By Hannah Natanson

The Washington Post

The handwriting was oddly familiar.

University of Cambridge lecturer Jason Scott-Warren peered closer at the article he was reading — especially its photos of anonymous marginal scratchings in a 17th-century edition of William Shakespeare’s plays. It couldn’t be, he told himself, setting aside his sandwich during a lunch break last week. Surely that wasn’t John Milton’s handwriting?

Scott-Warren jumped up, ran to the library and began comparing the photos with Cambridge copies of Milton’s scribblings.

“I just got more and more persuaded by the idea: This could be Milton, which was strange and unbelievable,” said Scott-Warren, who studies ancient handwriting. “I sat there for hours, surrounded by books, trying to stop people seeing what I was up to.”

After a day of frenetic research and “much fretting,” he published a blog post suggesting the 17th-century text — which had languished in obscurity in the Free Library of Philadelphia since 1944 — was in fact John Milton’s personal annotated copy of Shakespeare’s first folio, published in 1623 and the first collected edition of the bard’s plays. Scott-Warren’s post sent academics around the world into a tizzy, prompting some to hail it as the most significant literary discovery in recent memory.

Scott-Warren knew it was “a big claim to make.” Milton, the author of “Paradise Lost,” is regarded by some as second in prestige and influence only to Shakespeare in the English canon. Shakespeare, of course, needs no introduction.

“We now have firsthand evidence — literally, firsthand evidence — of arguably the second-greatest 17th-century writer reading the first,” said Rhodri Lewis, an English professor at Princeton University who has studied Milton and Shakespeare. “That’s an absolutely extraordinary thing.”

Lewis, along with several other professors contacted by The Washington Post, said the evidence presented in Scott-Warren’s blog post, while not 100% conclusive, is highly convincing. William Poole, a fellow at the University of Oxford who studies and teaches Milton, said the similarities go beyond handwriting: The anonymous commentator does “exactly the things Milton does” when annotating books and uses identical markings.

If Milton’s authorship is proved beyond doubt, Poole and other experts said, the text probably marks modern scholars’ best shot at understanding a literary relationship that helped shape Milton as an author. Though Milton and Shakespeare never met — Shakespeare died in 1616, while Milton was born in 1608 — Milton was a fervent admirer of the bard, at one point writing in a poem that Shakespeare was the “dear son of Memory, great heir of fame.”

Milton’s marginalia range from line-editing — crossing out an adjective and offering an alternative — to flagging preferred passages to fixing Shakespeare’s meter, ensuring it conforms perfectly to the rules of iambic pentameter. At one point, Milton rewrites the title of what may be Shakespeare’s most famous work: The play becomes “Juliet and Romeo,” not vice versa.

The annotated text could afford greater insight into Milton’s mode of literary analysis and thus his development as a great writer in his own right, experts said.

“This may be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times,” Poole said. “To hope that we might have the copy belonging to the next great poet in the language … was just too much. But in fact the book (was) hiding in plain sight.”

It almost stayed hidden.

The folio surfaced only after the painstaking efforts of Claire M.L. Bourne, an English professor at Pennsylvania State University who in part studies how people have read books throughout history. She began examining the text while a Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania, traveling to the Philadelphia Free Library reading room to pore over the text in person. She quickly became fascinated by the folio and its unnamed annotator, whom she never suspected might be Milton.

Bourne came to cherish particular edits. For example, the time the commenter suggested “wicked tongue” instead of “idle tongue” in Hamlet. Or the time he proposed that Juliet was “past hope, past cure, past help” instead of “past hope, past care, past help” in “Romeo and Juliet.”

“This was a particular kind of engagement with the text — a very precise, granular engagement with the text — that really excited me,” she said.

Bourne spent 10 years studying the text before finally publishing her findings in late 2018 — an article part of an essay collection published in the book “Early Modern English Marginalia” that prompted Scott-Warren’s “Eureka!” moment.

Scott-Warren, who also wrote an article published in the collection, picked up the book last week because he wanted to read everyone else’s essays. The evening after he stumbled across Bourne’s essay, he reached out on Twitter to ask whether she thought his theory about Milton plausible. After securing her blessing, Scott-­Warren published his blog post the next day.

Things immediately took off on social media, with other professors — including many Milton experts — weighing in to declare the findings legitimate. Some posted photos of other examples of Milton’s writing, pointing out further similarities that strengthened Scott-Warren’s argument. Others offered their congratulations on a field-altering find.

“It’s incredibly exciting and rare for scholars to have any new document that can give us a glimpse into the way an early writer wrote,” said Aaron Pratt, a curator of early books and manuscripts at the University of Texas at Austin. “Immensely more exciting, needless to say, if the document shows one of England’s most famous writers in conversation with the most famous one.”

Still, there’s more work to be done.

First, Scott-Warren and Bourne need to conduct additional research to prove the anonymous annotator is truly Milton, Pratt said. They will need to go through every single annotation in the folio and pair it with a known example of Milton’s writing, according to Pratt — the closest the duo can possibly come to “smoking gun-level proof,” he said. Scott-Warren and Bourne said they plan to co-write a paper doing exactly that.

If all goes well, the pair can also start guessing what the annotations reveal about their author. Though Bourne has already examined the marginalia hundreds of times, she said she is excited to review it all again — because, this time, she’ll be entering Milton’s head.

It’s unclear why Milton may have made the marginalia and revisions. But — despite the man’s well-documented massive ego — Scott-Warren, Bourne and experts cautioned against the idea that Milton saw himself as a superior writer entitled to edit Shakespeare.

It was more likely that Milton saw himself as correcting others’ errors — saving Shakespeare, who died seven years before the folio appeared, from the printer, according to Scott-Warren.

“I don’t think it’s about wanting to do it better than Shakespeare; I think it’s about appreciating the immense potential of the texts,” Scott-Warren said. “Milton is a real admirer of Shakespeare. He thinks Shakespeare is a brilliant writer, and he wants the text to be as brilliant as it can be.”

What is clear is that the value of the folio, already high, just jumped immeasurably. Pristine copies of Shakespeare’s first folio have sold for immense amounts of money: In 2001, a copy sold in New York for more than $6 million.

The Free Library — which obtained the book when the family of Joseph E. Widener donated it to the library after the wealthy Philadelphia businessman and philanthropist’s death — declined to give an estimate of the folio’s price, but Pratt had a guess.

“This would be worth millions of dollars plural; nothing like it has ever come on the market,” Pratt said. “It would go for more than any copy ever sold.”

He paused and laughed. “Of course, (the Free Library) is never, ever going to sell.”

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