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The secret life of Shakespeare’s books

There are many intriguing stories behind the historic books and documents in the care of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Collection Librarian Mareike Doleschal picks some of her favourites

Beauty on the edge

a photo of a book with a painting of a country scen with church on its fore edge

The works of William Shakspeare : Carefully edited from the best texts. With a memoir, glossary etc. London: Frederick Warne and Co. 1905. With a fore-edge painting of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford upon Avon. View of the fore-edge painting of Holy Tinity Church. Copyright Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

A few years ago, while flicking through a 1905 edition of Shakespeare’s works; a painting appeared on the fanned edges of the book as if by magic. I had no idea that it contained this hidden treasure. Prior to the sixteenth century, books were shelved with the fore-edge facing the reader and it was used for identification, so for example the shelf mark would be written on it.

The first fore-edge paintings were painted on the outer edge of the pages, making the painting clearly visible when closed. Over time artists discovered how to hide their artwork by fanning the pages and painting on the slight inner edges and then gilding the outside page edges. Thus, the painting remains hidden while the book is closed and only revealed when the pages are fanned.

Smuggling Shakespeare

a photo of two books one with a signature and another with the same signature cut out

47 German/1839-1841. 83447121. Shakspeare’s dramatische Werke / übersetzt von August von Schlegel und Ludwig Tieck. 12 vols. Berlin: Reimer, 1839-41. Copyright Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Books can have hidden histories told through bookplates, inscriptions but also in the attempt to erase the traces of previous owners. This Schlegel and Tieck translation published between 1839 and 1841 is widely regarded as one of the best German translations of Shakespeare and became a standard text. The previous owner of this set was Marie Levin, a business woman, who ran a cloth manufacturing company. She inscribed some volumes but in others her name was cut out.

Intrigued by this, I contacted the donor Anke Manuwald to ask if she knew the reason for this. Anke’s parents, who used to own the set, lived in the former German Democratic Republic but left the country in great hurry during the 1950s. They didn’t take the Shakespeare set with them but asked friends to send on the books. To protect the family, the friends cut out Marie Levin’s autograph.

A case of unrequited love

an inside of a book cover with an inscription

Mr. William Shakespear’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies. Published according to the true original copies. Unto which is added, seven plays, never before printed in folio: viz. Pericles Prince of Tyre. The London prodigal. The history of Thomas Lord Cromwel. Sir John Oldcastle Lord Cobham. The Puritan widow. A Yorkshire tragedy. The tragedy of Locrine. Fourth Edition. London: printed for H. Herringman, E. Brewster, and R. Bentley, at the Anchor in the New Exchange, the Crane in St. Pauls Church-Yard, and in Russel-Street Covent-Garden, 1685. Binding: Lower cover,MS inscription. Binding: 370mm x 240mm. Copyright Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Inscriptions tell us about the many different ways in which previous owners used their books. A transcript of a poem about unrequited love inside a fourth folio might give us a clue to the previous owner’s emotional state. The fourth folio is the fourth edition of Shakespeare’s collected works. The transcript is of a verse from Thomas D’Urffey’s Cinthia and Endimion published in 1697:

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.

The line 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

Shakespeare for the doll house

a small box containing four small miniature green bound books

The illustrated pocket Shakespeare, complete with glossary, ed. and compared with the best texts by J.T. Blair. 8 vols. Published Glasgow: David Bryce and Son, Glasgow, 1886. Illustrated with forty reproductions of the well known engravings of Westall and others. Copyright Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Do you have good eyesight? Then you should try reading a miniature edition of Shakespeare’s works. This set was published by David Bryce who published more miniature books than any other publisher in the world. In a letter to the librarian Bryce describes the challenge of producing a miniature Shakespeare: “Some of the plates are not coming up so clearly, but on the whole it looks fairly well. It is a curiosity & will find its own clientele of purchases.”

Some of the Trust’s miniature books are stored on purpose made miniature shelves. This Bryce publication is housed in a box designed like a book and when checking the shelves for this set, I couldn’t find it, worrying that it might be missing. However, I had overlooked a note on the catalogue that mentions the enclosure and re-checking the shelves, I managed to find these well disguised books!

The Jekyll and Hyde of the book world

a part of a book pasted into a notebook

Notes Upon The Works of Shakespeare by J. O. Halliwell, F.R.S: Notes on The Tempest. folio 46r, extract from Turner’s Herbal, 1568. ‘of the Mallow or Maw’. Copyright Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, a notorious nineteenth-century Shakespeare scholar, book collector and book destroyer, assembled this notebook containing extracts from early printed books. He used to cut up books, not always his own, but also those belonging to libraries and pasted them into his notebooks which are held in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s library.

He is said to have destroyed 800 books and made 36,000 scraps. However, he did donate his books, most of them intact, apart from a third folio that he took apart and interfiled with his notes. He also removed the Shakespeare portrait from a first folio edition of Shakespeare’s works published in 1623. Not surprisingly he was banned from libraries. I would have banned him too.

Sketching backstage

a page of Shakespeare with a sketch of Henry VIII in the margin

The famous history of the life of King Henry the Eighth: a historical play by William Shakespeare; as arranged for the stage by Henry Irving, and presented at the Lyceum Theatre, 5th January, 1892. London: Nassau Steam Press, 1892. Autographed by Ellen Terry. Bound in watered silk and green velvet. MS inscriptions in ink on title page and throughout the book. Illustrated and bound by Ethel Webling. Page 9, Act 1 scene 1. Binding dimension: 225 x 180mm. Copyright Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

When I catalogued this edition of Henry VIII, I didn’t expect it to contain beautiful sketches showing characters from the play. Ethel Webling created these while watching the play backstage. Ethel captured her memories of the performance in an inscription:

“I saw the whole of the play from behind the scenes… E. T. [Ellen Terry], who looked very lovely, came on the stage for the death scene of Katherine, she hurried past a group of girls, her daughter amongst them, ‘Let me pass girls, let me pass I’m late at dying, as usual.’ With a quick movement of her hands she arranged her dress as she sat down & the curtain rose.”

In addition to theatrical drawings, Ethel produced miniature paintings and illustrated books. Bound in watered silk and green velvet, this book is more than a play text, giving us a glimpse into a night at the Lyceum Theatre.

A soldier’s wish

a photo of an open book with a handwritten letter inside it

31/PRA 81061749. The Praise of Shakespeare: an English anthology / compiled by C.E. Hughes; with a preface by Sidney Lee. London: Methuen, 1904. Includes letter by the donor, dated 1st August 1916 and ms note: “Given by desire of Captain G.P. Iregelles, kiled in action 1st July, 1916”. Copyright Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

In 2011, one week before Remembrance Day, I catalogued a book entitled In praise of Shakespeare. Opening the book, I discovered a letter pasted inside the front, which is dated 1st August 1916. The writer is George Tregelles, father of Geoffrey, who died in the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916. A few years before his death, while on a bicycle ride, Geoffrey stopped by the library where the librarian showed him treasures from the collection.

The tour impressed Geoffrey so much that he left a note saying that he would like his book In praise of Shakespeare to be donated to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Library. George imagines what might have become of his son if he hadn’t died: “My boy had an active original mind and took a keen interest in literature. Had he lived he might have done some good work in that line.”

Look at that face

a photo of a face doodles in the inner margin of a book

Mr. VVilliam Shakespeare’s comedies, histories, and tragedies. Published according to the true originall copies. London: printed by Tho. Cotes, for Robert Allot [, John Smethwick, William Aspley, Richard Hawkins, and Richard Meighen], and are to be fold [sic] at the signe of the Blacke Beare in Pauls Church-yard, 1632. The Life and Death of King Richard the Second. p. 39 Act 4 Scene 1 with ‘face’ marginalia, detail. Copyright Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Certain inscriptions in early printed books certainly challenge my assumptions of the books’ previous owners. Not all of them were made by serious Shakespeare scholars. Like this small sketch of a face, drawn around a stain, inside the gutter of a second folio, which is the second edition of Shakespeare’s collection works, published in 1632.

On the reverse page there is another little face, also drawn around the stain, which shows how much the drawer enjoyed some simple doodling. Perhaps the previous owner took a break from reading Shakespeare’s works? An extract from a sales catalogue pasted inside the front board of this book tells us that it formerly belonged to the library of the late Reverend E. K. Evans and was priced at £500 in the nineteenth-century. Was it him who drew this face? We will never know.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is the oldest conservation society in Britain, caring for the world’s greatest Shakespeare heritage sites – the five homes and gardens directly linked to Shakespeare and his family in Stratford-upon-Avon. The Trust also cares for the world’s largest and most important Shakespeare-related collection, including over 1 million documents, 55,000 books and 7,000 museum objects.

Anyone is welcome to explore the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s extensive collections through the displays and exhibitions in the Shakespeare properties, through the online catalogue, through the Finding Shakespeare blog or by visiting the Reading Room in Stratford-upon-Avon.

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Shakespeare's Birthplace and the Shakespeare Centre

Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is an independent charity that cares for Shakespeare's heritage. It owns five Shakespeare Houses in and around Stratford-upon-Avon, all directly linked to Shakespeare. The Trust also cares for Harvard House. The wider work of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust extends to managing one of the largest Shakespeare…

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