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Case Study: Shakespeare's Handwriting

The only undisputed examples of Shakespeare's handwriting are his signatures on a small number of legal documents, and the words "by me" prefixed to one of these signatures. More controversial, and much more significant, are about 150 lines of revisions to a play, Sir Thomas More, which are believed to be in Shakespeare's hand. The play was originally a collaboration (not involving Shakespeare) written in the early 1590's, but the play was never performed in its original form. One reason for this was that the censor demanded changes be made to the text, so a few years after its original composition Shakespeare's company (the Lord Chamberlain's/King's Men) returned to the play hoping to make it playable. A group of dramatists worked on the manuscript, improving its quality and incorporating the censor's demands.

The work of one of the revisers, "Hand D" in the manuscript, is though to have been Shakespeare's. Hand D was responsible for rewriting one of the most sensitive sections of the play to the censor, in which More quells an anti-foreigner riot. The significance of this is not just that it provides a further scrap to stuff into Collected Works, but that it provides a unique opportunity to observe Shakespeare at work, complete with poor spelling and punctuation, deletions, and second thoughts.

So, what are the grounds upon which the claim for Shakespearean authorship is based? It is not based on handwriting alone, but also on style, circumstantial evidence, and spelling. For example, the word silence is spelt "scilens" by Hand D - the same highly unusual spelling is found in Henry IV: Part Two, the text of which was probably taken directly from Shakespeare's manuscript.

The handwriting evidence has a very particular value in the attribution of these lines to Shakespeare. Some forms suggest identity, for example a similar form of spurred a that links to the preceding letter is found in both Hand D and Shakespeare's signatures. However, the available material for comparison is insufficient to form a solid basis for positive identification. It is impossible to be sure that the handwriting is the same as the signatures: they are too short, were not written at a similar time in Shakespeare's life, and the formulaic nature of a signature means it can differ quite markedly from ordinary handwriting.

But this does not mean that the handwriting evidence is worthless. Its greatest value is defensive: it demonstrates clearly that Hand D is not so different from Shakespeare's handwriting to make the identification implausible.

It is the combination of these independent lines of evidence, all of which point in the same direction, in the absence of a more plausible alternative, that makes the case for Shakespearean authorship strong.

See:

  • Shakespeare's Hand in the Play of Sir Thomas More, ed. Alfred W. Pollard et al. (Cambridge, 1923)
  • Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More: Essays on the Play and its Shakespearean Interest, ed. T. H. Howard-Hill (Cambridge, 1989)

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