Collections of Distinction

Shakespeare Unauthorized: Richard II, 1598

by jmoschella

The BPL is home to one of the finest collections of Shakespearean rarities in the world. A selection of these books will be on display in the upcoming Shakespeare Unauthorized exhibition at the central library in Copley Square from October 2016 to March 2017. 



BPL’s copy of the second quarto edition of Richard II (G.176.32)

The Boston Public Library holds copies of nine plays by William Shakespeare that were printed during his lifetime (1564-1616). The oldest among these is one of just eight surviving copies of the second quarto of Richard IIprinted in 1598 by Valentine Simmes for the publisher Andrew Wise.

Richard II is one of Shakespeare’s histories, a group of plays that primarily center around the power struggles of English monarchs and their battles over royal succession. The play is based largely on historical accounts of the final years of the reign of King Richard II of England and his overthrow at the hands of his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke. Through the self-inflicted downfall of Richard and the rise of Henry, Shakespeare explores the nature of hereditary monarchy, the limits of absolute power, and the corrupting psychology of autocratic rulership.

The language in the play is deeply poetic and many of  the passages in Richard II are considered among Shakespeare’s finest, including John of Gaunt’s  “sceptered isle” speech, the Parliament scene, Richard’s “Let’s talk of graves” monologue, and his wistful reflections from a cell in Pomfret Castle (“I wasted time, and now doth time waste me”).

(Above, from left) Portrait of Richard II from John Rastell's Pastyme of People (ca. 1530); the 1615 edition of Richard II showing mention of the Parliament scene; portrait of Elizabeth I from Thomas Heywoods If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody (1641)

(From left) Portrait of Richard II from John Rastell’s Pastyme of People (ca. 1530; BPL call no. G.3730.11); the 1615 edition of Richard II showing mention of the Parliament scene (BPL call no. G.176.33); portrait of Elizabeth I from Thomas Heywood’s If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody (1641; BPL call no. G.3972.24)

Not only was Richard II unusually popular for its time, but the ways in which it was initially censored suggest that many perceived a connection between its plot and the doings of contemporary English politics. In particular, the so-called Parliament scene — a portion of the play in which King Richard formally relinquishes his power — was deemed so politically volatile that it wasn’t printed until five years after the death of Queen Elizabeth I. Such caution was perhaps merited: in 1601, conspirators in a plan to overthrow the Queen’s government, apparently eager to watch the downfall of an English monarch acted out, hired Shakespeare’s company to perform the play with the Parliament scene included. A later anecdote has an angry Elizabeth I, mindful of her resemblance to Shakespeare’s deposed king, declaring “I am Richard II, know you not that?”


Shakespeare’s name on the title page of the second quarto of Richard II

What’s in a name?


The BPL’s copy of the second quarto of Richard II is a particularly special book. In addition to its extraordinary rarity and the fact that it’s the earliest copy of any play by Shakespeare at the library, it is also one of the very earliest printed plays to bear Shakespeare’s name on its title page.1

In retrospect, it might seem unimaginable that a publisher would ever issue a play written by Shakespeare without putting Shakespeare’s name on it. After all, the name “Shakespeare” has long since become a brand unto itself, capable of selling movie and theater tickets, books, games, souvenirs, and just about anything

Three plays in the BPL's collection from the late 16th-/early 17th-centuries show titles pages without authorial attribution (by Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Middleton)

Three plays in the BPL’s collection from the late 16th-/early 17th-centuries printed without the author’s name (by Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Middleton, respectively)

one could think of. But in 1598, the year that the second quarto of Richard II was published, Shakespeare had not yet become the international literary and cultural icon that we now recognize him to be. What’s more, drama at that time was still considered by many to be a lowly undertaking barely worthy of literary recognition (Ben Jonson used the term “playwright” as an epithet, meant to evoke the workman-like status of a wheelwright or shipwright, rather than a poet or artist). The printing of plays without authorial attribution was therefore fairly common. It seems that many publishers simply didn’t believe that associating a play with its author would increase sales.

Shakespeare’s theatrical success, however, must have made his name seem particularly marketable in the book trade. As such, the publication of plays with his name prominently affixed helped to usher in an era during which authorial attribution of printed drama became the norm. By the end of his life, 28 printed playbooks, some of which he hadn’t actually written, bore his name — more than twice the number of any other contemporary dramatist.2

The BPL’s copy of Richard II is therefore more than an extremely rare survivor from an early edition of one of Shakespeare’s major plays. It also represents a moment in time when the commodification of printed drama was reflecting, if not actively bringing about an era in which playwrights were increasingly seen as sophisticated literary figures, perhaps none more so than Shakespeare himself.



The 18th-century gold-tooled vellum covers of the BPL’s copy of the second quarto of Richard II

From London to Boston


Quarto editions of plays by Shakespeare printed during his lifetime are extraordinarily rare. Such books appear at auction once in a generation, if at all. So how did the BPL acquire its copy? Like the vast majority of the early and rare editions of Shakespeare at the BPL, the second quarto of Richard II came to the library when it acquired the collection of the late Thomas Pennant Barton in 1873. Barton, for his part, had acquired the book in 1845, through the auction of the library of Benjamin Heywood Bright (1787-1843).


Barton copy of Bright’s sale catalog.

Born to a wealthy banking family in Bristol, England, Bright was a major figure in the early 19th-century English book collecting world.Seymour de Ricci described Bright as an “omnivorous bibliophile,” while his contemporaries had, at least to some extent, less flattering things to say.4  Against the charge that Bright had hoarded his collection away, out of reach from scholars, John Mitford defended him with what one can only characterize as faint praise: “To such persons as Mr. Bright, we never should grudge the sole and unparticipated possession of their own volumes, acquired by large sacrifices of money, and designed for their own improvement”.5

Whatever Bright’s disposition towards sharing his collection actually was, it is due in large part to his efforts that a number of extremely scarce and important books eventually came to the BPL. In addition to the 1598 Richard II, Thomas Pennant Barton bought the first edition of Much Ado About Nothing (1600) and fourteen other important rarities at the Bright sale, all of which are now owned by the library.6


See it in person


The BPL copy of the second quarto of Richard II has been recently cataloged, conserved, and digitized. A full description of the book can be found in the BPL’s online catalog, while the digitized copy can be viewed at the Internet Archive. It is also one of six “lifetime” quartos — plays by Shakespeare published during his lifetime — that will be on display in the upcoming Shakespeare Unauthorized exhibition in the McKim Exhibition Hall.7 It will be displayed alongside a number of other extremely rare, early editions of Shakespeare’s plays within a portion of the exhibition that explores the role that publishers and booksellers played in influencing, distorting, and popularizing the ways that Shakespeare has been read and perceived.


(Above) Richard’s “Let’s talk of graves” speech (act 3, scene ii) from the BPL’s copy of the second quarto. Note the irregular spelling — a standard feature of early modern English.

  1. In 1598 Shakespeare’s name appeared the title pages of his plays for the first time. Four different playbooks published that year attributed authorship to him: the second and third quartos of Richard II, the second (though earliest surviving) quarto of Love’s Labors Lost, and the second quarto of Richard III. See Erne, Lukas. Shakespeare and the Book Trade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)  43

2. Erne, p. 45

3. Freeman, Arthur and Janet Ing Freeman. John Payne Collier: Scholarship and Forgery in the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) 470

4. In the early 19th century, Bright purchased the Roxburghe Ballads for £600 and later allowed the scholar John Payne Collier to examine them. Collier was eventually exposed as a compulsive forgery artist who broadly effaced many of the collections to which he was given access. Nevertheless, Collier published several admonitions claiming that Bright had been less than generous when it came to sharing his collections with scholars.

5. Mitford, John, “A Book of Roxburghe Ballads, edited by John Payne Collier, Esq., 4to,” The Gentlemen’s Magazine, March, 1847, 227

6. See Barton’s annotated copy of the Bright sale catalog, BPL call no. G.315.2

7. The six “lifetime” Shakespeare quartos on display at the exhibition will be: Richard II (1598), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600), The Merchant of Venice (1600), Much Ado About Nothing (1600), Henry VI, part 3 (1600), and Hamlet (1611).

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