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  • Kristin Bundesen, PhD

Patriarchy runs thick in the Shakespeare industry.

A story in Sunday's Guardian about an early Shakespeare nerd's tiny notebook has left me fuming. The article is not open for comments at this time so I have to take out my frustration on any sympathetic readers of this blog. The article is clearly meant as a teaser for the exhibition to be held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust celebrating the 400th anniversary of the First Folio publication. This tiny notebook will be featured in the exhibition.


The notebook debuted on an episode of Antiques Road Show in 2017. Media coverage by the BBC included the glaring factual error that the notebook was written during Shakespeare's lifetime. William Shakespeare, the man from Stratford, died in 1616.


The Guardian reports that there are 12,500 words on 48 pages "drawing on hundreds of quotations from Shakespeare’s 36 plays in the first folio," The First Folio publication in 1623 was the first time all 36 plays were collected into one tome. That's seven years AFTER William Shakespeare's death. If the notes were made BEFORE 1616, then all 36 plays needed to be in a private collection most likely in printed quarto formats or as handwritten drafts either as 'foul papers' - rough drafts, or 'fair copies' - cleaned up handwritten versions.


But that's not the part that rang alarm bells in my head and sent me to my keyboard.


Professor Tiffany Stern from the Shakespeare Institute at the University of Birmingham is credited with transcribing the notebook. The article quotes Professor Stern as follows:


“What’s fascinating is the insight this gives into a reader of Shakespeare. He’s clearly a man because at the back of the book are lecture notes on Aristotle in Latin, and women couldn’t go to university and didn’t tend to be taught Latin. "


The article includes the intriguing details that the notebook's creator was interested in pregnancy and curses of queens within the plays. In addition, the plays themselves are full of references to Latin and classical texts and mythologies.


Professor Stern's reasoning and subsequent conclusion on the gender of the 'Shakespeare nerd' who created this artifact is disappointing and wholly patriarchal. Throughout the 16th century, it was the fashion for elite women to be educated in languages, literature, politics, medicine, and the classics. Female familiarity with the works of Aristotle, Seneca, Ovid, Plutarch, and many more figure prominently throughout the archives. Women from families including the Cecils, Careys, Spencers, Sydneys, Herberts, Hastings, Stanleys, Russells, de Vere, and many more were taught Latin. That these women did not attend university does not reflect on their facility with languages.


Queens Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Katherine Parr, Jane Grey, Mary I, and Elizabeth I all worked with Latin texts either as readers and/ or translators. The women who surrounded them and served them were, for the most part, similarly educated. It is difficult to imagine Elizabeth I sitting down to translate Greek to Latin, which she did regularly to exercise her mind, and not having a single female in the room with which to talk about it. The good news we don't have to imagine it. We know it to be false.


The only conclusion I can draw is that Professor Stern is so indoctrinated by false gender norms that her judgement has been skewed. The alternative is that there is more going on in the notebook that has not yet been shared but confirms Professor Stern's assessment. If so, great! If not, the reasoning and assumptions presented so far do little to inspire confidence in the professional and academic assessment of the artifact from this early 'Shakespeare nerd' and instead reenforce false stereotypes.

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