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Scrapbooking Shakespeare

Gary F Fisher explores the extraordinary illustrated volumes of Shakespeare's works created by George Williams

Gary F. Fisher

Gary F. Fisher is an AHRC-funded PhD student at the Shakespeare Institute, working with the Birthplace Trust as a Research Advocate for Midland 3 Cities Doctoral Training Partnership.

The library of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust houses one of the largest collection of publically accessible editions of Shakespeare’s works in the world, ranging from the First Folio published in 1623 to 21st century editions. Beginning with Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 The Works of Mr William Shakspear, it has been common for editions of Shakespeare’s works to include illustrations to accompany the text. These illustrations typically consist of images of the characters, locations, arrangements of scenes, and other such information that assists the reader in imagining how the scene might appear in performance.

One very special illustrated edition in the Trust’s collection was created by George Williams in the mid-nineteenth century. Using a copy of Charles Knight’s The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakspere (1839-43) as his basis, Williams cut up Knight’s edition, re-compiled, re-arranged, and augmented it with thousands of other images he felt relevant to Shakespeare’s works. He bound each play as a separate volume to create one enormous ‘extra-illustrated’ edition of Shakespeare’s complete works. Almost every page in Knight’s original version is accompanied by as many as fourteen pages of images that Williams has added relating to that page of text. Knight’s original eight volumes have, by Williams, been expanded to a whopping forty-three volumes.

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The quantity of the images that Williams has added is matched by their variety. Not limiting himself solely to illustrations of scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, Williams has included landscape paintings and maps of the locations in which the Shakespearian scenes occur, portraits of the characters depicted, and sketches and drawings of any flora and fauna mentioned in the plays. Even prints of works by such artists as Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci have made their way into Williams’ edition.

Each page of text is separated by several pages of images that illustrate different aspects of the scene in question. For example, act five, scene three of Julius Caesar, in which Cassius, realising his forces will be defeated in battle at Philippi, orders his servant Pindarus to kill him so that he might avoid being captured. In Knight’s edition this scene is spread over two pages with no images inset. Knight has previously introduced the play with a series of illustrations displaying the types of costume the characters might be expected to wear and has opened act five with a small inset picture of the plains of Philippi. Knight’s original illustrations enable the reader to envision the story’s events without interrupting their reading of the individual scenes. In Williams’ version there are five images separating the two pages containing scene three. After reading Cassius’ line ‘Now be a freeman; and, with this good sword’ readers must flick through five pages of images ranging from diagrams of Roman triumphs to sketches of grand scenes of battle before reading the line ‘That ran through Caesar’s bowels, search this bosom’ that begins the next page.

Williams’ volumes go well beyond the remit of an illustrated edition. They could perhaps be more accurately described as a personal scrapbook that reflects his own engagement with the texts. These editions are not only testament to the tremendous passion that the works of Shakespeare have been able to inspire in people (one dreads to imagine the time and cost involved in Williams’ production of these editions) but are also, as will be discussed in this short series of blogs about Williams’s unusual edition, incredibly revealing of the way in which readers have engaged with Shakespeare’s works over the centuries.

George Williams' 'Extra-Illustrated' editions of Shakespeare will be discussed in further detail at a Research Conversation led by Gary F. Fisher that will be hosted from 5pm - 6pm on Wednesday 8 May at the Shakespeare Centre, Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon. The Research Conversation is free to attend and no booking is necessary.