This week, the Folger Shakespeare Library announced that it may have located an authentic signature by William Shakespeare in their collection. You might wonder how such a thing might have gone overlooked for so long….until you know that the Folger houses some 256,000 volumes of Renaissance works. There are millions of pages in these thousands of books, and in one of them is the faint but legible signature of “Wm Shakespeare.”
If the signature is proven genuine, it will be priceless. Only six verified signatures are known to exist. This, therefore, would be the seventh.
The Folger’s excitement at the find might best be described as “cautiously optimistic.” There have been many signatures in the past that have been declared frauds. Fortunately, technological advances are making determining the authenticity of the signature easier.
A group known as the Lazarus Project is using an advanced technique called multispectral imaging. The researchers take very high-resolution photographs of old text, art or objects using twelve different wavelengths of light, ranging from ultraviolet to infrared, beyond the boundaries of the human eye. Next, they use software to combine these images into the clearest possible picture of the text.” Multispectral imaging can reconstruct writing that has suffered all kinds of damage, from erasure to water damage.
Shakespeare scholars are eagerly awaiting word from the Lazarus Project, particularly due to the type of book in which the signature appears. Archaionomia is a collection of Elizabethan laws. If this volume did indeed belong to the playwright, it may mean that he knew more about law than was previously understood and this knowledge may have informed many of his plays. “One of the interesting questions for Shakespeare scholars is what Shakespeare read,” says George Heyworth, a professor of English at the University of Mississippi. “If we know what he read, then we know what he was thinking when he wrote his plays.”