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Welcome to Episode #177 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

When William Shakespeare was just 24 years old, a man named Timothy Bright would introduce a system of writing called charactery to England, setting off a wildfire of shorthand manuals, methods, and training where people flocked to learn this new, symbol based, system of writing that allowed the spoken word to be captured verbatim in real time. Notes and letters from philosophers and travellers in the late 16th and early 17th centuries remark that the fascination and mastery of shorthand was a skill seen internationally as uniquely English. The skill was so popular in England that it would even travel across the Atlantic with the British Colonists and find a place in the foundation of the New World, with the system of tachygraphy (created in 1626) being used by American President Thomas Jefferson in the 18th century. While many of the surviving copies of shorthand we have today exist on ink and paper, we have extant records that indicate shorthand was also useful on wax tablets, writing tables, and even with the graphite pencil. Since these alternate writing materials are designed to be temporary, their existence is something we only know about today from references we find in writings like early modern plays, including Shakespeare’s two references to “charactery” in Julius Caesar and Merry Wives of Windsor. Here today to help us explore the evolution of charactery from new fangled idea to valuable career over the course of Shakespeare’s lifetime is our guest and author of ““All the World Writes Short Hand” , Kelly McCay.

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Kelly McCay is a graduate student in the History Department at Harvard University. She received her undergraduate degree from Princeton in Linguistics and started studying English shorthand systems during her MPhil in Early Modern History at St John’s College, Cambridge. Kelly’s research is primarily focused on the history of ideas of language in Early Modern England, and her dissertation centers on conceptions of writing, language, and written language in that same context. Her recent article in Book History “‘All the World Writes Short Hand’: The Phenomenon of Shorthand in Seventeenth-Century England,” explores the evidence in printed books to trace the preponderance of shorthand and attitudes toward the art throughout the seventeenth century.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Kelly McCay about :

  • What need was being met by this system of writing that allowed shorthand to be so popular, so fast?
  • When you look at 17th century shorthand manuscripts, the text is entirely illegible. Contrary to popular expectation, shorthand is not a series of abbreviations for standard English words, but instead forms its own language. Kelly, given the fact that visually, an untrained person is unable to read shorthand, what was the distinction between cyphers or coded messages and shorthand? 

  • Kelly’s work references the Czech philosopher John Amos Comenius (1592–1670), who first visited London in 1641 and remarked that the English had “discovered an art which has now come into vogue even among the country folk, that of rapid script (tachygraphia) which they call stenography.… Almost all of them acquire this art of rapid writing.” Kelly, Comenius’ comments make it sound like stenography might have been uniquely English in Europe. Was this kind of shorthand popular in the 17th century outside the British Isles, or was the art considered specifically British?

  • … and more!

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    but in such a ‘then’ I write a ‘never.’
    This is a dreadful sentence.


    Alls Well That Ends Well (III.2)

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

    Shorthand Met A Need for 16th C England

    Kelly writes that after Timothy Bright invented shorthand in 1588, several other inventors stepped up to add their own version of shorthand with the general system of writing catching on very quickly. 

    Part of the answer is what shorthand promised to do vs what shorthand actually allowed you to do . From the beginning, manuals made big promises. Timothy Bright (1588) said that his shorthand was not only capable of being written down fast enough to take down live transcription, but it was also secret, so handy for diaries or writing down hidden communication. Anyone in the world, no matter their native language, could use this system to communicate. Unlike 17th c systems that were phonetically based, his system was a system of signs that corresponded to a set of words. There were many problems of that feature of his writing system, the characters or signs had no relation to the meaning what however, so it was quite  a burden on the meaning. The quality and speed of communication made them very excited. There was a gap between what is promised and what is delivered.

    O, that’s a brave man!
    He writes brave verses,
    speaks brave 


    As You Like It (III.4)

    Saint John the Baptist Preaching to the Masses in the Wilderness | Pieter Breughel the Younger (1564–1638) | Unknown date | Oil and oak wood | Unknown Collection | Source/Photographer: Sotheby’s London, 4 July 2012, lot 15 | Public Domain | Image Source

    Shorthand and Secret Codes

    When you look at 17th century shorthand manuscripts, the text is entirely illegible. Contrary to popular expectation, shorthand is not a series of abbreviations for standard English words, but instead forms its own language. Kelly points out that the line was blurry between seeing shorthand as a beneficial tool vs the reputation of shorthand to allow a user to obscure/hide coded messages.

    Shorthand is very much associated with secrecy, but the fundamental difference with an early modern cipher is that a cipher is basically a substitution system–letter by letter swap the letter for something else. The coded message looks like gibberish, but if you have a key you can convert that back to the original medium. Intermediary medium = early modern cipher. If you know a shorthand, you can read a shorthand, but you can’t just crack it with a key. Every system of shorthand, Bright’s included, will have very complicated rules that are particular to the system and it’s not just a matter of swapping out letters for other letters. Many of these systems are not just one to one representations of sounds. Phonetic shorthand doesn’t write down vowels, but a consonant in a particular place, and indicated by positionality, not by a written sign. Shorthand system is a kind of writing as opposed to a secret message.

    To what end?
    Why should I write this down, that’s riveted,
    Screw’d to my memory?


    Cymbeline (II.2)

    Portrait of Jan Amos Comenius (Komensky) (1592-1670). Czech humanist and educator. Expelled as pastor of the Moravian or Bohemian Brotherhood and established in Amsterdam since 1656. Bust to the left. (Translated from Dutch), Public Domain. Source

    Shorthand was considered uniquely British

     Kelly’s work references the Czech philosopher John Amos Comenius (1592–1670), who first visited London in 1641 and remarked that the English had “discovered an art which has now come into vogue even among the country folk, that of rapid script (tachygraphia) which they call stenography.… Almost all of them acquire this art of rapid writing.”  Comenius’ comments make it sound like stenography might have been uniquely English in Europe. In her research, Kelly explored the reception of shorthand outside of England and discoverd the medium and method was specifically associated with Britain.

    [Short hand was] considered specifically English, as associated with the English language. British Isles shorthand as well as Colonial America. Mysteries of Shorthand, because there’s many that occur in England and on the continent, but really doesn’t pick up or take off outsidethe English speaking world. Francis Lodwick is associated with the Royal Scoiety, and Comenius does have a lot of reach outside of England, Lodwick based on English shorthand method for the Dutch, but it gets no traction. It is a very English concept, but this is a mystery for shorthand scholars as to why it was specifically an English phenomenon.

    To what end?
    Why should I write this down, that’s riveted,
    Screw’d to my memory?


    Cymbeline (II.2)

    18th century Gurney-shorthand example. Public Domain. Source

    Shorthand was used mainly on ink and paper

    We’ve mentioned shorthand and tachygraphy specifically, but Kelly shares that when it comes to surviving evidence of shorthand on paper, there is a lot we simply cannot know. 

    Unfortunately, there’s not a ton of evidence from Shakespeare’s lifetime, although up until 1700 there are upt to 30 methods that we know concretely existed. Before that, we have Bright’s system 1588, Bales known for writing prowess published two methods adapting Bright’s system 1590 and 1597 (Brachygraphy) but he backtracked in the 1600s because these methods were budrened on the memory, so he published a third manual that was a system of abbreviation. 1602, John Willis publishes the first phonetic shorthand, and he published again in 1617, and it purports to be the 5th edition of his work, which allows us to presume there were a few manuals by him which were printed. Willis is the first phonetic shorthand inventor. Father of the phonetic based systems that come after him.

    Many of the surviving copies of shorthand that we have today are written with ink on paper. In the past, on our show, we have discussed other methods of writing that were popular for Shakespeare’s lifetime, including writing tables, wax tablets, and even graphite pencils. Shorthand may have been used in any of these mediums, but surviving record indicates one medium was considered standard.

    Ink and paper appears to be the most standard because it’s what survives in the largest quantities. I’ve seen shorthand written commonplace books, margins of printed books, recipe books, and in the early staged of shorthand it was very small and therefore very good for writing in margins. I’ve seen books entirely written in shorthand, psalms, books of the bible, quite elaborate and very useful. Notes that are repurposed as waste paper, end paper sin books, or on one case, it was the lining of a box. She’s seen shorthand written on parchment, and because it was more expensive, you can assume it was less usual. For things like writing tables and wax tablets. It makes alot of sense to use it in those mediums, but those methods are designed to be temporary, so there’s a lack of material evidence because it doesn’t survive to the present day. Manuals for how to do shorthand do describe using paper, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t used in these other mediums.

    In her work, Kelly explains that one of the main ways to investigate the place of shorthand in Elizabethan society is by examining references to those methods of writing found in surviving manuscripts which were not, themselves, examples of shorthand. For example, Shakespeare uses the word “Charactery” in two of his plays, Julius Caesar, and Merry Wives of Windsor. The contexts of those references tell us something about the place of charactery in Shakespeare’s lifetime. 

    In the article she wrote, Kelly looked through Early English Books Online, and 

    92% of surviving books surviving upto 1700, looking for mentions of shorthand to piece together what it was in the public consciousness, how did people talk about it and did they talk about, all together she found about 2000 cases where shorthand or one of its’ synonyms were used. Appearing in about 500 titles, only 27 of which were plays, only 5-6% percent, but pretty comparable to the number of plays that were published in proportion of other published materials. The vast majority of the references she found wer ein religious texts, but religous texts dominated the published works fo this time period so the number of references to shorthand in plays matches the number of plays published, suggesting shorthand culturally was broadly represented and understood.

    Will Fortune never come with both hands full,
    But write her fair words still in foulest letters?

    Henry IV

    Henry IV Part II (IV.4)

    Portrait of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), by John Hayls – Walthamstow Weekender. Public Domain. Source


    Shorthand was widely used across all levels of society

    We throw around “charactery,” “Shorthand,” and other terms for this method of writing when we talk about the past from today,but Kelly indicates that hte particular method of writing would have been known by it’s official name during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

    Brachygraphy and stenography, which continues today to be the most technical term we use to describe shorthand. Not to be confused with Stagonography (another term for cryptography). Charactery wains, and by the late 1630s, the term is “stenography” broad term –listen back here to her statement and write it correctly.

    The evolution of shorthand from Willis and Bright into other adapted forms of shorthand created a complicated system to deciper the methods and decode what has been written hundreds of years later. Kelly explains, 

    All of these systems develop out of the 1602 method by John Willis, with many having the same letter shapes, even though they may not always be associated with the same letter. Even if you do know what method is being used in surviving examples, then you face the problem of shorthand being designed to be very personalized. Example: as a lawyer, you are encouraged to develop special abbreviation for legal terminology. Same for physician or other industries, the system is for you and you’re supposed to adapt the method to your interests. For people today who has learned shorthand, they maintain it’s true of them, too, since the point is to write fast and effectively, you use whatever tools are available to you personally. Any act of decipher is less about finding the manual and going from there and figuring out what the individuals quirks were and how they used the method personally.

    There was a broad spectrum of people who used shorthand, and it was not relegated to just one section of society. 

    The manuals point towards an audience of men, but women use it, too. Rich educated men use it, and less educated men use it as well. The most famous shorthand writer of the 17th century is Samuel Pepys, whose manual has been deciphered and is a very valuable manual. He also had a servant who wrote in shorthand, so he’s an example of how master nad servant both wrote in shorthand. It could be used as a trade, but also as an act of private writing, so it appealed to different people for a variety of applications.

    Any man that can write may answer a letter.


    Romeo and Juliet (II.4)

    Title Page of an Oration taken in shorthand, “A seasonable lecture, or a most learned oration, 1642. 168-289q”. Exhibited in Technologies of Writing in the Age of Print. Folger Shakespeare Library. Used under CCASA4.0 


    Anyone could learn shorthand independently.

    Kelly writes that by the 1640s, shorthand and mastery of it, had become “as much a technology as an art” and that knowing shorthand formed a skill to be monetized –not unlike what we think of as trade school today where you learn to be a carpenter, a welder, or a plumber to then establish a valuable career around your new skill.

    [Shorthand] continues to be seen as a new fangled idea for decades after it’s first invention. Charactery associated with BRight was still an unusual and strange form of writing, and inthe cases that Shakespeare uses it, you see this place of charactery in society. In MWW, he uses charactery to refer to the writing of fairies and takes it into the foreign language. IN Julius caesar, he uses charctery in relation to the face, which is a reference that has a lot of staying power, in the 17th century, charactery is associated with the face metaphorically that you can read someone’s thoughts in their expressions. It’s very much an idea of a writing that is not like normal writing, or asystem of communication that’s not quite in the human domain yet.

    Picking up the art of shorthand and learning it yourself did not happen in school. Instead, there were other methods of learning a new skills that matched up with things like cooking, household management, and other skill sets of Elizabethan England: you turned to printed manuals. 

    [There were] not schools in the way we thik of them today, but many of the people who wrote their manuals would teach their method of shorthand for money. The manual would often include an address and a call to “come see me and I’ll teach you, you can take lessons.” People would start with a manual and learn from that, but if you had a teacher as well, they would encourage you to keep the manual with you as a way to learn as well. There were all sorts of ways to learn, a scholar who works on the Teddty Dulwick, colonial america, studied students at harvard who copied manuals by hand to distribute them among the community, and it seems to be something atsudents would do. You could also learn from a family member, from a friend, EIDT HERE. There’s no particular evidence but alot of the scholarship on how shorthand was taught come slater, and it’s very spotty, but whenever you can find a text that has written dialogue between a learner and a teacher with annotation like “write this mark different” Charles Dickens taught shorthand to one of his family members, and we have his notes.

    Resources Kelly McCay Recommends:

    Project Related to Dickens/Shorthand:

    Kelly McCay recommends the Masters Thesis by Theodore Richard Delwiche, “Masters of the Manuscript, Makers of Knowledge: Colonial New England Students and Their Shorthand Notes” (Master’s Thesis, Groningen University, 2020). This thesis is not currently uploaded online, but you can request a pdf at here or you can reach out to Teddy directly at Yale University, where he is a 2nd Year PhD student. 

    Kelly specifically recommends the chapter in this book titled “Samuel Pepys’s Life in Shorthand” by Alan Stewart. Citation: Alan Stewart, “Samuel Pepys’s Life in Shorthand,” in The Oxford History of Life Writing: Volume 2. Early Modern (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 253–71.

    Kelly McCay recommends Timothy Underhill, “John Byrom and Shorthand in Early Eighteenth-Century Cambridge,” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society 15, no. 2 (2013): 229–77. Unable to find a direct link to this work online, I refer you to your local librarian who can help you acquire a copy. I was able to find one listing on Amazon that I believe is correct, and while I will provide that link below, if you want to be sure you’re reading what she recommends, please do your own research (and consult a librarian–librarians know all.) The Library: A Quarterly Journal of Bibliography (Transactions of the Bibliographical Society) Fourth Series Volume XV

    Kelly McCay recommends this article:

    Tiffany Stern, “Sermons, Plays and Note-Takers: Hamlet Q1 as a ‘noted’ Text,” Shakespeare Survey 66 (2013): 1–23.

    You can find this article as a downloable pdf on here (And if you go to your local library–or even email them–the above citation and tell them you want to read a copy, you can read this work for free through your library and they might even be able to get you a copy you can purchase in expensively.)

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