Shakespeare Syndrome

I am not, by temperament, someone who gets into a lot of fights on Twitter, but there are a couple of topics that tend to raise my hackles. I am a rare book and manuscript librarian at a university (and both my library and my university would probably like me to mention I’m not here as an official spokesperson for either). I am quick to respond when questions come up like:

  • Isn’t everything online now? (No)
  • Are rare book libraries dusty and musty? (No)
  • Should I wear white gloves when handling old books? (A thousand times no)

Another of these subjects is Shakespeare. More specifically, Shakespeare discoveries, those breathless announcements that, hiding in plain sight all this time is an undiscovered poem, or play, or picture that can now be attributed to Shakespeare, thanks to the insight of the scholar who uncovered it.

We all have our favorites, of course, but Shakespeare is clearly the default answer to the question of who the greatest English writer is. Compared to that monumental status, it feels like we know very little about the man — though to be clear, we know a perfectly reasonable amount, and more than we do about the vast majority of people who lived four centuries ago. But the pressure to fill that vacuum feels profound, and many people try.

You might call it Shakespeare Syndrome; this desperate hunger to mine the historical record for previously unknown nuggets of information about him. We don’t even know with great confidence something as basic as what he looked like. The two images that, without question, are intended to depict Shakespeare were both created after his death, and so a number of portraits with uncertain subjects created within Shakespeare’s lifetime have been proposed as the true image of the Immortal Bard.

The latest of these is a figure on the title page of a botany book published in 1597, the Herball of John Gerard. In the new issue of Country Life magazine, not previously noted as a locus of Shakespeare studies, a botanist named Mark Griffiths announced that his research had led him to conclude that this figure was a portrait of Shakespeare.

Detail from Gerard’s Herball

The pieces of evidence that led Griffiths to this passionate and unshakeable conclusion include the plants the figure is holding, which may have been mentioned in passing in Shakespeare’s works, and this symbol on the plinth underneath the figure.

Detail from Gerard’s Herball

Griffiths argues that the symbol is, in essence, secret code for “Shakespeare”. He says that the number 4 at the top of the cipher can be read as the Latin “quater”, and an E on the right makes quatere, the verb “to shake”. He identifies the main vertical stroke as a spear, forming Shakespeare, with a W for William at the base. The OR in the middle he links to Shakespeare’s father’s coat of arms, which are colored gold — “or” in the language of heraldry.

Throughout his article (available only in the print issue of the magazine or through online purchase) Griffiths returns to the theme of playful Elizabethans, delighting in hidden meanings and devious games. In what seems clearly to be more a dig at modern skeptics than a description of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Griffiths asserts that the device on the title page “declare[s] his new-found status to readers sufficiently bright or in the know to decipher it while duping the rest into thinking that this was an emblem of a far humbler kind.”

If this kind of elaborate mental gymnastics seems familiar, it’s because this is exactly how Shakespeare denialists “prove” that the works of Shakespeare were really written by Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford, or Christopher Marlowe, or practically anyone who was alive to hoist a quill pen in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Another Englishman named William, William of Occam, has a helpful suggestion for how to think about this problem: an explanation which requires fewer assumptions to be true is likelier to be valid than one which requires many assumptions to be true. Is there such an explanation for the figure on the title page and for the symbol upon which he stands?

There is one, and it comes from the online community of Shakespeare scholars, book historians, and librarians. One way in which Griffiths’ announcement of his alleged discovery differs from previous Shakespeare discoveries is the rise of Twitter — both as a medium to publicize such an announcement, and to analyze and challenge its claims in real time. It’s actually quite a compelling example of the power of crowds to aggregate a range of knowledge and expertise and attack a problem. The rollout of the news included relatively uncritical stories on the portrait claim at the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph — indeed, nearly every major British news outlet. Within hours, folks on Twitter with an interest in Shakespeare and/or book history were examining Griffiths’ claims and building a case for an explanation that might make William of Occam happier.

One thing that was immediately obvious was that the putative Shakespeare cipher in Gerard’s Herball looked awfully familiar.

Printers’ marks showing the Sign of Four

These printers’ marks derive from a tradition called the “Sign of Four” a symbol used by merchants of all sorts in this time period that derives from the Greek letters Chi and Rho, the first two letters in the word “Christ”. Each printer then added distinctive elements that made it a personal or family logo. Seen in this light, it’s very easy to conclude that the symbol Griffiths claims represents Shakespeare actually represents the people who published the book.

And indeed, that’s just what Joseph Ames, author of one of the first comprehensive histories of English printing and publishing, concluded in his entry on Gerard’s Herball.

Ames, Typographical Antiquities, 1749.

And you can see why he would — in addition to its general resemblance to other such marks, it’s not hard to spot a W and an NOR. Ames concludes the mark stands for William Norton — not any other William.

That’s particularly important, because although we don’t have other books attesting to the Norton family using this particular mark, the W and NOR crop up again in a mark that we know for sure William Norton did use.

Device of William Norton

Who then does the Herball image represent, if not Shakespeare? One excellent candidate is the Greek botanist Dioscorides; as one of the ancient founders of the field, he’s a logical choice to represent on the title page of this book. So much so, that both a direct predecessor of Gerard’s work and the Herball’s own second edition show Dioscorides on the same lower-right position on the title page.

Rembert Dodoens, 1616
Gerard’s Herball, 1633

Does this constitute conclusive proof that Griffiths is wrong? Probably not. It’s difficult to come to jury-verdict levels of certainty about things that happened four centuries ago. I’m not in much doubt, however, about which I think is the likelier explanation. One fits comfortably with some pretty settled knowledge about the history of the period, and one is a textbook case of Shakespeare Syndrome, stretching the evidence tight over a skeleton of supposition to arrive at the holy grail — the true face of Shakespeare.

The reality is that the noble field of Shakespeare scholarship is never this sexy. We don’t improve our understanding of Shakespeare by decoding secret messages hidden by clever Elizabethans in some grand treasure hunt. That comes from doing the hard, usually unglamorous work of history, and from reading his plays, which are, after all, the reason Shakespeare both inspires and rewards so much devotion.