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.

DNA Data Storage Breakthrough, Shakespeare Lives… Sort of

Scientists at the European Bioinformatics Institute have created a DNA information storage and retrieval system — think “organic hard drive” — and tested it by uploading sonnets, sound clips and how-to’s. But not just any old bits from the Wikimedia Commons …

The information stored on hundreds of thousands of strands of of DNA, according to ExtremeTech

…consisted of a .txt file of all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, a 26-second clip of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a .jpeg of the Bioinformatics Institute, a .pdf of Watson and Crick’s paper that detailed DNA structure, and a file that explains the actual encoding process being used…

The files were downloaded from the Internet and encoded into DNA into an organic form — as it was put in manner reminiscent of Douglas Adams — “the size of a rather small piece of dust.”

When that churl Death my bones with dust shall cover

Uh, no, they effectively rendered the works of Shakespeare, King, Watson and Crick into the lorem ipsum of bioinformatics. True, they had to put something in there but the question that gets me is how do you choose? Of all the works of humankind, how does one choose that with which to make history?

Sounds of EarthThis kind of situation has come up before. Carl Sagan led the the team at Cornell that decided what to include on the Voyager Golden Record, which was subsequently loaded onto the two Voyager spacecraft as a sort of “message in a bottle” to those beings with record players living outside the Milky Way.

Mozart, Stravinsky, Blind Willie Johnson, Chuck Berry and naturally a bit of the old Ludwig Van made the cut. Given that both Voyagers left our solar system last year, it?s time to crank the tunes since the copyright holders of the recordings included on the disc only allowed their use outside of our solar system (somewhere Lawrence Lessig is shaking his head).

Would you want your creative work crammed into DNA or shot into space? Would you care about copyright? Would it violate Amazon’s Kindle Select program?

Hearkening back on the lorem ipsum notion, I’m half compelled to write a novel specifically to be used by the scientific community should they ever need to weave 60,000 words of finely crafted prose into the very fabric of life as we know it or shoot some into space in search of life as we don’t know it yet. Either way, it’s a fair stab at literary immortality.

Says Thomas Paine: “When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.”

But the contents of your DNA drive, well, they just might be.