Shakespeare's Hand in Sir Thomas More


Since the 1870s, Shakespeare scholars have suspected that one of the hands ("Hand D") in the manuscript Elizabethan play Sir Thomas More is that of William Shakespeare. Over the years, enough evidince has been accumulated that most scholars today believe that Hand D is indeed Shakespeare's. The most important gathering of evidence was the the 1923 collection Shakespeare's Hand in the Play of Sir Thomas More, edited by Alfred Pollard, which contained an impressive array of evidence suggesting Shakespeare's authorship from many different perspectives: handwriting, spelling, vocabulary, imagery, etc.

Naturally, Oxfordians strenuously dispute the evidence for Shakespeare's authorship of Hand D, since it destroys their belief that the author of Shakespeare's plays was really Edward de Vere. Following is a post to humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare in which I outline the evidence for Shakespeare's authorship, in response to a query from an Oxfordian.

Volker Multhopp wrote:

Not so much in argument, but if you could enlighten us newsgroup readers--

1) How do we determine Shakespeare's spelling, when the only stuff we have of his has passed a completely unknown chain of editors, scriveners, etc, all the way to the typesetter -- all of whom had their own orthographic inputs, esp considering as Hand D might himself have been one of those scriveners or clerks?

What Dover Wilson did was compile all the unusual spellings which occur in the Quartos which are thought to have been set from Shakespeare's autograph (or a close approximation). Then he looked to see which of these spellings were characteristic of the printers/typesetters who printed those particular quartos. With those taken out of the mix, he looked for spellings, the more idiosyncratic the better, which occur across a variety of time periods and printers. He ended up with a surprisingly consistent group of idiosyncratic spelling patterns, which had in common one factor: the author, William Shakespeare. Wilson reasonably concluded that these spellings reflected, to a significant degree, Shakespeare's own hand. As it turns out, all of the spelling patterns Pollard identified are found in Hand D of Sir Thomas More, and while some of the particular idiosyncracies are relatively common for the time, the particular cluster of idiosyncrasies is essentially unique. Wilson's researches weren't limited to spelling, either; he also looked at words which the typesetters had misread, and found significant consistencies there, too. The manscripts used to set the quartos were almost certainly written in secretary hand, by a writer whose handwriting made it hard to distinguish minims -- the short vertical strokes in such letters as m, n, i, etc. These are, in fact, characteristics of Hand D. Wilson was fully aware of the fact that scribes and typesetters influence spelling, which is why he limited his researches to texts which have the characteristics of having been set directly from an author's manuscript, and controlled for different typesetters and time periods. He discusses some manuscripts of Gabriel Harvey's which were printed, and notes that the vast majority of Harvey's idiosyncratic spellings were normalized by the printers. Nevertheless, enough remained for Harvey's characteristic spellings to be found in the printed texts.
2) Our Shakspere signatures don't even resemble each other, except they are, like Hand D, in secretary script. What certainty is assigned to this handwriting comparison?
It depends on who you talk to. The great majority of scholars familiar with secretary hand would dispute your implication that the signatures were written by different hands -- they don't vary any more than the signatures of a lot of other contemporaries, and they share a number distinctive characteristics. You might want to look at Giles Dawson's short article in Shakespeare Quarterly in 1992 (I believe) where he discusses the signatures and gives his reasons for believing that the Archaionomia signature is a genuine signature of William Shakespeare of Stratford.
3) How was this vocabulary comparison made? Was Shaxicon cranked up? I assume Shaxicon databases for other candidates, eg Munday, Dekker, Heywood, Chettle, etc have been created, and thus we can compare the goodnesses of fit for various candidates?
Obviously, Shaxicon did not exist in 1923, but they used other, less rigorous methods. But as it turns out, Shaxicon does strongly support the attribution of Hand D to Shakespeare. Shaxicon per se only catalogues the rare words of Shakespeare, but Don Foster has compiled a huge electronic database of Renaissance English writings for comparisons of this kind. This database has since been superceded by Chadwyck-Healy's Literature Online (LION), which contains essentially all the drama and poetry of Renaissance England in a searchable electronic database. Use of this database for comparisons has allowed Foster (and others) to identify idiosyncratic words and collocations much more accurately, and it has greatly strengthened the case for Shakespeare's authorship of both Hand D and the Funeral Elegy.
4) What are these likenesses of imagery, etc that are so convincing, esp considering that we have a whole play, Edward3, which scholars have had enormous difficulty deciding is Shakespeare, Marlowe, or whoever?
I don't have the book right here. The imagery argument is not of much value by itself, as the authors of the 1923 collection readily conceded, and is useful mainly to supplement an argument made on other grounds. At the very least, Alfred Chambers (author of the imagery article in the 1923 collection) showed that the imagery of the More scene has many parallels to Shakespeare's known works and is at least consistent with his practice.
5) We have a rarity, an Elizabethan play manuscript; furthermore, one section has not been clearly assigned to another person. Isn't it possible that wishful thinking gives too much credit to a Shakespearean presence?
It's possible, and people have always been aware of this factor. The addition in Hand D is skillful enough that virtually all observers agree that the author must have been a working playwright, and skeptics have not been shy about proposing alternate candidates. The handwriting has been compared to the handwriting of other playwrights, and is unlike any of them (except Shakespeare's). So some people have suggested playwrights for whom we have no certain examples of their handwriting. Somebody (I forget who offhand) wrote an article in 1980 arguing that John Webster wrote Hand D. But Charles Forker, the world's leading Webster scholar, wrote an article for the 1989 Howard-Hill collection in which he persuasively argued against the attribution to Webster on a number of grounds. (For one thing, the characteristic spelling patterns that can be identified from Webster's work are radically different from those of both Hand D and Shakespeare, and Webster's characteristic and rare vocabulary are also absent from the Addition.) Others in the same collection also provided evidence against some of the arguments that had been made for Webster. Of those scholars who are reluctant to flat-out attribute Hand D to Shakespeare, most of them acknowledge the strong case but hold out the possibility that there may be some hitherto unknown playwright who wrote the Addition.
6) Allegedly we have Shakespeare working as an assistant playwright here, and the advocates see his language clearly in the D section. Shouldn't these same Shakespeare-detectors show other plays with Shakespeare sections-- or we are just lucky that that one case where WS was a junior playwright is the one where we happen to have the manuscript in his own hand?
I wouldn't call Shakespeare an "assistant playwright" here -- more like a play doctor, called in to add some scenes to punch up the play. But there are portions of some printed texts which people have suspected of being by Shakespeare -- one example is the additions to *Mucedorus* made when the King's Men revised it in 1609-10, and another is the prologue to *The Merry Devil of Edmonton*, which was performed by the King's Men. In most cases, the fragments in question are too short (quite a bit shorter than the More additions) for there to be any real consensus.
7) Why is Shake working on this at all, while he's otherwise busy enough writing solo and acting (not to mention flying back and forth to Stratford)?
Several contributors to the 1989 collection addressed this question. We actually don't know nearly enough about the dynamics of Elizabethan playwrights and companies to give any firm answers, but various scholars have proposed plausible scenarios. If you think Shakespeare was busy, look at a guy like Thomas Heywood -- he wrote like a madman for 40 years, and claimed to have had a hand, or "at least a main finger", in 220 plays over that time.
Does this all have any bearing on the canonical authorship question (aside from the handwriting)?
Not sure what you're asking here, exactly. If one accepts the arguments that the author of the Shakespeare canon wrote Hand D in Sir Thomas More, that's a pretty hard blow for the Oxfordian scenario.

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