This is a continuation of last week’s blog post exploring a signature purporting to be Shakespeare’s in the Old Library. The signature can be found on the title page of ‘Hystory writtone by Thucidides the Athenyan of the warre’ printed by William Tylle in 1550.
Is the Thucydides signature in a book which Shakespeare could, theoretically, have owned?
The book is certainly of an age which could have been owned by Shakespeare. Simon Palfrey suggests that ‘Shakespeare didn’t need to read Greek to be familiar with Thucydides. It had long been available in French, and was translated into English, from the French, in the time of Edward VI’[i]. He then cites the very edition of Thucydides investigated in this blog post as a possible source of research for Shakespeare’s Pericles.
Samuel Ireland, as mentioned in part 1 of this article, put a group of books with forged Shakespeare signatures into auction, however this book does not appear in its catalogue, lending further credence to the theory that the signature is not an Ireland forgery.
What other material evidence does the book carry?
The leather binding of the book is crudely stamped with the name ‘Edward Barnard’. Elizabeth Hall, Shakespeare’s granddaughter, married into the Barnard family of Abington Park, so whether it is a coincidence or a deliberate deception that the Barnard name was stamped on the book is difficult to tell. The book’s appearance suggests that the leather is likely to have been reused from a previous binding, adding further confusion to the provenance of this book.
What is certain is that William Aldis Wright, Shakespeare scholar and sometime Vice-Master of Trinity College, was a previous owner of the book and donated the book to Magdalene in 1913, as evidenced by a label pasted inside the binding. If he thought his book contained a genuine signature of Shakespeare’s, would he not have kept it for his own college? He would have also been aware of forgers’ handiwork in light of the William Henry Ireland debacle.
The evidence points to the signature not being a William Ireland forgery, but there is not enough palaeographical evidence to suggest that it is the genuine article, even with advanced imaging of the signature at our disposal. It is likely that notable Shakespeare scholar William Aldis Wright did not consider it a genuine signature, and the binding does not contribute any conclusive evidence. On the balance of probabilities, the signature is likely a forgery with some age to it, but nonetheless the process of researching the signature has been most rewarding. If anyone would like to prove that it is a genuine signature, we would of course be delighted to hear from you!
By Catherine Sutherland
Deputy Librarian, Pepys Library and Special Collections
With thanks to Maciej Pawlikowski, David Pearson, Alan Nelson, Katy Mair, Lucy Gwynn, Paul Taylor, Nic Fulcher and Heather Wolfe for their assistance.
[i] Palfrey, Simon. Late Shakespeare: A New World of Words. Oxford: Clarendon, 2000.