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The books that inspired A Shakespeare Motley: nine unique books from our rare book collection

Librarian Mareike Doleschal introduces nine unique early printed books that inspired A Shakespeare Motley, a book recently published by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Mareike Doleschal

One of the most enjoyable aspects of my work as a rare book librarian is being a bridge-builder between books and people. What I particularly enjoy is witnessing the joy others derive from exploring our books, and I once referred myself to a customer as a facilitator of joy.

Back in pre-pandemic times, I had the opportunity to do some picture research for my colleagues Adam and Emma, who searched for illustrations in early printed books. Inspired by 19th-century scrapbooks, my colleagues put together an assortment of images they found in rare books from the 16th and 17th centuries and created their miscellany titled A Shakespeare Motley.

Seeing the delight in my colleagues’ eyes as they viewed the early printed books that I had got out for them was the best part of the project. It certainly made me feel the facilitator of joy that I strive to be. Witnessing my colleagues’ engagement with the books also enabled me to see the books and their illustrations in a new light, and I went on a journey of discovery as I delved into our rare book collection.

I chose books from topics such as religion, medicine, natural history, works that Shakespeare would have known and read, and domestic manuals. I selected favourites but also rare books I had never got out for a reader before. To list all books would make an impossibly long blog, so I chose to focus on nine books, which are unique for various reasons.

Coryat’s crudities

A travel diary of the teenaged aristocrat Thomas Coryat published in 1611 chronicles his adventures, observations of local history and the curious and quirky. My favourite illustration shows Coryat standing on an enormous barrel filled with Rhinish wine; its size dwarfs the young traveller. Richly illustrated the full title is Coryat’s crudities: hastily gobbled up in five months travel. His travelogue is an account of his journey he undertook in 1608 through various European countries. Coryat not only entertained with his tales of adventure, but he also introduced useful things from his travels to England such as the fork.

One of the earliest domestic guides introduced in England is titled Delights for ladies written by Hugh Plat and published in 1611. The vellum bound book is small enough for a lady’s pocket and features recipes and advice on making candles and almond butter, how to dye hair or a beard in half an hour or how to remove a pimple. It sounds like it could still be relevant to the 21st-century reader!

The next book should come with a warning. Its illustrations show the suffering of religious martyrs in extreme detail. I was shocked to find such images in an early modern book. Titled A general martyrology, a vicar’s son and clergyman called Samuel Clarke wrote the book. Published in 1651, the first of three editions, its contents are evidence of the evils humans are capable of and ready to inflict on others. You can explore the variety of types of torture in our collection, if you can take it. Some, however, might not find the images too shocking. The illustrations have been described to me on one occasion as "funny". At first, I was surprised by the comment. However, on the second inspection of the images, I realised why he had said this. There’s a curious mismatch between the cruelty depicted and the comic book style of the illustrations. Also, the facial expressions of victims and torturers don’t match the suffering shown.

sbt-sr-os-93-holinshed-chronicles-1577-030-1 cropped.jpg
Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland

Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland published in 1577 was a book I was very familiar with when I showed it to Emma and Adam. Shakespeare used the revised edition published 1587 as a source material for his history plays and Macbeth, King Lear and Cymbeline. One of the most striking images is that of the three witches. Unlike Shakespeare, in Holinshed’s world, the witches are “creatures of the elder wood… nymphs or fairies.”[3] Shakespeare transformed them into evil creatures, all for the dramatic effect, of course. Sadly this perception of what were once mythical and wise women persists until today.

Historiae Naturalis

Emma and Adam selected several illustrations such as pictures of moths, butterflies, beetles, unicorns and spiders from a book on natural history published in 1653 (Historiae Naturalis). The author, John Johnston, was a Polish scholar and physician whose family emigrated from Scotland. Unlike previous writers on natural history, Johnston focuses less on folklore and tales of mythical animals. Fortunately, some symbolism persists, and to our delight, he included several illustrations of unicorns.

The ornithology of Francis Willughby

The ornithology of Francis Willughby (1678) features delicately hand-coloured illustrations of birds. The authors of this ornithology assembled the pictures during their travels through Europe, by commissioning artists in England and adapting older woodcuts and engravings used in previously published books. The artist shows the birds in profile to display their distinguishing characteristics such as their beaks.[4]

The birth of mankinde published 1604 (SR 97.8)
The Birth of Mankind

The Birth of Mankind, published in 1604, is a first of its kind in several ways. A translation of a book in German, it was the first book on childbirth published in England. It also included illustrations, showing the unborn child and the various positions it can take in the uterus. The unborn children with their full heads of hair and fully formed limbs don’t look like babies and resemble a young child. Despite the lack of realism, the illustrations are fascinating: they display medical knowledge in the early modern period that might seem surprising to the modern reader. To find out more about this unique book, take a look at Michelle Michel’s blog, a mother of three, who wished she had known of some of the advice given to mothers in this book when she had her children!

Abraham Ortelius’s pocket atlas The Theatre of the world from 1603 is a favourite with many Trust staff and visitors from abroad. The numerous maps and accompanying descriptions of countries have provided an enduring source of inspiration and delight. Emma and Adam chose two maps from this book, including those of Egypt and Illyria.

Title page from the Ashburnham First Folio, 1623. Headed "Mr William Shakespeare's Comedies Histories & Tragedies, it has a portrait of Shakespeare with high forehead, moustache (no beard), and ear-length straight hair. He wears a flat ruff.
Title page from the Ashburnham First Folio

Last but not least are two of our First Folio editions of Shakespeare’s works. Neither A Shakespeare Motley nor this list would be complete without our most valuable and important book. The Trust looks after three First Folios, one of the Folios that features in A Shakespeare Motley belonged to the Earl of Ashburnham who sold it to the Trust in 1895 for £595. The book was washed in the nineteenth century and rebound during the eighteenth century.

I hope my blog has taken you on a journey and given you a flavour of some of the treasures housed in our rare book stack. I also hope you might want to learn more about A Shakespeare Motley, a book I can’t wait to hold in my hands and add to our collection. It’s testament to what can be achieved when you open your mind to the beauty, sadness and joy contained in our early printed books.

A Shakespeare Motley: An Illustrated Assortment
A Shakespeare Motley


[1] Poitevin, Kimberly. "Inventing Whiteness: Cosmetics, Race, and Women in Early Modern England." Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 11, no. 1 (2011): page: 64

[2] Bulwer, John. “Anthropometamorphosis: man transformed…” London, printed by William Hunt, 1653

[3] Holinshed, Raphael. “The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland.” At London, Imprinted for Iohn Hunne, 1577.

[4] Nathan Flis. "Francis Barlow, the King's Birds, and the Ornithology of Francis Willughby and John Ray." Huntington Library Quarterly 78, no. 2 (2015): 263-300.


Bulwer, John. “Anthropometamorphosis: man transformed…” London, printed by William Hunt, 1653.

Craik, Katharine A. "Reading "Coryats Crudities" (1611)." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 44, no. 1 (2004): 77-96. Accessed February 15, 2021.

Holinshed, Raphael. “The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland.” At London, Imprinted for Iohn Hunne, 1577.

Nathan, Flis. "Francis Barlow, the King's Birds, and the Ornithology of Francis Willughby and John Ray." Huntington Library Quarterly 78, no. 2 (2015): 263-300. Accessed January 25, 2021. doi:10.1525/hlq.2015.78.2.263.

Poitevin, Kimberly. "Inventing Whiteness: Cosmetics, Race, and Women in Early Modern England." Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 11, no. 1 (2011): 59-89. Accessed January 25, 2021.

Sangha, Laura. “Samuel Clarke’s Martyrology: images of religious violence.” Accessed February 15, 2021

Schildkrout, Enid. "Inscribing the Body." Annual Review of Anthropology 33 (2004): 319-44. Accessed January 25, 2021.

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