The Lambarde Shakspere “Signature”: Real Deal or Forgery?

Posted By on January 24, 2014

Rafe Spall, playing Mr. Shakspere in Anonymous, is Lifted to Fame by the Anonymous hands of his bardolators.

No mention of the annotated Folger copy of Archaionomia would be complete without considering the alleged “signature” (which, though murky, reads “W Shakspere”).

This Shakspere inscription constitutes one of those “facts” that have been argued both ways – it’s existence has been noted in print by certain orthodox scholars, with caveats as to it’s authenticity (after all, there have been many examples of faked signatures and other writings of Shakespeare). So, it appears from time to time in the Authorship debate as an example of a “possible” 7th authentic signature, with the “possibility” emphasized, and the caveats downplayed (though mention is typically made of the caveats, for cover, in case the falsehood of the signature is ultimately proven).

This article by Diana Price, for example, already contests orthodoxy’s position regarding the “Shakespere” inscription.

Seeing the Folger’s scans of the book brought to mind certain obvious facts and questions about the signature. Here is the image from Dr. Stritmatter’s recent post (identical to the image used in Diana Price’s piece), drawn from Wikimedia Commons (Figure One).

Figure One: Archaionomia inscription as it appears on Wikipedia as a "signature" of W. Shakspere.

An identical image is also used in a Wikipedia article on Shakespeare’s signatures (where it is asserted (1/25/2014), with reservations, to be an authentic signature).

Seems straightforward – a potential bombshell – the signature “W Shakspere”, clear as a bell, right?

There’s a problem with the image, though. To illustrate, from a recently published only Folger article on the signature, here is an image of the same segment of the page (Figure Two) as it actually appears to the unaided eye.

Figure Two: The "signature" in its natural, untampered state.

The problem is this: the commonly reproduced image (as seen in black and white in Price’s article, Stritmatter’s blog, and  the Wikipedia article) is a reversed mirror image of the page’s actual appearance.

The color image above (from the Folger site) shows the untampered reality. The Folger article also reproduces the image in reverse, with the clarifying admission that the “image has been reversed left to right.” I have merely reversed it again, back to it’s actual appearance. The reversed inscription we see is the result of the ink bleeding through the front of the title page, to the back of the sheet.

Here is what the “signature” actually looks like from the front of the title page (Figure Three):

Figure Three: The "signature" on the Title Page of Archaionomia

Finally, here  is a complete reproduction of the title page,  from the Folger article (Figure Four):

Figure Four: The Position of the Signature on the Title Page, after the Folger Library's own Photos.

Unfortunately the reversed image of the “bleed-through” is frequently reproduced (and is therefore readily available as an on-line image) because of it’s relative legibility, but usually without the proper context for understanding the peculiar and convoluted process used to generate the end product. It is easy to read and makes a good first impression.

But the more we learn about the inscription, the less legitimate it seems. In considering the actual inscription on the front of the title page, it’s apparent that it was placed well within the body of the decorative border, where it is practically unreadable. This raises a question – why would the owner of a book write his name in an area where it couldn’t be clearly read?

The placement in fact makes no credible sense – there is plenty of blank space on this title page. Arguably, the placement raises the possibility that a later forger wanted to avoid both the other existing handwriting and the top of the page (which is now in very poor condition – presumably, an early owner wouldn’t have faced the kind of deterioration we now see).

In any case, the “bleed-through” of the ink seems suspicious. I would think that typical writing ink would sit on the surface of the paper, and be dry in moments. The most obvious explanation of the clean “bleed-through” is that it is the result of pressure being applied to the signature while it was wet.

If the bleed-through can be taken as evidence of applied pressure, it suggests a scenario: a forger, using traditional fine art printing equipment, could have written the signature on a surface (such as a metal plate or silk screen) with a wet line of ink, and then transferred it to the page by applying pressure in a press.

Ink would thereby have been forced through to the other side. Perhaps the ink was chemically altered to slow it’s drying time. Although there is no definitive proof for this speculation, it does explain the existence of such a neat, clean bleed-through.

It could also explain why the inscription ended up within the decorative border on the front – if the page were lined up in the press face down, using the decorative border on the back of the page as a guide, this hypothetical printer/forger would have accidentally printed it within the decorative matter on the front of the page – because the border is lower on the back of the page than the front.

Use of a press would alter the normal interaction of ink and paper. If the paper was so porous that a simple signature would have bled through in reverse, that paper would not have been suitable for printing, and ink that would bleed through ordinary paper would not have been desirable, either. Use of such an ink/paper combination would ruin whatever was written on the other side.

This hypothesis of the use of a press would explain all these obvious features of the “Shakspere” inscription and one must wonder why the Folger as well as other researchers have not carefully considered it.

The entire title page obviously did not bleed through to the back – that argues for a much higher degree of pressure applied to the signature than that of a typical printing press, or a much longer duration of pressure, or both.

Though the possibility of forgery is troubling, it might be a simple matter of a former owner trying to boost the value of a book in his possession. The fact that it was not sold at auction as “signed by William Shakespeare” could indicate either that the owner knew that the job was botched (and didn’t want to attract attention to it) or that the possible forgery occurred after it last changed hands.

Whether or not evidence of forgery is convincing, the fact that the commonly available image of the signature is a reversal of the back of the page is troubling. The Folger spectral analysis article (to the Folger’s credit) clearly describes the bleed-through image as being reversed, and prominently reproduces the “signature” as it appears on the title page, but other aspects of the imagery are problematic.

The actual, non-reversed, appearance of the bleed-through is not reproduced. The multi-spectral images enhance the apparent legibility, as does the flashy pseudo-color animation. These images are what will be remembered by casual viewers, and they obscure the simple fact that the inscription is nearly illegible to the unaided eye because of it’s placement in the decorative border.

The facts argue for more than skepticism on the question of authenticity – this supposedly ancient signature presents a distinctly fishlike and not-so-ancient smell!

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8 Responses to “The Lambarde Shakspere “Signature”: Real Deal or Forgery?”

  1. Tom Reedy says:

    There is a note in the upper margin that would prevent anyone signing the title page in the upper right of the page. The ink has been rubbed and worn, but when it was first applied it was probably much darker than the underlying pattern, as you can see from this image:

    The type of the ink has more to do with whether it bleeds through the paper than the amount of pressure. Some documents from little more than 100 years ago are a mess of scribbles because the iron and tannic acid in the oak-gall ink penetrates the paper and eventually bleeds through to the other side, whereas printers ink was made with lampblack and linseed oil.

    The best argument for its authenticity is the circumstance under which it was discovered. It was bought by the Folger in a lot of books. The title page was crumpled, and only after being ironed out was it found. The book had been owned by Roderick Eagle, a Baconian, who never saw the signature, but he did see the inscription inside the parchment cover, “Mr. Wm Shakspeare lived at No. 1, Little Crown Street, Westminster, N. B., near Dorset steps,” which he took to be a forgery.

  2. farnsworth says:

    Here is a reply to Mr. Reedy’s comments, point by point:

    1. Why would an owner of this book HAVE to sign the title page in the upper right of the page? Plenty of space exists elsewhere – placement within the decorative border is about the worst choice if one wanted the name to be legible. Under normal circumstances, this placement makes no sense at all. My theory that it was the inadvertent result of printing a forged signature would explain it. If it were handwritten, the placement within the border is best explained by an intention to obscure a forgery’s possible deficiencies. Under ordinary circumstances, a book’s owner would want his signature to be plain and legible.

    2. I don’t see how the conclusion that the ink was initially “much darker than the underlying pattern” can be made. The image doesn’t clarify the point. Yes, the signature was probably darker in the past, but any rubbing would have affected the decorative matter as well – therefore, it was also darker in the past.

    3. Yes, inks can be corrosive. I notice that the ink of the smaller handwriting above the border doesn’t bleed through at all, (which can be confirmed by looking at the back of the title page on the Folger site). It’s also worth pointing out that the spectral analysis published by the Folger doesn’t analyze the ink of the signature, to characterize it’s pH.  The article doesn’t address the issue of the cause of the bleed-through. Without test results that find the pH of the signature to be significantly more acid than the smaller handwriting, the issue is open. But what is common in many cases of acidic ink corrosion is damage to the paper, resulting in holes and surface irregularities. That type of paper damage isn’t apparent here. However, it doesn’t matter whether the signature was printed or not, the above argument still stands : if the signature was handwritten, placement within the decorative matter would best be explained by an attempt to obscure it’s forged nature.

    4. The circumstance under which the signature was discovered doesn’t argue at all for it’s authenticity. The book has an obviously forged inscription on it’s parchment cover, which was known by Mr. Eagle, so if anything, that casts a doubt on the circumstances surrounding the signature. It’s not as if the signature was discovered without direct association with forged writing. And (this argument should be obvious) if the signature was only discovered after the Folger “treated” it, suspicious minds could presume that it was the result of the treatment. Mr. Eagle, though he had seen and commented on the forged address, showing that he had thoughtfully examined the book, never mentioned seeing the reversed signature. The title page may have been “crumpled” and required ironing, but the reversed signature is quite prominent. I’m stunned that he didn’t see it – maybe it wasn’t there.

    This signature has been described by orthodox scholars as “putative”. That means “it could be fake”.

    It’s either genuine, or not. If not, it’s fake. The point is, it can’t be both.

  3. Tom Reedy says:

    [snip…inappropriate sarcasm will not be approved. I’ve warned you about this before. Stop it.]

    Different types of inks work differently on any given type pf paper. I have no knowledge of what all tests were/are being done, but spectrographic analysis will certainly yield more information abut the composition of the paper and ink.

    I am curious as to why you believe the inside front cover inscription to be a “forgery” without any other information.

    And just FYI, when a page is crumpled and needs to be ironed, that condition applies to both sides, so your speculation as to Eagle’s knowledge of the signature doesn’t hold water.

  4. farnsworth says:

    Here is my reply to Mr. Reedy’s comments:

    1. About the parchment cover – it still exists, and the address is on the inside of the book’s wrapping. I understand that the address inscription’s ink and hand are definitely 18th century. That information, as well as the report that Mr. Eagle was convinced it was fraudulent, is good enough for me.

    2. About the “crumpling” – Mr. Eagle examined the book carefully enough to ascertain that the address inscription was fraudulent. That means he held it in his hands for some time. Any book collector worth his salt would have attempted to smooth out “crumpling” that existed on a title page, in order to read it (though it might still need ironing, for conservation). The reversed signature is a major feature of the back of the title page. If Mr. Eagle smoothed out the title page enough to read it, there is a strong likelihood that he turned the page, to continue to examine his book. That is why I think it likely that he would have seen the reversed signature, if it existed then.

    We only have the Folger’s word that the reason Mr. Eagle never saw the reversed signature was due to the crumpling.

    The sequence that you stated (presumably sourced from the Folger) was that the page was crumpled, so it was ironed, and then the signature was found.

    That bears a striking resemblance to my proposal that the signature was printed in a press (a form of “ironing”), “causing” the signature to appear (together with the distinct bleed-through).

  5. Tom Reedy says:

    1. Why is it fraudulent because it’s 18th century? We don’t know whether the inscription is a report of an anecdote or something made up. The terms “forgery” and “fraudulent” don’t even apply. Would you call the deer-stealing tradition a “forgery”? What about Aubrey’s reports–are they “forgeries”?

    2. (a) The cover is not the book; an examination of the cover, which is easily done, does not translate into a careful examination of the book. My guess (as opposed to your guess) is that the inscription on the cover was the most interesting feature that drew Eagle’s attention.

    (b) We have the word of Mr Eagle that he never saw the signature, so we don’t have to guess–about that, anyway.

    Eagle wrote that he thought the signature to be an Ireland forgery, but it shares certain characteristics with the Bellott-Mountjoy signature, which wasn’t discovered until 1909.

    As to the bleed-through, as I wrote earlier, different types of inks work differently on any given type pf paper. Oak gall and lampblack do not sit on top of paper the way that linseed oil and lampblack do; it permeates the fibres and latches on to them similar to the way velcro works. The “bleed-through” you see from letterpress printing is not actually bleed through in the same way as that of oak gall ink. It is no use to speculate in the absence of knowledge. That you don’t know my source for the statements about the book shows that you are not knowledgeable about the subject and are commenting in a vaccum, since I would guess that less than a double handful of articles have been written about it.

    I’m not going to go into further details, but I urge you to familiarize yourself with early modern printing techniques, papers, and inks. Your idea that the signature was pressed on in a similar manner as printed text is an armchair speculation with no possible basis in fact. Nor is casting aspersions on the integrity of the Folger library’s handling of the book or Dr Dawson’s scruples an acceptable argument.

  6. farnsworth says:

    Mr. Reedy –

    The wrapper inscription is fraudulent because it identifies a location where Shakespeare supposedly lived that is entirely unknown from any other source and is anachronistic in it’s terminology (giving a street address, which didn’t exist in the 16th century). As you point out, Eagle considered it a forgery. “Forgery” is the proper word because it was written as though the writer had personal or eyewitness familiarity with the subject (Shakespeare), but the writing is clearly 18th century.

    You write, “the cover is not the book”, etc. But the cover covered the book. If Eagle held the cover, he held the book. Eagle didn’t buy the book for the cover, and he wouldn’t have picked up the book merely to examine it’s cover. This is plain common sense.

    I realize that you flubbed, but you write “Eagle wrote that he thought the signature to be an Ireland forgery”, and I wonder whether your mistake was in intending to reference some other commentator’s belief, since you had just written that Eagle never saw the signature. (Knight does write that Eagle thought the cover inscription was Ireland’s, but maybe you are quoting someone else.)

    As to your return to the topic of different inks, it gives me the opportunity to press you on a reasonable request – you should supply image examples of acidic ink bleed-throughs that are as clean as that of this signature. My intuition about this being a printed signature (which would explain both the bleed-through and what I conjecture is an accidental placement of the signature within the decorative border) could be tested, if tests are available that would show the ink to be consistent with more modern printing inks. Of course, if an older ink formula was used in a press, demonstrating that would mean nothing, but the formula COULD be proved to be more modern.

    We both know that such a test is highly unlikely, for a simple reason: the Folger is an interested party in the Shakespeare Authorship Question, and faces a catastrophic loss if the author is credibly proven to be non-Stratfordian. For this reason alone, consideration of the “printing theory” won’t result in tests that might possibly prove it. So, “the integrity of the Folger” is in itself a hollow argument.

  7. Tom Reedy says:

    > The wrapper inscription is fraudulent because it identifies a location where Shakespeare supposedly lived that is entirely unknown from any other source and is anachronistic in it’s terminology (giving a street address, which didn’t exist in the 16th century).

    The place existed, not the street address (as far as we know). Referring to a location by its present day nomenclature is common even today, never mind the 18th century, which historic diction you make no allowances for. [Snip…..this kind of harassment will not be tolerated].
    > “Forgery” is the proper word because it was written as though the writer had personal or eyewitness familiarity with the subject (Shakespeare), but the writing is clearly 18th century.

    Your argument is specious to the extreme. The writer of the note makes no such claim. You could say the same about any number of statements made about anyone long dead.

    > Eagle didn’t buy the book for the cover, and he wouldn’t have picked up the book merely to examine it’s cover. This is plain common sense.

    This makes no sense at all. Using your standards above, one could call it a forgery, since you write as if you had personal or eyewitness familiarity with the subject (Eagle).

    > I realize that you flubbed, but you write “Eagle wrote that he thought the signature to be an Ireland forgery”, and I wonder whether your mistake was in intending to reference some other commentator’s belief, since you had just written that Eagle never saw the signature.

    I did not “flub”. It is becoming distressingly evident that you haven’t read much about this, as I noted in my previous post, and your either/or black/white dichotomous habit of mind straitjackets your thought. Eagle said in 1943 that he did not see the signature when he was in possession of the book. In 1971 he said he thought is was an Ireland forgery.

    I have no idea why Roger thought you would be an appropriate guest to post on this topic [Snip….again, Tom, this is not acceptable for discussion….] “Intuition” and “conjecture” make up the sum of your argument, along with questioning the Folger’s integrity. My previous suggestion to read up on this and educate yourself about it still stands.

  8. Roger Stritmatter says:

    For the record, here’s what happened next:

    And then Mr. Reedy went on to a new topic.

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