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hakespere ' s handwriting.

Shakspere's Handwriting
By Sir George Greenwood

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Shakspere's Handwriting
By Sir George Greenwood



& 11


Everybody knows the saying, attributed to a certain judge of
the mid- Victorian period, to the effect that the unveracious might
be divided into " hars, damned liars, and expert witnesses." This
was, of course, a saying more jocular than judicial, but, like many
another exaggerated statement, it has, nevertheless, a substratum
of truth. To illustrate, for example, the untrustworthiness of
expert witnesses, I need only refer to a case which was tried at
the Law Courts while I was practising at the Bar. At that time the
two great " experts " whose services were constantly requisitioned
in cases of disputed handwriting, were Messrs. Inglis & Netherclift,
and, in the particular case referred to, one of these great men was
engaged on behalf of the plaintiff and the other on behalf of the
defendant. The trial took place before a Judge and Jury, when
the two handwriting experts went into the box in support of their
respective clients, and each, with equal positiveness, pledged his
reputation in support of diametrically opposite opinions ; where-
upon the Judge directed the Jury that they should leave the
" expert evidence " altogether out of consideration.

What are we to say then, when we find experts in high places —
none other than the " paleographers " and " graphonomists " of
the present day — differing widely among themselves .'' Are we
to follow the example of the Judge and put the " expert evidence "
altogether out of our consideration ? That can hardly be done
where the subject-matter for examination is one of such great
literary importance as that of " Shakespeare's handwriting," and
yet it is clear, when there is such difference of opinion among the
learned, that we cannot adopt the advice of the school boy who
translated " experto crede " by the words " trust the expert " !
What, then, can the poor ordinary mortal do ? He can only
examine these different opinions, together with the subject-matter
of the inquiry, and, making use of such reason, and judgment, and
experience as he possesses, endeavour to arrive at a conclusion for


Now at the present moment this absorbing question is agitating
the minds of all Shakespearian scholars and students : Have we
at last found one of Shakespeare's manuscripts, meaning thereby
certain sheets of paper bearing words written by the same hand
as that which wrote the six signatures which have hitherto been
believed to be the only examples of Shakespeare's writing ? That
is, of course, an intensely interesting question. One of
Shakespeare's manuscripts ! A thing which everybody has longed
for! What would not a lover of Shakespeare give to behold with
his own eyes a page of Shakespeare's own undoubted writing!
And if it can be p)roven that the sheets in question have been written
on by the same hand as that which penned the signatures, then
those poor deluded persons who doubt, nay, disbelieve, that Shak-
spere of Stratford was indeed the author of the plays and poems of
Shakespeare, are for ever put to silence. Obviously, therefore,
every good and orthodox Shakespearian must ardently desire to
believe, and to proclaim unto the world, that these pages are really
and truly, and beyond a doubt, the longed-for Shakespearian

Now let me state the point at issue more definitely. There is,
among the Harleian MSS. at the British Museum, an old manuscript
play of " Sir Thomas More," the greater part of which is said to be
in the handwriting of Anthony Munday. This work is something
of an olla podrida. It is composed of twenty paper leaves, of which
thirteen, we are told, are in Anthony Munda\-'s autograph. " The
rest (seven leaves, together with two small sheets originally pasted
down to two pages of the original MS., but now lifted from them)
are contributions by five different hands." ^ Two of these leaves
contain an " addition " which certain experts, or " paleographers,"
maintain to be in the same handwriting as that C'f the
" Shakespeare " signatures. That is the question which I propose
to examine, but before doing so I think it will be useful to consider
the evidence which the handwriting experts generally have placed
before the world concerning not only these and other signatures

• Shakespeare' s Handwriting. By Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, G.C.B.
(1916). p. 30.


purporting to be by Shakspere of Stratford, but also concerning the
competence or otherwise of his father and mother in this matter of

[That John and Mary Shakspere, William's father and mother,
both made use of marks in lieu of signatures is indisputable, sup-
ported as it is by documentary evidence.^ \ It was, accordingly,
an accepted fact among reasonable men that, as Mr. Halliwell-
Phillipps wrote of William Shakspere, " Both his parents were
absolutely illiterate." That, however, did not satisfy some of
the orthodox, who perceived that this fact somewhat helped the
case of those who entertained doubts concerning the " Stratfordian "
authorship of the plays and poems of Shakespeare. Thus Sir
Sidney Lee wrote, in the illustrated Library Edition of his Life of
William Shakespeare, published in 1899 (Preface, p. xii.) : " The
sceptics base their destructive criticism on few grounds that merit
respect. The only position with the smallest pretensions to con-
sideration which they have hitherto held rests on the assumption
that Shakespeare's father and near kinsmen and kinswomen were
illiterate and brainless peasants." I pause here to remark that
this is an overstatement. " The sceptics " certainly made a point
of the facts that neither Shakspere's father nor mother could write,
and that some of their kinsmen and kinswomen, including their
grand-daughters, Judith and Susanna, Shakspere's children, were
similarly illiterate, but I am not aware that any " sceptic " has con-
tended that any of these persons could be properly described as
" brainless." In fact, this epithet seems to be gratuitously thrown
in by Sir Sidney Lee in order to prejudice the " sceptical " case.
Then Sir Sidney continues the passage I have quoted by the following
important statement :-\" Good ground is here offered for the belief
that the poet's father wielded a practised pen."^ And, further, at
p. 5 of the same edition, he wrote of Shakspere's father : i " When
attesting documents he occasionally made his mark, but there is
evidence in the Stratford archives that he could write with

^ See facsimiles of the marks of John and Mary Sliakspere when they
executed a deed in 1579, and of John Shakspere in 1564, in HaUiwcU-
PhilHpp's Outlines. Vol. I., pp. 38 and 40 (6th Edn., 1886). See also Vol. II..
p. 13, for another facsimile of John Shakspere's mark.


iHere, then, it seemed, was a remarkable thing indeed. Here
was a man who " could write with facility," and yet who deliberately
preferred to make his mark, not only " when attesting documents,"
but also when executing deeds! And that, too, in an age when to
be able to write one's name was something to be proud of in a Httle
provincial town, and in the class to which Shakspere's family
belonged. Moreover, Mr. Halliwell-Phillipps had told us that
persons who could write their names were not in the habit of
appearing as " marksmen," which, indeed, seemed to be a statement
in full accordance with the probabilities of the case. " There is no
reasonable pretence," wrote this distinguished Shakespearian
authority, " for assuming that in the time of John Shakespeare,
whatever might have been the case at earlier periods, it was the
practice for marks to be used by those who were capable of signing
their names. No instance of the kind has been discovered among
the numerous records of his era that are preserved at Stratford-
upon-Avon, while even a few rare examples in other districts, if
such are to be found, would be insufficient to countenance a theory
that he was able to write. All the known evidences point in the
opposite direction, and it should be observed that in common with
many other of his illiterate contemporaries he did not always adhere
to the same kind of symbol, at one time contenting himself with a
rudely-shaped cross, and at another delineating a fairly good
representation of a pair of dividers." ^ In the face of all this'^ir
Sidney Lee told us of John Shakespeare that "when attesting
documents he occasionally made his mark," thereby implying that
generally he did not make his mark, but signed with his own

■.It was noticed, however, that Sir Sidney did not indulge us with
any examples from " the evidence in the Stratford archives " that
John Shakespeare " could write with facility," or, indeed, at all.
It was with great expectations, therefore, that we awaited the new
edition of his Life of William Shakespeare, published in 1915,
thinking to find there the desired proof of this interesting allegation.
But, alas, we were doomed to disappointment. The promised
proof has " melted into air, into thin air." We now read of John

» Outlines (6th Edn.), Vol. II., p. 369.


Shakespeare, " when attesting documents he, like many of his
educated neighbours, made his mark, and there is no unquestioned
specimen of his handwriting in the Stratford archives " \(p. 6).

" Like many of his educated neighbours " ! What is the meaning
of this ? Obviously the words are inserted in order to suggest
that many " educated " persons of Stratford-upon-Avon, contem-
porary with John Shakspere, although they were able to write,
and, doubtless, " with facility," yet preferred to use their " marks "
in lieu of signatures, and, therefore, that it may be presumed that
John Shakespeare also was an " educated " person, who was wont
to " attest documents " by a rough cross, or by the representation
of a " pair of dividers," only because he preferred to do so ; albeit
there is "no unquestioned specimen of his handwriting in the
Stratford archives," or anywhere else! But where is the evidence
that any " educated " persons at Stratford or elsewhere at that time
chose to substitute " marks " for the signatures which they were
able to make ? There is, I trow, no such evidence. In fact, the
whole of this talk about John Shakspere's supposed ability to write
is vain and profitless, and it is a relief to turn from such allegations,
which seem to me not a little disingenuous, to Sir Edward Maunde
Thompson's direct statement, viz. ; "Neither of the poet's {i e.,
Shakspere's) parents appears to have been able to write at all ;
they simply made their marks in execution of deeds." ^ Let us
hope, then, that we shall now hear no more about the suggestion
that John Shakespeare was both a " marksman " and an educated
man — save the mark]

Concerning William Shakspere's daughters there is no question
at all. He who, according to the orthodox faith, wrote " There is
no darkness but ignorance," left his second daughter entirely in
that darkness, and his elder daughter was in very much the same
case. ("Of Shakespeare's two surviving children," writes Sir E.
Maunde Thompson, " the eldest, Susanna Hall, wrote a painfully
formed signature, which was probably the most she was capable of
doing with the pen ; the second, Judith Quiney, \ye conclude, could
not write at all, for she signed with a mark." ^ )

1 Shakespeare's England (1916), Vol. I., p. 294.
* Shakespeare's England, ubi supra.


So much, then, for William Shakespeare's father, mother, and two
daughters. They were all illiterate.^ Let us now consider the
case of William Shakspere himself.

Now there are said to be six authentic signatures of William
Shak.spere — one of them very much abbreviated — which are known
to us. But not long ago there was yet another which was pro-
nounced undoubtedly genuine by the most eminent " paleographer "
of the time.

It may be well to say a word concerning it, for it shows, in a very
interesting manner, how these " paleographers " and " graphono-
mists " are apt to differ amongst themselves. There is in the
British Museum a copy of Florio's translation of Montaigne's
Essays (1603) bearing the alleged autograph, " Willm Shakspere."
This was purchased for the Museum in 1837 by Sir Frederick
Madden, then Keeper of the Manuscripts, for the sum of ;f 140. Sir
Frederick, who was the greatest authority of his day on ancient
handwriting, vouched for the authenticity of this autograph, and
Charles Knight, who gives a facsimile of it in his Pictorial
Shakspere, pronounces it the "undoubted signature" of William
Shakspere.^ Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, however, who was
Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum from 1888
to 1909, has pronounced it an " undoubted forgery " ! Here, then,
is an instructive controversy. Here is a case of Inglis v. Netherclift
once more. The most eminent paleographer of yesterday vouches
for the authenticity of an alleged " Shakspere " signature, which
he pronounces undoubtedly genuine, while the most eminent
paleographer of to-da}' tells us that the same signature is an un-

^ His only son had died in his twelfth year. Whethei he had any education
or not is not known.

2 Knight's Pictorial Shakspere (Virtue & Co.), Comedies. Vol. I., p. 3
and p. 78. It is remarkable that Dr. Charles William Wallace speaks of
this copy of Florio's Montaigne's Essays as bearing on the flyleaf the name
"William Shakespeare" (sic)\ He says the authenticity of the signature
" is still an open question." See Harper's Magazine, March, 1910, p. 504.
Mr. Israel Gollancz also in his preface to The Tempest (" Temple Classics "
Edition), states that " Shakespeare's own copy of this work (Florio's
Montaigne), with his autograph, is among the treasures of the British


doubted forgery ! Which of the two are we to believe ? We are
told to trust to " authority." But when " authority " is divided
against itself, what are we to do ? Have we any course open to us,
as reasonable men, but to decide for ourselves according to the best
of our judgment ?

But we have yet another little difference between " paleo-
graphers " and " graphonomists " to notice. The American
Professor, Charles William Wallace, Ph.D., who obtained such
notoriety by his I^ew Shakespeare Discoveries, writes as follows
concerning Shakespeare's signatures : " One other signature
deserves to be added to this list. It is the abbreviated
* Wm. Sh* ' in a copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses, now owned by the
Bodleian Library. On the cover page fronting the signature is the
statement, ' This little Booke of Ovid was given to me by W. Hall
who sayd it was once Will : Shaksperes TN 1682.' . . . The
recipient's memorandum of presentation in 1682 is unanimously
agreed to be genuine. It has been questioned whether some of the
numerous forgers, seeing that, had not forged Shakespeare's signa-
ture to fit the notice. But all paleographers icho have examined it
declare it gent tine." ^

Alas, what says Sir E. Maunde Thompson ? After dismissing
the signature in Florio's Montaigne as a forgery, he proceeds,
" Nor is it possible to give a higher character to the signature
(' Wm. Sh".') in the Aldine Ovid's Metamorphoses, 1502, in the
Bodleian Library. This again is a forgery." ^ So much for Pro-
fessor Wallace's, " All paleographers who have examined it " !
And Professor Wallace himself is, I believe, a " paleographer " or
" graphonomist " ! All this is perplexing to the poor anxious
inquirer who can aspire to neither of these high-sounding epithets.

^ Harper's Magazine, ubi supra, pp. 504, 505. (My italics).

2 See Shakespeare's England, Vol. I., p. 308, note. Sir Sidney Lee says
of this very abbreviated signature that " experts have declared, on grounds
which deserve attention," that it is " a genuine autograph of the poet "
{Life of William Shakespeare. 1915, p. 21). How the " experts " could
undertake to say this, unless guided by divine inspiration, it is difficult to
guess, for, obviously, an " e.xpert " forger would have had little difficulty in
writing " Wm. Sh*." in such a way as to deceive the very elect, especially as
the strong inclination of all the faithful would be to believe in its authentiticy.


And now let us come to William Shakspere's own signatures,
assuming that such indeed they be. Let us take them in order of
date, omitting, however, for the moment the very abbreviated
signature discovered by Professor Wallace.

(1) In the Guildhall Library is a deed by which one Henry
Walker conveyed a house in Blackfriars to " William Shakespeare "
and Trustees. This deed bears date March 10th, 1613. It is
signed, if we are to trust the paleographers, " William Shaksper,"
though it requires a very strong microscope to find the " r ", which
Sir Edward Maunde Thompson tells us was added as "an after
thought." ^

(2) In the British Museum is a mortgage-deed of the same pro-
perty, bearing date March 11th, 1613, and signed " Wm. Shakspe,"
according to the same high authority.

Now in each of these two deeds Shakspere has placed his signature
on the parchment label to which the seal is attached. "It is
evident," writes Sir E. Maunde Thompson, " that he imagined, as
a layman might imagine, that he was obliged, in each case, to confine
his signature within the bounds of the parchment label which is
inserted in the foot of the deed to carry the seal, and not to allow
it to run over on to the parchment of the deed itself." This may,
of course, be the true explanation, though it is not a little difficult
to conceive that " Shakespeare," who had so much knowledge of
law and legal procedure, should, in the year 1613, have laboured

^ Shakespeare's Handwriting, p. G. Since this was in type I have, through
the courtesy of the Guildhall Librarian, examined the original signature very
closely, and I confidently assert there is no " r " in it, microscopic or otherwise.
There is, indeed, a tiny ini< mark just on the edge of the tab, after the " e,"
and if anyone chooses to say that the signatory intended to add an " r,"
whether as "an afterthought " or otherwise, he is of course at liberty to do
so, but there is no evidence of it. Some distance above the " e " there is a
very faint, wavy line, which Sir E. Maunde Thompson (p. 4), denotes by a
a straight line just above the " e," which it certainly is not, though it may
possibly be intended for a mark of abbreviation. The signature is not
" Shaksper," but " Shakspe." If any reader doubts this let him examine
the signature for himself in the Guildhall Library. But the matter does not
seem to me of much importance. It is clear an3'how that the signatory had
no thought of writing " Shakespeare."


under such a delusion ! ^ Moreover, the essentials to the validity
of a deed are sealing and delivery, so that ii was not really necessary
for Shakspere to sign at all, either the Purchase Deed or the
Mortgage, and, as a fact, the deeds themselves do not purport to
be signed, but only to have been " sealed and delivered," as the
practice was, and as the law required.

There is, however, a rather important fact to be borne in mind
with regard to the sealing of these deeds. Shakspere had, appar-
ently, no seal of his own, neither, indeed, had William Johnson,
who, as one of Shakspere's " nominal partners or trustees," as Sir
Sidney Lee calls them,^ also executed both the purchase-deed and
the mortgage ; wherefore the seal of Henry Lawrence, clerk to
Robert Andrews, the law scriviner, who drew the deeds and who
was one of the witnesses, was made use of to supply the deficiency
in both cases. But this seal bore the initials of Henry Lawrence.
" The great dramatist," writes Mr. Halliwell-Phillipps, " to the
disappointment of posterity, impressed the wax of both his labels
with the initials H.L. instead of those of his own name." ^ What
was there, then, to identify this seal as Shakspere's seal pro hac
vice if he had not signed his name above it ? It is possible, therefore,
that he imagined the seal and the label to which it was attached to
be so much one that he ought to confine his signature to the latter,
though, I repeat, it seems passing strange that the signatory, if
he was indeed " the great dramatist," who had such wide know-
ledge of law and legal practice, should have such an idea in
his mind!

In the case of William Johnson, who als(j made use of Henry
Lawrence's seal, and who similarly confined his signature (which
identified this same seal as his also for the purposes of the deed)

1 Further, there was a lawyer present, or, at any rate, the scrivener
who drew up the deeds, and was there to attest them, and who would be able
to instruct Shakspere as to where his signature should be, as is done at the
present time.

2 " By a legal device Shakespeare made his ownership a joint tenancy,
associating with himself three merely nominal partners, or trustees, viz. :
William Johnson, citizen and vintner of London, John Jackson and John
H-^mnage of London, gentlemen." Lije (1915), p. 459.

^Outlines, 6th Edn.. Vol. I., p. 221.


within the limits of the label, it is not so strange, for he was but a
vintner. On the other hand, John Jackson, who signed the deed,
but did not seal it, wrote his name freely across the label, some
letters of his signature appearing on the parchment on each side

But, after all, there seems to be very little point in all this dis-
cussion concerning the confinement of Shakspere's signature to
the tab above the seal. It appears to have been a very general
custom so to confine the signature, though it was not legally necessary
so to do, and nothing, I think, can be fairly argued from the fact
that Shakspere followed that custom. ^

With regard to the mortgage signature, Sir E. Maunde Thompson
writes as follows : "No doubt, having in his mind the difficulty he
had had on the previous day in keeping strictly to the label
of the purchase deed, he [Shakspere] now made sure of not trans-
gressing by forming each of the letters of his surname deliberately
and separately (except the a and k, which are linked) and by
modifying their shapes from the usual cursive to a restrained and
formally set character."

Now that the real reason for the difference of the hand-
writing in the signature of the mortgage deed from that of the
signature to the purchase deed was due to the alleged fact that
Shakspere had in his mind the difficulty he had had in confining
his signature to the label of the purchase deed, appears to me an
altogether doubtful proposition, but, however that may be, it is, I
venture to say, extremely improbable that there was any "previous
day," as Sir E. Maunde Thompson assumes. In other words, I have
little or no doubt that the conveyance and the mortgage were
executed on the same day.

We must remember that Shakepere left nearly half the purchase
money of the house on mortgage. Now what is the practice when
the vendor of a house agrees to accept part of the purchase money

1 Possibly it might be in a witness's mind that if the seal were to be cut
away from the deed at any time, his name, if his signature were confined
to the label, would go with it.


in cash and to leave the rest on mortgage ? Naturally, the vendor
is not content to execute the conveyance of his property and
to hand it to the purchaser's solicitor, until he has received not only

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