Collections of Distinction

Category Archives: Collections of Distinction

Shakespeare Unauthorized: First Folio From London to Copley Square

Posted on October 9th, 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 14, 2016 through March 2017. 

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. 


The BPL’s copy of the First Folio (call no. G.174.1 FOLIO) was acquired by the library in 1873

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Boston’s Oldest Hamlets

Posted on October 7th, 2016 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction
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Beggarstaff “Hamlet” Paris: Lithograph, 1898 (BPL Rare Books Dept.)

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.

Subsequent 17th-century editions were primarily based on the texts of either the second quarto or the First Folio until the emergence of a new theatrical tradition created a significantly emended representation of the play, reflected in a series of so-called “players’ quartos” published between 1676 and 1718.1

Because multiple different, authoritative versions of the play’s text exist, editors and scholars who seek to present new editions of Hamlet to modern readers have to make difficult choices: when passages differ between versions (as they often do), which one is preferable, and why? Should the separate, early texts be conflated into a single edition, or should they remain separate?

To answer these kinds of questions, editors and scholars turn to those few surviving specimens of the earliest copies of Shakespeare’s plays. Handmade in every way (from ink and paper to typesetting, printing, and binding) each of these rare books is unique and each copy represents the textual equivalent of an archaeological dig site: the information that can be collected often sheds light on the processes through which the physical books and, in turn, their texts, were created.

The Boston Public Library holds copies of thirteen editions of Hamlet printed before 1709 — the year that Nicholas Rowe published the first modern, critical edition of the collected plays of William Shakespeare. A mixture of both folios and quartos, the BPL’s collection of Hamlets illustrates the vibrant and varied evolution of the play in the theaters and printing houses of 17th- and early 18th-century England, while facilitating an incredibly intimate glimpse into the world of Shakespeare’s texts as they appeared to his early readerships.

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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 »