare’s facial wig carries the performance.

If they had spent half as much time grooming the plot as they did these guys’ upper lips, the movie would have passed. But it was badly told to the point that only a true believer could possibly invest in it. The infuriating thing at the end, however, was not that it crapped on the Bard, who can take care of himself, but that the little old ladies in front of us wondered out loud if their understanding of history had always been that bad. “No,” I assured them. “Roland Emmerich is just a bad person.”


The Week in Conspiracy (31 Oct 2011 edition)

October 31, 2011

Hello, hello from the city where pants are optional, New Orleans. I gave my talk about anti-Jesuit and anti-Catholic conspiracy theories yesterday, and then we bopped along Canal Street to the Smarti Gras party.

  • I know that when I need medical advice, I go to a strung-out, obviously intoxicated rapper. I mean, not me, Vigilant Citizen:

This week in straight to DVD:

Here is a compilation of reviews of Anonymous, a film in which Roland Emmerich does to Shakespeare what he does to little models of the White House.

“In London, the Flat Earth Society explains that we live on a giant disk. In Petersburg, Ky., the Creation Museum shows cave men and dinosaurs frolicking together. And in a movie theater near you, “Anonymous,” which opened Friday, reveals how the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays.”

No week in conspiracy this week, folks! Tomorrow, I’ll be talking to Jon Ronson, who is Skyping into a few classes at Georgia Tech. Pretty exciting!


Good news! Roland Emmerich’s stinker Anonymous release limited!

October 24, 2011

Heheh. I just saw news that the release of Anonymous has gone from 2000 theaters to 250. Eve and I would be happy to take credit for this if it weren’t for the fact that the whole world instantly realized that the entire premise was ridiculous. Also, I haven’t seen a positive review yet. Rollo is saying that it’s his idea. Go with that, kiddo. Embrace the fail.

So, what is to be made of this apparent straight-to-DVD upcoming box office failure? Other than “fun of”?



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,579 other followers