The Overlooked Discovery – Peter McCabe | Guest Post

William Shakespeare

William ShakespeareAn opinion about whether Shakespeare’s dictionary has been discovered: It has.

In 2014, two New York antique booksellers, George Koppelman and Daniel Wechsler, published their own book Shakespeare’s Beehive. Therein they announced that through the course of their work, they had discovered a dictionary called Baret’s Alvearie, published in 1580, thoroughly annotated from front to back by William Shakespeare himself. This discovery would offer unprecedented and extended insight into the creative process of the celebrated writer for the first time in history, upending centuries of scholarly and biographical tradition that has held that virtually none of Shakespeare’s handwritten papers have survived. Shakespeare’s name isn’t written in the Alvearie, or any titles of his plays, or character’s names, or any address where he lived. Yet, Koppelman and Wechsler argue that if you compare the systematic pattern of notation in the Alvearie, particularly to Shakespeare’s earlier work, and to biographical markers, there are far too many direct connections to justify naming another candidate as the annotator of this copy of Baret’s Alvearie. Their full explanation is a book-length, complicated comparison of the markings of an archaic dictionary with obscure phrasings of Shakespeare’s work. As there are often and extravagant claims about Shakespeare, and given how complex their argument is, it is not surprising that this announcement was met with a bit of a “plink” by the general media, and a dismissive “impossible to know” or “too unlikely” scoff from other quarters. However, as of yet no one has disproven their claim, and the prestigious Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC has accepted the Alvearie on loan to allow for further study. It is my hope that specialists from all fields will submit this remarkable book to rigorous scrutiny to determine if Koppelman and Wechsler are correct, as I believe they are.

Why accept that this simple looking 12 x 8 inch, 1000-page, brick of old, well-made paper that bears no name, belonged to William Shakespeare? Why should anyone think that the makings in it are his? Because the notations in the Alvearie are entirely consistent with what we know about how other writers write, and the adaptation process; because the book is entirely consistent with everything we already know about Shakespeare’s relationship with other books; because thousands of markings and hundreds of handwritten words in the Alvearie can be traced directly to specific lines in his work. Most convincingly, when you look at the Alvearie as a supporting document to his work, you gain insight into his writing, and many of the mysteries surrounding his work process begin to dissipate.

I’ll begin with this last point.

A frequent question about Shakespeare is: How did he create language that is open to such broad variations of interpretation? Here is one micro example: In many of his plays, Shakespeare employs a technique of using two related words to explain one thing. Under some circumstances these are called hendiadys (if you want to drop a $10 word), from Greek, literally meaning “two through one.” Contemporary examples of this are “nice and warm,” “nice and easy,” “hearth and home,” “cease and desist,” “for all intents and purposes,” “law and order,” and even “come up and see me.” The technique is both ancient and biblical, but Shakespeare made ample use of it, writing over 300 hendiadyses in his work, over 60 in Hamlet alone: “Book and Volume of my brain,” “Angels and ministers of Grace,” and “chief good and market of his time” are often-cited examples.

How does a writer choose these words—through what process? It lies in researching and then grouping words that exemplify their variant but related meanings. In usage, the word good may be used as an adjective (meaning “positive”), or as a noun (meaning “product”). When Hamlet says, “what is a Man / If his chief good and market of his time…” is he using “good” as an adjective or as a noun? Here the word market is also ambiguous. Is he using “market” as a verb or as a noun? The answer is: all of the above. The varying possible combinations produce a geometric array of variable interpretations, but only because they are closely related in meaning. This all may seem needlessly heady; a simpler way to describe this is to call it wordplay: literally playing with words.

When we look at the Alvearie, we see documentary evidence of the writer researching and playing with words, teasing out their related meanings, frequently inverting the order in which they were found, and discovering their variant musicality. For example, the marked definition of “Warie” reads, “Warie, circumspect, wise vide [Latin for “see”], Circumspect and Heede.” Two lines from the Henry VI plays read: “…let not his soothing words / Bewitch your hearts, be wise and circumspect,” and “Take heed, and be wary how you place your words.” Again, Shakespeare takes pairs of similar words and uses them as verbs, nouns, and adjectives, creating a subtle ambiguity. This pattern of taking lines from the Alvearie, and inverting and activating them, is repeated again and again.

How did Shakespeare create language that is open to such broad variations of interpretation? One way, apparently, is by looking up words in a dictionary and selectively pairing them together.

If the “great” William Shakespeare is similar to other writers, how can we gain insight from them about him?

Shakespeare has been presented to us all our lives, not so much as person who spent his working life acting and writing, but as a figure: depicted in marble statues; with libraries, theaters and festivals named for him; omnipresent in education; synonymous with genius, high culture, and snobbery; earning the title of “greatest” this, that, and the other. While well-intended, this exaltation is all deeply misleading since during his lifetime, he was by profession a commercial entertainer. The more I study his life, work, and times, I become convinced that he has far more in common with other entertainers who have achieved glory, than at first might be apparent. It is commonplace in history for societies to have various incarnations of bards, or performer/writers, like Shakespeare and his contemporaries Marlowe and Jonson, whose writing legacies were unpredicted in their lifetime.

Performer/writers come to us from other eras as well. For example, Sophocles was a dancer, then an actor, and then a writer. We think of him as a statue too, but his contemporaries probably couldn’t imagine the impact of his work. Moliere was an actor, and a writer, now thought of as a master, but in his lifetime was both a popular and hated figure of scandalous derision. The mass media era facilitated so many other performer/writers that it is hard to track, among them Chaplin, Welles, Pinter, comedians and internationally popular musicians. In the 1960s, no one would have thought that scruffy folk balladeer, Bob Dylan on MacDougal Street, would become the most quoted song writer in the history of American judicial writing, or the recipient of the Nobel Prize; or that the lyric writing of John Lennon would be used as the lingua franca of eastern European political uprisings in the 1980s. Contemporary spoken word and hip-hop artists’ language is now studied at Oxford University for its astonishing verbal gymnastics.

In the future, students of language, absent of supporting footage or documents, may well wonder how it was possible for spoken word artists, like Eminem,* to be able to write a cascade of lines that are assonated rhymes with “Rumpelstiltskin in a haystack” as he does in the third verse of “Monster.” However, we do have footage of him and his documents. It turns out he also read a dictionary, and he has cardboard boxes filled with scraps of paper that have lists of rhymes and word parts. These scraps don’t have his name or song titles on them, but tie directly to his lyrics, just like the notations in the Alvearie do with Shakespeare’s lines.

If you’d prefer a more highbrow example, I was working with the librettist Paul Peers on his opera Mata Hari. He was adapting a prose piece into an aria. The source material was a photocopy of a translation of a diary entry from a Captain Bouchardon. Mr. Peers had marked just a few lines from the prose, which he used as the basis of the verses for his aria. It occurred to me that if you found only the photocopy you would just see the underlinings, see that it told the same story as the aria (if you were familiar with it), and read some echoes of its language, but find no direct reference to the opera itself. No notes proclaiming, “this would be great for act 1” etc. This is what source materials look like after they have been used by writers: they have no explanatory language to a reader, just the notes of the writers to themselves.

Bearing this comparison to other wordsmiths in mind, now see how consistent this book is with what we already know about Shakespeare’s use of other books.

Holinshed’s Chronicles was the source for the history plays, Plutarch’s Lives was the source for the Roman plays, Plautus for the farces, and previous versions of Hamlet and Lear were the sources for those plays. When we ask: How did Shakespeare, who used over 30,000 different words in his work, using as many as 14,000 only once, and inventing or coining as many as 17,000, write with so many words? To some, the answer may be as disappointing as it is apparent by what we already know: Shakespeare read a lot of books. Absent of the Alvearie, we know that in his early plays he drew not just plot, but text directly from the aforementioned sources, lifting exact phrases, paraphrasing, truncating and inverting the order of words. We know he did this with Harsnett in using language for Macbeth and Lear. The Alvearie fits right into this pattern of other sourcebooks that he used, but highlighting a previously unseen, but reasonably predicted, involved methodology. Here we have a glimpse into his word selection process itself, and again this specific skill may be no more superhuman than looking words up in a dictionary, albeit very thoroughly.

Alright: This is what writers’ scratch sheets look like; Shakespeare used a lot of language from books, but why Shakespeare’s hand on this copy?

The level of specificity between the language contemporaneously marked and language in his plays written during the same period is overwhelming. This, the most convincing proof of Shakespeare’s authorship of these annotations, makes up the bulk of Shakespeare’s Beehive. Koppelman and Wechsler argue that no one connection between the marked book and a Shakespearean phrase would be sufficient for proof of authorship, but when you look at the entirety of the connections between the markings and Shakespeare’s work, and to the connections they continue to find, they are far too numerous to be coincidental.

Here is a sampling of the markings that appear on every page:

There are different kinds of annotations in the Alvearie. Some entries are marked with a small circle, some with a circle and a dot. Some subheadings are marked with a slash. Many words are underlined; words and phrases are written in the margins and between printed text. There is also the final page of the Alvearie, which has about 70 words written on it. There are about 4000 markings in total, approximately 1000 of them so far have been traced directly to Shakespearean text.

For some examples: There are dozens of words, handwritten in the margins that Shakespeare used only once in his work including “spokesman,” “cog,” “lout,” “lubber,” “otherwhiles,” and “quonium.”

There are scores of marked phrases that appear in inverted order in his work like “Wanne vide Pale” becomes “pale and wan,” while “scoffs: bitter taunts” becomes “bitter scoffs,” followed a few phrases later by “taunts,” and “wise, circumspect” becomes “be circumspect and wise.”

There are phrases underlined in the dictionary that are repeated exactly in his work like “wedges of gold,” “strike thee to my foot,” and “taken tardy.”

There are phrases underlined that are altered slightly such as “caterpillars of a commonwealth,” which becomes “caterpillars of the commonwealth.”

There are hundreds of “clusters of words” underlined in the Alvearie that appear in close proximity to each other in the plays and poems.

The final page has variations of English and French words that appear in Henry V, as well as the phrase “Good Morrow.”

Unmarked in the Alvearie are also phrases that are too similar to his lines to ignore it as a source book, like “signifies nothing,” so similar to his “signifying nothing” from his later Macbeth.

When you couple these facts with the number of underlined references to stagecraft, varying words for flora and fauna, puerile humor, plays on words of names of people Shakespeare knew, elaborately written capital W’s and S’s, the evidence for Shakespeare as the annotator of this book becomes so convincing that you might be wise to smell a hoax.

So far, there is no evidence of a hoax.

No one questions that the book is a 1580 copy of Baret’s Alvearie 2nd edition; they by themselves are not that rare. The ink, which cannot be carbon-dated, is chemically consistent with 16th century ink. There are dozens of biblical paraphrases written in the margins, all of which reference only the Pre-King James translations of the bible, persuasively dating the annotations before 1611. Was the annotator someone else, hoping to fool later generations into believing the book was Shakespeare’s, someone who spent any number of hours on every page making subtly forged notes to obscure Shakespearean lines, without reward or recognition? This story strains plausibility.

Are Koppelman and Wechsler con men? They, as of yet, have sought no money for the Alvearie, have persuaded the Folger to accept it for public scrutiny, and made photocopies of every page available free to the public online. I’ve known a number of con men, and have met Koppelman and Wechsler: They have nothing in common with each other.

Or are Koppelman and Wechsler simply wrong, and mistaken about who the annotator was? Who are the other candidates? Are there other contemporaneous writers, editors, publishers or scholars? No one yet has made a detailed comparison of other candidates, and anyone who makes the attempt will have a long way to go to finding a more plausible explanation for why there are thousands of markings of words that are so interwoven into Shakespeare’s work of the 1590s. The very simple, plausible, and even obvious reason may be that they are his.

If I am proven wrong, I will concede to a considerable flight of fancy, but as I said, no one has proven it wrong yet, or to my mind even offered another plausible explanation for these annotations, or another candidate, all of which I will happily consider. But to dig in your heels and refuse to accept thousands of instances of consistent circumstantial evidence as insufficient as proof may become stubbornness in its own right, and cross into intellectual dishonesty. As I said, I hope historians, biographers, and smarter people than me look into this matter and publish their opinions.

Some may be disappointed to learn that the “greatest” writer got some of his vocabulary from closely reading a dictionary, instead of the celebrated myth of the lone, divinely inspired genius, but I am of the opposite view. I find it inspiring. When we think of geniuses who have made so great an impact on our culture, many seem alien and remote. Einstein imagined himself traveling at nine-tenths the speed of light and accurately calculated the movements of light, time, and space at that speed: I can’t do that. Mozart said he imagined music as a physical sculpture and merely described what he saw with musical notation…I don’t even know what that means. But the Alvearie reminds us of the inherent construction of so many Shakespearean phrases that have permeated our language and thought, that it underscores the inherent constructed poetry of all language. By the virtue of speaking, and thinking, and dreaming in language we are all poets, and so Shakespeare is one of us. I believe that is why so many of us see ourselves in him, and in his work.


* Some might resist the comparison of Elizabethan drama to contemporary hip-hop, but the parallels are many. Both are/were popular commercial entertainments, performed in rough and tumble clubs and taverns, but also before heads of state at the White House and Whitehall. Both include crass humor and striking human insight; born from communities of artists that are both friendly and mortal rivals, criminal and educated, both drawing the attention of political and religious censure, some of its creators wealthy and notorious. Both forms are performed on chest-high platforms, with performers facing the audience, both below and above them. Most pertinently its primary mode of communication of both these forms is the extravagant and inventive use of the English language. I believe these parallels between the art of hip-hop and Elizabethan drama warrant comparison. By extension, they also warrant comparison between what is consistent between wordsmiths of one era and another.


  • Baldwin, T.W., On the Literary Genetics of Shakespeare’s Plays: 1592-1594. Urbana, The University of Illinois Press, 1959.
  • Koppleman, George, and Daniel Wechsler, Shakespeare’s Beehive: An Annotated Elizabethan Dictionary Comes to Light, 2nd Edition, New York: Axletree Books, 2014.
  • Liptak, Adam. “How Does it Feel, Chief Justice Roberts, to Hone a Dylan Quote?” New York Times, February 22, 2016.
  • Mathers, Marshall (Eminem), Interview by Anderson Cooper. 60 Minutes CBS, Oct 8 2010 60 minutes.
  • Shapiro, James, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. Great Britain: Faber and Faber, 2005.
  • Shapiro, James, The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. New York: Simon and Shuster, 2015.



Peter McCabe is a New York based writer, teacher, actor, producer and dramaturg. He writes off-off Broadway plays, and burlesque operas, has taught writing and literature at the City University of New York, has acted professionally since 1987, produced LIZZIE, a rock and roll musical about the double bludgeoness Lizzie Borden, and has been the Resident Dramaturg at the HERE Arts Center since 2009, where he assists in the development of inter-disciplinary theater work. He is married to the absurdly beautiful Hillary Richard and lives in Brooklyn with her and her three daughters.


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