Thursday, 8 March 2012

How Should Shakespeare be Spelled?




Shakespeare's Name as it Appears on The Title Page of
Love's Labour's Lost
AKA., the Topshop spelling of Shakespeare's name,
although it probably wasn't known as that in 1598.
Earlier this week, UK clothing giant Topshop released and quickly withdrew a women’s T-shirt with, ‘Romeo Romeo, Wherefore art thou, Romeo?’ printed on it. Why did they hastily withdraw the item? Well, beneath the quote was printed the name, ‘Shakespere’.

Now, the great man himself asked, “what’s in a name?” so, he probably wouldn’t have been affronted. And, besides, during his lifetime, there was no standardised way of spelling….well, anything - including his name.

Shakespeare's Name as ir Appears on the Third Folio (1664)
In fact, Shakespeare himself spelled his name in various ways throughout his life, which seems a little bit odd even for that 16th century fast and loose approach to spelling. This, of course, is one of the things that anti-Stratfordians (those who think that William Shakespeare did not write the plays and poems attributed to him) use as evidence for their case.

This strange variety in both literary and non-literary documents, especially those that were written by hand, suggests (to some) that the name was merely a pseudonym.

Given the complete disregard Elizabethan and Jacobean societies seemed to have for spelling, this alone is not enough to convince me that Shakespeare was a fraud. Although, I admit, it strikes me as odd that a man would spell his own name in a variety of ways. But, who knows? Maybe he got bored with writing it the same way and wanted to mix things up a bit. Those early modern boys and girls were radicals, man!

Shakespeare's Name as it Appears on the Title Page of King Lear (1608)
Hyphens were often used in pseudonyms, which adds wait to
the anti-Stratfordian case
The fact is that we currently live in a society where spelling is very much a black and white affair, so it is difficult - almost impossible - to imagine a world in which you could write however the heck you wanted to, including your own name!

Subsequently, of course, there are many people who have come to the defence of Topshop and Tee & Cake (the company that made the T-shirts), claiming that, as the name had no standardised spelling, those criticising the companies are behaving like foolish pendants, who need to get down from their high horses, with the assistance of a stepladder.

While I don’t believe this particular sin puts Topshop or Tee and Cake on a par with Genghis Khan, I do have grave doubts over whether either company planned to spell Shakespeare as ‘Shakespere’. Call me crazy, but I can’t imagine a conversation between Topshop and Tee & Cake that went like this:

“Did you know that Shakespeare used to spell his name however he liked?”

“Really? That’s interesting.”

“Yeah, the current spelling didn’t become standard, until the 19th century.”

“Wow! So, with this T-shirt aimed at teenagers and young women, most of whom probably know very little about Shakespeare, why don’t we take an early modern approach to spelling?”

Shakespeare's Name as it Appears on the Dedication Page of
'The Rape of Lucrece' (1594)
This would become the standard spelling of his name
No matter how you dress it up or how much you use the argument that Shakespeare had a loose attitude towards spelling, the Topshop T-shirt was obviously a mistake.

No one could call it a heinous or offensive act, but, let’s be honest, it does make both organisations look rather foolish.

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