Shakespeare in Shorthand: The Textual Mystery of King Lear

Shakespeare in Shorthand: The Textual Mystery of King Lear

Shakespeare in Shorthand: The Textual Mystery of King Lear

Shakespeare in Shorthand: The Textual Mystery of King Lear


Winner of the 2007 Jay L. Halio prize for best manuscript in Shakespeare Studies, 'Shakespeare in Shorthand' demonstrates that many textual anomalies derive from the play's transcription in Elizabethan shorthand.


“high-piled books, in Charact’rie,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain”

WHEN MOST PEOPLE THINK OF THE PHRASE, “TO BE, OR NOT TO BE,” they probably do not attribute its authorship to the inventor of early modern shorthand, John Willis. But the verbal signature of Shakespeare appeared in Willis’s The Art of Stenographie in 1602, one year prior to publication in the first quarto of Hamlet. Willis defines the word “Axioma” or “axiom” as “an Enunciation or Sentence, pronouncing anything to be, or not to be.” The presence of Shakespeare’s words in Willis’s work underscores the proximity of Shakespeare and shorthand in early modern London and raises an important question concerning an old but neglected scholarly debate: were some of Shakespeare’s early quartos transcribed in Elizabethan shorthand?

That question, and the topic of Elizabethan shorthand generally, may strike a contemporary audience as esoteric or arcane, but there are potentially high stakes in the issue for Shakespearean textual studies. If, as some early editors maintained, Shakespeare’s plays were copied in shorthand, then knowledge of the technology would help to clarify the processes through which the texts came into print, explain the relation between early and late versions of plays, and illuminate obscure passages. As early as 1733 Lewis Theobald, “the true founder of modern Shakespearean scholarship,” argued that “many [Shakespearean] Pieces were taken down in Short-hand, and imperfectly copied by Ear, from a representation.” Thomas Heywood, a contemporary of Shakespeare, complained of his play If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody that “some by Stenography drew / The plot, set it in print, scarce one word true.” Heywood also stated that his plays had been “copied only by the ear.”

In the historical debates concerning Shakespeare and shorthand, King Lear has occupied center stage. Alexander Schmidt proposed a . . .

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