For librarians and archivists, a genuine signature of William Shakespeare’s is perhaps the ‘holy grail’ to discover within their collections, but would be treated with necessary caution.On the title page of the Old Library’s copy of ‘Hystory writtone by Thucidides the Athenyan of the warre’ printed by William Tylle in 1550, there is a signature purporting to be Shakespeare’s. A number of questions immediately spring to mind when viewing the signature: how does the Thucydides signature compare with authentic examples? Could it be by a well known forger? Is it in a book which Shakespeare could, theoretically at least, have owned? What other material evidence does the book carry? By asking these questions, a conclusion will be reached across a series of two blog posts.
How does the Thucydides signature compare with authentic examples?
The extant authentic examples of Shakespeare’s handwriting at The National Archives, The British Library and The London Metropolitan Archives have been digitised and are available to view by visiting the Shakespeare Documented online exhibition. The signatures survive on legal documents, accompanied by signatures of witnesses, thus giving a high level of assurance regarding their authenticity. This is especially important because there is significant variation between each authentic Shakespeare signature.
The Thucydides signature does bear the same contraction of the forename (‘Wm’) as one of the authenticated documents, the Deed of Mortgage to Henry Walker of the Blackfriars Gate House (British Library, Egerton MS 1787) . Both the Thucydides signature and the authenticated signature on the deposition in the Court of Requests (National Archives REQ 4/1/4/1) have a decorative dot in the final loop of the opening letter W (not to be confused with a dot above the letter ‘i’). These are both points in the favour of the Thucydides signature. However, by isolating the Thucydides signature from the rest of the title page and creating a black and white image, the spelling ‘Shakspier’ becomes a possibility. This is perhaps the signature’s greatest flaw: none of the authenticated signatures have this spelling variation.
Could the Thucydides signature be by a well known forger?
The most prominent of the Shakespeare forgers is William Henry Ireland (1775-1835), a clerk and the son of the antiquary Samuel Ireland. William Henry set to work on forging a cache of documents in the hand of Shakespeare initially as a scheme to impress his father, including forging marginal notes and ownership inscriptions. His forgeries were accepted as genuine by literary figures of the day at first, and the scheme became increasingly more elaborate, however William Henry Ireland’s ‘discoveries’ were eventually discredited by Edmond Malone. William Henry Ireland published a confessional in 1796.
A document showing a collection of Ireland’s forged signatures can be found here on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website. However, none of the examples seem to have an affinity with the Thucydides signature.
Further exploration of the Thucydides signature and concluding remarks will be published in a blog post next week.
By Catherine Sutherland
Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections
With thanks to David Pearson, Alan Nelson, Kary Mair, Lucy Gwynn, Paul Taylor, Nic Fulcher and Heather Wolfe for their assistance. With special thanks to Maciej Pawlikowski for his assistance with photographing the signatureusing several methods.