Last spring, Professor Anston Bosman and I led a seminar on “Shakespeare and the History of Books.” Our seven intrepid Sophomores explored a wide range of readings and primary sources around that topic, much of which they documented in the course blog: https://blogs.ats.amherst.edu/colq-231-1314s/
Over the summer, several of our students worked on an exhibition that will be on display in the Archives & Special Collections for the whole of the fall semester. They took the title for their exhibition from an essay by Peter Stallybrass that we read for class: “Shakespeare’s Desk: Authorship as Material Practice.” This passage appears in the opening paragraph:
The plots of Shakespeare’s plays, like those of his fellow-dramatists, were drawn from his reading. It is extraordinary how little this simple fact seems to have impinged upon Shakespearean studies: Shakespeare’s writing developed out of his reading.
Although the Archives & Special Collections holds a respectable teaching collection of early modern printed books, including nearly 500 books and manuscripts created before Shakespeare’s death in 1616, the exhibition moves from a consideration of what Shakespeare might have read to explore how Shakespeare has been packaged for the desks of other readers over the past 400 years.
A fuller web-version of the exhibition is currently under construction, so I will use this post to highlight just a couple of items.
Illustrated editions of Shakespeare’s works are a fascinating topic, and this exhibition features two fine examples.
This detail of Caliban in “The Tempest” is taken from the large folio copy of The American Edition of Boydell’s Illustrations of the Dramatic works of Shakespeare by the Most Eminent Artists of Great Britain, which was published by Shearjashub Spooner in New York City in 1852.
A volume from our set of The Dramatic Works of Shakspeare (1791-1802), edited by George Steevens and published with illustrations that match those published as Boydell’s Graphic Illustrations of the dramatic works of Shakspeare. Here is the rendition of Caliban from that edition:
The complete history of John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery is a fascinating story. The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC mounted an exhibition titled “Marketing Shakespeare: The Boydell Gallery (1789-1805) and Beyond” in late 2007. The online version of their exhibition contains images of some of the original paintings Boydell commissioned for his Gallery and explores the printmaking process, among other things.
These two illustrations were selected for a different reason that ties them into the theme of Shakespeare’s Desk. “The Tempest” is generally regarded as a response, in part, to European exploration of North and South America. One of the cases in our exhibition features books representative of the information Shakespeare might have encountered about the “New World.”
Although our copy of John Ogilby’s book America: Being the Latest, and Most Accurate Description of the New World (1671) was written long after Shakespeare’s death, it is the best example in our collections of an illustrated work of exploration. One goal of this exhibition is to suggest some ways that examining early books can open up new paths of research. Clearly, these three images suggest there may be something very interesting going on here. Deeper exploration of representations of Caliban as they relate to illustrations of “New World” inhabitants would require a visit to a library like the Folger.
Installation of this new exhibition will wrap up later this week. In addition to the works shown here, visitors will be able to see our copy of Shakespeare’s Second Folio, along with published books ranging from the sixteenth century to the present.