The Legacy of Poor Penmanship: From Shakespearean Scribbles to Modern Txt Talk

The Legacy of Poor Penmanship

From Shakespeare to Social Media: The Persistent Peril of Poor Penmanship

A Historical Perspective on Bad Handwriting

While our smartphones and laptops have fueled narratives of digital doom for penmanship, the struggles of illegible scribbles have a surprisingly long history. In the 16th and 17th centuries, people in England grappled with the same frustrations of messy and often unintelligible handwriting.

Cacography: The Evil Twin of Calligraphy

During that era, the vast majority of documents were handwritten. Despite the common use of ink and quill pens, cacography – the term for terrible penmanship – was a prevalent problem. Letters from the time are peppered with apologies for poor handwriting, often attributed to exhaustion or physical ailments.

Notable Examples of Cacography

Even prominent figures such as Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, were notorious for their indecipherable handwriting. Political figures, intellectuals, and even theologians struggled with legibility. The brilliant Margaret Cavendish lamented the speed at which she wrote, sacrificing readability for the free flow of her ideas.

The Social Context of Bad Handwriting

In an era where handwritten letters were a crucial form of communication, poor penmanship could have social and cultural implications. At a time when literacy was not universal, elegant handwriting was often associated with education and status. However, surprisingly, in early modern England, the aristocracy was known for their particularly bad handwriting.

Power Struggles in Penmanship

In fact, some scholars suggest that bad handwriting was a deliberate strategy. Aristocrats may have used it as a power move, forcing others to decipher their scribbles, thereby asserting their social dominance. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the protagonist declares that he purposefully writes illegibly as a rejection of the social aspirations associated with elegant penmanship.

The Modern Legacy of Cacography

While smartphones and computers have undoubtedly impacted our writing habits, the challenges of poor handwriting persist. Today, we may struggle to read our own hastily written notes or emails. However, it’s comforting to know that the frustrations of cacography have been a timeless human experience, from the courts of Queen Elizabeth to our modern digital age.


Our struggles with illegible handwriting are nothing new. The history of cacography reveals that messy penmanship has always been a part of the human experience. Whether it’s a deliberate power play or the result of exhaustion or physical limitations, bad handwriting has a centuries-long legacy that continues to plague us today.

So, the next time you’re struggling to decipher your own notes, take solace in the fact that you’re not alone. You’re simply a part of the long and colorful history of cacography.

By Deepika

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