Shakespeare's Beehive and Shakespeare's Printer

In 2014, two booksellers from New York, George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler, announced -- not coincidentally, just before Shakespeare's 450th birthday -- that they had found Shakespeare's dictionary. Several years earlier they had acquired a copy of an early modern dictionary that was heavily annotated, and they have decided it was owned by Shakespeare, and so they call it "Shakespeare's Beehive" in reference to the name of the book, John Baret's An Alvearie, or Quadruple Dictionarie (1580). 

In this essay, I am not primarily interested in the validity of the case they are seeking to prove, not in the individual details of their argument. (Suffice it to say, scholarly skepticism is warranted). Rather, I am interested in the use that they make of Richard Field, a fellow native of Stratford-on-Avon and the first printer of Shakespeare's two narrative poems. Field has long served as the focus of biographical speculation regarding Shakespeare -- speculation that has fundamentally influenced our narratives of Shakespeare's life and career. Field's role in Shakespeare's Beehive is no different, and so here I offer a brief lesson in Shakespearean scholarship and myth-making.

This essay is based on my research into Richard Field's career as a printer, and the interpretation of that career for Shakespearean scholarship and biography. This research first appeared in article in Shakespeare Survey called "Shakespeare at the White Greyhound" and has since been incorporated into my book Selling Shakespeare (you can read an excerpt here). I am thus invested -- as a scholar -- in this particular issue.

My analysis here is based on the first edition of the fine press book published by Koppelman and Wechsler, a copy of which was acquired by the University of Iowa Special Collections library (catalog record here). Koppelman and Wechsler have both a personal and a financial interest in this book. I will address the second edition of the book in another post.

The acquisition of this book made sense for two different reasons: the librarians know that the resident Shakespearean schedules frequent class visits, and so they look for interesting Shakespeare material to acquire; and the library has an excellent collection of fine press books, of which this would certainly classify. The colophon states that it is "Set in Van Dijck and Caslon types with Fell Ornaments" and that it is "Printed on Mohawk Paper" (our copy is neither numbered nor signed by the authors).

It is a very fine book indeed, one that was clearly produced by people who love and appreciate fine books. As the preliminary note to the reader makes clear, it is also designed to make money, both directly and indirectly. The authors acknowledge that they are "professional rare booksellers" and that the book itself is a "single-item catalogue" intended to help find their book "a more appropriate home" -- i.e., a buyer interested in and capable of buying a book allegedly owned by Shakespeare. 

The book sets out to prove that the dictionary was annotated by Shakespeare, but it is also designed to commemorate and capitalize on the "discovery" that the authors purport to have made. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with this -- after all, what is the "First Folio" if not an attempt to do the same thing with Shakespeare and his works? (I break down that idea, and that book, here and here). I'll have more to say about the authors' refreshingly, yet carefully, direct acknowledgement of their motivations below -- but it is important to mention it here first.

Now, back to Richard Field -- who has previously appeared on this website due to an early reader's fascination with his anchor device and, more germane to this post, due to his use of printed commonplace markers in Shakespeare's narrative poems. As so many have done before, Koppelman and Wechsler use Richard Field as the solution to several related questions we have about Shakespeare's life: What did he do during the so-called "lost years," from the early- to mid-1580s when his children were born (thus requiring his presence, at least for a time, in Stratford) to the early-1590s, when he was first recognized as part of the London theatre scene? How did he gain access to the books that we know he used as source materials for his plays? How did he feel about the appearance of his works in print? And how did he learn French?

I've addressed most of these questions -- or, at least, the details on the role Field has often played in the attempt to answer those questions -- elsewhere, and so if you like footnotes, you can read the published versions of this scholarship cited above. Otherwise, read on: just like Shakespeare, Field grew up in Stratford (they were contemporaries, and likely went to grammar school together); his father was a tanner, while Shakespeare's father was a glover (related professions); their fathers knew each other (we have evidence from legal records); Field printed some of the source material for Shakespeare's plays (e.g. a translation of Plutarch's Lives); and Field apprenticed with an expert Huguenot printer from France -- and, when his master died, Field married the widow and took over the business (an explanation for Shakespeare's knowledge of French, and perhaps even for the fact that he would later live with a French family in London).

And, most important of all, it was Richard Field who printed and published Shakespeare's first appearances in print, his Ovidian narrative poem Venus and Adonis (1593), and who printed (but did not publish) its companion piece, Lucrece (1594). The (alleged) Stratford connection, along with the genre of the two poems (they are not collaborative theatrical works) means that Field gives us a reason to believe -- or an excuse to assert -- that Shakespeare authorized his own introduction into the world of print.

Koppelman and Wechsler reiterate all of these facts and the attendant speculations, and just like many have done before, they move from connection, correlation, and coincidence, to inference, and hence to certainty.
“The overall picture we get of the two men can be reduced to this: With their backgrounds, their interests, and their collaboration, Shakespeare must have worked intimately with Field. To some degree, at least, Shakespeare found himself mingling, whether through socializing, employment, studying the references to be found, or any combination of these matters, in the relatively insular world of Field’s associates: the licensed and regulated printers of London, the people who surrounded themselves with the books that we know, from Shakespeare’s own work, provided great influence upon him.” (Shakespeare's Beehive, p. 19)
The interest here is not in Shakespeare's status as an author, but rather his relationships with specific London stationers. If -- if -- Shakespeare "worked intimately with Field" on the production of the poems, then perhaps he also worked for Field -- or for another stationer -- in a similar capacity on one of the books that "provided great influence upon him." As they go on to note, somewhat breathlessly: 
"In a tantalizing late find for us, Andrew Murphy recently noted that 'through Field, Shakespeare was able to find employment in the print trade, most likely at the press of Henry Denham, who, at the time, was just embarking on the considerable task of printing Holinshed’s Chronicles.' [...] This seemed too good to be true: Shakespeare working for the man who printed not only the most celebrated of all Shakespeare sourcebooks (Holinshed), but also the book (Baret) for which we were attempting to make a case based upon the evidence within the particular copy that we had already studied and been increasingly in awe of over a period of several years." (Shakespeare's Beehive, p. 21)
 Too good to be true, indeed -- as Koppelman and Wechsler note, seemingly with some reluctance (not to mention a disingenuous interpretation of their source), "Alas, Murphy quickly covers himself and points out that this is not his own claim; he is simply channeling one of those ‘lost years’ stories that would be fun to believe in, but that can never be proven" (p. 21-22). As they also note, Murphy cites this episode of wish-fulfillment from the early-twentieth century bibliographer, the fortuitously and fantastically named Captain William Jaggard (for more on Capt. Jaggard's story, go here).

It may be a bit much to claim that Murphy "quickly covers himself," but a convenient (or clever) page-break does at least make it feasible. Here's the relevant page of the work in question (which I always keep by my desk) Andrew Murphy's Shakespeare in Print:

You have to turn the page to find out why Murphy includes this story:

In Murphy's words, "All of this, of course, makes for a good story. But, like many narratives which seek to fill in the blank space of Shakespeare's 'lost years', it amounts to little more than wishful speculation advanced by a commentator with a vested interest in the tale being told." Jaggard's story may be eccentric, but Murphy cites it to prove a point -- that narratives of Shakespeare's career are as much a result of the motivations of bibliographers and biographers than of the available facts. I would add that the stories that depend on Shakespeare's intimate connection with Richard Field differ only in degree, rather than in kind. Murphy's use of the story is meant to serve as an object lesson in the dangers of conflating biographical speculation and bibliographical investigation -- and while Shakespeare's Beehive does recognize this, it is also counting on the undeniable appeal of the undeniably fictional story to further its case.

Did Shakespeare know Richard Field? Probably so. Some of the available evidence has recently been re-examined by Carol Chillington Rutter in her essay on Field in The Shakespeare Circle. While her task is to assess the connections between the two men, she also offers more skepticism than many of her scholarly predecessors. She notes, for example, that while they surely attended grammar school together, Shakespeare was two or three years younger, so "When Will followed him ... Richard was long past his accidence, ready to proceed to the upper form, perhaps patronising of the 'lowers', or worse, set by to monitor their rote repetitions" (164). She also takes seriously the possibility that there may have been "animosity festering between them," based on the fact that, in 1598, Field signed a petition against the opening of a theatre in the Blackfriars district (where he lived and worked) by Shakespeare's own theatre company.

Did Shakespeare take his poems to Field because they knew each other from their Warwickshire youth? Maybe so; it remains the most plausible -- but certainly not the only -- explanation. Can this purported biographical connection support any assertion beyond this? Absolutely not. It is one possibility among many. It is the job of a scholar to interpret the available facts -- and to do so with an awareness of one's own vested interests. (Full disclosure: I grew up in the rural midwest, and went on to study book history in the big city; I prefer London to Stratford, and understand why Shakespeare, and Field, would have left to seek their fortunes in the metropolis; I'm sure these facts influence my view of their potential relationship). I am skeptical of stories told about Shakespeare and Field because it is my job, because I have expertise in this particular area, and because my goal is to make us more aware of the stories we choose to tell about Shakespeare.

Koppelman and Wechsler continue by citing another instance of the Shakespeare-Field myth, this time from the fountainhead itself, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which owns a copy of Plutarch's Lives printed by Field's master, and once owned by the patron of a theatre company that performed Shakespeare's plays. (You can see it here). One inscription shows that the book was presented to "William," although it subsequently returned to the family of its original owners. The description states that "one can speculate whether or not the 'William' referred to was Shakespeare himself," a statement that is directly followed by this: "What we do know is that the printer Thomas Vautrollier took another boy from Stratford-upon-Avon, Richard Field, as an apprentice." Subsequent phrases in this description include a mention of Field as "Shakespeare's life-long friend" who may have "shared proof-reading the work [i.e. Plutarch's Lives] with the future playwright." 

This is simply another example of argument by association (or argument by coincidence) in which factual details are collected and juxtaposed -- details that, nevertheless, have only an uncertain, circumstantial connection to each other (if that). It is a precarious and potentially misleading mode of argumentation. And it is mostly how Koppelman and Wechsler proceed in the rest of Shakespeare's Beehive, doggedly collecting somewhat suggestive examples of linguistic correlation. No single example is convincing by itself, but the authors hope to convince you through the sheer number of examples (this is not a slim book, by any means).

My goal is not to play the role of the pedantic professor who insists on conducting investigation by adhering to strict scholarly standards -- although this is indeed a crucial part of my point here. Rather, the main goal of this essay is to make us aware that the kind of speculation we can see in Shakespeare's Beehive is, once again, different only in degree, rather than in kind, from the standard scholarly narratives. In fact, the announcement and the subsequent response from Shakespeare scholars has been a model of generous, yet rigorous, argumentation. It has made for excellent discussions with my students about what scholars do -- the questions they ask, the way that they work to find answers, and the ways in which that differs from the approach taken by other professions, or other kinds of readers.

As I mentioned above, Koppelman and Wechsler are refreshingly aware of and open about their motivations -- in a way that I very much appreciate. In the acknowledgements (which are omitted in the second edition) they go out of their way to thank the scholars they have consulted: "It would be difficult to overstate our gratitude to these individuals for their contributions" (p. 305). And in an extraordinary and revealing statement (again, omitted in the second edition), they admit to an emotional, as well as a financial, investment in the book. In their words,
"There is a difference between a purely scholarly motivation and the more complex one we have. We are not merely gentlemen scholars; we admit to having a financial stake in the book, as well as an emotional one, and there is the desire to see some recognition for our discoveries and for the amount of time and energy and capital spent on this project." (Shakespeare's Beehive, p. 300)
I find this to be a refreshingly straightforward statement of their motivations -- scholars are not always as aware of (or at least transparent about) their own motivations, whether personal or emotional, theoretical or methodological. However, Koppelman and Wechsler continue by justifying their claim about Shakespeare in a more disturbing manner -- disturbing, at least, to those scholars who are suspicious of the dominant presence of Shakespeare in early modern studies, not to mention the culture at large:
"We have for some time been eager to see it unfold toward public release, but if satisfying the scholarly community means minimizing the claim that Shakespeare wrote the annotations, then what would a public release in that form actually yield? That is to say, why would the larger public be interested in this book if we weren’t making a claim about Shakespeare? We are taking such a strong stance on the claim because we believe it to be true, but others may argue that we are doing so to make the biggest public splash possible; for that reason, we risk it being dismissed out of hand by the scholarly community." (Shakespeare's Beehive, p. 300)
 "Why would the larger public be interested in this book if we weren't making a claim about Shakespeare?" It is at once a straightforward acknowledgement of their ambitions and desires, a deft rhetorical maneuver, and a statement of undeniable (if unfortunate) fact. As many others have written , the "larger public" should indeed be interested in this book, regardless of any connection to Shakespeare (see especially the posts linked to below from the Folger's Collation, and Andrew Keener's site). The assertion that simply because their public declaration could be interpreted as merely a public relations maneuver would risk "it being dismissed out of hand by the scholarly community" is a disheartening and disingenuous rhetorical move. The scholars who offered immediate responses to the first edition were courteous and generous -- models of scholarly rigor and skepticism, yet also kind enough to recognize the value of the annotated dictionary itself (beyond any connection to Shakespeare) as well as thankful for the digitization of the dictionary provided (for free) online.

Look, I study Shakespeare, I teach Shakespeare, I write about Shakespeare, I'm about as Shakespearean as it gets. (I may not own property in Stratford, but my precursor in the department in which I teach, our Shakespearean emerita, does). And I happen to study marketing in the early modern book trade, so I am keenly aware that Shakespeare sells. But one of my goals -- and one of the goals of this website -- is to demonstrate and deconstruct the material forms in which Shakespeare exists, and the importance and impact of the stories we choose to tell about those artifacts. Another goal is simply to show how amazing and fascinating early modern books and readers were -- and still are -- especially if those books and readers were not famous.

This annotated copy of John Baret's Alvearie is, in all probability, not Shakespeare's beehive -- but it was the beehive of an early modern reader, who used it to learn, and to enjoy, language. It is a remarkable artifact -- just like the many, many other annotated books that show signs of close and sustained engagement by early readers. And I am entirely, wholeheartedly committed to the metaphor of a textual "beehive" -- the inaugural post at Anchora discussed the Renaissance commonplace that readers should "flit like the busy bee through the entire garden of literature" and I regularly urge my students to imitate those busy bees and read like Renaissance readers.

Would I like to see a book annotated by Shakespeare? Of course. It would be fascinating to see how he read and worked. But I am also aware that we only desire to find Shakespeare's beehive because of the stories we have told about Shakespeare -- both factual and fictional -- which have accrued over centuries, and which have been shaped by the motivations of those telling the story.

Koppelman and Wechsler take a moment to reflect on their work, and on their book, over the previous years, writing that it was difficult for them not to imagine that they were living in an unwritten story (Borges is the chosen author, because of his short story "Shakespeare's Memory"). They conclude their reflection (one that remains in the second edition) with this: 
"And to that effect, if one were to write this entirely as fiction -- write a story about two booksellers who discover Shakespeare’s dictionary and feel compelled to convince the world of it, all the while making it plausible that such an object could have survived for so long undetected, while at the same time providing the necessary clues throughout that the dictionary really had belonged to Shakespeare and was used by him during formative years to help shape his approach to language -- well, then, one could invent no ‘newly uncovered’ book more convincing than ours." (Shakespeare's Beehive, p. 76)
I am not convinced. But I do know that it sure makes for a good story.


Here are just a few links to articles written about the dictionary that I have found to be particularly useful:

Bibliophagist provides the best list of links to articles written about, or responding to, the claim: "On Shakespeare's Annotated Dictionary, links and news"

Koppelman and Wechsler have created a website where you can gain access to digitized images of the dictionary: Shakespeare's Beehive You can also order a copy of their book if you would like to read more.

Michael Witmore and Heather Wolfe from the Folger Shakespeare Library offered an initial response called "Buzz or Honey: Shakespeare's Beehive raises questions" -- and Heather followed up with an analysis of a different annotated dictionary in the Folger's collections: "Click-clack and crocodile tears: an annotated Elizabethan dictionary

Aaron Pratt offered an object lesson in paleography and secretary hand in "An Alvearie of Wishful Thinking" while Andrew Keener discussed what's really interesting about this annotated dictionary in Not Shakespeare's Beehive? Doesn't Really Matter"