Gregory Heyworth Biography & Facts
William Shakespeare's handwriting is known from six surviving signatures, all of which appear on legal documents. It is believed by many scholars that the three pages of the handwritten manuscript of the play Sir Thomas More are also in William Shakespeare's handwriting. This is based on many studies by a number of scholars that considered handwriting, spelling, vocabulary, literary aspects, and more.
Shakespeare's six extant signatures were written in the style known as secretary hand. It was native and common in England at the time, and was the cursive style taught in schools. It is distinct from italic script, which was encroaching as an alternate form (and which is more familiar to readers of today).
The secretary hand was popular with authors of Shakespeare's time, including Christopher Marlowe and Francis Bacon. It could be written with ease and swiftness and was conducive to the use of abbreviations. As it was taught in the schools and by tutors, it allowed for great diversity—each writer could choose a style for each letter. Secretary hand can be difficult to decipher for current day readers.Shakespeare wrote with a quill in his right hand. A quill would need to be prepared and sharpened. Black ink would be derived from "oak apples" (small lumps in oak trees caused by insects), with iron sulfate and gum arabic added.
John Heminges and Henry Condell, who edited the First Folio in 1623, wrote that Shakespeare's "mind and hand went together, and what he thought he uttered with that easiness that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers." In his posthumously published essay, Timber: Or, Discoveries, Ben Jonson wrote:I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, 'Would he hath blotted a thousand,' which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped.
The three-page addition to Sir Thomas More, which is attributed by some to Shakespeare, is written in a fluid manner by a skillful and experienced writer. The writing begins with indications of speed, in the manner of a scrivener, with a practiced sense of uniformity. Then the writing style changes over to a more deliberate and heavier style, as can be seen, for example, in the speeches of Thomas More, which require greater thought and choice of words. Throughout, the writing shows a disposition to play with the pen, to exaggerate certain curves, to use heavier downstrokes, and to finish some final letters with a small flourish. These characteristics are more evident in the slower, deliberate sections. Therefore, the handwriting shows a freedom to make variances in style depending on the mood or the composition being written.
Serious study of Shakespeare's handwriting began in the 18th century with scholars Edmond Malone and George Steevens. By the late nineteenth century paleographers began to make detailed study of the evidence in the hope of identifying Shakespeare's handwriting in other surviving documents. In those cases when the actual handwriting is not extant, the study of the published texts has yielded indirect evidence of his handwriting quirks through readings and apparent misreadings by compositors. To give one example of this, in the early published versions of Shakespeare's plays there is a recurrence of an upper case letter "C" when the lower case is called for. This might indicate that Shakespeare was fond of such a usage in his handwriting, and that the compositors (working from the handwriting) followed the usage. When trying to determine who the author is of either a printed work or a pen-and-ink manuscript, this is one possible method of discovering such indications.
There are six surviving signatures, attached to four legal documents, that are generally recognised as authentic:
a deposition in the Bellott v Mountjoy case, dated 11 May 1612
the purchase of a house in Blackfriars, London, dated 10 March 1613
the mortgage of the same house, dated 11 March 1613
his Last Will and Testament, which contains three signatures, one on each page, dated 25 March 1616The signatures appear as follows:
By me William ShakspeareThe first signature includes a short horizontal stroke above the letter "m" and a horizontal stroke or flourish in the stem of the letter "p", which may be read as "per" or, less likely, as an indication of abbreviation. The fifth signature also contains a horizontal stroke above the letter "m". All of his signatures are written in his native English script, which he would have learned as a young boy in school. He used the long Italian cursive letter "s" in the center of his surname, a concession to the new style, except for the fifth signature, in which he reverts to the native English long "s".
Three of these signatures are abbreviated versions of the surname, using breviographic conventions of the time, which was common practice. For example, Edmund Spenser sometimes wrote his name out in full (spelling his first name Edmund or Edmond), but often used the abbreviated forms "Ed: spser" or "Edm: spser". The signatures on the Blackfriar's document may have been abbreviated because they had to be squeezed into the small space provided by the seal-tag, which they were legally authenticating.
The three signatures on the will were first reproduced by the 18th-century scholar George Steevens, who copied them as accurately as he could by hand and then had his drawings engraved. The facsimiles were first printed in the 1778 edition of Shakespeare's plays, edited by Steevens and Samuel Johnson. The publication of the signatures led to a controversy about the proper spelling of Shakespeare's name. The paleographer Edward Maunde Thompson later criticised the Steevens transcriptions, arguing that his original drawings were inaccurate.The two signatures relating to the house sale were identified in 1768 and acquired by David Garrick, who presented them to Steevens' colleague Edmond Malone. By the later nineteenth century the signatures had been photographed. Photographs of these five signatures were published by Sidney Lee.The final signature, on the Bellott v Mountjoy deposition, was discovered by 1909 by Charles William Wallace. It was first published by him in the March 1910 issue of Harper's Magazine and reprinted in the October 1910 issue of Nebraska University Studies.
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