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College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Restored Scribble May Be Shakespeare’s Signature

Researchers using high-tech photography have reconstructed a  signature that may belong to William Shakespeare — or perhaps a  clever forger.

It’s not yet known who scrawled “Wm Shakespeare” across the title  page of the legal treatise “Archaionomia,” a collection of Saxon  laws published during the reign of    Elizabeth I of England. It may never be clear, said Gregory  Heyworth, a professor of English at the University of  Mississippi.

But now, Heyworth and his students have used new technology to  reveal the nearly lost scribbles on the old book. The work is  part of The Lazarus Project, an effort to revive damaged texts  using a technique called multispectral imaging. The researchers  take very high-resolution photographs of old text, art or objects  using 12 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.

In this way, researchers can reconstruct writing that has been  erased and written over, scratched out, singed or even damaged by  water, Heyworth told LiveScience. For example, last year, the  Lazarus Project used this technology to discover five new poems  from the writer William Faulkner from a collection that had been  damaged by fire.

This spring, Heyworth took a group of undergraduates to the  Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., to investigate a  scrawl that believe to be the Bard’s. The team hasn’t yet begun  the process of authenticating the signature as Shakespeare’s, but they did  reconstruct it.

“We have a clear idea now of what the signature looks like, and  we can compare it to Shakespeare’s signatures and forgers’  signatures,” Heyworth said.

The group is currently deciphering a line above the signature,  which is written in a 16th-century hand based on the style of the  lettering, Heyworth said. That line is written in different ink  than the signature.

Heyworth plans to compare the signature with that of well-known  forgers as well as known Shakespeare signatures such as those on  his wills. He also hopes to investigate other potential  Shakespeare handwriting samples, including one in a book of  essays published in 1603.

If Shakespeare can indeed be linked to the Archaionomia  signature, it could give new insights into the way he approached  the law in his plays, Heyworth said. It may also illuminate Shakespeare as a man and historical figure.

“One of the interesting questions for Shakespeare scholars is  what Shakespeare read,” Heyworth said. “If we know what he read,  then we know what he was thinking when he wrote his plays.”