Shakespeare's Signature at the National Library
In a riveting article published in Haaretz on 16.11.2012, Dr. Avner Ben-Zaken reports that the National Library may be in possession of the original signature of none other than William Shakespeare. Said signature is found on the cover of a first edition copy of the book Of the Vanitie and Uncertaintie of Artes and Sciences by Cornelius Agrippa (1569). Dr. Ben-Zaken examined the specimen closely after hearing about the book from Hava Nowerstern, the librarian in charge of the National Library’s Edelstein Collection of history, philosophy and sociology of science. Ben Zaken’s interest in the book derives from his research on the connection between magic and science during the Renaissance, a subject in which Cornelius Agrippa is a central figure.
Ben-Zaken ties together the image of the sorcerer-scientist who intervenes in natural processes in order to obtain a systematic description of phenomena and that of Shakespeare, actor turned playwright who “wrote plays in the forms of experiments… conducted by one who, just like Agrippa’s sorcerer, mixes the practical with the theoretical… .”
Ben-Zaken takes the reader on a tour of the intellectual milieu that Shakespeare became part of when he came to London from the country. As turns out the Agrippa’s Vanitie was a primary text among the intellectuals of the time. Not only is its influence manifest in works by several of them, such as Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nash, but the book and its author are mentioned by name. Moreover, Ben-Zaken reminds us that Agrippa’s book, and his intellectual philosophy, played a foundational role in the works of Francis Bacon, the principal advocate of experimentation as a means to investigate reality. Bacon compared conducting experiments to a theatrical performance in front of an audience. The experiment, like the dramatic event, is in need of the affirmation of an audience. Ben-Zaken describes the unfolding of an intellectual revolution involving a blending of the practical and the philosophical. Cornelius Agrippa’s book played an important role in this revolution and Shakespeare embodied several of its central principles in his activities as an actor and playwright who broke with convention and experimented with various points of view.
Experts have concluded that the signature on the cover of the National Library of Israel’s copy of Cornelius Agrippa’s book is comparable to other signatures attributed to Shakespeare. Such signatures exist on several documents, among them a deed of ownership on his house and his will and testament. However, the existence of his signature on a book by Cornelius Agrippa amounts to confirmation of a physical, tangible connection between Shakespeare and the intellectual zeitgeist that influenced his writing. Avner Ben-Zaken points to several instances where the explicit presence of Agrippa’s Vanities can be identified in Shakespeare’s plays: As You like It, the Merry Wives of Windsor, The Merchant of Venice, and particularly the Tempest. Furthermore, signs of Cornelius Agrippa’s ideas regarding the four humors of man abound in Shakespeare’s plays, among them Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard II, and Richard III.
The discovery of Shakespeare’s signature in the National Library’s collections rekindles our interest in why it is we find the signatures of famous individuals so fascinating. The signature of a well-known person or historical figure furnishes us with a sense of closeness, almost intimacy, with that person. Autographs are coveted by collectors and the National Library features the immense Chevadron Collection of such treasures. An autograph is a historical artifact, even when uninformative and out of context. When one appears on a book, as in the present case, it is a voice from the past saying: “Shakespeare held this book, this very book, in his hands.” Moreover, on a book so strongly associated with Shakespeare’s work, his autograph bears physical testimony to that book’s importance to the acclaimed bard. The excitement at discovering an autograph is similar to that of an archeological discovery. One knows with certainty, when walking in the galleries of the Coliseum or among the pillars of the Parthenon, that he is walking in the footsteps of history and the written word. In one respect, an autograph is even more authentic: the movement of a hand, the ink, the slight tremor, the slanted script, the use of space, the very place where Shakespeare rested his hand, the pages he traced with his fingers, the ink he blew upon to dry.
All the alleged Shakespearean autographs are controversial. The argument is rooted in disagreements over the figure of Shakespeare, who we know precious little about despite his artistic prowess. Ben-Zaken ties the roots of the argument about Shakespeare’s origins to his not being a certified product of a university. Moreover, Ben-Zaken avers that the iconoclasm that characterizes Shakespeare’s work was also fodder for those who doubted his authorship. In this context, any autograph of Shakespeare’s supports the belief that he did indeed mix in the intellectual circles of his time and that his oeuvre emerged from this world. The autograph on Agrippa’s Vanities is a significant and exciting addition to those who espouse this view. The book came to the National Library from Sidney Edelstein (Hebrew Wikipedia entry), who probably purchased it from William Stoddard, an early 20th century Shakespearean scholar. Edelstein placed his collection in the custody of the National Library and thus, brought Shakespeare to Jerusalem.