This post was written in collaboration with the students in my course, ENGL 234: Social Networks from Shakespeare to Facebook: Topics in History of the Book. Since we were all aware that seeing, examining, and handling early printed works by Shakespeare and his contemporaries might be a once in a lifetime opportunity, and is certainly a rare privilege, we decided to document this experience in a public forum.


IMG_5873Any reader of this blog will know that the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts holds many unique books, manuscripts, documents, materials, and objects. But one of the most exceptional attributes of this collection is its accessibility. The center supports undergraduate courses from across the university community by facilitating class visits and coordinating individual research assignments. This post documents the experience of one class visit to the Kislak Center on the sixth floor of Van Pelt Library.

We met in the gorgeous, Victorian Lea Library to examine rare materials related to Shakespeare and early modern literature. After John Pollack, the Public Service Specialist for the center, warmly welcomed our class, he and Marissa Nicosia, our instructor, explained the proper procedures for handling rare materials. In preparation for our visit we discussed how early modern books were printed, made, sold, marketed, and read by their earliest readers. For this particular class IMG_5876meeting we read Margreta de Grazia and Peter Stallybrass’s article, “The Materiality of the Shakespearean Text,” and the introduction to William Sherman’s Used Books.

To start, we examined the First, Second, and Third Folios of Shakespeare’s works. We compared these to printed works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries including the folio of Ben Jonson’s Works (digital images), a playbook of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher’s play A King and No King, and a collection of George Wither’s poetry The Workes of Master George Wither.

Next, each student selected a seventeenth-century edition of one of Shakespeare’s plays, or his Sonnets, to examine in greater detail. IMG_3767The books on the table challenged us to look beyond the actual content of a book, to the book as an object itself, with a unique identity and history. For example, we considered who published, printed, and sold these books and where. We also examined ownership marks and other handwritten marginalia, as well the physical condition of the books including worm-holes, burns, paper texture, decorative bindings, marbled end paper, and even the smell.

Student Responses

Rene - Furness PR2830 A1 1630 (SCETI – digital images of this item)

A visit to the Lea Special Collections library provided the opportunity to engage with multiple points of history at the same time.  Standing in a room built in 1881, touching texts from from the seventeenth century, and reading hand written notes from any time between then and now.  It made one feel truly a part of a network.pericles rene

The book examined, a 1630 copy of Pericles, offered its own insights and mysteries.  Why, for example, is the title on the title page different from the title at the top of the first page of text?  Similar, but different.  And then there is the author, referred to as Wil. Shakespeare.  Does this imply that he’s so well known that his full name is no necessary?  But what is most intriguing is th scant, but present, marginalia.  The handwriting is illegible (to me, at least), but seventeenth-century, according to Prof. Nicosia.  The same hand numbered the pages on the top right hand corner of each recto page with Arabic numbers.  The reader even drew a pointing hand to highlight one line of text.

It is exciting to have the opportunity to glimpse a small piece of the experience that someone else had in reading the text, particularly someone who may have been reading it soon after it was published.  Could it have been the first owner of the book?  Did they actually buy the book from Cheapside shop, at the signe of the Bible?  What was the purpose of highlighting and annotating those passages?  How did it fit into the context of the culture of his or her time?

The experience gave us a first hand way to consider all of the elements that converge over time to grow our idea of Shakespeare.  This will continue to morph with time.

Carolina – Furness PR2810 A1 1639 (SCETI – digital images of this item)

I found that many of the pages of The Historie of Henry the Fourth: with the Battell at Shrewsbury, between the king, and Lord Henry Percy, furnamed Henry Hotspur of the North had been trimmed, which left me to wonder if the marginal notations left by previous readers had been eradicated. The only evidence of marginality that had survived was a small notation on the title page stating “A Choice Play;” however, this leads me to hypothesize that the note only survived because to trim the play in this location would cut of the title as well. In addition, the title page was riddled with advertisements . The publisher claimed that this edition was “New Corrected by William Shake-Speare” even though he had already died years ago. Moreover, the popular character of Sir John Falstaffe was noted on the page as well. Also, while it is not usual for the bookseller to be noted, the exact location of his shop was stated. Combined, the title page’s primary role was sell you this editions and to continue your patronage with the publisher/bookseller.

Eric – Furness PR2825A1 1619 (SCETI – digital images of this item)

For my (Eric Alexander Santoli) examination of early Shakespearean printing, I looked through a 1600′s printing of The Excellent History of the Merchant of Venice.  The small quarto had several handwritten annotations that appear to be by a later hand and appear to be by an editor.  The 1600 print date is probably not accurate, and a date of 1619 is probably more accurate; it was printed by F. Roberts.  The age of the quarto was apparent and lead me to handle the document very carefully.  The decoration in the frontispiece and back plate are beautifully engraved.  There was no dedication page or some such matter at the front, only a longer version of the title. “With the extreme cruelty of Shylock the Iew towards the saide merchant in cutting ajust pound of flesh and obtaining of Portia by the choyce of three caskets.”  I learned a huge amount by examining this document.

Nicole – Furness PR2750 A42 1640 (SCETI – digital images of the item)

IMG_5888During our visit to the Rare Book Library this evening, I examined a collection of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, titled Poems: Written by Wil. Shakespeare. The book was an octavo from 1640, and it was the smallest one on the table. The collection was printed in at London by The Cotes, and folded by John Benfon, who dwelled in St. Dunftans Church Yard. One interesting thing that I noticed was that the book had two title pages, one printed and one that was hand traced, possibly by the owner or bookseller at a later time. To the left of the title page was a portrait of Shakespeare, and underneath was the first line of a poem dedicated to him: “This Shadowe is renowned Shakespeare’s soule of the age.” I later noticed that the page was folded, and after opening the crease the poem continued. “The applauses delights the wonder of the stage / Nature her selfe, was proud of his designes / And joy’d to weare the dressing of his lines, / This learned will confess, his works are such / As neither man, nor Muse, can pray too much./ For ever live thy fame, the world to tell. Thy life, no age, shall ever paralell.” This poem really illustrated how deeply Shakespeare was revered and respected at the time.

It was also fascinating to see the handwritten notes and musings that were made by readers and booksellers. The back of this book featured an inserted page with the word “FINIS.” written in the center. At the top was a handwritten poem, which I very much enjoyed: “Ask me no more if East and West./ The Phoenixe builds her spiced nest,/ For unto you at last she flies,/ And in your fragrant bosome dies.” Another poem was also written at the bottom of the page in the same script. I wonder whether the author of these poems was inspired by Shakespeare’s writing to try their own hand at crafting poetry.  Some poems featured an “x” next to them, perhaps because the owner enjoyed these poems – the poems that were marked with this x were “A Vow” and “Familiaritie breeds contempt.”

Jerusalem – Furness PR2807 A1 1676b (SCETI – digital images of this item)

At the rare books library, I (Jerusalem) examined the 1676 edition of The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. This edition was a quarto with an intricate design on the paper. One of the most interesting pages could be found in the prefatory material in the page addressed “to the reader.” The publisher made a note to readers that some places were omitted form the play and they in no way wish to do any wrongdoing to the authenticity of the play. Their reasoning in doing so was that the play was too long which I found to be incredibly amusing. This explanation also suggested that Shakespeare was held in high regard, as an explanation probably wouldn’t have been asked of or warranted by a relatively unknown playwright. The title on the title page was significantly bigger than the other text on the page. Some texts have the author’s, Shakespeare’s, name bigger. This could possibly suggest that the publisher was trying to sell the play through the title rather than the author.

Juile – Furness EC Sh155 608Lc

IMG_0091I (Julie) looked at a 1655 printing of King Lear that was owned by three different collectors, including Horace Furness.  The two others noted their ownership on the first blank page, documenting their name, date of purchase, and purchase price, while Furness placed a seal on the front inside cover.  I found this an interesting practice on the part of the owner in feeling the need to claim ownership and a place in the history of the book’s circulation. Other than this writing, there were no marginal annotations to be found throughout the play.  Another point of interest was the book’s printer, Jane Bell- a woman.  We concluded that a woman would likely have attained the position if she were a widow of a printer and then took over the business herself.

While there was not much material other than the actual play text, the title page provided some interesting insight into the context of the publication.  This publication seemed to fall at a time when the Shakespeare name as an author was a selling point for his works.  Shakespeare’s name was listed at the top of the page preceding the title, and in the largest sized type. The title then reads “HIS, True Chronicle History of the Life and Death of King Lear, and his three Daughters, With the Unfortunate Life of EDGAR, Sonne and Heire to the Earle of Glocester, and his Sullen assumed humour of TOM of Bedlam”.  This suggests that the author was possibly a bigger selling point than the play, and perhaps the play even needed that endorsement to sell copies.  In fact,  the page also markets characters like the three daughters, Edgar, and Tom, the last two being in all capital font, and a larger font size than even King Lear.  After this title it includes a text noting the version is “As it was plaid before the King Maiesty at Whit-Hall…” – perhaps another marketing-focused reminder to those who had seen that live version.

pericles 1635

Dylan – Furness PR2750 A30 1635 (SCETI – digital images of this item)

In my copy of Pericles Prince of Tyre, the absence of a substantial amount of beginning pages including the title page and any publishing information prevented identifying too much information. However, large amounts of editing marginalia indicate that this copy was used for amending and changing elements of the play from basic rhyming couplets to more qualitative aspects such as slight variations in word usage.

Joel – Furness PR 2750. A07 1611 (SCETI – digital images of this item)

IMG_3771The rare book I (Joel) studied was the third quarto of Hamlet or fully titled -The Tragedy of Hamlet the Prince of Denmark. This edition was printed in 1611, and as a complete and entire copy according to John from the Special Collections it is therefore extremely rare and valuable. Interestingly it was the only one of the books which we studied which was actually printed  during Shakespeare’s lifetime- some of the others claimed to have been published then but were in fact published much later. Also, given the description on the title page advertising this copy as “Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much againe as it was according to the true and perfect copy”, this was at least a second edition, giving us an indication of the popularity of Hamlet in print at the time as it warranted a second copy. According to the imprint, the publisher and bookseller were the same person, John Smethwicke, who sold his books at Fleet Street. Mr Smethwicke also had his own image printed onto the title page, an image of a duck with a scroll (not quite sure why he decided on the duck).

Regarding the text itself, as well as the conventional early-modern features such as headers and chain lines, what I found to be quite striking were the lack of divisions of Scenes and Acts, as well as only very minimal stage directions (Enter and Exit). This was quite different to the Folio, which had Acts and Scenes in Latin and clearly separated.

Another thing which struck me was the fact that the type-setter seemed to have run out of space on multiple pages. For example the text would run all the was to the bottom margin, sometimes being slightly cut-off. In one clear example, during the play which Hamlet arranges for the Claudius, Hamlet’s asides such as “That’s wormwood” were printed separately, close to the right hand margin. During class we had discussed the way in which the type had to be set out in order for the printer to function, and so this seemed out of place, as if Hamlet’s interjections were intruding upon the actual dialogue of the play-within-a-play.

The book itself was purchased as a gift in 1864 for the price of 18 pounds, which given that it’s priceless today, to me seems totally worth it.

Abrina – Furness EC Sh155 622oc

The rare book that I (Abrina) had the opportunity to review was a 1655 printed copy of The Tragedy of Othello, The Moore of Venice. It was owned and briefly annotated (on the first page) by a woman named Frances, who noted that the play was “a sad one” (A2). Both the librarian present and Professor Nicosia noted that this annotation was significant due to the evidence it provides of women’s engagement with current events–Frances not only owns a copy of this play, but has read it thoroughly enough to note its “sad” quality. Compared to the folios present in the room, this book was relatively small in both size and density, including no prefatory notes or much of any information outside of the publisher’s name, location, and publication year (title and author were included as well). For the most part, the play was seemingly unedited. The pages seemed to accrue more ink blots as I neared the end. Overall the copy that I got to look at was very straightforward with the information presented, including crucial information concerning publishing, time period, the owner of the play, and of course, the play itself.

Keiwana – Furness EC Sh155 F670d 1674 (SCETI – digital images of this item) tempest d'avenant

Awestruck! When I (Keiwana J. McKinney) entered Henry Charles Lea Library’s oversize glass & wood doors, it was like taking a quantum leap into the early twentieth century.  My eyes shifted back and forth between the grandeur of the open bi-level space and the elongated wood table centered in the middle of the room. Antique books from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were set atop a piece of foam and aligned along the table’s perimeter.

Library Specialist, John Pollack, instructed the class on how to handle antiquarian literary works. Hands were required to be freshly washed. Book covers were opened carefully, so that the covers gently touched the foam. The top, or bottom, corner of the page was used to turn each page. Small weighted ropes were utilized to hold the page in place and to minimize contact between the books’ text and participants’ fingertips. After all, this special collection of books far exceeds a twenty million dollar price value. And more importantly, each book is irreplaceable.

I examined the comedy entitled, The Tempest or The Enchanted Island, a quarto printed in London in 1674. The focus of my examination was the book’s materials. The surreal experience left me fascinated. For example, I witnessed how the once popular leather hide was used to preserve books. The book cover for The Tempest or The Enchanted Island is made of red leather hide and gold embossment runs along its border. There is no title listed on the book’s front or back cover. All of the pages were outlined with gold trim.  Black text, italics, and roman text were used throughout the publication. In its totality, the pages of the book include: decorative marbled end-paper that is seamlessly attached to the book’s inside covers and gutter; the marble end-paper consists of red hues that form and elegant design and serves as the first page.  Two separate personal insignias, which belong to the book’s previous owners, are placed atop the marble end-paper inside the front cover. The Title Page lists two titles to inform readers that The Enchanted Island is an adaptation of The Tempest. The contents of the Title Page include the genre, Theatre Company, location, printer, patron, and year. Unlike the Title Page, The Preface has one title only, which reads, “The Preface to The Enchanted Island.”  The author, John Dryden, dedicates The Enchanted Island to the memory of Sir William Davenant.  Dryden notes that Sir Davenant introduced him to the works of “the poet Shakespeare” and acknowledges Shakespeare as “a poet of high veneration.” The next page lists the cast members. Then, the actual play occupies the following 82 pages. Numbers serve as the header for each page and catchwords keep the printer’s page order. The final page belongs to the Epilogue.

My overall experience at the Henry Charles Lea Library increased my understanding of how Shakespeare’s character Prospero, became enthralled by the knowledge and power that reside in texts.

John – Furness PR2812 A1 1619 (SCETI – digital images of this item)

During our trip to the Rare Books portion of the library I was assigned to an interesting 1619 copy of Henry V. Much of the insight I was able to gain from a descriptive standpoint was readily available on the title page. It included and omitted a number of key components that can lead to inferences about the context in which the work was printed. The most noticeable omission is of the author himself, William Shakespeare. The selling point of the book is made more on the body of work than using Shakespeare as a mechanism to push copies. Moreover the title itself is altered to a long, drawn out description of “The Chronicle History of Henry the fift (sic), with his battell fought at Agin Court in France. Together with ancient Pistoll.” This is not particularly revealing about this work specifically, but does illustrate perhaps the conventions that printers would exercise when creating titles. Also, a stamp on the bottom of the title page is labeled as “Printed for T.P. 1608.” After further investigation I found that the initials T.P. stand for Thomas Pavier, a contemporary publisher with a “dubious reputation.” The origin of this negative reputation stems from his falsifying of publishing dates to give more merit to his own books. This is why although the book itself claims to be printed in 1608, scholars have concluded that it truly came out in 1619 as Pavier attempted to scrounge together a complete folio. Only minor annotations really stood out from the remainder of the work. These were so minute that we may be able to infer the person making annotations was comparing this quarto to another copy of Henry V. In closing, it is intriguing to see the specific history of the exact book we are dealing with as we are able to gain insight to the little idiosyncrasies that each owner had in relation to the work.


At the conclusion of our visit, we discussed the experience of handling early modern books and how that experience contributed to our ongoing discussion of Shakespeare and media. We found that seeing these books in real life and being able to physically examine them provided information that no reprint or digital version could. The patina of the pages, wormholes, burn marks, and handwritten annotations allowed us to experience multiple layers of history at a single moment. It was an experience of sensory overload to see, touch, and smell the paper that people were touching 400 years ago and have been since.

We usually view Shakespeare at the level of the text itself, but the book is an object with its own identity that can modify or change our perception. The materiality of the text becomes more concrete and significant when you have a physical copy in your hands than when you might read about the materiality in literary criticism.