'To E Or Not To E': USC And UCLA Quibble Over How To Spell Shakespear(e)

Aug 24, 2017
Originally published on August 24, 2017 5:18 pm

If Angelenos know one truth, it may well be this: There is absolutely no love lost between the University of Southern California and University of California, Los Angeles. In the classroom, on the football field, around campus — few places escape the pervasive sway of LA's great rivalry.

But this week, the battle has found a new theater: the proper spelling of Shakespear(e).

See, USC recently unveiled one of the most ambitious projects it has ever embarked upon: USC Village, a $700 million, 15-acre development that opened earlier this month to great fanfare. And towering over it all is a 20-foot-tall bronze statue of Hecuba, legendary queen of Troy, with a base sporting a few choice verses from Shakespeare's Hamlet.

There is just one snag. The school spelled his name "Shakespear":

"And all for nothing — For Hecuba!
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?"

"Shakespear's Hamlet"

Naturally, the Trojans' nemesis took note.

"USC," said UCLA's official student-run account, in a tweet dripping with disdain, "The only place in America that can unveil a statue as the centerpiece of a $700 million project and manage to misspell Shakespeare."

The statue — and specifically its base, which also features women of different backgrounds — was meant to represent USC's "commitment to all of the women of the Trojan Family ... who share the same spirit as the majestic Queen of Troy," school President C.L. Max Nikias said at the unveiling.

So how could something so important go so wrong?

Well, if you ask USC, it didn't go wrong at all. In fact, the school says it used the unusual spelling for a very specific purpose.

"To E, or not to E, that is the question," the university said in a statement to The Los Angeles Times. "Over the centuries his surname has been spelled 20 different ways. USC chose an older spelling because of the ancient feel of the statue, even though it is not the most common form."

Doth USC protest too much?

Martin Butler, professor of English renaissance drama at the University of Leeds, tells The Guardian the base isn't actually, well, off-base after all.

There's a "lot of variation in the way the name is spelled when it appears in contemporary legal documents and the early printed texts of Shakespeare's works," he explains. And that includes not just Shakespeare and Shakespear — but also "Shakspeare, Shakspere ... Shaksper, Shackspeare, even Shagspere."

He tells the Guardian that the version sans "E" was picked up especially by 18th-century editors, including even such literary heavyweights as Alexander Pope.

"Leaving the 'E' off is probably an attempt to make Shakespeare seem to belong to a more distant past; it feels more antique, but it doesn't really have any special claim to be the preferred spelling."

In other words, a bard by any other name ... would probably be just as likely to inspire a kerfuffle. As you were, Trojans and Bruins.

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