Much Ado

The title of this painting is electrifying: Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare Playing at Chess. Unfortunately, its authenticity has been subject to debate for more than a century. It came to light only in 1878, when it was purchased for $18,000 by Colonel Ezra Miller, and the authenticating documents were lost in a fire 17 years later.

Supporters claim that it was painted by Karel van Mander (1548-1606), and in the best possible case it would give us new likenesses of Jonson and Shakespeare painted by a contemporary. But a biography of van Mander, probably written by his brother, makes no mention of this painting, nor of the artist ever visiting London, and while Shakespeare here appears younger than Jonson, in fact he was eight or nine years older.

“It is understandable that there is still curiosity about Shakespeare’s life, physical features, and reputation,” wrote Roehampton Institute scholars Bryan Loughrey and Neil Taylor in 1983. “If the chess portrait were genuinely a portrait of Shakespeare and Jonson, the painting would be of unique interest. Unfortunately, most of the arguments that have been advanced in its favor are untenable.”

Real or fake, Shakespeare has the better of Jonson in this game — he can mate on the move:,_1603.gif
Image: Wikimedia Commons

(Bryan Loughrey and Neil Taylor, “Jonson and Shakespeare at Chess?” Shakespeare Quarterly 34:4 [Winter 1983], 440-448.)

In a Word

n. a person who investigates

adj. cunning or crafty

n. a drinking companion

adj. guilty

In “The Adventure of the Abbey Grange,” a bottle of wine is two-thirds full and then half empty, without explanation.

In The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Leslie S. Klinger writes, “Perhaps Holmes poured some wine off to conduct an actual experiment, instead of simply imagining the result.” Or perhaps Holmes and Watson drank it themselves.

“The Dyspeptic’s Suicide”

Mr. Beauclerk said [to Samuel Johnson:] Mr. ——–, who loved buttered muffins, but durst not eat them because they disagreed with his stomach, resolved to shoot himself; and then he eat three buttered muffins for breakfast, before shooting himself, knowing that he should not be troubled with indigestion; he had two charged pistols; one was found lying charged upon the table by him, after he had shot himself with the other.

— James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791


A poetic letter from Emily Dickinson to her aunt, Mrs. J. Howard Sweetser, late autumn 1884:

Dear Nellie,

I hardly dare tell you how beautiful your Home is, lest it dissuade you from the more mortal Homestead in which you now dwell — Each Tree a Scene from India, and Everglades of Rugs.

Is not ‘lead us not into Temptation’ an involuntary plea under circumstances so gorgeous? Your little note dropped in upon us as softly as the flake of Snow that followed it, as spacious and as stainless, a paragraph from Every Where — to which we never go — We miss you more this time, I think, than all the times before —

An enlarged ability for missing is perhaps a part of our better growth, as the strange Membranes of the Tree broaden out of sight.

I hope the Owl remembers me, and the Owl’s fair Keeper, indeed the remembrance of each of you, were a gallant boon — I still recall your Son’s singing, and when the ‘Choir invisible’ assemble in your Trees, shall reverently compare them — Thank you for all the Acts of Light which beautified a Summer now past to its reward.

Love for your Exile, when you write her, as for Love’s Aborigines — Our Coral Roof, though unbeheld, its foliage softly adds —

Emily, with Love

A Nonentity

In 1878 R.W.S. Ralston, assistant librarian of the British Museum, wrote to Leo Tolstoy asking for some biographical information for an article he was writing. Tolstoy wrote back:

Dear Sir,

I am very sorry not to be able to give you a satisfactory answer to your letter. The reason of it is that I very much doubt my being an author of such importance as to interest by the incidents of my life not only the Russian, but also the European public. I am fully convinced by many examples of writers, of whom their contemporaries made very much and which were quite forgotten in their lifetime, that for contemporaries it is impossible to judge rightly on the merits of literary works, and therefore, notwithstanding my wishes, I cannot partake the temporary illusion of some friends of mine, which seem to be sure that my works must occupy some place in the Russian literature. Quite sincerely not knowing if my works shall be read after a hundred years, or will be forgotten in a hundred days, I do not wish to take a ridiculous part in the very probable mistakes of my friends.

Hoping that on consideration of my motives you will kindly excuse my refusal,

I am yours faithfully,

Count L. Tolstoy

Ralston got the information from Turgenev. His article appeared in 1879 under the title “Count Leo Tolstoy’s Novels.”

Open Questions

The Mad Hatter poses a famous unanswered riddle in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

W.S. Gilbert poses another one in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Yeomen of the Guard. The jester Jack Point asks, “Why is a cook’s brainpan like an overwound clock?” The Lieutenant impatiently says, “A truce to this fooling,” and Jack withdraws, saying, “Just my luck: my best conundrum wasted.”

“Like many in the audience, I have often wondered what the answer to that conundrum is, and one day I put a question about it to Gilbert,” wrote Henry A. Litton in The Secrets of a Savoyard (1922). “With a smile he said he couldn’t tell me then, but he would leave me the answer in his will.”

“I’m sorry to say that it was not found there — maybe because there was really no answer to the riddle, or perhaps because he had forgotten to bequeath to the world this interesting legacy.”


Rejection letter sent by the University of Portland’s Portland Magazine, devised by editor Brian Doyle:

Thank you for your lovely and thoughtful submission to the magazine, which we are afraid we are going to have to decline, for all sorts of reasons. The weather is dreary, our backs hurt, we have seen too many cats today and as you know cats are why God invented handguns, there is a sweet incoherence and self-absorption in your piece that we find alluring but we have published far too many of same in recent years mostly authored by the undersigned, did we mention the moist melancholy of the weather, our marriages are unkempt and disgruntled, our children surly and crammed to the gills with a sense of entitlement that you wonder how they will ever make their way in the world, we spent far too much money recently on silly graphic design and now must slash the storytelling budget, our insurance bills have gone up precipitously, the women’s basketball team has no rebounders, an aunt of ours needs a seventh new hip, the shimmer of hope that was the national zeitgeist looks to be nursing a whopper of a black eye, and someone left the toilet roll thing empty again, without the slightest consideration for who pays for things like that. And there were wet towels on the floor. And the parakeet has a goiter. And the dog barfed up crayons. Please feel free to send us anything you think would fit these pages, and thank you for considering our magazine for your work. It’s an honor.

From Letters of Note.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

I do not like books. I believe I have the smallest library of any literary man in London, and I have no wish to increase it. I keep my books at the British Museum and at Mudie’s, and it makes me very angry if any one gives me one for my private library. I once heard two ladies disputing in a railway carriage as to whether one of them had or had not been wasting money. ‘I spent it in books,’ said the accused, ‘and it’s not wasting money to buy books.’ ‘Indeed, my dear, I think it is,’ was the rejoinder, and in practice I agree with it.

— Samuel Butler, Ramblings in Cheapside, 1890


  • The negative space in the eight of diamonds forms an 8.
  • William Brewster, leader of the Plymouth Colony, named his children Jonathan, Patience, Fear, Love, and Wrestling.
  • Wilfred Owen’s mother received the news of his death on Armistice Day.
  • “I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave.” — William James

A Time Machine

The life of a good book is far longer than the life of a man. Its author dies, and his generation dies, and his successors are born and die; the world he knew disappears, and new orders which he could not foresee are established on its ruins; law, religion, science, commerce, society, all are transformed into shapes which would astound him; but his book continues to live. Long after he and his epoch are dead, the book speaks with his voice.

— Gilbert Highet, on Juvenal