Posted By farnsworth on January 24, 2014
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).
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.
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):
Finally, here is a complete reproduction of the title page, from the Folger article (Figure Four):
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!