Shakespeare and Shorthand
By Richard Flavin
William Shakespeare (1564-1616), title-page of 1613 Heywood reprint (Heywood 1605), and Arsène Darmesteter (1846-1888).
Were some of Shakespeare’s plays hastily transcribed during a morning performance and staged on the other side of the Thames by evening, or vice versa? The hypothesis seems arguable, allowing for a jot and tittle of exaggeration, though unsustainable beyond the status of speculation. Unauthorized performances aside, pirated publications did occur and, from the late eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth, several respected scholars have allowed for the possibility that an early shorthand system may have been used to surreptitiously record plays and have offered as evidence the apparent textual inconsistencies in certain publications of Shakespeare’s works (i.e., between quarto and folio printings). Also, they invoked the somewhat famous complaint by Thomas Heywood (c. 1573-1641), that a version of an early play of his had been printed without his permission and the accuracy of the transcription was so poor that Heywood felt the need to issue a corrected and authorized edition. An online version of the entry for ‘shorthand’ in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica recommends:
“Thus Thomas Heywood, a contemporary of Shakespeare, says in a prologue 4 that his play of Queen Elizabeth ‘Did throng the seats, the boxes and the stage So much that some by stenography drew A plot, put it in print, scarce one word true.’ Shakespeare critics would in this manner explain the badness of the text in the earliest editions of Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Taming of the Shrew, Merry Wives of Windsor, and Henry V. Perhaps a study of J. Willis's system and of E. Willis's (which, though not published till after Shakespeare's death, was practiced long before)...”
Heywood was an industry unto himself and is reported to have authored hundreds of plays and other writings. An examination of the original (Heywood 1605; Pearson I, p. 191) will help to better understand the quote:
The cradle age
Did throng the Seates, the Boxes, and the Stage
So much that some by Stenography drew
The plot: put it to print: (scarce one word trew:)
And in that lamenesse it hath limp't so long,
The Author now to vindicate that wrong
Hath tooke the paines, upright upon its feete
To teache it walke...
Sure ‘tis Stenographie, everie Character a word, and here and there one for a whole sentence (Brome 1632; iii. 2.).
Dick Brome had been a servant to Ben Jonson before becoming a dramatist. His first work for the stage, The Northern Lass(e), was very popular and he followed it with several other successful plays. It would suggest that at times genius may be passed on via proximity and Brome benefitted from his time employed by Jonson.
Alexander Schmidt (1816-1887), author of the Shakespeare Lexicon (Schmidt 1886), is thought to have been the first scholar to propose that the inadequacies of early shorthand could account for the textual inconsistencies in different versions of some of Shakespeare’s plays. Sir Walter W. Greg (Trinity College, Lecturer in Bibliography) was next to consider a shorthand influence on various Shakespeare publications (Greg 1910); a position which may have influenced the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica entry for ‘shorthand’. Sir Edmund K. Chambers (Chambers 1923; Chambers 1930) continued the equivocation by allowing for the textual inconsistencies as “possibly produced by shorthand.”
The hypothesis that certain plays of Shakespeare were pirated by means of a shorthand system of recording soon achieved its fullest expression in a provocative article by Joseph Quincy Adams (Adams 1933). Mere months past bringing a fellow textual critic to task for similar musings (Doran 1934), Prof. Madeleine Doran (University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ruth C. Wallerstein Professor of English Literature) responded quickly to Adams (Doran 1935).
In a review of Dorans's 1934 critical edition of Heywood’s If You Know Not Me, Prof. Geoffrey Tillotson (Birkbeck, English Literature) commented:
If You Know Not Me, on the other hand, has engaged Dr. Madeleine Doran (in consultation with Dr. Gregg) in an exacting task, which she has performed with thoroughness and a clear head. She has traced the interesting history of her texts through the 8 and 4 editions respectively. On the major problems her discoveries have mainly negative value; even the problem of stenographical piracy, stated as a fact by the author twenty or thirty years after the event, is impossible of solution “in the absence of a good text for comparison”:
It is possible that the most we can legitimately and with certainty infer from the words of the prologue  is (1) that the play had been pirated, and (2) that shorthand was known to have been used in similar cases; and that to combine the two propositions into a single statement, as Heywood does, is to go beyond the actual fact of the case (p. xvii).
 ....some by Stenography, drew The plot: put it in print, scarce one word true. Is “drew the plot” necessarily the equivilant of “reproduced the words of the play as completely as they could manage”? May it not mean “used stenography as a means of getting the gist of the play moment by moment” (in which case “scarce one word true” would seem less far-fetched? (Tillotson 1940; p. 215).
The hypothesis supporting a connection between Shakespeare and shorthand was challenged by Leo Kirschbaum who explained textual inconsistencies as inexact memorial reconstructions (Kirschbaum 1949a; Kirschbaum 1949b). George Ian Duthie confronted equivocation in a straightforward manner, at the same time Kirschbaum was publishing about the shorthand hypothesis, rigidly compared the Bright, Bales and Willis shorthand systems and demonstrated that the inherent flaws of early modern shorthand couldn’t explain the textual inconsistencies (Duthie 1949). If pirates had used shorthand a different set of problems would be present. Arg!
Under ‘stenography’, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED 1989) has the following:
(stiʹnogrəfi) [f. Gr. στενόϛ narrow + -GRAPHY. Cf. F. sténographie (1812 in Hatz.-Darm.)] 1. The art of writing in shorthand. 1602 [J. WILLIS] (title) The Art of Stenographie, teaching.. The way of compendious Writing. 1632 BROME North. Lass III. ii, Sure tis Stenography, every Character a word: and here and there one for a whole sentence. 1791 BOSWELL Johnson an. 1778, Although I did not write what is called stenography, or short-hand, in appropriated characters devised fot the purpose, I had a method of my own of writing half-words, [etc.]. 1838 J. GRANT Sk. Lond. 264 A gentleman who was exceedingly fond of stenography previous to the derangement of his intellects, ..incessantly wrote short-hand to his own dictation, after he was placed in an asylum. 1908 Q. Rev. Oct. 528 Stenography has caused reporting to be more professional than in those days.
2. transf. And fig. 1647 CLEVELAND Lond. Diurnal & Sel. Poems 33 Oh the accurst Stenographie of fate! The Princely Eagle shrunke into a Bat. 1664 POWER Exp. Philos. Pref. 8 In these prety Engines ..by an Incomparable Stenography of Providence are lodged all the perfections of the largest Animals. 1837 DICKENS Pickw. vii, Mr. Pickwick was sufficiently versed in the stranger’s system of stenography to infer from this rapid and disjointed communication that [etc.]. 1902 A. SYMONS in Academy 23 Aug. 200/I A fine play is not the copy of an incident, or the stenography of a character. 1911 Q. Rev. July 229 The speech of the stage had become a mere stenography.
Hence † ste’nography v. [cf. STENOGRAPH v.]. trans., in quot. fig., to write or express in brief. 1652 E. BENLOWES Theoph. To my Fancie, Be Wit Stenography’d, yet free; ‘Tis largest in Epitome.
The OED doesn’t acknowledge a use of the term, ‘stenography’, between Willis and Brome (1602-1632). Early last century, there was speculation and debate as to whether or not The Late Lancashire Witches (Brome 1634) was a revision of a hypothetical unknown play by Heywood or an actual collaboration between two successful playwrights in 1633-1634 (e.g., Andrews 1913; Martin 1915). For his authoritative edition of the collected works of Heywood, John Pearson either culled the prologue of If You Know Not Me from Heywood’s Pleasant dialogues and dramma’s, which contains an assortment of Heywood’s older works, some significantly rewritten (Heywood 1637), or, as the ODNB suggests, reprinted the prologue from the 1639 edition, the last published before Heywood’s death in 1641 (ODNB 2004; pp. 985-986). Researchers have been unable to discover an earlier version of the prologue which uses “Stenography,” and it wouldn’t be too embarrassing to guess that Heywood had encountered the term by reading or conversing with Brome or, perhaps, had around that time (1637) become familiar with shorthand. A better guess would be that Heywood used “Stenography” as inclusive of shorthand writing, with other clerical and piracy methods available, rather than as exclusive of memorial reconstruction, rapid writing or copying from a pilfered playtext. Brome’s description is unmistakably of a shorthand system, while Heywood’s is an emblematic artifact and poetic verisimilitude. Without evidence indicating a pre-1637 usage by Heywood, it's proper that the OED leave out mention of his name concerning the etymology of stenography. No mention occurs in the OED of the work of Edmond Willis, who apparently appropriated his brother’s shorthand system, made some improvements and achieved an appreciable degree of popularity (Willis 1618). As I haven’t read his An Abreuation of Writing by Character, I can’t conclusively commit to Edmond’s use of his brother’s term, “stenographie,” though if it’s not there I’d be surprised. Likewise, I must wonder if the term was used in any of the several books promoting new shorthand systems which were printed in London between 1620 and 1633 (e.g., Folkingham 1620; Labourer 1621; Willoughby 1621; Whiting 1633 & Dix 1633).
When the OED recommends comparison, usually, it's instructive and informative. Under ‘stenography’, however, the citation of “Hatz-Darm,” that is Dictionnaire général de la langue français (Hatzfeld & Darmesteter 1890-1900) by Adolphe Hatzfeld (Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Professor of Rhetoric) and Arsène Darmesteter (Paris, Professor of French Literature of the Middle Ages), with contributions by Antoine Thomas (Paris, Philology of Romance Languages), the recommendation is surprisingly less than adequate. “Hatz-Darm” has:
STÉNOGRAPHIE [sté-nò-grà-fi] s. f. [ÉTYM. Composé avec le grec στενόϛ, étroit, γράϕειν, écrire, et le suffixe ία, § 279. || 1812. MOZIN, Dict. franç.-allem. Admis ACAD. 1835.] || (T. didact.) Art de reproduire ce que dit qqn, aussi vite qu’il parle, en écrivant par abreviations.
With exactitude foremost, the French professors defer to an earlier work which I assume is Nouveau dictionnaire complet à l'usage des allemands et des Français by the Abbé Dominique-Joseph Mozin and others (Mozin 1811-1813). Mozin had previously achieved a degree of authorial notoriety with a travelogue description of Germany and an odd appreciation for the richness of farmland owed to the spreading out of “stable muck” and the casual dung droppings of field animals (Mozin 1803). Without innuendo or double sense, the Abbé went on to be a major contributor to French dictionaries and such, but as far as the etymology of the term ‘stenography’ and its early European use(s), I'm going to guess that he didn’t add much.
Requesting “Mozin” with the OCLC WorldCat search engine produced a dozen results for later editions when a reference assistant performed the task at Boston College. When attempted again from a home computer seeking the first edition, only a single result was displayed and that was from the University of Amsterdam, with which it would be rather difficult to set up an interlibrary loan arrangement. Harvard, the New York Public Library and Oxford have editions from 1846, over thirty years removed from the 1812 “Hatz-Darm”citation of the OED. I looked up ‘stenography’ in another French dictionary and found:
stenós (gr.) eng. schmal. 1. Nfr. sténographie f. „art d’écrire par signes conventionnels d’une manière aussi prompte que la parole“ (seit 1792, Rph 1933, 39) ¹), „salle de travail des sténographes“ (1898, Daudet); sténographe (m. f.) „celui, celle qui sait sténographier“ (1792, Br 9; seit Ac 1835); sténographiste m. (Moz 1812-1842); sténographien (Moz 1812-1814); sténographique adj. „qui appartient à la sténographie“ (seit Moz 1812); sténographiquement adv. „d’après les procédés sténographiques“ (seit AcC 1836); sténographier v. a. „écrire d’une manière aussi prompte que la parole“ (seit Moz 1812); sténogramme m. „tracé graphique, en stènographie, d’une syllabe ou d’un mot“ (seit Lar 1907)...
I’ll assume that Mozin didn’t significantly add anything beyond a citation of Bertin’s Système universel et complet de Stenographie ou Manière abrégée d'écrire applicable à tous les idiomes (Bertin 1792). As mentioned above, Bertin’s 1792 work was a translation of Samuel Taylor’s book on stenography. I find nothing erstwhile in comparing these late uses of the term.
If John Willis invented the term, ‘stenography’, I wonder why reference sources don’t state the fact openly? Was the word used by the ancient Greeks or Romans? May it be found in medieval texts? Was the term, with a different spelling, used in Late or Church Latin, Italian or Spanish? Herodotus refers to a couple of examples of steganography (covered or hidden writing), also there’s the infamous Steganographia by Johannes Trithemius, and many uses of brachygraphy and tachygraphy abound, but I’ve been unable to locate a single use of the word, 'stenography', before Willis'. Perhaps, I’m not trying hard enough. Though shorthand systems for notations and record keeping have been used since antiquity, the words used for the methods and practitioners do not appear to have included “stenography’ or variants to describe either the art or the artists before Willis applied (i.e., coined) the term. It seems an e-mail to the OED staff would be in order.
Recent editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica do not mention any connection between Shakespeare and shorthand, and scholars today seem to overwhelmingly favor other explanations for textual inconsistencies in some of Shakespeare’s early printed works. Most scholars, but not all, as Adele Davidson (Kenyon College, Associate Professor of English) continues to pursue the shorthand connection. Davidson is motivated from discovering that the same printer, William White, produced an edition of Willis and a 1609 quarto of Pericles. Publishing has often been a treacherous arena (Loewenstein 1985), with the theater often a legal battlefield (Morgan 1875), and I look forward to learning how to use Willis' shorthand to jot and tittle a play by Stratford Willy from Prof. Davidson. Hamlet?
I have of late, wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises...
Bright, Timothie. 1586. A Treatise of Melancholie. Containing the causes thereof, & reasons of the strange effects it worketh in our minds and bodies: with the physic cure, ad spirtuall consolation for such as have thereto adjoined an afflicted conscience. London: I. Windet.
I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the king and queen moult no feather. I have of late--but wherefore I know not--lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.
Shake-speare, William. 1603 (1623). The tragicall historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke; Act II, Scene II. London.
Adams, Joseph Quincy. 1933. “An Hypothesis concerning the Origin of the Bad Quartos.” Modern Philology. 31 (2): 135-163.
Andrews, C. E. 1913. “The Authorship of the Late Lancashire Witches.” Modern Language Notes. 28 (6): 163-166.
Bales, Peter. 1590. The writing schoolemaster, containing 'the arte of brachygraphie', 'the order of orthographie', and 'the key of
calygraphie'. London: Thomas Orwin. Also, popular 1597 edition.
Bertin, Théodore-Pierre. 1792. Système universel et complet de Stenographie ou Manière abrégée d'écrire applicable à tous les idiomes.
Bright, Timothie. 1586. A Treatise of Melancholie. Containing the causes thereof, & reasons of the strange effects it worketh in our minds
and bodies: with the physic cure, ad spirtuall consolation for such as have thereto adjoined an afflicted conscience. London: I. Windet; 2nd
ed. T. Vautrolier.
Bright, Timothy. 1588. Charac[terie.] An ar[te] of shorte, swift[e], and secrete writing by character. London : I. Windet.
Brome, Richard. 1632. The Northern Lasse. Dedication by Ben Jonson. London.
Brome, Richard and Thomas Heywood. 1634. The Late Lancashire Witches (aka The Witches of Lancashire). London. Online here.
Chambers, E. K. 1923. The Elizabethan Stage. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Chambers, E. K. 1930. William Shakespeare - A Study of Facts and Problems. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Dix, Henry. 1633. The art of brachygraphy, or short-writing microform: by characters faire, short, swift, easie and legible, plainly taught by
this booke. London.
Doran, Madeleine. 1934. If You Know Not Me: Part I by Thomas Heywood. From the edition of 1605. Edited by M. Doran with W. W. Greg.
London: Malone Society.
Doran, Madeleine. 1935. “The Quarto of ‘King Lear’ and Bright’s Shorthand.” Modern Philology. 33 (2): 139-157.
Duthie, George Ian. 1949. Elizabethan Shorthand and the First Quarto of King Lear. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Folkingham, William. 1620. Brachygraphie, Postwrit, of the Art. of Short Writing. London.
Hatzfeld, Adolphe & Arsène Darmesteter. 1890-1900. Dictionnaire général de la langue française du commencement du XVIIe siècle jusqu'à
nos jours, précédé d'un traité de la formation de la langue. With contributions by Antoine Thomas. Paris: Ch. Delagrave.
Heywood, Thomas. 1605. If you Know not Me, you Know no Bodie; Or, The troubles of Queene Elizabeth. London. See also: Heywood,
Thomas. 1606. The Second Part of, If you know not me, you know no bodie. With the building of the Royall Exchange: And the famous
Victorie of Queene Elizabeth, in the year 1588. London. Reprinted in The Dramatic Works of Thomas Heywood, now collected, with
illustrative notes and memoir of the author. Ed. John Pearson. 6 vols. London. 1874. Also, as prose: Heywood, Thomas. 1631. England's
Elizabeth, her Life and Troubles during her minority from the Cradle to the Crown. London.
Heywood, Thomas. 1637. Pleasant dialogues and dramma's, selected out of Lucian, Erasmus, Textor, Ovid, &c. With sundry emblems
extracted from the most elegant Iacobus Catsius. As also certaine elegies, epitaphs, and epithalamions or nuptiall songs; anagrams and
acrosticks; with divers speeches (upon severall occasions) spoken to their most excellent Majesties, King Charles, and Queene Mary. With
other fancies translated from Beza, Bucanan, and sundry Italian poets. London.
Kirschbaum, Leo. 1945a. “An Hypothesis concerning the Origin of the Bad Quartos.” Transactions and Proceedings of the Modern Language
Association of America. 60 (3): 697-715.
Kirschbaum, Leo. 1945b. "The True Text of “King Lear.” Baltimore: John Hopkins.
Labourer, William. 1621. Art of Short English Writing. London.
Loewenstein, Joseph. 1985. “The Script in the Marketplace.” Representations. 12: 101-114.
Martin, Robert Martin. 1915. “Is 'The Late Lancashire Witches' a Revision?” Modern Philology. 13 (5): 253-265.
Morgan, James Appleton. 1875. “Piracy by Memorization.” The American Law Register (1852-1891). 23 (4); New Series Vol. 14: 207-214.
Mozin, Dominique Joseph. 1803. Les charmes de Wurttemberg. Stuttgart. [Information is incomplete.]
Mozin, Dominique-Joseph. 1811-1813. Nouveau dictionnaire complet à l'usage des allemands et des Français. With contributions by J. Th.
Biber and M. Hoelder. Stuttgart: J. G. Gotta.
ODNB. 2004. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: In Association with the British Academy. From the Earliest Times to the Year 2000.
New York: Oxford University Press.
OED. 1989. Oxford English Dictionary. Second edition. Edited by John Simpson and Edmund Weiner. Cary, North Carolina, U.S.A: Oxford
Pitman, Benn. 1871. Proceedings in the Ku Klux Trials at Columbia, S.C., in the United States Circuit Court, November Term, 1871.
Seager, Jane. 1588. The Divine Prophesies of the ten Sibills upon the birthe of our Saviour Christ. British Library Add. Ms. 10037. Cover
Schmidt, Alexander. 1886. Shakespeare - Lexicon. A Complete Dictionary of all the English Words, Phrases and Constructions in the
Works of the Poet. Second edition. London. Williams & Norgate.
Tillotson, Geoffrey. 1940. “Reviews: Malone Society Reprints.” The Review of English Studies. 16 (62): 214-216.
Whiting, Thomas. 1633. Brachygraphia. London.
Willis, John. 1602. The Art of Stenographie, teaching by plaine and certaine rules, to the capacitie of the meanest, and for the use of all
professions, the way to Compendious Writing. Anonymous. London: Cuthbert Burbie. Later editions credited to Willis. Only two extant copies
of the first edition are known (British Library [C.58.bb.20] and Oxford’s Bodleian Library).
Willis, Edmond. 1618. An Abreuation of Writing by Character. London: George Purslow.
Willis, John. 1618. Mnemonica, sive Reminiscendi ars (in Latin). London. See also: Willis, John. 1661. Mnemonica, or the Art of Memory,
drained out of the pure fountains of art & nature. Digested into three books. Also a physical treatise of cherishing natural memory. Trans.
by Leonard Sowersby. London.
Willoughby, Edward. 1621. Art of Swift Writing. London.