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In 1588, one man named Timothy Bright introduced an innovative new method for quickly writing down what you hear during a live performance, publishing a manual he called “Charactery.” A term of Bright’s own invention, Charactery is the first English version of an ancient method of shorthand dating back to the time of Cicero, that allowed anyone to pirate versions of live performance, provided they had enough patience to learn the complicated system. Bright’s innovative technology applied a complicated array of symbols and characters that while intimidating to review today, was a huge hit in Elizabethan England, with several additional shorthand methods being published in England within just a few years of Bright’s work. Walking the line between illegal behavior and artistic prowess, masters of shorthand in the late 16th century are responsible for many of the surviving copies of the sermons from Shakespeare’s lifetime, and our guest this week argues in his publication, Shakespeare, Playfere, and the Pirates, that shorthand may be behind the many errors we find in Shakespeare’s Bad Quartos. The obvious question when you realize audience members at The Globe theater were writing down the play as they heard it is to wonder, how did they accomplish that feat in the age of quill pens and in wells? And did they get arrested for pirating the works of the greatest playwrights of the age? Here this week to explain the mechanics of stealing words from the air as they are spoken, what kind of impact charactery had on the theater culture of the 16th century, as well as the mechanics of Timothy Bright’s 16th century disruptive innovation, is our guest Bryan Crockett.

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In this episode, I’ll be asking Bryan Crockett about: 

  • In Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare uses the word charactery to describe a fairy language. In Act V, Scene 5, Hostess Quickly says “Fairies use flowers for their charactery.” Bryan, using flowers for charactery sounds a lot like pictures instead of words. Was charactery a system based on pictures, similar perhaps to hieroglyphics? 

  • Was copying down sermons, or theater performances, through shorthand and then selling copies of it considered illegal behavior during Shakespeare’s lifetime or was the use of this new technology considered a valuable skill? 

  • Bryan, when we think of Shakespeare writing anything, most of us have a mental picture of him holding a quill pen. When pirates of spoken performance wanted to take down a story in a venue like The Globe which would have been predominantly standing room only outside of the upper class gallery seats, practically what did it look like to stand and copy down the words? Were they using quill and ink or something else?

Bryan Crockett, Ph.D., an emeritus English professor at Loyola University Maryland, has written numerous books and articles, many of them about Shakespeare and his surroundings. In addition to a career’s worth of teaching courses in English Renaissance literature, Crockett has developed sub-specialties in the religious discourse of Shakespeare’s day as well as the newly developed technology of shorthand transcription of live performances. Crockett has delivered lectures in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., including one at London’s Globe Theatre. He is also an ex-actor, dramaturg, and novelist. His 2015 novel about John Donne, Love’s Alchemy, was a finalist for the Historical Novel Society’s annual achievement award as well as for the Tuscany Prize. Married and with three grown children—and a grandchild on the way—he lives in Baltimore with his wife, the artist Pamela Crockett. 

Read Bryan’s article on Playfere and Shorthand (including the reference to Romeo and Juliet quarto done via shorthand) here:

Learn how to write 17th Century Stenography

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    Fairies use flowers for their charactery.

    Hostess Quickly

    Merry Wives of Windsor (V.5)

    1694-1695 English binding bound for Arthur Taylor. Demonstrating 17thC Shorthand. Property of the Folger Shakespeare Library, used under CCASA4.0

    Characterie = Early Modern Shorthand

    Timothy Bright invented a system of shorthand notation called “Characterie” in 1588, when William Shakespeare was just 14 years old. Designed to allow a listener to rapidly copy down spoken word, the system quickly caught on in Elizabethan England, spawning at least two other shorthand notation styles during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The image above shows one example of what shorthand would have looked like. As Bryan points out this week, rather than being based on word-to-picture relationships or even picture-to-sound relationships (as would later be applied through stenography), “Timothy Bright’s system was designed for speed…based on related words and small changes in diagrams could be quickly jotted down.”

    Resources Bryan Crockett Recommends:


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