Have we found Shakespeare's dictionary?

First aired on As It Happens (22/4/14)


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On April 29, 2008, two New York booksellers, George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler, placed a bid online for an old dictionary -- John Baret's "Alvearie" which was published in 1580. When the book arrived, Koppelman and Wechsler found that its pages were filled with poetic annotations -- annotations, they have come to believe, were written by none other than William Shakespeare.

Koppelman and Wechsler are antiquarians but neither is a Shakespeare scholar. They knew the time period the dictionary was published was in Shakespeare's day but didn't make stronger connections until they saw another edition of the dictionary for sale in the U.K. "Their copy had no annotations in it, but they used a quotation from a well regarded Shakespearean critic named T.W. Baldwin," Koppelman told As It Happens host Carol Off in a recent interview. "He said that this dictionary would have been the major dictionary of Shakespeare's school days."

That got Koppelman and Wechsler thinking about the "small poetic fragments" in their dictionary. Could they be Shakespeare's? One passage in particular jumped out at Koppelman -- "droughts of summer." "It gave me the idea that it could be a poet looking at this phrase and thinking of this phrase in relation to the other words in the text and writing it down."





And thus began Koppelman and Wechsler's quest to determine whether the annotations came from the Bard. After six research-intensive years, they are certain that the dictionary was Shakespeare's. So sure they've written a book about their research, their process, and their conclusions called Shakespeare's Beehive and built a website dedicated to their cause. (If you join their community, you can even view every page of the annotated dictionary yourself.) They tell doubters to take a look at their book before jumping to conclusions.

"We would urge them to look at our book, to read the book we have written," Koppelman said. They share their story and a thorough compare and contrast of the annotations with Shakespeare's work. "If you correlate [the dictionary] with Shakespeare's text, we can see, indeed how, if the annotator was Shakespeare, he actually used the way the dictionary was structured in his poetry, in his writing."

Koppelman and Wechsler's original bid was $4050. If it turns out their claim is indeed true, the dictionary will be worth much, much more. But Koppelman isn't concerned with the book's commercial value. He's most excited by the potential the book has to better serve scholars.

"We'd really love it to go to an institution such as the British Library or a well-endowed and well-stocked university library that would allow further access to scholars," he said. "Clearly this would be a very important book."


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