What Dictionary Did Shakespeare Use?

atkins-bookshelf-booksThe famous dramatist leaned over his desk and quickly scribbled out Scene 3 as it played out on his mind’s stage: “Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” Hmm. “Is that ‘nunnery’ with two n’s or one?” he pondered. Like any writer — famous or not — Shakespeare consulted a dictionary when he wrote. But which one? Shakespeare scholar T. W. Baldwin believes that the Bard’s dictionary of choice was An Alvearie or Quadruple Dictionary (referred to simply as the Alvearie) by John Baret. Baldwin explains the importance of Baret’s dictionary: “Baret was in effect the standard English dictionary of Shakespeare’s schooldays, and must have had powerful influence in shaping the English definitions of Shakespeare’s generation. But it is not likely that Shakespeare would have preserved the patterns so accurately if he had not himself turned many a time and oft to Baret for his varied synonyms.”

The earliest English dictionaries were essentially word lists, like the Promptorium Parvulorum (1499) by Richard Pynson and the Latin-English dictionary (1538) by Thomas Elyot followed by another version (1552) by Richard Huloet. Baret wanted to improve on those three dictionaries; hence, as a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, he enlisted the help of his students to compile the multi-language dictionary. In the preface, he explains the inspiration for the dictionary’s title: “[I asked my students to] every day to write English before Latin, and likewise to gather a number of fine phrases out of Cicero, Terence, Caesar, Livie, etc., and to set them under severall titles, for the more ready finding them againe at their need…  Within a yeare or two they had gathered together a great volume [like] diligent Bees in gathering their wax and hony into their Hive.” The first edition was published in 1573 and included words, phrases, and proverbs in three languages: English, Latin, and French. The second edition was published shortly after Baret’s death in 1850. Abraham Fleming who worked on the second edition as editor, added a fourth language: Greek. 

In an article for The Collation, a scholarly online publication of the Folger Shakespeare library, Michael Witmore and Heather Wolfe discuss the books that scholars believe Shakespeare often consulted when he wrote: “We know that Shakespeare and other early modern writers used source books like the Alvearie to fire the imagination. Shakespeare’s fascination with proverbs in his plays, for example, can be traced back to some of the printed proverb collections that were becoming popular in the sixteenth century. As the lexicographer John Considine has demonstrated, dictionaries were an important source of proverbs during this period, since they offered up proverbial sayings to illustrate the meanings of words. We should not be surprised, then, to learn that Shakespeare read and perhaps was influenced by a book such as Baret’s Alvearie — it supplied him with a trove of sayings, associations, and conceits that many writers trained in the humanist tradition would have been keen to mine for their own texts.”

Knowing that Shakespeare consulted the Alvearie is certainly interesting. But what if we could locate Shakespeare’s very own copy of the Alvearie, complete with annotations in his own hand-writing? Now that would be fascinating indeed. And that is exactly what New York rare booksellers Daniel Wechsler and George Koppelman announced to the world on April 21, 2014, timed to coincide with the Bard’s 450th birthday two days later. Koppelman and Wechsler acquired the dictionary not through some shadowy intermediary with links to the Knights Templar (who are connected to everything!) but rather through a routine modern transaction — an auction on Ebay in 2008 for a groundling’s sum of  $4,050 (plus shipping). Although lacking a book plate or owner’s signature (or a bright neon sticker that announces: “signed by the owner”), the dictionary — a second edition — contains thousands of annotations in the margins by a handwriting believed to be the genius himself. The dictionary’s new owners describe the book thusly: “A most obscure book. A humble copy. An extensive network of annotations that, through obscurity and a lack of attention, comes to light only now, never previously studied or speculated upon. These are the basic stepping-stones to providing plausibility to the dream that such a monumental discovery is possible. The rest is in the evidence.”

The evidence that Koppelman and Wechsler allude to is the research they have conducted over the last six years and published in a limited edition titled Shakespeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light published in April 2014. The book is also available as an e-book, but more importantly the complete Alvearie has been digitized for scholarly research. The dictionary will be studied carefully by the scholars at the Folger Shakespeare Library and other universities. The race will be on for the first scholarly organization to either authenticate or to invalidate the dictionary as belonging to Shakespeare. If authenticated, the names Koppelman and Wechsler will be immortalized along with that of the Swan of Avon. Moreover, they stand to profit handsomely for the their find and scholarship. Jim Cummins, a respected and well-known antiquarian bookseller from New York believes that if Shakespeare’s dictionary were sold at auction it could easily fetch tens of millions of dollars, perhaps as high as a $100 million. Can you say: “Get thee to a bank”?

Read related posts: When Was Shakespeare Born?
The Most Common Myths About Shakespeare

The Legacy of Shakespeare
The Shakespeare Thefts: In Search of the First Folio
Who Are the Greatest Characters in Shakespeare?
Shakespeare and Uranus
Best Editions of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

For further reading: T. W. Baldwin, William Shakespeare’s Small Latine & Lesse Greeke, University of Illinois Press (1944)


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