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Annotating Shakespeare

From unrequited love to doodling faces, there's quite a range of what we find written in our collection of various editions of Folios...

Mareike Doleschal
Fingers in the RSC First Folio
Fingers in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s First Folio

Writing in books is something librarians frown upon, especially in a rare and valuable book. I don’t think the previous owners of the Trust’s folios and quartos would have shared this view. I was aware of some of the marginalia in our folios such as the little hands and fingers pointing at certain lines in the RSC’s folio and an autograph of J. Simmons.

j simmons autograph
J. Simmons autograph in a Second Folio

This summer, Jean-Christophe Mayer, academic at the University of Montpellier, visited the Shakespeare Centre library to research and take photographs of inscriptions he found in our first, second, third and fourth folios and quartos. Having spent time in Washington where he studied the marginalia in folios held at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Jean-Christophe decided to research the Trust’s folios and quartos too. Over two and a half days he looked at every page of the RSC folio, five second folios, two third folios, and four fourth folios, as well as nine quartos. Assisted by me and my team of volunteers he discovered marginalia that I had never seen before.

Face in the RSC First Folio
A face in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s First Folio

Previous owners liked to leave their mark inside a folio and consequently signed the pages, like James Chesman did in the Pericles quarto, or J. Simmons, a particularly striking autograph, inside a second folio. Donors’ names are recorded too, usually by the librarian (Richard Savage), and they include Wheler, Hunt, and Charles E. Flower - the latter being the founder of the Memorial Theatre. The many underlinings found in several folios indicate the books were very much working copies which were studied and used by their owners. This is especially the case for the RSC folio, which contains an abundance of little hands pointing to various lines. However, not all of the inscriptions are of a scholarly nature, and the drawing of a face shows that the owner used the folio for some simple doodling.

According to Jean-Christophe, in most cases the handwriting is C18th, and one of the most intriguing inscriptions he discovered is inside a back cover of a fourth folio. It is a song copied from Thomas D’Urfey’s Cinthia and Endimion (or The Loves of the Deities) published in 1697:

Fourth Folio Song
Song inside a Fourth Folio cover

The poor endymion lov’d too well
A Nymph Divinely fair.

Whose Fatal Eyes could hourly kill,

Or worse; could cause Despair.

For she had all her Sexes Pride,

And all their Beauty too:
And every Amorous Swain defy’d,

When e’er they came to wooe.

Intriguingly, the line written after the poem reads: “I mean L.B.”. As the poem is about rejection, this suggests that the person, who copied it, was rejected by L.B. We will never know who L.B. was or the identity of the person who transcribed those lines, but this story of unrequited love personalises this fourth folio, making it an even more fascinating book.

With thanks to Jean-Christophe Mayer for sending two CDs containing the pictures he took of the marginalia, the CDs have been catalogued and are available to consult in the Reading Room. Thanks also to my team of volunteers for spending two days in the stacks….

You can find out more about Shakespeare’s First Folio on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website and purchase Folio-themed souvenirs on our online shop.