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Sunday, August 12, 2018

Shakespeare Scholarship in the Internet Age.


Shakespeare scholar, Edward Dowden.
Just recently, a friend, and fellow member of the Edward De Vere was Shake-speare Group, on Facebook, informed me that he had happened upon a reference that might interest me: 

"How Shakspere became acquainted with  the poem of Marianus we cannot tell,  but it had been translated into Latin : “Selecta Epigrammata”, Basel, 1529 and again several times before the close of the sixteenth century"
Shakespeare's Poems: Venus and Adonis, Lucrece, SONNETS, ETC." William J. Rolfe, 1890.[1]
The comment followed a link I had posted to my 2014 essay “Shake-speare's Greek” where I asserted that no translation of the Greek epigrams of Marianus exists before those that we call Shakespeare’s sonnets 153 and 154.

I love to be presented with a legitimate challenge to any of my work.  This does not change the  fact that such challenges are followed by an unpleasant sinking feeling. Had I missed something?  It’s all part of the game, as it were, but still I take a  certain pride in getting a thing right before I present it to the world.

A couple of years ago,  now, I promised another fellow scholar, in my Edward de Vere, Shakespeare and Elizabethan Subjects Information Exchange Facebook group, to provide him citations for my claim, in Edward de Vere was Shakespeare: at long last the proof, that

Her [Queen Elizabeth’s] words will be recorded, almost verbatim, in Shake-speare’s rewrite of his Troublesome Raigne of King John which was surely written shortly afterwards:…[2]
I’ve found my original basis for all but one part of the claim.  But “all but one” is not acceptable and the matter waits until I will trip over the remaining citation.

“For now,” I told myself, "the Selecta Epigrammata of 1529 would have to wait."  I was in hot pursuit of another book.  And then, of course, I just took a peek at who else might have cited the book.  And then, of course, it was all over.  It was the book that would have to wait.


The reference to the Selecta Epigrammata reference had appeared in above a dozen Shakespeare related volumes between 1881 and 1912 (about half of them edited by Rolfe, whose work I highly respect).  Still, there was the (rhetorical) question: “Where did all of these editors/authors find copies of the Selecta Epigrammata of 1529?”  The answer, of course, is that they didn’t. “I see the ref all over the place,” I informed my friend:

but that happens from time to time. There was no Internet in those days. A citation could be highly popular, and, because it was so hard to verify, originally have been taken on someone's word who was wrong.
Not much later, I found the following by Churton Collins (also a scholar who I trust):

"The earliest Latin version I can find is in the Florilegium, edited by Lubinus, Heidelberg, 1603. It is not included in the Selecta Epigrammata, published at Basel, in 1529, as Mr. Sidney Lee asserts, following apparently Dr. Brandes, a perilous guide in Shakespearean matters."[3]
Collins’s aspersion upon Dr. Brandes would prove to be unfounded.  But the general idea that the reference had become “common knowledge” through repeating the error of the original source was correct.

Collins was almost certainly correct but there was only one way to be perfectly certain. There seemed to be nothing to do but to launch a “hail Mary” search for a digitized version of the highly obscure Selecta Epigrammata, Basil, 1529.  Living in the Age of the Internet has its miraculous aspects.  While the 19th century scholars had to take their best guess, and, in this instance, make a huge collective mistake, which became part of the historical record, I could enter a matrix of search terms  and find two facsimile copies of the 1529 volume.

Less fortunately, the old style typeface did not allow confidence in the search function.  I would have to search the pages of the book manually little by little as I returned to my book project (searching on the Greek alphabet is not yet an available miracle).  I am about halfway through as I write this.

In parallel, I did a search-provenance on the citation. The original source would seem to have been The Sonnets of William Shakspere (1881)[4] edited by Edward Dowden.  Professor Dowden may have had some command of ancient Greek but it is more likely that he assigned one or more classical languages grad students the task of chasing down “the translation  by which Shakespeare read the epigrams of Marianus” that provided the text of sonnets 153 and 154.  More likely still, he probably tapped the memory of his brother John, who seems to have had some level of fluency in the language.[5]  Needless to say, John’s memory was not a perfect one.




[1] Shakespeare's Poems: Venus and Adonis, Lucrece, Sonnets, Etc. William J. Rolfe, ed. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1890. 183.
[2] Purdy, Gilbert Wesley. Edward de Vere was Shakespeare: at long last the proof. Richmond, VA: The Virtual Vanaprastha, 2013. 179.
[3] Collins, John Churton.  Studies in Shakespeare. New York: Dutton & Co, 1904. 44.
[4] The Sonnets of William Shakspere. Edward Dowden, ed. London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., 1881. 305.
[5] Letters of Edward Dowden and His Correspondents.  London: J. M. Dent & Sons, LTD., 1914. 152.

Last night I was at the closing meeting of the Hellenic
Club at Professor Blackie's. The invitation ran—
Homer, Iliad, I., at 7.45.
Song and Supper at 9.30.
The Club has existed for thirty years. It meets once a
fortnight during the winter, to read Greek.


  • Stratford Shakespeare’s Undersized Grave.  July 22, 2018.  “Mr. Coll’s considers this evidence to support an old rumor that Shakspere’s head had been stolen in 1794.  But I submit that he is merely making his observation based upon a coincidence.”

  • Shakespeare's Apricocks.  February 21, 2017.  "While he may never have been a gardener, he does seem more than superficially knowledgeable about the gardens of his day.  One detail of such matters that he got wrong, however, is as much to the point as any."






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