Beyond the First Folio

[Ed. note: Today’s post is by Isabel Gendler, a rising Penn senior and history major who is a CURF fellow at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts this summer]

On my first day interning at the Kislak Center, I paged through the Furness Library’s copies of the Second, Third and Fourth Folios. A group of scholars examining the less-studied later Folios had contacted Penn wanting to know if these copies contained any marginalia, corrections, or marks of provenance. To my surprise, I discovered that the flyleaves of Penn’s second copy of the Fourth Folio were virtually filled with notes in the same neat handwriting. The most recent work referenced in the notes, Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake (1810), suggests the annotations were written in the early 19th century.

Readers have long written, doodled, and made notes in their books.[1] The majority of marks made by readers simply indicate ownership. However, people also wrote in books to express their opinions or organize their responses (as readers do today), whether for personal enjoyment or for scholarly or professional purposes.[2] In her work on reader annotation, H.J. Jackson states that, while marginalia are potentially highly valuable to individuals studying literature and literary culture, scholars debate the degree to which marginalia can reliably be used to reconstruct an individual reader’s thoughts or a particular intellectual climate.[3] The copious notes present in Penn’s Fourth Folio suggest that if such notes do not lend themselves to definite conclusions, they may serve as a starting point for inquiries into the individuals and cultures that created them.

Three copies of the Fourth Folio, published in 1685, were donated to Penn in 1931, as part of the extensive library of Shakespeare and Shakespeare-related materials collected by Horace Howard Furness, Sr. and his son, Horace Howard Furness, Jr.. The title page of the copy designated “copy two” bears the signature “Bartram,” the only clue relating to its earlier history. The annotations in question comprise a mixture of excerpts from the plays themselves and references to scholarly and non-scholarly works. The reader cited the work of two respected Shakespeare editors and commentators, Edward Capell (1713-1741) and Edmond Malone (1741-1812), demonstrating a certain level of familiarity with the world of Shakespeare criticism. They also referenced an eclectic group of texts, including one of Petrarch’s sonnets and Bishop Robert Lowth’s treatise on Hebrew poetry (1753).

Isabel - Capell and Malone
Front pastedown of UPenn Furness Folio PR2751.A4 copy 2

In particular, the reader quoted Petrarch’s Sonnet 29 in association with Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy.


The reader’s familiarity with the sonnet and their decision to quote the poem in the original Italian suggests, much like the references to Capell and Malone, that the reader was well-educated, with a broad interest in literature. The sonnet’s value appears to be thematic rather than contextual – the narrator’s vision of the relief offered by death bears an obvious resemblance to Hamlet’s speech, but the 14th century sonnet seems to have little other relation to the 16th-century play. One might consequentially theorize that the reader was annotating for personal enjoyment rather than for more formal scholarly purposes. Whereas the aforementioned Capell compiled texts written before and during Shakespeare’s lifetime to better understand the intellectual climate in which the playwright operated, this reader may have quoted Petrarch simply because they enjoyed pairing the soliloquy with a beautiful poem expressing a similar sentiment.[4]

The reader further copied numerous lines of the text onto the front and back flyleaves, sometimes accompanied by mentions of scholarly or fictional works. Intriguingly, two quotes are preceded by the headings “woman” and “women – influence” and many others seem to center on femininity.

Isabel - Women

These quotes – which included Hamlet’s famous line “Frailty, thy name is woman” as well as selections from ten other comedies, tragedies and history plays – construct a somewhat complex image of Shakespeare’s female characters. In this reader’s vision, women appear to have a singularly powerful and sometimes destructive hold on men – selections from Measure for Measure  and Henry VI, Part I suggest that women can use their feminine grace and vulnerability to influence men, while Lady Macbeth goads her reluctant husband into action and the jealously of Adriana of The Comedy of Errors seems to have driven her husband insane (5.1.70-89). However, certain quotes describe feminine power and charm in a positive light – Henry VI, Part III’s Queen Margaret successfully rallies her son’s followers and a quote describing the captivating Cleopatra is followed by the phrase “no insipid beauty.” This may be a quote from the Shakespeare commentator George Steevens (1736 – 1800), from a note to the same scene in which he urged his female readers to note that many of the women who have “enslaved the hearts of princes” did so through their mental, rather than physical, charms.[5] It is probable that an individual familiar with Capell and Malone had also read Steevens’ work, leaving the modern reader to wonder if the annotator similarly believed their female contemporaries should learn from the examples set by the woman of Shakespeare.

This group of quotations illustrates how marginalia can spark scholarly inquiries. How, for example, does the image of women constructed by these quotations (if one agrees that these quotations do present a definite sense of feminine weakness and persuasiveness) compare to early 19th century norms of female behavior? How do these quotations compare to contemporaneous studies of women in Shakespeare?


[1] H. J. Jackson, Marginalia: Readers Writing in Books (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001), 53.
[2] Ibid., 14, 33-35
[3] Ibid., 15.
[4] Marcus Walsh, Shakespeare, Milton and Eighteenth Century Literary Editing: The Beginnings of Interpretive Scholarship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 185.
[5]  Isaac Reed, ed., The Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare with the Corrections and Annotations of Dr. Johnson, George Steevens and Others (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1905), 6:126.


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