As It Happens

Canadian prof says he's discovered the '1st known book from Shakespeare's library'

A Canadian professor says he’s found “the first known book from Shakespeare’s library.” If he’s right, it would be a history-making discovery in the world of Shakespeare scholarship.

Robert Weir says he has evidence a 16th-century Latin book of poems by Horace once belonged to the Bard

University of Windsor professor Robert Weir, right, believes a 1575 book of Latin poems by the Roman writer Horace, left, once belonged to English playwright William Shakespeare. (Submitted by Robert Weir)

A Canadian professor says he's found the holy grail of Shakespeare scholarship — a book that belonged to the Bard himself. 

It's generally agreed upon that William Shakespeare was well-read. The English playwright and poet's works are rife with literary references and inspirations, many of which have been well documented by scholars.

Despite this, nobody has ever found a book from his personal library. 

Robert Weir aims to change that. The University of Windsor professor says he has strong evidence that a 1575 Latin book of poetry from the Roman writer Horace once belonged to Shakespeare. 

"It has travelled through many libraries in its 400 years or so of history, but most notably, it was for about seven years in the possession of William Shakespeare," Weir, an associate professor of languages, literatures and cultures, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

He presented his findings this week at an online conference by the Classical Association of Canada. In his presentation, he claims to have found "the first known book from Shakespeare's library." 

Canadian prof says he found one of Shakespeare's old books. Here's his proof

4 months ago
19:09
The University of Windsor's Robert Weir says he has evidence that a 16th-century Latin book of poems by Horace once belonged to William Shakespeare, making it the first known book from the Bard's personal library. Here, he presents his findings to the Classical Association of Canada. 19:09

The evidence, Weir says, is scrawled in the margins. 

But reading those notes was no easy feat, as the book had been literally washed, trimmed and rebound in 1731. Weir says he used digital imagining and ultraviolet light to reconstruct the annotations.

"Sure enough, I got all sorts of good results — signatures and marginal comments," he said.

"That's the sort of thing that told me that it was Shakespeare's book because, well, he signed it a number of times. And there are notes that say that he used this or that passage for this or that play."

Pictured are what Weir believes are Shakespeare's notes and initials scrawled next to one of Horace's odes. (Submitted by Robert Weir )

While signing your name on the page of a book would be blasphemy for many a modern bibliophile, Weir — who studies rare books — says it was a common practice in Shakespeare's day.

"Before about 1800 people marked up their books a lot, which is ironic when you consider how expensive books were before the industrial revolution. But people had real conversations with their books," he said.

"Putting a signature was a sort of almost the marking out of text, like a dog marks out his favourite walk. It was a normal thing to do."

Shakespeare, circa 1610, in a painting known as the Chandos portrait. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The markings that Weir attributes to Shakespeare line up perfectly with the Bard's well-established borrowings from Horace's work, he said.

While he suspects Shakespeare made some of the notes himself, he theorizes that more often that not, he simply added onto existing notes from the book's other owners, including rival playwright Ben Jonson.

"I think people have been looking for the wrong sorts of books for centuries," Weir said. "The books he used are out there somewhere. I just think that people have been looking for obvious things, like his signature in ink splashed across the title page. But, no, we need to be looking for something more subtle."

A high bar for evidence 

Weir's findings have not yet been peer reviewed or published in an academic journal. Once they have, they're sure to be subjected to a high level of scrutiny from other Shakespeare scholars.

"If this is true, then it's up there with one of the biggest discoveries in bibliography and early modern studies," Shakespeare scholar Stuart Kells told the Globe and Mail, which first reported on Weir's findings

Kells is the author of Shakespeare's Library: Unlocking the Greatest Mystery in Literature. He says Weir is not the first person to make bold claims about finding one of Shakespeare's books.

"Because the stakes are so high, the bar of evidence is also very high," he said. "For this to be accepted as a valid set of discoveries it really has to get through very, very significant scrutiny, and it needs to win over the main Shakespeare community through independent verification."

But Weir isn't worried about winning over his peers. 

"I'm not going to try to convince them," he said. "I think my job as an academic, an archeologist, is just to gather the evidence, interpret it as best I can and just put it out there for people to think about and come to their own conclusions about. I mean, I'm satisfied in my own mind that I'm on the right track."


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now