Shakespeare’s Beehive, Birthday and Bitching

Today is Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. To celebrate, let’s contemplate the alleged discovery of the playwright’s dictionary. Perhaps we could use it to look up “big whoop.”
Apparently, a pair of New York-based antiquarian booksellers bought ye olde dictionary off eBay in 2008 and have since taken pains to authenticate it. Though Shakespeare’s name isn’t written anywhere within its pages (obviously, these were the days before our tradition of exes making off with one’s books when moving out), the booksellers make their case for its ownership in their new book, Shakespeare’s Beehive.

Why isn’t their book titled Shakespeare’s Dictionary you ask? I looked it up. The contested reference (which should never have been removed from the library in the first place) was originally published by 16th century scholar John Baret as “An alvearie or quadruple dictionarie, containing foure sundrie tongues: namelie, English, Latine, Greeke, and French; newlie enriched with varietie of wordes, phrases, proverbs, and divers lightsome observations of grammar.”

Shakespeare's BirthdayBeyond its spelling being up for grabs, the title was too long, so scholars truncated it to “Alvearie,” which is a synonym for beehive. Still confused? I think it’s a metaphor – Baret’s lexicological effort is the result of sending his student drones out to the collect “word nectar,” which they returned to the hive and converted into sweet dictionary honey. Baret, I’m assuming, was the queen bee. Also, there’s a beehive illustration on the title page. Moreover, I submit that this is where the term “spelling bee” comes from. And yes, I’m the first to connect those dots.

Six years ago, Daniel Wechsler and George Koppelman placed their fateful bid of $4300 on eBay for the “Alvearie” and scored it for $250 less. Their claims that the dictionary was once Shakespeare’s are predicated on thousands of handwritten annotations made throughout its pages and at least eight examples of the initials W and S randomly scrawled hither and yon.

To some Shakespeare scholars, Wechsler and Koppelman’s means of authentication is tantamount to finding an old Yellow Pages in the freebies section of Craigslist and, upon finding the pages for “alcohol” and “firearms” dogeared, declaring it as Hemingway’s. Other scholars of the bard are more sanguine, not least of which because it affords them the opportunity to write more papers, sell more MFAs and generally stay in business.

The Shakespeare racket had been in decline since the ubiquitous authorship debate hath been clawed in the clutch of Age. Also, the 20th anniversary of Keanu Reeves’ critically-lambasted appearance in Much Ado About Nothing received nary a nod from anyone last year. Except me (I did my usual ritual with the flaming pentagram, etc.).

Should Shakespeare’s Beehive indeed be found authentic it will likely spawn an industry of literary Indiana Joneses combing through the online backwaters searching for Shakespeare’s laundry lists. Someday, we may herald the discovery of a scrap of parchment on which is written in Shakespeare’s hand, “2 doublets, 2 breeches, 3 collars, no starch.” Then we’ll see a raft of papers and scholarly tomes explaining how the dirty laundry may have informed Ophelia’s observation of “Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced…” Methinks he spilled some mead.

What no one has mentioned throughout this Shakespeare’s beehive business is the fact that, even if Shakespeare had used the dictionary in question, he apparently found it lacking. Over the course of his career, Shakespeare contributed 1,700 words to the English language, none of which were in Baret’s book. What he really needed was a thesaurus, which will probably show up on eBay soon.

That said, if Shakespeare did have a thesaurus, he might not have made up the word “puking,” which is useful for describing what he’d do if he knew about some of the scholarship that goes on in his name. Happy Birthday, Will.

From Wretch to Fringe: Templeton’s Wretch Like Me On Way to Edinburgh

For some, the 1970s were a hurly burly of hot tubs and hedonism. For playwright, performer and local journalist David Templeton, it was puppets and Christian Fundamentalism. He eventually outgrew both and shares the life lessons learned along the way with comedy and heart in his one-man show, “Wretch Like Me, or How I Was Saved from Being Saved.”
Templeton performs the show, one night only, this Monday evening at the Sonoma Community Center.

Monday’s performance is a fundraiser to mount a two-week run of the show at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival Fringe (colloquially known as the Fringe Fest), hosted annually in Scotland, to which Templeton and a skeleton crew have been invited to bring the production. He is also running a concurrent campaign on IndieGoGo to raise the $10,000 (at least!) necessary to make his Aug. 1 curtain call at the the Surgeon’s Hall at the Royal Academy of Surgeons Museum in Edinburgh.

Wretch Like Me

“With all the cutting I had to do with script, it’s appropriate to perform in a place that’s also seen its share of blood,” Templeton says drolly.

The lanky, bearded and bespectacled poly-hyphenate, who many will know from his theater reviews in the North Bay Bohemian, has performed the show more than 75 times throughout the Bay Area where it first hit the boards in 2009. He’s since honed it into a lean, mean theatrical machine, full of poignant laughs and life lessons that are relatable beyond the scope of the religious experience that inspired it.

“It’s about my childhood and teenage years, which were typical in that I had to have a lot of crap thrown at me before I figured out who I was and what I wanted to do,” says Templeton, who’s proven adept at finding the universal in personal experience in this and other works that draw inspiration from his autobiography. “It was unusual in that, in my case, it happened in the crazy running-away-to-the-circus vibe of Christian fundamentalism in the ’70s of Southern California.”

Templeton recounts how the “Jesus Movement” he joined evolved from a community born of the idealism of “surfing hippies,” and started moving toward the religious right, which was contrary to his own tolerant beliefs. Suddenly, the “Jesus Club,” which accepted nerdy guys (Templeton had a puppet ministry – enough said) became something he needed to escape.

“I had to have this ‘coming-of-age’ where I had to leave the only community I ever felt safe in. I no longer felt like I was a part of it,” recounts Templeton, who, a few decades hence, used the experience to craft “Wretch Like Me.” He succinctly sums the plot as, “Boy finds Jesus. Boy loses Jesus. Boy finds himself.”

Fringe Festival

From its inception, Templeton’s goal was to bring “Wretch” to the Fringe Fest, which is to theater professionals what the Sundance Film Festival was once to filmmakers – a place to launch one’s work onto the world’s stage.

“From the beginning, we announced that that was the goal,” says Templeton. “That’s where shows get found. Where they get a chance to tour, see London or New York, get publishing opportunities. All kinds of things happen there.”

To get there, however, Templeton needs to raise the funds. At present writing, he’s raised more than $2,000. With his crowd-funding deadline hovering at a minute before midnight on May 22, he has 35 days to go to raise the rest.

As explained on the production’s IndieGoGo page, “Team Wretch must raise a minimum of $10,000 dollars. That amount will fund the remaining rental, insurance and licensing fees, plus travel and lodging costs for a basic skeleton crew. Were the Team to raise $15,000, it would allow David to pay for advertising in the published Fringe program … and to bring his full crew to Edinburgh, all of which will help ‘Wretch’ have its best chance of success in Scotland.”

Until then, it’s all about Monday’s performance and the comedy and catharsis that Templeton ably brings to the stage.

“There’s always people in the audience that I realize have had the same experience, because they’re laughing in a very knowing way, or they’re sobbing in the moment I have to make the break and I think, ‘they’ve been through the same thing,’” says Templeton. “That happens at least once in nearly every show. I’m confessing a lot of stuff that most people would be embarrassed to confess but that allows people to reach out and bond with me a little bit, which makes what happens in the story all the more powerful.”

• • •

David Templeton performs “Wretch Like Me” at 7:30 p.m., Monday, April 21 at the Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St., Sonoma. Tickets are $15. For more information, visit

Via SonomaNews

Literary Criticism by Robots

Writers who fear that computers will someday displace them may shudder to learn that the machines won?t just write the books, they will read them too.

In recent months, both researchers and literary critics are harnessing computational power to ?read? books in an effort to divine qualities human writers and readers haven?t the bandwidth to discover themselves (?The Taxonomy of Titles in the 18th Century Literary Marketplace? anyone? Anyone? Bueller?).

Among them are a trio of computer scientists at New York?s Stony Brook University who created an algorithm to predict the success of literary styles that boasts an 84 percent rate of accuracy when analyzing previously published works.

?In a paper published by the Association of Computational Linguistics, Vikas Ganjigunte Ashok, Song Feng, and Yejin Choi said the writing style of books was correlated with the success of the book,? writes Live Science contributor Joel N. Shurkin. Using a process called ?statistical stylometry? to analyze literary stylings in an array of books across genres, the team identified the ?characteristic stylistic elements more common in successful tomes than unsuccessful ones.?

It?s only a matter of time before researchers team up with an agency like Narrative Science, whose artificial intelligence algorithms pair data with ?natural language communication? to produce written content, resulting in bestsellers by bots.


But who would read it? Other computers thanks to Franco Moretti, who founded Stanford?s Literary Lab so that digital dalliances with texts could have a room of their own. His essay collection, Distant Reading, recently won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism and he has been lauded by Wired for his ?his data-centric approach to novels, which he graphs, maps, and charts … if his new methods catch on, they could change the way we look at literary history.?

At first glance, this may make you want to cue up the famous ?Understanding Poetry? scene in Dead Poets Society wherein Robin Williams goads his glass to aggressively edit a couple dozen poetry primers of their analytic assumptions.

(You may review Dr. J. Evans-Pritchard?s chart at the I Love Charts tumblog.)

Actually, Moretti’s work is fascinating ? look over his “pamphlet” on ?Network Theory,?Plot Analysis, which teems with?graphs on the intricate relationships in?Hamlet (big, fat pdf here). However, some in lit-crit circles aren?t enthused with Moretti?s critical approach and suggest putting words into a numbers cruncher can only result in damage to both.

?He thinks that literary criticism ought to be a science,? writes Joshua Rothman for the New Yorker?s Page-Turner blog. ?The basic idea in Moretti?s work is that, if you really want to understand literature, you can?t just read a few books or poems over and over? Instead, you have to work with hundreds or even thousands of texts at a time.?

This is precisely what the algorithms at Amazon and Apple?s respective bookstores do, which can sometimes produce discomfiting results that say more about readers? proclivities than perhaps we care to know. For example, we can forgive readers their fascination with fan-fic-turned-softcore but why the hell is Mein Kampf a bestselling ebook? Vocativ contributor Chris Faraone asks ?Is this what happens when Mein Kampf becomes available in the privacy of our own iPads? Could it be a cultural curiosity much like what?s happened with sleazy romance novels, which surveys show are increasingly consumed in more clandestine e-form??

Hitler vs. PKD

What?s almost more chilling are the results of Amazon?s recommendation engine, which aggregates information from millions of purchases in an effort to upsell consumers on additional product. Click-through the titles on the ?Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought?? prompt for a glimpse into the data-driven future.

So, worse case scenario, Ashok, Feng and Choi?s stylometry breaks down the secret bestseller recipe, Narrative Science bots implement it and later Franco Moretti can explain how we became enslaved to a bestselling Nazi computer overlord via our Kindles.

Somewhere Philip K. Dick is crying.

HT Ivan Hewett.

Remains of Titanic Iceberg Defend Innocence

Nearly two years after centenary observances of the RMS Titanic and its tragic sinking, a former iceberg has come forward to defend itself against allegations that it caused the fateful collision.
At a press conference in Newfoundland, four hundred miles north of the site of the mid-Atlantic disaster that became a watery grave for over 1500 voyagers, the iceberg, now a fraction of its once gargantuan size, expressed remorse for the loss of life but maintained that the accident was not its fault.

“Not to put too fine a point on it –– but the boat hit me,” emphasized the iceberg. It added that since the accident it has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and the diminishing effects of climate change.

The iceberg has spent much of the past 100 years since the maritime disaster “just drifting” but expressed hope in finding work in punch bowl or an ice chest and believes coming forward will help his cause.

“I still have a lot left to give,” he said. “There’s a lot of me you can’t see.”