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In his 1611 English to French dictionary, Randle Cotgrave defines the exclamation point as “the point of admiration and detestation” While credit for the original creation of the exclamation point is given to Alpoleio da Urbisaglia, the current version of the exclamation point that we know today developed between 1400-1600, during the time WIlliam Shakespeare was penning over 6000 uses of exclamation points we can find in his works. In the absence of emojis, punctuation was the way that writers communicated varying emotion and called attention to important sections of a play or story that needed to be given more oomph. Our guest this week, Florence Hazrat, has completed the book “An Admirable Point: a Brief History of the Exclamation Point” and joins us today to share some of the history of where this bit of English grammar originated and how it was being used in Shakespeare’s lifetime.  

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Florence Hazrat a researcher of Renaissance literature, a podcaster, radio guest, journalist, and author of the book An Admirable Point: A Brief History of ! Which was published by Profile Books and featured on BBC 4. Florence holds an undergraduate and master’s degree from Cambridge, where she learned to read and love Renaissance handwriting. Later, she finished her PhD in Remembering Poetry.  

I’ll be asking Florence Hazrat about:

  • Florence writes that by the time standardized books were being printed, like the Bible, the exclamation point was a standard in all European languages. Florence, did the exclamation point have universal meaning and usage across Europe?
  • It wasn’t just spelling and language that was developing in Shakespeare’s lifetime, printing was, also, in a state of fluidity with the act of printing symbols like exclamation points on paper varying greatly depending on who was doing the printing. Florence, what did an exclamation point look like for the 16th century and how does it differ from what we know today?  
  • When a printer bought a standard set of letters to use in a printing press for the16th century, was an exclamation point a standard part of this set? 
  • …and more!

Keith Houston, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Characters (New York: Norton, 2014). 

M.B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (Cambridge: Scholar Press, 1992). 

David Crystal, ”Know my stops’: Shakespearean Punctuation’ in Think on my Words (Cambridge, 2010). 

The History of Writing Letters

There are many examples of letter writing from Shakespeare’s plays, including correspondence getting lost in transit and even examples of forgery! While many of the examples from Shakespeare’s plays about letters are amplified to be more entertaining on stage, they represent real history about how communication was written and delivered for the life of William Shakespeare. Here today to help us explore the tools used to write a letter, and special tricks like letter-locking and sealing a parchment, is our guest and co-curator of the Letterwriting in Renaissance England exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare LibraryAlan Stewart. 

Screen capture of page 146 of The English Grammar by Ben Jonson, written between 1573 and 1673. Available on | Public Domain | Source

Exclamation Points for Admiration

As English was developing as a language in Shakespeare’s lifetime, spelling and punctuation were caught in the middle of a wild debate about what was going to be the standard for the language as a whole.

In his book titled The English Grammar, Ben Jonson wrote specifically about the exclamation point saying it was to be used to mark the end of a distinct sentence, but only in cases where you intended to “pronounce” the sentence “with admiration.” (Shown left).

Florence writes about a man named John Hart who also had very strong opinions about the exclamation point in 1551.

John Hart is a reformer of language and he is interested in how to standardize language and how to make it inclusive, so he says a Northerner should be able to write in whatever what they are speaking, so constantly think of dialect and local color c coming across in written work. He calls the exclamation point the wonderer, and goes back to it’s original creation in Italy as a symbol for admiration. It was to express admiration and wonder originally. He does register a double life of the exclamation point with then question mark because they both have something to do with the sound of the voice, they are about somehow making sure that these sentence we are saying is not just a statement but also a question or exclamation. Suggested a mirrored question mark and exclamation point at the beginning of a sentence as a way to mark the question, and we do see that show up in Spanish by the 18th century. 

L to R : A page from John Hart’s A Methode, 1570. Hart was a spelling reformer who tried to introduce symbols for certain sounds in English. The guide on the right shows his symbols and how they should be read. | Public Domain| Source

Want to try your own hand at writing 16th century letters?

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A fifteenth-century typography (1568) by Jost Amman. | Public Domain | Source

Printing Exclamation Points

It wasn’t just spelling and language that was developing in Shakespeare’s lifetime, printing was, also, in a state of fluidity with the act of printing symbols like exclamation points on paper varying greatly depending on who was doing the printing.

Florence explains that the visual appearance of an exclamation point was very similar to today. It was, “A straight stroke on top of a dot.”

When a printer bought a standard set of letters to use in a printing press for the16th century, the exclamation point was only included in the set if it was designed for someone in literature or poetry printing, as disciplines deemed more calm in emotion, like science or the Bible, were often considered lacking in any need for exclamation.

It was not part of the standard set ion the early 16th and 17th century. Printers of plays and poetry were more likely to have an exclamation point in the set they were acquiring, because there’s more emotion going on and so it depends on the genre the printer was printing, as well as time and money available to prepare the book. 

Image of the handwriting sample from Sir Thomas More, written by William Shakespeare c. 1603-1604 | From The British Library | Used under Creative Commons Public Domain License, see full source information below. | Source

Shakespeare Didn’t Use Many Exclamation Points

Florence shares that despite the over 6,000 exclamation points across Shakespeare’s plays, most of those were probably added by the printers of his works rather than by Shakespeare himself. Florence bases that opinion on one of the only surviving manuscripts we have written in Shakespeare’s actual hand–the speech he wrote for the play Sir Thomas More. In this speech, Sir Thomas More makes an impassioned speech, seemingly ripe for exclamation points, but instead, the whole speech is surprisingly lacking in punctuation, at all, but certainly lacking in exclamation points.

[The speech in Sir Thomas More] is explosive because there are portrayals of historical riots in 1517, Londoners are upset against foreigners coming to London and the speech of Sir Thomas More, probably by Shakespeare, he is a super hero in this play, and he stood up against Henry VIII and lost his head for his beliefs, and that in and of itself is explosive materials for being pro-Catholic, but the speech is talking to rioters suggesting humanity should be valued no matter where they come from. The notes suggest it is someone who writes in a hurry and thinking about how to stage it. Despite some periods, there are no question marks, no exclamation points where we would definitely put one today and which we would probably see people use them in the past, even, but they are notably absent here. 

Information on Sir Thomas More From the British Library

Sir Thomas More is a collaboratively written play that survives only in a single manuscript. The play is thought to have been written primarily by Anthony Munday, perhaps, some scholars think, aided by Henry Chettle, in the 1590s, with somewhat later contributions from Thomas Dekker, perhaps from William Shakespeare, and just possibly from Thomas Heywood. Politically controversial passages have been censored by Edmund Tilney, a government official known as the Master of the Revels.

On the basis of poetic style, many scholars believe that a three page revision to the play is in Shakespeare’s handwriting. However, we don’t really know what Shakespeare’s handwriting looks like. Six signatures of Shakespeare, found on four legal documents, are the only handwriting that we know for certain are his. This is too small a sample size to make any sort of reliable comparison.

Scholars have assigned letters to the various styles of handwriting found in this play. Hand D has been associated with Shakespeare; Hand C, an unidentified professional scribe, has made corrections to Hand D’s contribution. Hands A, B and E have been linked more or less persuasively with Chettle, Heywood, and Dekker, respectively. Hand S belongs to Anthony Munday. Despite the many changes made perhaps to satisfy the censor, the play was never printed, but neither were more than eighty percent of the plays from this period. And despite the stage directions added by a theatrical employee known as a “bookkeeper” writing Hand C, there is no record of the play’s having been performed, again as is the case with a great many plays that are widely presumed nonetheless to have seen the stage.
The whole manuscript can be viewed in cover-to-cover images on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

Co-written by Folger Shakespeare Library staff and Paul Werstine


Martin Wiggins and Catherine Richardson, British Drama 1533-1642: A Catalogue. Vol. IV, 1598-1602 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), s.v. “1277. Sir Thomas More.”  

John Jowett, ed., Sir Thomas More original text by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle, censored by Edmund Tilney, revisions co-ordinated by Hand C, revised by Henry Chettle, Thomas Dekker, Thomas Heywood and William Shakespeare (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2011).

Nina Levine, “Citizens’ Games: Differentiating Collaboration and ‘Sir Thomas More’,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 58:1 (Spring, 2007): 31-64.

Thomas Merriam, “Determining a Date,” Notes and Queries, 61:2 (2014): 260-265.          

Lois Potter, The Life of William Shakespeare: A Critical Biography (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 271-274. 

Paul Werstine, Early Modern Playhouse Manuscripts and the Editing of Shakespeare (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013).             

Full Bibliographic Record for the Shakespeare handwriting sample, as provided at The British Library

From the collections of: THE BRITISH LIBRARY
Terms of use
The British Library has graciously contributed the above images to Shakespeare Documented under a Creative Commons Public Domain Mark.
Copyright status of the Material: The 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (as amended) states that unpublished literary and artistic works remain in copyright in the UK until at least 31 December 2039. Therefore important parts of the library’s collection remain in copyright, including very old manuscripts. However for unpublished material created many centuries ago and in the public domain in most other countries, the Library believes this material to be very unlikely to offend anyone. As an institution whose role it is to support access to knowledge, we have therefore taken the decision to release certain digitised images technically still in copyright in the UK under the Public Domain Mark.
Copy-specific information
Title: A Tragedy on the History of Sr. Thomas More
Date: ca. 1603-04
Repository: The British Library, London, UK
Call number and opening: Harley MS 7368, fols. 8r-9v
View online bibliographic record

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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!

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