Why the Interest in the Yew Tree?

One of the words that captured the greatest amount of attention, and possibly even the imagination, of the annotator of the Baret is the “Yew” tree.   In our study, we interpreted three of the annotations that are penned beside the variant spellings as “IHS” monograms, entered to imply the association with Christ and the wood used for the cross.




In the first posted reply to the Folger’s Michael Witmore and Heather Wolfe’s piece, “Buzz or honey? Shakespeare’s Beehive raises questions,” Erin Blake correctly notes that the French word “If” means “Yew” tree. In the first of the three images shown, one can see that the French “If” is printed in Baret under the “Yew” spelling (but not under the “Ugh” and “Ewe” spellings). This was an oversight on our part and we are grateful to Erin for having pointing it out.

The second and third annotations have been revised to now read “If”. The second annotation is the clearest representation of the “If” intended as the French equivalent word, as it is followed by the Latin and Middle English “arbor” (arbour) for “tree”, and also mimics the typography of the entry (“1f”) as printed under “Yew” (see first image). These second and third annotations follow the pattern of the annotator occasionally adding the French at either a “Vide” word synonym, or an alternate spelling of the same word, when it is printed in one location but not at another.

In the first annotation, however, the annotator does not seem satisfied with leaving the “If” to complete the thought, and, in fact, it would be redundant to place such an annotation there at all, as the word is already printed in the Baret as part of the definition, and therefore it would not bear duplicating the entry within the column. In this most carefully executed annotation, there looks to be a concerted effort to create an IHS monogram, or even to transform the “If” into an “IHS”. Regardless of whether one is convinced by this argument, both the care and the dots added to each side of the annotation (a common practice by early modern annotators, but not in any way used systematically by our annotator), reflect considerable playfulness, as does the fact that each of the three entries not only receives attention, but is treated with variable approaches.

Why should the annotator be so concerned with the yew tree? Of course, there could be many reasons, but the attention is clearly indicative of serious interest, whether or not the extra care given to the one annotation in particular further supports the possibility that it was intended as a religious marker with personal meaning. If the intention was to create an IHS monogram, the cross above the letters that is usually found in the Jesuit usage of the monogram is absent, but perhaps can be represented by the yew tree itself.

Shakespeare uses “yew” six times in the works, including the famous brew of the weird sisters at the start of Macbeth:

“Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Sliver’d in the moon’s eclipse…”

A yew tree was said to have grown in his yard in Stratford. No doubt Shakespeare was familiar with both its medicinal properties and the association with Christ and the wood used for the cross. “Hebana” or “henbane” was an alternate word for yew, and this word in the Baret has been marked by our annotator with a slash at H391: / Henbane herbe.

In a detailed book that explores botanical usages in the works, The Plant Lore and Garden-Craft of Shakespeare (1896), Henry Ellacombe relates this alternate word for yew with the depiction of poisoning from the plant that Hamlet hears from his father’s ghost (“..with juice of cursed hebona…”). Ellacombe writes:

“It may well be asked, how could Shakespeare have known of all these effects, which (as far as our present search has discovered) are not named by any one writer of his time, and some of which have only been made public from the results of Yew-poisoning since his day? I think the question can be answered in a very simple way. The effects are described with such marked minuteness that it seems to me not only very probable, but almost certain, that Shakespeare must have been an eye-witness of a case of Yew-poisoning, and that what he saw had been so photographed on his mind that he took the first opportunity that presented itself to reproduce the picture. With his usual grand contempt for perfect accuracy he did not hesitate to sweep aside at once the strict historical records of the old king’s death, and in its place to paint for us a cold-blooded murder carried out by means which he knew from his personal experience to be possible, and which he felt himself able to describe with a minuteness which his knowledge of his audiences assured him would not be out of place even in that great tragedy.”[i]

Whether or not Shakespeare ever witnessed for himself the results of yew poisoning as Ellacombe intuits, the most serious potential interest here, as far as Shakespeare’s life is concerned, falls into the Catholicity debate, sometimes characterized as Lancastrian Shakespeare.[ii] To make matters potentially more complicated still, beyond whether the annotation beneath the “Yew” tree entry at Y31 is to be seen as an IHS monogram or a reworking of “If” into an IHS monogram, the annotator draws a slash line at S191 above the printed word Shake and enters “shaft,”producing the intriguing composition Shakeshaft.


The speculation behind the theory of Shakespeare as schoolmaster in Lancashire under the name “Shakeshafte” is part of the scholarship related to Catholicity, and Shakespeare’s possible recusant sympathies. Commentators have suggested that if indeed William Shakeshafte was William Shakespeare, the use of the name Shakeshafte was itself a sign of his wariness and the distance he preferred to keep from the Cottam and Campion circles. We do not find other annotation evidence in our Baret that would hint at any further connections, but feel there has been enough intrigue raised by scholars to warrant those annotations discussed here as being deserving of attention.

[i] Henry N. Ellacombe, The Plant-Lore and Garden-Craft of Shakespeare (London: Edward Moxon, 1896), 125.

[ii] The most comprehensive survey of the Lancastrian Shakespeare discoveries can be found in Richard Wilson’s Secret Shakespeare: Studies in Theatre, Religion, and Resistance (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2004).

Please also see: http://collation.folger.edu/2014/04/buzz-or-honey-shakespeares-beehive-raises-questions/      

Bucke-basquet, Bucket baquet, both, or neither?


Among the most heavily discussed and analyzed annotations in our copy of Baret during the first week of unveiling have been two words that appear side-by-side on the trailing blank. The busy bees responsible for bringing to the public’s attention a possible misreading are Aaron Pratt and Eve Siebert, each of whom has written a piece dissecting our transcription and our understanding of the annotations. We thank them for having taken the time to look so carefully at the annotated dictionary in question, but feel it is necessary to offer some clarification as, in each instance, only a partial screen grab has been selected and made public. The reduction of the image sells their arguments short, as well as ours.

In our chapter on the trailing blank, we discuss in some detail the words on this page and the preponderance of echoes that are heard within the select group of plays wherein Falstaff appears: the two parts of Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor. These three plays were written within a few years leading up to Shakespeare writing Henry V, the play that features, by a wide margin, the highest concentration of French usage in the canon. The fact that the annotator is fiddling with French and English usages and synonyms is only part of what makes the page so compelling. Many of the words (beginning with “bouquin” – visible in the image here) contain multiple meanings, but that is only one of the linguistic engagements at work. The annotator is demonstrably playing beyond the meanings of the words, as we attempt to make clear in our full chapter. The sounds, even the spellings are of added importance, and a careful, non-rushed analysis recognizes that the annotator’s intricate sideways glances are as significant as those glances that are direct.

Let us examine the work that was done by Mr. Pratt and Ms. Siebert and illustrate the deficiency in the cut-and-dry conclusion they both have arrived at, in part thanks to the truncated pictures they included with their analysis. With the slightly larger screen grab that we offer here, everyone can see that the word almost immediately to the left of the annotation is “bribe” and the word to the right is “cram”. Bribe and buck combine only one time in Shakespeare – Falstaff in Merry Wives; Cram and basket combine also only one time in Shakespeare, and again – Falstaff, Merry Wives. Same play, same character. And that is the play and the character that dominate the entire page.

Why then would both Mr. Pratt and Ms. Siebert choose to crop the annotation to eliminate important information? Their contention is that the annotation does not read “Bucke-bacquet” but instead reads “Bucket bacquet,” in their views, a simple English French combination with no relation to the other words on the page. But even if that is argued to be true, why eliminate what was stressed in the chapter and can be seen in the image if you allow it to slightly expand?

The question is, do the connections with bribe and cram amount to nothing but a coincidence? If the annotation has been falsely read; that is, if the annotator has simply added the French for bucket alongside the English word bucket without any further connection to the other words on the page, then the connections involving bribe and cram with buck-basket (our interpretation) must necessarily be explained away as a convenience – another coincidence to help insist on the tie between Merry Wives and the words on the page. But what are the odds of each word combining with the neighboring word only one time in Shakespeare, and in the same play, and voiced by the same character? The remaining evidence on the page offers discernable support to the contention that the annotator, whoever he was, had Falstaff and Merry Wives on the brain, with clear thoughts of the Henry IV plays and pre-allusions (our argument) to Henry V.

And yet we are accused of having “botched” this transcription, an annotation that would otherwise send a strong message connecting the trailing blank to the works in some way, given the coinage of “buck-basket” by Shakespeare and its six usages in Merry Wives. 

Mr. Pratt and Ms. Siebert read it as a simple “Bucket bacquet”, but even if the annotation began there, the annotator knows of other possibilities from looking at the annotation on the page and hearing it ring in his mind. Our argument is that the annotator can see and hear and understand things in multiplicity (it takes an active brain), and whether “Bucket bacquet” or “Bucke-bacquet,” appears in one’s own transcription of the page, the neighboring words are no accident.

To help reinforce the idea that the annotator is channeling buck-basket, we turn to the Baret itself, and note the intriguing alternate spelling in English under Baskette; a maker of Basquets. Variability in English spelling at the time raises the distinct possibility that the second half of the annotation can be interpreted as a Middle English substitute for the word basket, and that the annotator is aiming for buck-basket all along. That is, in our opinion, clearly where he ends up, but how he arrives there may indeed be through the fiddling with words that is his trademark – a constant fiddling and fascination that takes place throughout the entire book, not merely on the trailing blank. Words can achieve multiple purposes with the flick of the tongue or the slight adjustment of the quill. You see this all up and down the page: the playing with meaning and sound and even visuals. Whoever the annotator was, The Merry Wives of Windsor is at the forefront – either through coincidence or reflective linguistic choice – on this strange page we refer to as the trailing blank.

The Poet’s Hand

By my life, this is my lady’s hand these be her
very C’s, her U’s and her T’s and thus makes she her great P’s. It is, in contempt of question, her hand.

Twelfth Night [II, 5] Malvolio

Voices from Adam Gopnik to Jonathan Bate have not been shy in publicly asserting that the hand in the Baret does not match the poet’s hand; the poet, of course, being Shakespeare. We feel it is important to clarify what components of the “poet’s hand” are being referenced.

Of all the books that Shakespeare could possibly have owned or used, not a single book with annotations is said to have survived. There are a number of volumes that have been attributed to Shakespeare’s ownership from the presence of a signature, but these signatures – and by extension the books – remain in dispute, and none contain annotations that are currently argued to belong to the poet. If Shakespeare did mark his books, books that we know he must have read, they either did not survive, or they are still out there to be discovered. One thing that we must all agree upon when referencing the “poet’s hand” when it comes to marginal annotations, and that is this: we have no means for comparison.

The “poet’s hand” is a reference to six signatures, all on legal documents, made during the later years of Shakespeare’s life, and two words, “By me” preceding one of the signatures on Shakespeare’s will. There is a fair amount of variability, even in the spelling of the signatures, and the variability – whether in spelling or in letter formation – can be ascertained even by someone who is not an expert in Renaissance paleography. And yet in spite of their differences, the six signatures are all written in what falls under the Secretary hand of the period; the “poet’s hand,” in other words, if we did ever see it written in the margins, should be compatible with this script, and not the Italic hand that would eventually take over, and with which we are today familiar.

There is one signature, however, that needs to be addressed, and our effort at highlighting this particular signature in our book has yet to be publicly considered. On back-to-back days in March 1612, two signatures of Shakespeare are recorded on mortgage documents. They are in appearance so different that Edward Maude Thompson of the British Museum felt it necessary, early in the 20th century, to explain that the second of the two signatures (“C”) was written in an unusual style as a result of the small space allotted by the mortgage seal, thereby requiring Shakespeare to use “disconnected letters”. It is with this signature – the cramped signature – that we find sympathetic comparisons with annotations from our Baret, often made within similarly sized cramped spaces.

Consider the strikingly different formation of the two “p’s” – written on back to back days – and compare the second of these (from signature “C”) with an annotation in our book.

Signatures B&C, with a similarly sized annotation from the annotated Baret

Signatures B&C, with a similarly sized annotation from the annotated Baret

The “ha” in Shakespeare’s signature “C” bears equally sympathetic comparisons with several annotations (including “Shaft” highlighted in our book and visible above the printed Shake in Baret), and a number of the annotator’s added words ending in “spe” are not dissimilar from the “spe” in the same signature.

Of course similarly generic annotations from other writers could be borrowed to the same effect. But what these examples illustrate is the extreme difficulty in eliminating an annotator based upon perceptions of how their signatures would correlate to marginal notations, even when we take from one of Shakespeare’s own signatures written in Secretary. The Folger voiced in its own blog, Collation, their agreement with our overall assessment: “As K&W (Koppelman and Wechsler) note, it is notoriously difficult to draw conclusions about a writer’s style of handwriting based on marginalia alone.”

In spite of this difficulty, the bias that argues Shakespeare would have relied on Secretary script alone persists, based not just on the signatures, but on Hand D (three pages in the collaborative, anonymous play Sir Thomas More that are thought by many to be Shakespeare’s contribution), as well as compositor errors that are felt to be a result of misreading letters written in Secretary.

But why argue that Shakespeare used exclusively a secretary script when using a variety of hands was common at the time (and still is)? Does any other writer of the period make, in his own writings, so much of the variation in handwriting as Shakespeare? Just think of the crucial scenes in some of the greatest plays, Hamlet, King Lear, and Twelfth Night, where hands are altered or confused. If Malvolio has trouble properly identifying and attributing c’s and u’s and t’s and p’s, surely the author of the play was aware that they could be made different, and may even have delighted in making them different himself. On the trailing blank, which combines Italic and Secretary, cursive and non-cursive, the annotator pens no fewer than six distinctly different p’s.

Why not allow Shakespeare, the ultimate example of a person mesmerized by words, to share the same excitement for letters? Letters are, after all, the stuff that words are made of.