Penn State professor’s discovery sets off Shakespeare tweetstorm
William Shakespeare and John Milton collided in the Twitterverse this month in a bang-up that set off a trans-Atlantic tweetstorm over a 400-year-old book.
The discovery that Milton — he of “Paradise Lost” fame — likely was the owner of a 1623 Shakespeare first folio and made extensive notes in its margins was a combination of scholarly acumen, serendipity and social media.
It helped bring Penn State scholar Claire M.L. Bourne’s work on the notations in the folio published in “Early Modern English Marginalia” to the attention of Jason Scott-Warren, a Cambridge scholar who had also published an essay in the book.
Scott-Warren, a scholar and expert in paleography, or old handwriting, at Cambridge University’s Center for Material Texts in England, thought he recognized photos of the handwriting in the margins as Milton’s. He headed to the library and began comparing them with known samples of Milton’s handwriting.
Hours later, he contacted Bourne via Twitter to tell her of his suspicions.
— Jason Scott-Warren (@jes1003) September 10, 2019
Bourne was thrilled to hear his conjecture. She agreed it indeed could be the case.
that reader? john milton(‽)
here is his opening gambit: https://t.co/vpZK9QjkhC
— claire m. l. bourne (@roaringgirle) September 13, 2019
Scott-Warren posted his theory online in his blog and tweeted it out along with photos.
“It’s always annoying when someone tries to claim that they’ve discovered a lost literary artefact. … However, I’m going to make my own unwise pronouncement on the basis of just a few hours of research. I’m going to claim to have identified John Milton’s copy of the Shakespeare First Folio of 1623,” he wrote.
It was a daring move.
Milton, who ranks right up there with Shakespeare in many minds, was only 8 years old when the Bard died. But he was known to have been a fan of Shakespeare. Some of the edits made to the folio echoed phrases that showed up in Milton’s work. And the handwriting … well, it seemed to match up with known samples of Milton’s scrawl.
Even so, Scott-Warren realized some might question his theory.
But in the hours that followed, expert after expert reached the same conclusion that Scott-Warren had postulated.
Twitter was on fire over the provenance of a 400-year-old book.
“I started getting positive responses from experts in the field very rapidly (within two hours), and over the first 24 hours a lot of people with some expertise tweeted to say that they found it convincing. My sense is that only a subset of the academic community engages with social media — those who are older and more established often choose not to use it,” Scott-Warren told the Trib in an email. “But academic circles are tight-knit, and scholars who are not on social media often subscribe to email lists that discuss questions in their area. So news gets round very fast.”
Bourne, the Penn State professor, came upon the folio as a student at the University of Pennsylvania about 11 years ago. It is one of only about 40 complete surviving copies of the first folio, a collection of the Bard’s plays published in 1623, seven years after his death.
Other copies have sold for as much $6 million at auction. This one had been carefully stored among the Philadelphia Free Library’s collection of rare books for decades.
“It had been in the library since 1944, donated by the Widener family. It is a book that has been seen by people and it has been described in a couple censuses of surviving folios. It is also a book that librarians have used to show an example of an early reader or a student engaging with Shakespeare,” Bourne said.
She returned to study it many times over the next decade, occasionally tweeting out pictures of the plays and the mysterious marginalia that marked everything from “Hamlet” to “Romeo and Juliet” and “Measure for Measure.”
“I knew it was a special book. I knew all of this readerly engagement with Shakespeare was special and that this was a reader who had a deep understanding of poetics and drama,” Bourne said. “I had no idea the identity of the reader and I didn’t try to figure out who the reader was. The reading practices were really interesting to me.”
The essay she wrote that caught Scott-Warren’s eye and set scholars tweeting was rejected twice before finding a publisher, Bourne said.
“We have a reader engaging with these texts in the late 1630s, early 1640s who is saying there are different versions of Shakespeare and I am interested in exploring different versions. Most of the suggestions derive from other versions of the play, but there were some I could not find a source for. … It might be someone like Milton who has enough sensibilities to make these changes,” she said.
Officials at the Philadelphia Free Library were taken aback by the attention the volume has received since word of the suspected Milton connection began to circulate across the Atlantic and back.
“It has been readily available to scholars before this discovery. But once it was discovered that this book was likely the possession of Milton, our reaction was to put it on display for the public,” said library spokeswoman Kaitlyn Foti.
It will be on display, along with a first edition of Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” at the library’s Parkway Central location through Oct. 19.
Scott-Warren and Bourne have joined in a trans-Atlantic partnership to continue the dogged academic detective work needed to validate their findings for posterity. They plan to work via Skype, email and Twitter.
“We had a little skepticism. But I welcome skepticism. It makes for good scholarship,” Bourne said.
She said their work tends to validate her theory that Twitter has become yet another resource in the scholars’ tool box.
“We will have to make a full case for the identification of the hand, but the real challenge may lie in pinning down the date of the annotations,” Scott-Warren said. “We know that some date from 1637 or later, because they rely on quarto (single-play) editions published in that year, and there are some other telltale date stamps in Milton’s handwriting, but this will still be tricky.”
Back at Penn State, Bourne continues to teach.
Shakespeare fans might be excused if they are already lining up to register for her classes in the spring: Bourne is scheduled to teach two courses in Shakespeare.
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .