The reference to a coat of arms belonging to “Shakespeare the Player by Garter” in a manuscript at the Folger, V.a.350, has garnered much attention over the years. Folger MS V.a.350 is currently on loan to the British Library for their exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts, and Zoe Wilcox, one of the curators, recently highlighted it in “Shakespeare: Gentleman or Player?,” her post on the British Library’s English and Drama blog.
Researchers are interested in a number of aspects relating to this manuscript: chiefly, why is the coat of arms described as having been granted by “Garter” (William Dethick, Garter King of Arms, the highest ranking herald in the College of Arms) to William Shakespeare, when in fact, it was actually granted to William’s father, John? And why is Shakespeare referred to as a player (that is, an actor) when in fact, he was also a distinguished playwright and poet?
Both of these questions will be addressed in the online exhibition Shakespeare Documented, in the descriptions for Folger MS V.a.350 and other recently discovered “Shakespeare the Player” manuscripts: College of Arms MS Dethick’s Grants X, Folger MS V.b.92, and Bodleian MS Rylands C.44 (as soon as I have the chance to write them; see the recent New York Times article and articles on the Folger site and the Shakespeare and Beyond blog for a start).
In this post, I’ll briefly address another line of questioning, concerning the status of the manuscript. How can we be sure that “Shakespeare the player” wasn’t added later, since it is in a different hand from the other coats of arms on the page? How can we be sure that this ca. 1700 manuscript is an authentic record of an earlier manuscript?
The manuscript has been fully digitized, and if you look at the previous leaf, you will see that “Shakespeare the player” is in the same hand as the coats of arms that precede it. While this hand has not been identified, the correcting and adding hand belongs to the antiquary and herald Peter Le Neve (1661-1729), who had an extensive collection of heraldic manuscripts and books. He makes additions and corrections throughout the manuscript, including the additions to the rest of p. 28. This is absolutely normal: heraldic manuscripts are living documents. Their descriptions of coats of arms and pedigrees are continuously relevant for the work that heralds do, and when heralds acquire the manuscripts of earlier heralds, they will commonly continue to add to them and tweak them.
The familiar image from p. 28, published as a stand-alone detail for decades, is the perfect example of how a reference can create skepticism because it is not seen in the context of the entire manuscript or collection from which it is excerpted. In the case of Folger MS V.a.350, not only has the “Shakespeare the player” image circulated as a context-less image, but the manuscript itself was separated from three other manuscripts in the 1970s, in preparation for a traveling Shakespeare blockbuster exhibition. When Mr. and Mrs. Folger acquired it, it was bound with V.a.469, V.a.470, and V.a.471 (see my post on V.a.469 for acquisition and disbinding details).
“Shakespeare the Player by Garter” appears in a manuscript titled “A Note of some Coats & Crests lately come to my hands Given by William Dethick when he was Yorke and since he hath executed the Office of Garter King of Armes.” For generations, scholars have known that “my hands” refer to the hands of Ralph Brooke, York Herald, Dethick’s primary nemesis, and that MS V.a.350 is a later copy of a Brooke manuscript from ca. 1601-2. Folger MS V.a.156, a ca. 1600 manuscript in Brooke’s hand, has always been thought to be part of the manuscript transmission, but not a direct parent to V.a.350. However, a recently discovered ca. 1600 manuscript at the College of Arms, which first appeared in Clive Cheesman’s essay “Grants and Confirmations of Arms” in Nigel Ramsay, ed., Heralds and Heraldry in Shakespeare’s England (Donington, 2014), shares the exact same title as V.a.350:
A note at the beginning of Folger MS V.a.350 in Le Neve’s hand states that he had it bound for his personal library at his house in Bow.
It reads: “To be bound A Duplicate for bow.” It would seem that Le Neve owned or had access to one copy already, and had this “duplicate” bound as an additional reference copy.1 This duplicate is quite possibly based on the early 17th century version at the College of Arms (Dethick’s Grants X) and/or the ca. 1600 copy at the Folger (MS V.a.156, in Brooke’s hand), which lacks the title page but includes a very similar group arms in trick (although Shakespeare’s name appears in a list at the beginning of this volume, rather than as a separately illustrated coat of arms). Each of these manuscripts is a version of Ralph Brooke, York Herald’s attack on William Dethick, Garter King of Arms, for improperly granting coats of arms to dead or unqualified people.
While I can’t show a page by page comparison of the three manuscripts here, one particular example suggests that V.a.350 was copied from these earlier manuscripts. In Folger MS V.a.350, fol. 16, Peter Le Neve adds a note to an unidentified coat of arms (on the left side): “no name in the other book.”
Indeed, this same coat of arms appears in College of Arms, Dethick Grants X, fol. 16, with no name, as it does in Folger V.a.156, fol. 9, also with no name, while the thirty-odd other coats are identified. (Although the images above are not identical, they are all expressing the same coat of arms using different visual shortcuts.) Is one of these “the other book” to which Le Neve refers?
The three manuscripts are clearly closely intertwined, and can be connected to other relevant manuscripts gathered and created by Ralph Brooke, York Herald, and William Dethick, Garter King of Arms, enriching the story of the controversy over Shakespeare’s coat of arms and embedding it in the complex arguments about status and grants of arms taking place in the College of Arms at the same time.
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