Shakespeare Unauthorized

Shakespeare Unauthorized

Central Library in Copley Square, McKim Exhibition Hall


Gallery hours
Monday–Thursday ● 10 a.m.–7 p.m.
Friday–Saturday ● 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
Sunday ● 1 p.m.–5 p.m


William Shakespeare: poet, actor, playwright, icon. Four hundred years after his death, he remains a central figure in English literature and a cultural phenomenon on a global scale. Yet the inner workings of his life and the details of his creative process remain largely unknown. In many cases, there is still fierce debate over what Shakespeare actually wrote.

Shakespeare Unauthorized pulls back the curtain on four hundred years of collaboration, confusion, and even literary deception that surround the plays, poems, and life of William Shakespeare. Through an unprecedented exhibition of the Boston Public Library’s world-class collections, visitors can view some of the rarest, most extraordinary books in the world and learn about the countless men and women who have made and remade the works of a literary icon. Boston Public Library holds one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of Shakespeare in a public institution, including rare first and early editions of beloved plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, and The Merchant of Venice, as well as all four Shakespearean folios, most notably the Boston Public Library’s own copy of the world-famous First Folio. Through the pages of these precious books, visitors can experience Shakespeare in his original language and spelling, just as he would have been read by book lovers and theater-goers hundreds of years ago.


Shakespeare Unauthorized is made possible through the financial support of Iron Mountain Incorporated. Additional critical funding has been provided by The Boston Foundation and the Associates of the Boston Public Library for curation, preservation, cataloging, and digitization.




McKim Exhibition Hall, Central Library in Copley Square

Tours last approximately one hour and are free and open to the public. No reservation is required for parties smaller than eight people. For inquiries about private tours, please contact tours@bpl.org or 617.859.2216.

Tours led by volunteer guides
Wednesdays and Saturdays ● 2 p.m.
October 26—February 25
Tours led by Jay Moschella,
Curator of Rare Books
2nd and 4th Thursdays of each month ● 2 p.m.
October 27—March 23

A PEEK INSIDE: Featured Media

A DEEPER LOOK: Curator Jay Moschella’s Blog


Curator Jay Moschella gives a tour of the Boston Public Library's Shakespearean exhibition. Photo credit: Aram Boghosian

Photo credit: Aram Boghosian

Visit this section frequently for exhibition insights, unusual stories, and unexpected facts about the mysterious life and work of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare Unauthorized curator Jay Moschella provides a closer look at some of the treasures in the BPL’s extraordinary collection.


First Folio From London to Copley Square

In 1623, an unusual book began to appear in the shops of London. In the preface its editors — two aging actors — commended their text to a reading public that had never seen anything like it before. “Whatever you do,” they pleaded, “buy.”

Embedded within their plea was a justifiable note of concern. At over 900 pages and roughly the size of a modern encyclopedia, the book had been printed in an expansive (and expensive) format known as a “folio.” Books of such stature had typically been reserved for important scholarly or religious texts. But here was something altogether different: a collection of stage plays titled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies Published According to the True Originall Copies. This, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, is now commonly known as the First Folio. Four hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, it is widely considered to be one of the foundational books of English literature and culture and fetches enormous sums at auction. In 1623, however, it was an untested commodity that was by no means guaranteed to sell.

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Boston’s Oldest Hamlets

The textual history of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is complex and interesting. Centuries of scholarly investigation into how the play came to be written and published have yielded as many questions as answers: what specific sources did Shakespeare draw on? If a single, original version of Hamlet ever existed, what did it look like? How, why, and by whom were the successive 17th-century editions altered and edited, and how (if at all) did readers and audiences perceive the discrepancies between different texts of the play?

The challenge of understanding the textual history of Hamlet begins, in part, with that fact that there are three distinct, early versions of the play, each of which is believed to originate from a different manuscript with a separate, though not entirely clear relationship to Shakespeare himself. These three versions were originally printed in 1603 (the first quarto), 1604/05 (the second quarto), and in the First Folio of 1623.

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The Proofreader’s Forgery

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.

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Richard II, 1598

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.

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Explore the Collection of Distinction: Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies: First folio

The first edition of the collected plays of William Shakespeare is commonly known as the First Folio. Printed in London and issued in 1623 by Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount, the First Folio contains 36 plays, 18 of which had never before appeared in print, including Macbeth, The Tempest, and Julius Caesar. Read online via Digital Commonwealth.


The Thomas Pennant Barton Shakespeare Collection at the Boston Public Library

The Thomas Pennant Barton Collection is acknowledged as one of the largest and most comprehensive collections in a public institution focusing on the writings of William Shakespeare and his contemporaries. Explore the digital collection.




Logo and Shakespeare Unauthorized exhibition designed by C&G partners.