Collections of Distinction

Shakespeare Unauthorized: the Proofreader’s Forgery

Posted on October 2nd, 2016 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction
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An photograph of the BPL’s 1603 edition of Plutarch’s Lives taken in 1881 shows what was once thought to be the sixth known example of Shakespeare’s handwriting.

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 14, 2016 through March 2017. 

Forgery artists, conspiracy theorists, and mischief makers of every sort have plagued Shakespearean scholarship for hundreds of years. A number of the great Shakespeare scholars of the 18th and 19th centuries, for example — from Steevens and Theobald to Halliwell-Phillipps and Collier — have been accused of everything from tampering with archival collections and lying about sources to petty theft and the brazen and seemingly compulsive forgery of documents. So pervasive is the practice of forgery and falsification in the history of Shakespearean scholarship that both collectors and scholars have been drawn to the subject of forgery on its own merits.

Like many of the major Shakespeare collections in Europe and America, the BPL holds a number of forgery specimens. In some instances, these specimens were collected for what they are: deliberate and often skillful fakes. But in other cases, the forgeries in the collections were purchased — either by the library or by previous owners — based on the assumption that they were genuine artifacts.  One particularly scandalous example, purchased by the BPL in the late nineteenth century, appeared for a time to be one of the most important Shakespearean documents ever discovered.

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Shakespeare Unauthorized: Richard II, 1598

Posted on September 28th, 2016 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction
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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”).

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The Charles H. Tarbox Diary

Posted on September 3rd, 2016 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction

Charles H. Tarbox portrait

Portrait of Charles H. Tarbox. (MS q 7335)

On September 16th, 1862, a young Union soldier from Massachusetts named Charles H. Tarbox was just outside the town of Sharpsburg, Maryland, camped along a tributary of the Potomac River called Antietam Creek. Tarbox, who had worked as a farmer before enlisting, was about to take part in the Battle of Antietam–the bloodiest single day of fighting in American military history.

By sunrise the next morning, over 100,000 Union and Confederate soldiers had converged along the Antietam. By sundown, over 22,000 of them had been killed or wounded in the ensuing battle. Crossing the creek at Burnside’s Bridge at around noon, the 35th Massachusetts was caught in a deadly crossfire. 79 members of the regiment were killed. Charles Tarbox, just 22 years old, was one of them.

In 2014, the Boston Public Library acquired Tarbox’s pocket diary, which records his daily life during the handful of weeks he spent in the army. The diary is an extraordinarily powerful reminder of the mortal dangers faced by a single, enlisted soldier, and of the sacrifice that he ultimately made. Read more »

Recently processed: three manuscript treasures

Posted on January 12th, 2016 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction

(Click on the title of each item to view the digitized copy)


Picture above: the author’s autograph on the final line of the leftmost page, and the license on the lower right.

Lope de Vega. El Castigo sin Venganza. 1631. MS D.174.19

This is the original autograph manuscript of Lope de Vega‘s El Castigo sin Venganza (Punishment Without Vengeance). Felix Lope de Vega y Carpio (1562-1635) was a major Spanish playwright and poet during the period of flourishing Spanish art and literature known as the Siglo de Oro, and Castigo sin Venganza is considered by many to be his finest tragedy. The manuscript itself represents a remarkable working document, with many authorial corrections and interlineations. Though it once belonged to George Ticknor, whose collection of Spanish and Portuguese literature was acquired by the BPL through a bequest in 1871, this manuscript remained with the Ticknor family until his daughter, Anna Eliot Ticknor, gave it to the library in 1895.

(Bibliographic record)


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Frances Wolfreston and ‘Hor’ Playbooks at the BPL

Posted on December 21st, 2015 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction

Title page to East-ward Hoe (G.3962.2 no.1) with Frances Wolfreston's autograph and annotation.

Title page to East-ward Hoe (G.3962.2 no.1) with Frances Wolfreston’s autograph and annotation.

Boston Public Library Rare Books Librarian Jay Moschella in collaboration with University of Illinois scholars Sarah Lindenbaum and Lori Humphrey Newcomb would like to announce the recent identification of four playbooks in the Boston Public Library collection as items once owned by Frances Wolfreston, the best-known English woman book collector of the seventeenth century. Wolfreston has been of great interest to scholars and collectors since Johan Gerritsen’s 1964 essay “Venus Preserved: Some Notes on Frances Wolfreston” called attention to her remarkable collecting habits. The frequently cited 1989 essay “Frances Wolfreston and ‘Hor Bouks’: A Seventeenth-Century Woman Book Collector” by Paul Morgan includes an appendix of 106 books owned by the Wolferstan family, 95 of them bearing the trademark inscription “frances wolfreston hor bouk.” The most famous of these items is the sole extant copy of the first edition of Shakespeare’s poem, Venus and Adonis.

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