James Shapiro and the “Notorious Hyphen,” Part II

Posted By on April 18, 2010

Yesterday we took a long hard look at James Shapiro’s faux pas in claiming, in Contested Will, that the first appearance of the name Shakespeare in print, on the dedicatory page of the first edition of Venus and Adonis (1593), is hyphenated.

It is not.

The first appearance of the name "William Shakespeare" in print, attached to dedicatory epistle to Venus and Adonis (1593). It is neither italicized nor hyphenated.


We also saw that Shapiro builds on this misconception to create an elaborate theory that the name is hyphenated in a significant number of later publications only to avoid the typographical problem which could result from placing a -k- next to an long italic -s- such that the two letters would collide and “break,” creating a messy delay in the print shop.

The theory is not originally Shapiro’s own, but that’s a subject for another post.

Shapiro, who admits to prefer studying Shakespeare in performance rather than in the study, and seems to have a rather dim understanding of what goes on in an early modern print shop,  has apparently never heard of the typesetter’s device known as a “spacer” – a thin metal blank, existing in five different widths. Such blanks were regularly used by early modern compositors  to avoid the problem of colliding letters; they allowed compositors to introduce white space as needed to regulate the distribution of printed letters without needing to use any hyphens.

However, there’s a lot more to be said about Shapiro’s gaffe.

Let’s resume our discussion with this quote, in which Shapiro advanced this already defunct claim about the hyphen:

dedicatory letters addressed to the Earl of Southampton and signed ‘William Shake-speare’ are included in italics in the front-matter of both. (“Advance Reviewers Copy,” 226)

Of course this statement  is misleading for more than one reason: the letters aren’t actually “signed” with Shakespeare’s name – the name is printed on the page. Nor, as we have seen, is the name spelled  “Shake-speare,” as Professor Shapiro assures us it is.

But there is another problem posed by an ambiguity in Shapiro’s wording, which remains to be investigated. Is he actually claiming that the name is italicized, or just the “letter” (technically known, in the parlance of early modern scholarship, as a “dedicatory epistle”)?

Beats me.

But it does make a difference.

As even a fourth grader can see, the name is not (unlike the preceding dedicatory epistle) italicized, so if Shapiro meant to say that it was, he may be on the verge of setting a Guinness book of world record for the number of erroneous statements about one tiny piece of early modern typography.

On the other hand, to give Shapiro the benefit of the doubt (temporarily, of course!), if the name were italicized but not hyphenated, then his  theory would have failed before it started, so perhaps its a good thing that he was wrong about the facts.

And while one hates to cast undocumented aspersions, it does occur that perhaps this dilemma could explain an ambiguity in Shapiro’s narrative; for while he seems certain that the name is hyphenated, he seems to be a little less certain whether or not it’s italicized.

In a strict grammatical construction, he’s not saying that it is. But I venture to suggest that most readers without a copy of the Venus and Adonis dedication page in front of them, would conclude that Shapiro  means to also claim that the name is italicized, especially since he builds on this assumption in the analysis which follows.

Certainly, if Shapiro knew that the name was not italicized, he didn’t go out of his way to  make that clear.

In any case, it’s Shapiro’s lucky day in the scholarship sweepstakes: his factual error ends up supporting his theory: anyone can see that the name is not italicized, and if anyone  is in a mood to make excuses for Professor Shapiro,  he could reason as follows: “unlike the dedicatory epistle, the name is clearly printed in Roman and not Italic type. That explains why it’s not hyphenated.”


Wrong. The Lord giveth and he taketh away.

In yesterday’s post we already saw the example from the 1623 folio of the hyphenated name printed in Roman type, but there are many others as well.

Let’s take a look at the actual earliest appearance of the hyphenated name, “Shake-speare.”

It’s from a dedicatory poem to a mysterious and pseudonymous 1594 publication, Willowbie His Avisa.

Avisa has a long and intriguing publication history, but since it has little to do with our present quest, and the history would no doubt put professor Shapiro to sleep, let’s focus on the essentials, shall we?

Its not surprising that the interests Shapiro represents would want to distract attention away from Avisa by inventing a cock and bull story about the name “Shake-speare” being italicized and hyphenated in the 1593 edition of Venus and Adonis.

While the name as it appears in that context seems to reassuringly connect the author with the flesh-and-blood Henry Wriostheley, stabilizing our preconceptions about the author and his milieu, the appearance in Avisa seems more inclined to induce vertigo than complacency in the average Stratfordian college professor.

Verses from the 1594 Willobie His Avisa, showing the first ever instance of the name "Shake-speare" hyphenated. Note the Roman type.

Not only is the name hyphenated here,  for the first time, but it appears in a pseudonymous publication. Moreover, the close reader will notice that the logic of the passage associates “Shake-speare,” by parallelism, with a fictional character in his own poem – the rapist Tarquin, who steals the jewel of Lucrece’s female honor while her husband, Collatine, is off sporting about in Italy (I refer to RL, 106-112).

Have we just run smack dab into our first good clue that Elizabethans could read, god forbid, allegorically?

Could this association between Tarquin and “Shake-speare” have meant something?

Hold that thought – we’ll fish in that stream another day. For now, let’s just note this in passing: for Stratfordians, this is not a propitious moment. No wonder they’d prefer to just sing the chorus to Shapiro’s convenient fiction about the origins of the hyphen.

There is another, more subtle problem here.

In Avisa the hyphenated name is not, as Shapiro’s theory requires us to predict, italicized. It is also spelled with the –e- after the k.

This is more bad news for Shapiro’s credibility.

From the very first appearance of the hyphenated name in the historical record, it would seem that the scenario Professor Shapiro assures us would have caused any Elizabethan typographer to chuckle at those foolish modern Oxfordians, is starting to look not like a scholarly analysis from a distinguished academician dispassionately examining the evidence, but rather like  the inflationary gab of a gifted storyteller with an ax to grind and a rather low standard of the ethics of debate.

As John Thomas Looney wrote in reply to O.J. Campbell’s 1948 review of “Shakespeare” Identified, “This is the kind of argumentation one associates with political maneuvering rather than a serious quest for the truth on great issues and it makes one suspect that he is not very easy in his own mind about the case.”

But, wait a minute. Surely there are some examples of Elizabethan typography which actually do support Professor Shapiro’s argument. Aren’t there?

After all, I can hear you saying, Stritmatter, you teach at Coppin State University in Urban Baltimore. James Shapiro is an important man and a distinguished scholar; he hails from the heart of the Ivy League, hobnobs over tea and biscuits at the Folger library, and gets paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to write books like Contested Will. You’re a blogger who doesn’t get paid anything and teaches on North Avenue in Baltimore! Who are you to question his scholarship?

Shall we agree to ignore invidious comparison, for a few more  moments anyway, long enough to follow the trail of our logic to its embarrassing denouement? Or would you prefer to avert your eyes and stop reading, for fear that your hero will turn out to have clay feet and be suffering from an identity crisis?

There are by my count (which may be incomplete) 6 independent occurrences of the hyphenated name on the title pages of early Shakespearean texts. These are Richard II Q2 (1598), Richard III Q2 (1598), Hamlet Q1 (1601), SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS (1609), King Lear Q1 (1608), and Romeo and Juliet Q3 (possibly Q4, date uncertain, see Chambers I: 340).*

Of these, all but Hamlet continue the hyphenation in at least one successive edition.

There are, additionally, eight other texts, printed between 1594 and 1623, in which the name is hyphenated. Aside from the Sonnets, the largest number of examples occurs in the 1623 folio, in which poems by Leonard Digges (3x) and I.M. (2x) consistently hyphenate the name.

Now, the inquiring mind wants to know: how many of these examples conform to the requirements set forth by Shapiro’s analysis, that the hyphen is justified when the name is set in italics and spelled Shakspeare – without the medial –e-?

The answer is: None.

At least three of the examples (Richard II Q2, “I.M.”, Sh. Folio 1623, and John Webster, 1612), are italicized. However, each of them also spells the name Shake-speare, with the medial –e-, obviating the logic of Professor Shapiro’s argument.

More typical is this example from the first quarto of Hamlet – where there is obviously no more danger of breaking any type by removing the hyphen than there would be in removing it from such conspicuous examples of early modern pseudonyms as Lucres-Avis (Avisa, 1594, A4v), Martin Mar-prelate, Tom Tell-truth, or Cuthbert Curry-knave.

Hamlet Q1, showing the hyphenated name with Roman type.

Lear Q1 prints “Shak-speare,” with the hyphen and without the medial -e-, but in Roman type face. This is corrected in Lear Q2 within less than a year to “Shake-speare,” suggesting that, contrary to Shapiro’s initial assumption, the normative literary spelling of the name was Shakespeare, or Shake-speare, not Shakspeare.



Lear Q1 Shak-speare

For anyone who believes that theories should be rooted in verifiable facts, Shapiro’s goes downhill fast from here.

Enter, stage left, John Bodenham’s (1600) Bel-vedére, the first collection of popular Elizabethan lyrics to include many selections from Shakespeare’s plays and poems. It spells the name, in italics, Shakspeare – without the medial –e- and without any hyphenation!

Five ways from Sunday, Shapiro’s theory is apparently not worth the paper used to print it:

1) It departs from a manifest error (there is no hyphenated form of the name in Venus and Adonis Q1);

2) It follows this error by insinuating another false claim (that the name is not only hyphenated but italicized in Venus and Adonis);

3) It depends on the undemonstrated (and apparently false) proposition that “Shakspeare” was the normative print spelling of the name;

4) It ignores or suppresses numerous instances of positive evidence (e.g. the title pages of Hamlet Q1, Lear Q1, and SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS) which disprove it;

5) It ignores or suppresses instances of negative evidence (e.g. Bel-vedére) which, independently, also disprove it.

If we return once more to Shapiro’s narrative with these examples in mind, it is easy to wonder just what he must have been thinking when he invented the story about the hyphenated name in Venus and Adonis.

Does he believe his own story? Apparently so. His explanation for a typographical dilemma, the existence of which is predicated on a single false example, and which every known actual example contradicts, is that

The easiest solution was inserting a letter ‘e’, a hyphen or both; as we’ll soon see, compositors settled on different strategies. And as the title pages of the 1608 quarto of Lear and the 1609 Sonnets indicate, it’s a habit that carried over when setting roman font as well. (“Readers Advance Edition,” 226)

But if there never was  any typographical rationale for the first uses of the hyphen, one cannot very well explain later uses as instances of habit established through precedent.

And the sole example which might conform, barely, to Shapiro’s model is not, as he has so glibly led his readers to believe, the first, but actually the last, or nearly the last, in the series (“I.M.” in the 1623 folio). Even in the best of all possible Stratfordian worlds, it cannot therefore logically have had any impact whatsoever on the typographical practices  informing the prior examples.

Finally, anyone who pauses long enough to test alternative theories must realize that it makes no sense at all to suggest that the compositors of SHAKE-SPEARES SONNETS would have included an unnecessary hyphen in the name in 32 running half-titles of that book merely out of loyalty to the precedent established in, say Hamlet Q1, a book which they probably had never seen.

The very suggestion reveals Shapiro’s alienation from the gritty circumstances of early modern book producers, who favored economy and thrift over adherence to irrelevant precedent, and  would, one thinks, have more readily laughed at  Shapiro’s ignorance of their trade than at the informed suspicions of the Oxfordians.

No. Whatever reason the publishers and compositors of the Sonnets and other texts had for hyphenating the name Shake-speare, it is safe to conclude that it is not the one offered, with such sweeping and grandiloquent authority but so little credibility, by Professor Shapiro.

Now, this has been a rather long and detailed digression on early modern typographical conventions; if you’ve made it this far, congratulations. You’re living proof that the internet may not after all kill off literate culture, and that maybe the life of common sense can survive the current Stratfordian press releases.

Before I sign off, however, prudence obliges me to offer a specific disclaimer of what I have not said in this blog post.

I am very far from claiming that the existence of the hyphenated variants in the printed versions of the name Shakespeare between 1594 and 1623 obliges the modern scholar to conclude that anyone thought that the name was a pseudonym.

Naturally it would be convenient for Professor Shapiro if I were to make such a claim, and his cup overfloweth with examples of  unprincipled use of the straw man argument of imputing such beliefs (and much worse) to people who never held them (a depressingly recurrent tactic in the authorship debate of which Shapiro is only the most recent and enthusiastic practitioner).

The fact is, I don’t really know why these typographical irregularities occur.

Shapiro is the Professor from Columbia with all the answers.  I’m just a blogger from Baltimore, who barely got through graduate school without having his Department shut down by Professor Shapiro’s colleagues.

But, knowing that I don’t know, I cannot help but wonder if, just possibly, the “holy hyphen” (as Richard Kennedy, in a lovely piece of self-deprecating Oxfordian irony, has dubbed it) signifies exactly what Shapiro goes to such extravagant and self-defeating lengths to deny it does. As the aphorism goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And there sure is a lot of smoke being blown in the eyes of the jury over one little hyphen.

In any case, it seems safe to offer at least one probative conclusion: if anyone had no prior basis for questioning the reasoning  employed by the Shakespearean elite to sustain the cliché that “Shakespeare is Shakespeare,” then this little parable of the “notorious hyphen” provides a damn good illustration of why everyone should revisit his or her assumptions about authorship.

Indeed one is irresistibly reminded of the acerbic comment of former Folger Library Educational Director Richmond Crinkley, summarizing the history of similar errors documented in Charlton Ogburn’s Mysterious William Shakespeare – a book which James Shapiro can hardly bring himself to mention: ” if the intellectual standards of Shakespeare scholarship quoted in such embarrassing abundance by Ogburn are representative, then it is not just authorship about which which we have to be worried.”

Ironically, these words were published in the Folger Library’s own Shakespeare Quarterly in 1985. A quarter century later, they seem to be forgotten by an industry which seems only to remember those parts of its own history – and its own subject – which flatter  its narcissism.

Any reasonable person, after all,  must wonder why Professor Shapiro would enlist the weighty authorities cited in the “acknowledgments” section of his book, and get paid the huge sums of money he’s banked, and be invited to narrate his own BBC documentary to back up his printed fallacies with the imprimatur of the mass media, on the back of a theory which  is so manifestly erroneous from a  factual point of view and so twisted from a  logical one.

If someone really did pay Shapiro a million bucks for this book, then I hope they have a really big truck. They’re going to need it to carry away all the bullshit they paid for.

For more of Shapiro’s remarkable errors, read on.

*I’d like to acknowledge the assistance of Robert Detobel in assembling these data.

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, forensic literary studies, MS studies, renaissance literature, and the history of the Shakespearean question, the latter a field in which he has published extensively.


8 Responses to “James Shapiro and the “Notorious Hyphen,” Part II”

  1. Dear Roger
    Following my previous comment on part I, I just want to impishly note that your commentary about signatures is VERY Derridean!! and contextual deconstruction of what Shapiro is doing is precisely what we are up to.

    (see the end!)


  2. Roger Stritmatter says:


    Thanks for the challenge to reconsider Derrida. Give me a day or to do some further reading before I comment.



  3. Roger
    Writing from the middle of the Irish Sea, driven there by the great Icelandic Thunder god, under the auspices of Hamlet’s Mill no doubt, I am perforce compelled to be patient! 🙂

    Of course!


  4. PS for the delightful ‘counterfeited signature’ in its photographic form:

  5. […] A most lovely article regarding Mr. Shapiro’s book published under the tome de plumet Contested Will. So as not to give away the plot, I won’t reveal the original name of the book has been critically reasoned to have been Willtested Con. By all means, please do not be remiss and fail to follow that part of the article which has been continued here. […]

  6. richard waugaman says:

    Shapiro has apparently launched something of a Save the Hyphen movement.
    He has now been one-upped.Boris Borukhov, in the June, 2011 Notes & Queries, seriously proposes that Shake-speare signed his name with the hyphen. He concludes this from
    the fact that Robert Chester’s 1601 Love’s Martyr included the
    editor’s statement that “writers whose names are subscribed” to their
    poems meant the editor had seen Shakespeare’s manuscript of his poem,
    signed with a hyphen. Borukhov knows perfectly well this only means
    the authors’ names are printed below their poems. But the editors of
    Notes & Queries seem to have decided that things are getting a bit
    desperate for the traditional theory, if they found this article
    worthy of publication. Doesn’t anyone read the Journal of
    Onomastics?? Thomas E. Murray published a crucial article that shows
    hyphenated last names only became common in England in the 19th
    century [“The overlooked and understudied onomastic hyphen,” Names: A
    Journal of Onomastics 50 (2002):173-190].

  7. Roger Stritmatter says:

    How interesting, Richard. Thanks so much for the reference. This just goes to show that if you are a Stratfordian, you can’t invent anything you like. You can let your imagination run riot. Too bad that N & Q would fall for such balderdash.

  8. […] A most lovely article regarding Mr. Shapiro’s book published under the tome de plumet Contested Will. So as not to give away the plot, I won’t reveal the original name of the book has been critically reasoned to have been Willtested Con. By all means, please do not be remiss and fail to follow that part of the article which has been continued here. […]

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