Book history is full of dead ends, lost threads, and rabbit holes that lead to nowhere. You can work for a decade, as I did, on a single book—observing, describing, analyzing, hypothesizing, gathering corroborating evidence, following up on provenance leads, etc.—and still be left with gaping holes in the narrative of why the book ended up where it ended up and how it ended up in its present state.
For me, that book is the annotated copy of Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (1623), known colloquially as the First Folio, now housed at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Rare Book Department. More than 230 copies of the First Folio survive, and many of them show some evidence of early readership. So what makes this one different? Access, for one. After it was sold at auction in 1899, the book attracted the attention of Sidney Lee, who would go on to include it in the census of extant copies of Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies he published in 1902. It has also been described in Anthony J. West’s Worldwide Census of First Folios (2003) and Eric Rasmussen and West’s more recent The Shakespeare First Folios: A Descriptive Catalogue (2012). Peter Beal has also noted several of the annotations in The Catalogue of English Literary Manuscripts 1450-1700.
However, the book as a whole has never attracted sustained scholarly attention or analysis, most likely because it is very difficult to find unless you knew to look for it (perhaps through one of the useful reference works mentioned in the previous paragraph). It is was not catalogued online until a few months ago (the reference to Milton was added in the last week), nor has it been digitized. Furthermore, it is housed in a public library that, despite its impressive special collections, is not frequented by many scholars working on early modern drama. This is not to say, however, that no one has seen this book before. Besides the scholars who described it in the reference works mentioned above, the librarians at the Free Library’s Rare Book Department have been caring for it and using it in teaching sessions for years. Indeed, I first heard about this copy by word-of-mouth from Peter Stallybrass when I was a graduate student in Philadelphia. He heard about it (as far as I know) from talking to the librarians at the Free Library, thought the annotations were interesting, and encouraged me to see what I could find out.
I found out quite a lot, and those findings were recently—finally—published as “Vide Supplementum: Early Modern Collation as Play-Reading in the First Folio” in Early Modern English Marginalia (Routledge, 2019), edited by Katherine Acheson. Here, I date many of the annotations using a combination of bibliographical and external evidence. I also demonstrate that the reader responsible for emendations in the texts of Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet (the only plays to be substantially emended) selectively collated the folio playtexts against quartos printed almost a decade and a half after the folio came to press.
One thing I was not able to establish was the identity of this reader, nor was I able to trace the book’s provenance back any earlier than 1899, when it was sold at auction to the Scottish book collector Bernard Buchanan MacGeorge by the Belleroche family, who said it had been in their possession for more than a century.
Sometimes it just takes differently trained eyes to see a connection, and this week, Jason Scott-Warren did just that. In a post published to Cambridge’s Center for Material Text blog, he proffered that the person responsible for the marks in the book is none other than John Milton.
In what follows, I’ll present a brief summary of my findings, relating specifically to dating of the readers’ marks, outside of the Miltonian context. It seems to me to be crucial that the dates, arrived at independently of Scott-Warren’s startling proposition, match so well with Milton’s. You can find a much fuller discussion of these findings and detailed analysis of the various marks—brackets, emendations, cross-references to other books, and supplied passages—in the essay itself.
The book’s current binding dates to the late seventeenth-century and establishes a terminus ad quem for the emendations made mostly in Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet but also very sporadically in a few other plays. Many of these marginal emendations were cropped when the book acquired its current binding, meaning that they had to have been written before it was rebound.
A reference to Samuel Purchas’ Pilgrimes (1625) situated above Caliban’s speech about cursing in The Tempest provides an earlier limit for when this particular cross-reference could have been inscribed. Another reference to fol. 72 of “Surreis sonnets” (a.k.a. Songes and Sonnets, a.k.a. “Tottel’s Miscellany”) next to the gravedigger’s song in Hamlet corresponds to several editions printed long before the folio. While that tells us that our reader had a copy of Songes and Sonnets to hand, the sixteenth-century imprint of this book doesn’t help with narrowing the date. Finally, the stanza of Mariana’s song that the reader adds to the last page of Measure for Measure may have been sourced from the 1639 quarto of John Fletcher’s The Bloody Brother. However, there are enough variants between the version of the poem as it is transcribed in the folio and the printed text of Fletcher’s play to make it equally, if not more, plausible that the reader copied it from one of many contemporary manuscript witness.
The readerly interventions that have fascinated me the most are emendations to the texts of Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet, not only because they show an early reader tinkering with the fictive worlds of two deeply canonical Shakespearean texts (see my essay for more on the nature of this tinkering) but also because the changes the reader made and suggested correspond to variants in quartos published by John Smethwick in 1637. In the case of Romeo & Juliet, 37 of the 39 emendations correspond to Q5 (1637), and the two that don’t correspond to Q5 were not sourced from any other early text of the play. In the case of Hamlet, 28 of 32 changes have a basis in Q3 (1611) and Q4 [c. 1625] and 27 have a basis in Q5 (1637). But if we know that our reader had Q5 Romeo & Juliet to hand, he easily could have purchased Q5 Hamlet at the same time. What this tells us is, at least in this seventeenth-century reader’s eyes, Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies was not the last word on the Shakespearean text.
Perhaps the most striking intervention in the whole book is the addition of the Romeo & Juliet prologue on the page facing the start of the play. The addition of this text predates the marginal brackets evident throughout the folio since the reader responsible for those brackets also bracketed the supplied prologue. I attributed the prologue to a different (earlier) reader than the one responsible for the emendations, brackets, and inter-textual references. But what if we try on the Milton context for size? It fits, especially given the shift in Milton’s handwriting from the epsilon-e (evident in the prologue) to the italic-e (evident in the emendations) that began in the late 1630s after Milton returned from a trip to Italy. It is entirely possible that Milton, if he is the reader responsible for the emendations, as Scott-Warren suggests he is, also copied out the prologue to the play he called “Juliet & Romeo.”
Without the possible Milton context (or any other clues about the identity of the reader) at the time I wrote the essay, I was unable to detect significant patterns in the passages the reader decided to bracket and those he left alone. This was my conclusion: “Many [of the bracketed passages] are songs and most others are easily extractable—absent of character names and other situation-specific information—while the breadth of topics they cover would indeed be suitable to such a project” (199). Now, with Milton’s textual corpus possibly available as a new and significant field of reference, it become easier to see why certain passages but not others attracted the reader’s attention.
There is a lot we might still learn from the Free Library of Philadelphia’s copy of Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies in light of its possible connection to Milton—that is, of course, beyond the implications of this connection for the study of Shakespeare’s early reception and Milton’s own career. This new framework might teach us more about vernacular reading (even play-reading) practices; more about the dynamics of literary influence; and more about the way textual authority was thought of in the period. The sudden flurry of interest that this book has inspired this week (after remaining practically unlooked at for so long) is also a testament to the serendipitous, highly collaborative, and diachronic nature of book history. Yes, book history is full of dead ends, loose threads, and rabbit holes that lead to nowhere. But it is a field just as full of people who, because they know different ways to make sense of the same object, can pick up where you left off.
Please stay tuned for more about the Milton connection in the days and weeks to come.
Thank you to Katharine Chandler, Karin Suni, Janine Pollock, and the rest of the staff in the Rare Book Department for facilitating my access to the FLP copy of the folio so many times since 2007. Without them, this ongoing research would simply not be possible.