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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Shakespeare’s Name and Autographs

By Gulian Crommelin Verplanck (1786–1870)

[From Verplanck’s “Shakespeare’s Plays: With his Life, etc.” 1847.]

THE RIGHT orthography of the great Poet’s name has been, for the last sixty years, as disputed and doubtful a question as any other of the many points which have perplexed and divided his editors and critics. Shake-speare, Shakespeare, Shakspeare, Schackspeere, Shaxspeare, Shakspear, Shakespear, Shakspere, Shaxpere, are among the variations, of more or less authority; besides one or two others, like Shaxbred, which are evidently blunders of a careless or ignorant scribe. More recent and minutely accurate researches seem to me to have proved, from the evidence of deeds, parish-registers, town-records, etc. (see the various extracts in Collier’s “Life”), that the family name was Shakspere, with some varieties of spelling, such as might occur among illiterate persons in an uneducated age. The evidence that the Poet himself considered this as his family name (which before seemed most probable), has been, within a few years, confirmed by the discovery of his undoubted autograph, in a copy of the first edition of Florio’s translation of Montaigne, in folio—a book, of his familiarity with which there are many traces in his later works, and which he has used in the way of direct imitation, and almost of transcription, in the “Tempest”—act ii. scene 1. I, therefore, fully agree with Sir Frederick Madden, in his tract on this point, and with Mr. Knight, in his Biography and Pictorial edition of Shakespeare, that the Poet’s legal and habitual signature was William Shakspere. Yet I, nevertheless, concur with Dr. Nares (Glossary), Mr. Collier, Mr. Dyce, and others, in retaining the old orthography of Shakespeare, by which the Poet was alone known as an author, in his own day and long after. The following reasons seem to me conclusive: Whether from the inconvenience of the Stratford mode of spelling the name not corresponding, in London, with its fixed pronunciation, or for some other reason, the Poet, at an early period of his literary and dramatic career, adopted, for all public purposes, the orthography of Shakespeare. His name appears thus spelled in the first edition of his “Venus and Adonis” (1593), where the dedication of the “first heir of his invention” to the Earl of Southampton, is subscribed at full length, William Shakespeare. This very popular poem passed through at least six editions, during the author’s lifetime, between 1593 and 1606, and several more within a few years after his death, in all of which the same spelling is preserved. This was followed, in 1594, by his poem of “Lucrece,” where the same orthography is preserved, in the signature to the dedication to the same noble friend and patron. All the succeeding editions, of which there were at least four during the author’s life, retain the same orthography. Again, in his Sonnets, first printed in 1609, we have nearly the same orthography, it differing only in printing the name Shake-speare.

All the editions of Shakespeare’s several poems differ from those of his plays published during his life in that typographical accuracy which denotes an author’s own care, while the contemporary old quarto editions of his plays, published separately, commonly swarm with gross errors either of the printer or the copyist. Again, all those editions of his genuine plays, thus published during his life, as well as others falsely ascribed to him, concur in the same mode of spelling the name—it being given invariably either Shake-speare, or Shakespeare. His name appears thus in at least sixty title-pages, of single plays, published by different printers, during his own life. Finally, in the folio collection of 1623, made by his friends Heminge and Condell, we find the same orthography, not only in the title and dedication, and list of performers, but in the verses prefixed by the Poet’s personal friends, Ben Jonson, Holland, Digges—the only variance being that the editors and Ben Jonson write Shakespeare and Digges has the name Shake-speare. All the succeeding folios retain the same mode, and two at least of those were published while many of the Poet’s contemporaries still lived. Moreover, all the Poet’s literary contemporaries, who have left his name in print, give it in the same way,—as Ben Jonson, several times; Drayton, Meares (in his often quoted list of Shakespeare’s works written before 1598); Allot (in his collection called the “English Parnassus”)—with several others.

So again, in the next generation, we find the same mode universally retained,—as, for example, by Milton, by Davenant, who was certainly the Poet’s godson, and who seems to have been willing to pass for his illegitimate son; and by the painstaking Fuller. The last writer, in his notice of Shakespeare, in his “Worthies of England,” refers to “the warlike sound of his surname (whence some may conjecture him of a military extraction), Hasti-vibrans, or Shake-speare.”

The heraldic grant of armorial bearings confirmed to the Poet, in his ancestors’ right, bearing the crest of a Falcon, supporting (or brandishing) a spear, etc., seems to be founded on the very same signification and pronunciation of the name. Thus Shakespeare remained the only name of their great dramatist known to the English public, from 1593, for almost two centuries after, until, in the last half of the last century, the authority of Malone and his fellow-commentators substituted, in popular use, Shakspeare—a version of the name which has the least support of any of the variations.

The result of the whole evidence on this point, which in regard to any other English author would hardly be worth examining, but which has its interest to thousands of Shakespeare’s readers on both sides of the Atlantic, is simply this: The Poet, for some reason, thought fit to adapt the spelling of his name to the popular mode of pronouncing it, according to the pronunciation of London, and his more cultivated readers; but this was done in his public, literary, and dramatic character only,—while as a “Warwickshire gentleman, and a burgher of Stratford-upon-Avon, he used his old family orthography, in the form he thought most authentic.

Such variations in the spelling of surnames were not at all unusual in the Poet’s age, and before, and half a century after, of which many instances have fallen under my own casual observation. The reason of a fact which we should now think strange, I suppose may be found in the changes of the habits and of the law of ordinary business. When half the business of life is transacted, as now, by checks, notes, bills, receipts, and all those informal evidences of contract that the old law contemptuously designated as mere “parole contracts,” although written, the identity of spelling, like a certain similarity of handwriting, becomes of absolute necessity for all persons who have any business of any kind. In the older modes of life, where few transactions were valid without the attestation of a seal and witnesses, both law and usage were satisfied with the similarity of sounds (the idem sonans of the courts), and a man might vary his signature as he pleased. Thus the Poet could see no objection to having, like his own Falstaff, one name for his family and townsfolk, and another for the public—Shakspere for his domestic use and his concerns at Stratford-upon-Avon, and Shakespeare for the rest of England;—we may add, though he did not, for posterity, and the whole world.