Not Shakespeare’s Beehive? Doesn’t Really Matter

Like many of you, I awoke on Monday to a startling claim about “Shakespeare’s Beehive,” a copy of John Baret’s An Alvearie, or Quadruple Dictionarie (1580) covered in extensive annotations. New York booksellers George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler  launched what is truly a beautiful website to showcase their belief that the annotations in this copy of Baret can be attributed to William Shakespeare. Coincidentally – or not – this week marks the 450th birthday of the poet from Stratford.

Of course, from the moment “Shakespeare’s Beehive” went live, it has faced healthy criticism from scholars of Shakespeare, the Renaissance, and book history. (An updated overview of the conversation can be found here.) Michael Witmore and Heather Wolfe wrote a very smart piece in The Collation about the reasonable doubts forestalling any easy attribution to Shakespeare. This book, they say, must stand thorough tests assessing paleography, rare and peculiar words, associations, and marginalia before any Shakespearean attribution can be confirmed. More recently, Aaron Pratt has examined a particular case in the annotations, the supposed word “Buck-bacqet,” which he finds not to be a word unique to Merry Wives (as Koppelman and Wechsler think), but rather a French and an English word listed beside each other: “Bucket bacquet.” As Pratt suggests, this is “what we might expect a reader to record in their multilingual dictionary.”

Like Pratt and others, I am very glad this annotated copy of Baret has come to light for the things it tells us about Renaissance dictionaries and how they were used. This issue has been a preoccupation of mine from some time, and in recent years I’ve consulted a few hundred copies of books designed for students of Renaissance language, Baret among them. My corpus includes bilingual and polyglot dictionaries, proverb collections, dialogue books, and grammars. Italian, French, and Spanish books are of particular interest to me, and the study of these books’ annotations constitutes the most recent stage in the project. So even if this “beehive” is proven definitively to not belong to Shakespeare, I am pleased to see Twitter “buzzing” (sorry) with questions about Baret’s book and the ways in which Renaissance dictionaries were used by readers and writers.

I’ll make a few remarks now about Baret’s dictionary itself, which has been somewhat obscured in all the talk about Shakespeare’s hand (or lack thereof). This lexicographical effort was first published by Henry Denham in 1574 as a “triple dictionarie” in folio. It includes entries in English, Latin, French, and a smattering of Greek (the Greek would be amplified substantially for the second edition of 1580, now a “quadruple dictionarie”). The production of this dictionary may be of special interest to Renaissance scholars for its compilatory and collaborative nature. A fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge, Baret had begun collecting material for the Alvearie nearly two decades before the volume’s publication. In fact, he recounts in a preface that the dictionary had its origins in the pedagogical practice of translation, explaining that he required his students “daily to translate some peece of English into Latin, for the more speedy, and easie attaining of the same” (*5r).

Their labors resembling those of “diligent Bees,” the students’ collaboration resulted in a sort of polyglot reference book assembled from phrases in Latin literature. Soon afterward, supplementing his knowledge from overseas travel with the aid of “M. Chaloner” and “M. Claudius,” Baret added both French entries and index tables. This “Claudius,” I should note, was probably Claudius Hollyband, perhaps the most famous instructor of French in sixteenth-century London, and who was responsible for the massively popular French Littleton and French Schoolmaster. The frontmatter of the Alvearie also contains four lines of commendatory verse by Richard Mulcaster, who taught Edmund Spenser at the Merchant Taylors’ School and who was deeply involved in debates about pedagogical reform in England. Altogether, this collaborative effort at multilingual lexicography stands at the center of debates about Renaissance language-learning and education in England, incorporating the work of Latinists, French instructors, and students at Cambridge.

So, if we stop worrying about Shakespeare, Koppelman and Wechsler’s copy of the Alvearie can tell us something useful about the relationship between language-learning and book use in the Renaissance. (Here, I join with Adam Hooks, who stated in Monday’s Shakespeare Q&A livestream at Iowa that he remains interested in the notion of a “beehive.”) As the “Shakespeare’s Beehive” website shows, the markings across the polyglot dictionary evince the annotator’s linguistic interests in English, French, and Latin, as well as the possibilities commonplacing held for the understanding of these languages. Furthermore, the “trailing blank” at the end of the volume features a number of words and phrases in these languages compiled by the annotator independent from the book’s printed matter. The annotations in this book are impressively thorough, but still merit comparison with other copies of the 1580 Baret. A copy at the University of Chicago, for instance, features the competing hands of Richard Emery (of Arlesley, Bedfordshire) and John Plomer. Although the annotations suggest that this Alvearie was given to Emery “by his Granfather,” Emery and Plomer appear to struggle for the possession of the book through their writing: “John Plomer oweth this dictionarye,” one finds, and elsewhere “But thou shallt not steale.” Another copy of the book at the Boston Athenaeum is inscribed by “Edward Lye” in the central column of E4r, and features trefoil symbols and some Latin inscriptions on Y4r. If closely examined, these copies of the Alvearie, and many others that survive – the ESTC lists 52 second-edition copies, though surely there are more out there – might give us a better picture of how Renaissance students of language used this particular book.

Of course, other polyglot dictionaries and language manuals feature far more extensive signs of use. Gabriel Harvey’s language-learning manuals, which are held by the Huntington Library today, rank among these books. The most impressive example that I have found to date, however, might be the University of Chicago’s interleaved copy of Richard Percyvall’s Bibliotheca Hispanica, a Spanish-English-Latin dictionary first published in quarto 1591. The book features an intricate array of multilingual markings in different colors throught its entirety, with 163 blank leaves bound up with the printed text to faciliate the user’s additions or workings-out of linguistic complexities. It’s fantastic. Among the very first printed efforts in Spanish-English lexicography in England, Percyvall’s dictionary occupies an important political and linguistic place in history, and this particular copy of the book tells us much about how its users could restructure it and mark upon it for their own ends.

How these practices bear upon literature would be the next step, although the answers are admittedly harder to seek out. In Astrophil and Stella, Sidney mocked “You that do Dictionaries methode bring / Into your rimes, running in ratling rowes,” although I suspect that these language-learning books were not as irrelevant or far-off from poetry as we might commonly think.

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3 thoughts on “Not Shakespeare’s Beehive? Doesn’t Really Matter

  1. Pingback: On Shakespeare’s Annotated Dictionary, links and news. | Bibliophagist

  2. Pingback: Shakespeare's Dictionary | Poetry & Contingency

  3. Pingback: Carnivalesque 103 | Wynken de Worde

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