Shakespeare, Life of an Icon Exhibition Material

This article offers a comprehensive list of each piece included in Shakespeare, Life of an Icon, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger.


Four centuries after William Shakespeare’s death, Shakespeare, Life of an Icon brings together 50 of the most important manuscripts and printed works related to his life and career—some of them never before exhibited in the United States, and some of them on public display for the first time ever.

In his lifetime, Londoners and others took note of Shakespeare—they went to his plays, bought and read his works, and compared him to other great writers. At the same time, bureaucrats recorded details of his professional and family life—real estate transactions, baptisms and burials, taxes, legal proceedings—in mundane paperwork. We will never have a photograph of Shakespeare or a recording of his voice, but we can appreciate the rarity and significance of these documents and the brief, sometimes surprising, glimpses they provide of his life and rise to fame.

Thomas Speght, who lived in Shakespeare’s time, described the key components of an author’s biography as “so much as we can find” of “his Country, Parentage, Education, Marriage, Children, Revenues, Service, Rewards, Friends, Books, Death.” By that standard, we know much about Shakespeare, although never as much as we might wish. The materials in this exhibition remind us of the difficulty of interpreting the past, and the rewards of doing so, through careful reading and small details.

Shakespeare, The Playwright

Shakespeare was an ACTOR, a PLAYWRIGHT, and a SHAREHOLDER in an acting company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which became the King’s Men after the accession of James I in 1603. His plays were performed on indoor and outdoor commercial stages in London and in many other venues as well, including the royal court, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the Inns of Court, public buildings and outdoor courtyards in the provinces, and private households.

The total number of Shakespeare’s plays varies somewhat, depending on who is counting them, and how. The total shifts between 38 and 40 plays as scholars reassess references to his two lost plays—Love’s Labor’s Won and Cardenio—and analyze how large a hand he had in some collaboratively-written plays.

The Shakespeare Quartos (1.1)

Eighteen of Shakespeare’s plays were printed during his lifetime, in a small, inexpensive format called a “quarto.”

Quartos were sold in flimsy bindings or sometimes no bindings at all, making them vulnerable to damage and loss over the years. The early Shakespeare quartos are now extraordinarily rare; some survive in only a single copy. Some of the quarto plays differ significantly from the same plays in the 1623 First Folio, the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, which was published seven years after he died.

Items Included

1) William Shakespeare (1564-1616). The most lamentable Romaine tragedie of Titus Andronicus. London: John Danter, 1594. Folger STC 22328. Open to title page. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Titus Andronicus, first edition: Only surviving copy of Shakespeare’s first printed play

Published in 1594, Titus Andronicus was the first play by Shakespeare to appear in print. This is the only surviving copy of that quarto. Shakespeare’s name is not given on the title page, which was not unusual at the time. Some contemporaries certainly knew who wrote it, since Francis Meres lists it among Shakespeare’s tragedies in Palladis Tamia in 1598 (see the next case).

2) William Shakespeare (1564-1616). A pleasant conceited comedie called, Loues labors lost. London: William White for Cutbert Burby, 1598 Folger STC 22294 copy 1. Open to front endleaf 2v ||A1r. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Love’s Labor’s Lost, first edition: One of the first instances of Shakespeare's name on a title page

Shakespeare’s name is included for the first time on the title page of a play in this 1598 quarto of Love’s Labor’s Lost. The sub-title, “Newly corrected and augmented By W. Shakespere,” has led scholars to speculate that there was an earlier edition that no longer survives. This is also the first printed edition of a Shakespeare comedy.

3) Sir John Harington (1560-1612). List of playbooks. Manuscript, winter 1609/10. BL, Add MS 27632, fol. 43. LOAN COURTESY THE BRITISH LIBRARY. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Sir John Harington's catalogue of plays: ownership of Shakespeare quartos

Queen Elizabeth’s godson, the poet and courtier Sir John Harington, left behind a tantalizing list of 135 plays he owned, written by Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Heywood, and others. The list includes 21 of the 24 play quartos by, or attributed to, Shakespeare by 1610. Harington lists a play’s author in only 17 instances, including “King Lear of Shakespeare,” to differentiate it from an earlier play of the same name, “King Lear. Old.”

Shakespeare's Earliest Critics (1.2)

Shakespeare is first mentioned as a playwright in 1592, when he had already written at least five plays: The Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, and Henry VI, Parts 1 , 2 , and 3.

In 1598, a literary critic attributes a dozen plays to him, including one that is now considered lost, Love’s Labors Won, and compares them to the plays of Plautus and Seneca. A year later, a treatise on poetry describes Shakespeare’s play Richard II as a “well-conceipted tragedy.”

Items Included

1) Greenes, groats-vvorth of witte, bought with a million of repentance. London: J. Wolfe and J. Danter for William Wright, 1592. Folger STC 12245. Open to leaf F1 verso || leaf F2 recto. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Greenes, groats-worth of witte: First printed allusion to Shakespeare as a playwright

This booklet, which survives in only two copies, contains the first known allusion to Shakespeare as a playwright, and it is not flattering. The writer warns other playwrights to avoid play-writing actors (like Shakespeare). He calls Shakespeare an “an upstart Crow” who “supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you” and considers himself “the only Shake-scene in a country.” He writes that Shakespeare has a “Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide,” echoing a line from Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part 3: “O Tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide.”

2) Francis Meres (1565-1647). Palladis tamia. VVits treasury being the second part of Wits common wealth. London: P. Short, for Cuthbert Burbie, 1598. Folger STC 17834 copy 1. Open to folio 281 verso || folio 282 recto. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Palladis tamia: one of the earliest printed assessments of Shakespeare's works, and the first mention of his sonnets

In a chapter entitled “A comparative discourse of our English poets, with the Greeke, Latine, and Italian poets,” Francis Meres provides one of the earliest printed assessments of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. He compares Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies to those of the Roman authors Plautus and Seneca and mentions a dozen Shakespeare plays, including the lost play Love’s Labor’s Won. Meres is also the first author to mention Shakespeare as a writer of sonnets.

3) Fragment of a stationer’s account book. Manuscript, August 9-17, 1603. UIUC Pre-1650 MS 153. LOAN COURTESY OF THE RARE BOOK & MANUSCRIPT LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS AT URBANA-CHAMPAIGN. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Love's Labor's Won listed in a fragment of a Stationer's account book

In August 1603, a bookseller hastily wrote a list of books. The left side begins with printed plays, including several by Shakespeare. Most enticingly, the list includes Love’s Labor’s Won. This suggests that a sequel to Love’s Labor’s Lost was printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Some scholars, however, think it is actually an alternative title for Much Ado About Nothing. This fragment was discovered by a London bookseller in 1953. It was part of the binding of a 1637 book of sermons, and the creases where it went around the spine of the book are still visible.


Enough as Good as a Feast

Friar Bacon

Merchant of Venice

Taming of a Shrew

Knack to Know a Knave

Knack to Know an Honest Man

Love’s Labor Lost

Love’s Labor Won

Ovid’s Metamorphosis

Ovid’s Epistles

Ovid’s De Tristibus Fastorum & Ponto

Seneca’s Sentences

Cicero’s Sentences

4) William Scott (d. 1617). The Modell of Poesye. Manuscript, ca. 1599. BL, Add. MS 81083. LOAN COURTESY THE BRITISH LIBRARY. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: The Modell of Poesye: Earliest literary criticism of Shakespeare

William Scott’s treatise on poetics includes the earliest literary criticism of Shakespeare. Here, he draws attention to “the very well-conceited tragedy of Richard the Second.” Scott mentions Richard II in four places and the narrative poem Lucrece twice. He wrote the treatise in 1599 as a law student at the Inner Temple, one of the Inns of Court in London, and would likely have seen Shakespeare’s plays performed during this time.

Quotable Shakespeare (1.3)

Like other plays from the period, Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be read both as stories and as sources for sententiae, passages that became stand-alone proverbs when removed from the play. Beginning in 1600, a group of editors and publishers elevated English plays to a more respectable status by excerpting them in printed literary anthologies and printing “commonplace markers” (modern-day quotation marks) alongside extractable sayings in the plays themselves. These markers would indicate passages that readers could then copy into their own commonplace books, personalized collections of proverbs.

Items Included

1) John Bodenham (active 1600). Bel-vedere or the garden of the Muses. London: Felix Kingston for Hugh Astley, 1600. Folger STC 3189. Open to leaf A5 verso || leaf A6 recto. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Shakespeare anthologized: Bel-vedére or The garden of the Muses

Bel-vedere is the first printed commonplace book devoted entirely to extracts from (mostly) living English writers. The editor includes nearly 100 play extracts from eight Shakespeare plays and over 100 extracts from Shakespeare’s poems Lucrece and Venus and Adonis. Shakespeare’s lines are silently mingled with lines from other writers and appear under thematic headings such as Truth, Love, and Jealousy. The prefatory letter “To the Reader” lists Shakespeare among the writers anthologized.

2) Robert Allott (active 1600). Englands Parnassus, or, The choysest flowers of our moderne poets. London: Printed for Nicholas Ling, Cuthbert Burby, and Thomas Hayes, 1600. Folger STC 378, copy 1. Open to page 124. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Shakespeare anthologized: England's Parnassus

Englands Parnassus followed closely on the heels of Bel-vedere. This opening includes quotations from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Venus and Adonis, and Lucrece, all on the topic of grief. The Romeo and Juliet excerpt—“Some grief shows much of love, / But much to grief shows still some want of wit”—is spoken by Lady Capulet to her daughter Juliet. These lines do not appear in the first printed quarto of Romeo and Juliet, published in 1597, but they are in the second quarto, from 1599.

3) William Shakespeare (1564-1616). The tragicall historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke. London: James Roberts for Nicholas Ling, 1604. Folger STC 22276. Open to C3 verso || C4 recto. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Hamlet, second edition

The first and second editions of Hamlet both contain “commonplace markers” (quotation marks) next to passages that could be read as stand-alone maxims. On the left, the printer has marked passages from Laertes’s warnings to his sister Ophelia. Almost half of all first editions of professional plays published between 1600 and 1613 contain commonplace markers.


The chariest maid is prodigal enough

If she unmask her beauty to the Moon

Vertue itself ’scapes not calumnious strokes

The canker galls the infants of the spring

Too oft before their buttons be disclosed.

Shakespeare's Handwriting (1.4)

Sir Thomas More is a collaboratively written play that survives only in a single manuscript.

The play is thought to have been written primarily by Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle in the 1590s, with contributions from Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker, and William Shakespeare. Politically controversial passages have been censored by Edmund Tilney, a government official known as the Master of the Revels.

On the basis of poetic style, many scholars believe that a three page revision to the play, including the page on the left, is in Shakespeare’s handwriting. However, we don’t really know what Shakespeare’s handwriting looks like. Six signatures of Shakespeare, found on four legal documents, are the only hand-writing that we know for certain are his. This is too small a sample size to make any sort of reliable comparison.

Items Included

1) Sir Thomas More. Manuscript, 1601?. BL, Harleian MS 7368. LOAN COURTESY OF THE BRITISH LIBRARY. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Shakespeare's handwriting: Hand D in The Booke of Sir Thomas More

Scholars have assigned letters to the various styles of handwriting found in this play. The handwriting on the page on the left, referred to as Hand D, is the hand that might be Shakespeare’s. Hand C, an unidentified professional scribe, has made corrections to this page. The handwriting on the page on the right, known as Hand S, most likely belongs to Anthony Munday, with revisions by Hand B, probably Thomas Heywood. Despite the many changes made to satisfy the censors, the play was never printed. And despite the stage directions added by a theatrical employee known as a “bookkeeper,” it was never publicly acted.

An Indoor Theater for Shakespeare (1.5)

In 1596, the actor and theater builder James Burbage bought some property in Blackfriars, a London neighborhood on the site of a former monastery.

He converted it into England’s first purpose-built indoor theater, the Blackfriars Theatre. Although it had fewer seats than an outdoor playhouse and needed artificial lighting, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men could perform there in winter and charge more for admission.

The theater’s aristocratic neighbors, however, didn’t want a rowdy theater next door. They petitioned to prevent Shakespeare’s company from performing there, and Burbage leased the newly renovated theatrical space instead to a company of child actors. In 1608, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, now the King’s Men, reclaimed the space. Shakespeare was one of the original seven share-holders of the reorganized Blackfriars Theatre.

Items Included

1) Sir William More (1520-1600) and James Burbage (d. 1597). Bargain and sale of seven upper rooms in the Blackfriars to James Burbage. Manuscript, February 4, 1596. Folger MS L.b.356. Displayed recto with facsimile of verso on the back.See this item in Shakespeare Documented: Blackfriars playhouse: James Burbage purchases property in Blackfriars

James Burbage’s Blackfriars purchase included “seven great upper rooms as they are now divided” as well as some lower rooms and adjoining staircases and yards. He signed the deed on a parchment tag, and part of his seal is still intact.

James Burbage died in 1597. His sons Richard and Cuthbert, who were principal shareholders of the Globe, inherited Blackfriars Theatre. In 1601, they purchased rooms adjacent to it. Their signatures on the “bargain and sale” indenture are reproduced here. Richard Burbage is considered to be the most famous actor from the period. He performed the lead roles in many of Shakespeare’s plays. Cuthbert, a non-acting member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, obtained the lease for the site of the Globe and the lease of Blackfriars to a company of child actors.

The King's Men (1.6)

Just 10 days after his arrival in London in May 1603, the new king, James I, issued a warrant ordering the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to become the King’s Men.

At the time, the London theaters were closed due to the plague. When they reopened, the players were to perform “within their now usual house called the Globe” and throughout the country “for the recreation of our loving subjects” and for the king’s “solace and pleasure when we shall think good to see them.”

Items Included

1) Privy Seal Office. Warrant for the issue of letters patent. Manuscript, May 18, 1603. LOAN COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES, UK, C82/1690 F.78. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: King James establishes the King's Men: warrant under privy seal

This is the warrant for issuing the official letters patent which would place the Lord Chamberlain’s Men under royal patronage, making them the King’s Men. The hole in the upper left-hand corner is for a filing string, which ties this document to other warrants received by the Lord Keeper in May 1603. The string has been removed from the file for this exhibition, but will be replaced when it returns to the National Archives in England.


If you look closely you can see three pairs of slits cut through the fifth-to-last line of text. When the warrant is folded into a square, the slits are aligned into a single opening, and a parchment strip would have been threaded through to hold the warrant closed. The strip would have held the privy seal. The seal no longer survives, but wax residue is visible in two places on the back of the document.


… Know ye that we … do license and

authorize, these our Servants Lawrence

Fletcher, William Shakespeare, Richard

Burbage, Augustine Phillips, John

Heminge, Henry Condell, William Sly, Robert Armin, Richard Cowley, and

the rest of their associates freely to use and exercise the Art and Faculty of

playing Comedies, Tragedies, Histories,

Interludes, Morals, Pastorals, Stage

Plays, and such other like as they have already studied or hereafter shall use or study, as well for the recreation of our

loving Subjects as for our solace and

pleasure when we shall think good to see

them during our pleasure. … when the

infection of the plague shall decrease, as

well within their now usual house called the Globe within our County of Surrey, as also within any Town, Halls, or Moot Halls, or other convenient places within the liberties and freedom of any other City, University, Town, or Borough whatsoever within our said Realms

and dominions...

On the Stage at the Globe (1.7)

In 1599, Shakespeare’s company began performing at their newly constructed theater, the Globe.

They had previously performed at the Theatre, which they vacated and disassembled after a property dispute. They used the timbers to build a six-sided open-air playhouse, with multiple levels of seating, for up to 3,000 spectators. Several surviving accounts—by a famous astrologer, a baronet’s tutor, and a German prince’s secretary, among others—include descriptions of Shakespeare’s plays being performed there. In June 1613, the original Globe burned down during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. A second Globe was built and reopened by June 1614.

Items Included

1) Hans Jacob Wurmsser von Vendenheym, secretary to Prince Louis Frederick Würtemberg Relation of the journey … briefly penned in the French language (original title in German). Manuscript (text in French), March 16-July 24, 1610. BL, Add MS 20001. LOAN COURTESY THE BRITISH LIBRARY. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: A German prince sees Othello at the Globe in 1610

During a diplomatic visit to England in 1610, the Protestant German prince Louis Frederick Würtemberg attended a performance of Othello—“l’histoire du More de Venise”—at the Globe. According to his secretary’s account of the trip, in the same week he also saw a bear-baiting, monkeys riding on horses, a perpetual motion machine, and a self-playing keyboard. In one of the earliest references to the Great Bed of Ware, mentioned in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the Prince’s secretary notes that he slept on the famous bed, which had an eight-foot-wide mattress filled with swans’ down.


Son Eminence alla au Globe lieu ordinare on l’on Joue les Commedies, y fat representé l’histoire du More de Venise.

His Excellency went to the Globe,the usual place where plays [or comedies] are performed; the history [or story] of the Moor of Venice was represented there.

2) Thomas Lorkin (d. 1625). Letter to Sir Thomas Puckering, June 30, 1613. BL, Harleian MS 7002. LOAN COURTESY THE BRITISH LIBRARY. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Letter describing the burning of the Globe during a performance of Henry VIII

The Globe went up in flames on June 29, 1613, a newsworthy event mentioned in numerous contemporary accounts. In his weekly letter to his former student Sir Thomas Puckering, Thomas Lorkin notes that it burned down during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. His description is tucked between other gossip: the Earl of Southampton’s trip to a spa town in Germany, the publication of a controversial book by an English Catholic, and the rumors that Puckering himself had converted to Catholicism.


… No longer since than yesterday, while Burbage his company were acting at the Globe the play of Henry, and there shooting of certain chambers [that is, theatrical cannons] in way of triumph, the fire catched and fastened upon the thatch of the house and there burned so furiously, as it consumed the whole house and all in less than two hours (the people having enough to do to save themselves)...

3) Simon Forman (1552-1611). The Bocke of Plaies and Notes therof. Manuscript, 1611. Bod., MS Ashmole 208. LOAN COURTESY OF THE BODLEIAN LIBRARIES, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Forman's account of seeing plays at the Globe: Macbeth, Cymbeline, Winter's Tale

In 1611, the last year of his life, the astrologer Simon Forman recorded his impressions of the plots and lessons of four plays he saw at the Globe, three of which were by Shakespeare: Macbeth on April 20, a production of Richard II by an unknown playwright on April 30, The Winter’s Tale on May 15, and Cymbeline (no day or theater given). Forman’s descriptions are the most detailed surviving accounts of seeing plays in this period, and help establish that Winter’s Tale was written by 1611.


In the opening shown here, Forman concludes his analysis of the Winter’s Tale with a description of the character Autolycus, a peddlar and rogue who skillfully tricks people out of money. He concludes: “Beware of trusting feigned beggars or fawning felons.” Since at least, scholars have read the last phrase as “fawning fellows,” but the original manuscript makes it clear that the word is felons (spelled “fellonse”).

The Buzz About Shakespeare (1.8)

As one of England’s most popular playwrights, Shakespeare was fodder for satire, rumors, and criticism.

His contemporaries discussed his plays and gossiped about his life, in both manuscript and print.

Items Included

1) John Manningham (d. 1622). Diary entry for February 2, 1602. Manuscript, January 1602 to April 1603. BL, Harleian MS 5353. LOAN COURTESY THE BRITISH LIBRARY. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: John Manningham's Diary: earliest mention of Twelfth Night and a Shakespeare anecdote

The earliest mention of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is in a law student’s notebook of gossip and sermon notes. After seeing a performance of the play at the Middle Temple, John Manningham observes that it resembled The Comedy of Errors, Plautus’s Roman play Menaechmi, and an Italian play, GI’ingannati. He then recounts his favorite subplot: Olivia’s steward Malvolio is tricked into thinking she loves him by a forged letter written by her servant Maria, which results in his humiliation and imprisonment. The scene in which Malvolio parades before Olivia, smiling largely in cross-gartered yellow stockings, is a favorite of audiences today as well.

Five weeks later, Manningham records an amusing story: Shakespeare had overheard Richard Burbage and a woman planning a tryst after a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III. When Burbage went to meet the woman, Shakespeare was already with her, and sent a cheeky message to him that “William the Conqueror was before Richard III.” To clarify the joke, Manningham adds a reminder that Shakespeare’s first name was “William.”


A deleted word in the first line of the entry has not previously been noted: “a play called mid Twelue night…” Did Manningham accidently begin referring to another Shakespeare play, Midsummer Night’s Dream, before correcting himself? If so, this is a previously unknown reference to a Shakespeare play.


February 2, 1602

At our feast we had a play called Mid Twelfth Night, or What You Will. Much like the Comedy of Errors or Menaechmi in Plautus, but most like and near to that in Italian called Inganni. A good practice in it to make the steward believe his lady widow was in love with him by counterfeiting a letter, as from his lady, in general terms, telling him what she liked best in him and prescribing his gesture in smiling, his apparel, etc. And then when he came to practice, making him believe they took him to be mad.


March 13, 1602

Upon a time when Burbage played Richard, there was a Citizen grew so far in liking with him, that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard therd. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained, and at his game ere Burbage came. Then message being brought that Richard therd was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard therd. Shakespeare’s name William. 

2) Robert Tofte (1561-1620). Alba. The Months Minde of a Melancholy Lover. London: Felix Kingston for Matthew Lownes, 1598. Folger STC 24096. Open to leaf G5 recto. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Alba: Robert Tofte mentions having seen Love's Labor's Lost in his poetry 

The first description of a performance of Love’s Labor’s Lost appears in a sonnet sequence by Robert Tofte printed in 1598, the same year the play was first published. The book is now extremely rare, surviving in only two copies. The sonnet begins “Loves Labor Lost, I once did see a Play, Ycleped [named] so.” While the play was “Comicall” to everyone else, for the poet it was “Tragick.” He complains that the acting was “not from the heart” compared to his own suffering in love.

3) The Progresse to Parnassus as it was acted in St Johns Colledge in Cambridge Anno 1601. Manuscript, ca. 1606. Folger MS V.a.355. Open to folio 6 verso || folio 7 recto. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: References to Shakespeare, Burbage, and Kemp: The Progress to Parnassus

In several scenes, the Cambridge University play Progress to Parnassus mocks the literary tastes and talents of the London commercial stage, depicting Shakespeare as a popular but unsophisticated playwright and poet. The scene on the right includes critiques of Christopher Marlowe (“Wit lent from heaven, but vices sent from hell”), Ben Jonson (“The wittiest fellowe of a bricklayer in England”), and Shakespeare (“His sweeter verse contains heart-throbbing line”), as part of an overall critique of the recently published literary anthology Bel-vedere. In another scene (not shown), a student auditions before Richard Burbage for the role of Shakespeare’s title character Richard III with the famous speech: “Now is the winter of our discontent.”

Shakespeare and the Master of the Revels (1.9)

Evidence for Shakespeare’s prominence in the playwriting community appears in manuscript and print, including title pages, literary anthologies, and literary criticism by his contemporaries.

Occasionally, however, we encounter more subtle glimpses of the theatrical network at work—for example, a conversation with Shakespeare about a play’s author, recorded by Sir George Buc, Master of the Revels, who was responsible for censoring plays for performance in the early 17th century. Buc’s hand also appears alongside many others in the only surviving play manuscript by Shakespeare’s acting company, revealing the highly-collaborative process of revising a play text for performance.

Items Included

1) Promptbook of The Second Maiden’s Tragedy used by The King’s Men. Manuscript, 1611. BL, Lansdowne MS 807.COURTESY OF THE BRITISH LIBRARY. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Manuscript promptbook of The Second Maiden’s Tragedy: misattributed to Shakespeare

This book is the only surviving play manuscript used by Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men. It is also the only surviving copy of the play itself, which became known as The Second Maiden’s Tragedy. It was approved for public performance by Sir George Buc in 1611, after “reformations” were made. The manuscript contains deletions to satisfy Buc, additions written on separate slips, and stage directions. Since it was untitled, Buc describes it as “This second Maydens tragedy (for it hath no name inscribed).” On the back of the last page, an early inscriber deletes the names of playwrights Thomas Goff and George Chapman as potential authors in favor of “Will Shakspear.” However, based on linguistic analysis and similarity to other Middleton plays, scholars now believe the play was written by Thomas Middleton, who made revisions and corrections to the manuscript in his own hand.

2) Sir George Buc, annotator (d. 1622). Notes on the title page. A pleasant conceyted comedie of George a Greene, the pinner of Wakefield. London: Simon Stafford for Cuthbert Burby, 1599. Folger STC 12212. Open to title page. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: George a Greene: George Buc interviews William Shakespeare and Edward Juby

Sometime after Sir George Buc purchased this anonymous play, he asked Shakespeare if he knew who wrote it. According to Buc’s note on the title page, Shakespeare thought the play was written by a minister, who also performed the title-role. Buc then consulted Edward Juby, one of the Lord Admiral’s Men (which became Prince Henry’s Men after 1603), who thought the author was the playwright Robert Greene, who died in 1592. The contradictory claims have never been reconciled.


Written by –––––––– a minister, who acted

the pinners part in it himself. Teste W. Shakespeare

Ed. Juby saith that this play was made by Ro. Greene

Who wrote the plays?

The “authorship question”—did William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon really write all those plays?—has fascinated people since the nineteenth century.

The documents in this exhibition—title pages with his name on them, administrative records, and numerous print and manuscript references to him by people who knew him, or knew of him, in his lifetime—leave no doubt that the man from Stratford was the author of the plays. However, the same books and manuscripts that clearly point to Shakespeare as a playwright have been interpreted by others as an elaborate cover-up to protect the true identity of the author. Over 80 different individuals have been proposed as alternative authors of Shakespeare’s plays, but there is no archival evidence to support any of them.

Like most people who died 400 years ago, Shakespeare has gaps in his biographical record. This is not at all surprising. Only the personal papers of aristocratic families tend to survive, mainly because their houses have stayed in the same families for generations. Just a handful of play manuscripts remain from the period, mostly for plays that never appeared in print. As any archivist would tell us, the lack of surviving “Shakespeare manuscripts” is an archival issue rather than an authorship problem.

Shakespeare is a cultural icon, and thus the subject of close scrutiny and high expectations. Like other icons, he will intrigue and fascinate us for as long as his works are loved, read, studied, and performed. With new developments in literary and historical inquiry and the regular discovery of new references and allusions, the range of questions we can ask and answer about Shakespeare, his plays and poems, and about literature more broadly, is endless, and endlessly exciting.

Shakespeare, The Poet

Today we remember Shakespeare as the greatest PLAYWRIGHT of all time; however, in his own lifetime, he was equally revered as a POET. His first two books of poetry, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece, were reprinted many times. In fact, they were more popular in print than any of Shakespeare’s plays. Many of the earliest literary critics and anthologists of English-language verse cite these two narrative poems because of their exemplary lines. Like his plays, his poems were sold unbound or in flimsy, paper bindings, making their survival unlikely unless an early owner bound them up with other booklets in sturdy bindings.

A Range of Poems (2.1)

Shakespeare’s earliest publication, and by far the best-selling work in his lifetime, was the nearly 1200-line poem Venus and Adonis (1593). Because of its popularity, other printed poems soon followed. Lucrece was published in 1594 to great acclaim. His name appeared on the title page of The Passionate Pilgrim (1599) despite the fact that only a handful of the poems were by him. “The Phoenix and the Turtle” appeared in 1601, and Shakespeare’s Sonnets in 1609.

Items Included

1) William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Venus and Adonis. London: Richard Bradock for William Leake, 1599. Folger STC 22358a Bd.w. STC 22341.8. Open to A2 verso || A3 recto. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Venus and Adonis, sixth edition

This 1599 printing is the only surviving copy of the sixth edition of Venus and Adonis, first published in 1593. Shown here are the last page of Shakespeare’s dedication to the Earl of Southampton and the first page of the poem. An early owner bound it with other poetic works, including a 1600 edition of Shakespeare’s Lucrece and a fragment of the only surviving copy of the first edition of The Passionate Pilgrim (1599).

2) William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Lucrece. London: Richard Field, for John Harrison, 1594. Folger STC 22345 copy 2. Open to A1 verso || A2 recto. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Lucrece, first edition

When Shakespeare dedicated Venus and Adonis to the Earl of Southampton, he vowed “to take advantage of all idle hours till I have honoured you with some graver labor.” Lucrece, published the following year and also dedicated to Southampton, is the result. The poem tells the story of Lucrece’s rape by the king’s son and her subsequent suicide, which lead to rebellion and the beginning of the Roman Republic.

3) The passionate pilgrime … by W. Shakespere. London: William Jaggard, 1612. Folger STC 22343. Open to front endleaf 2v || A2r

This is one of two known copies of the third edition of The Passionate Pilgrim. Shakespeare probably wrote just five of its poems, including versions of sonnets 138 and 144, and yet he is credited on the title page as the author of the whole work. Soon after this copy was sold, the printer William Jaggard printed a new title page without Shakespeare’s name, to be added to all remaining copies. This was most likely in response to a complaint by Thomas Heywood, the unnamed author of the “newly added” poems mentioned at the bottom of the title page. According to Heywood, another author (presumably Shakespeare) was “much off ended” that the printer “presumed to make so bold with his name” by implying the entire book was by him.

4) Robert Chester (active ca. 1586-1604). Loves martyr … [with] some new compositions. London: Richard Field for Edward Blount, 1601. Folger STC 5119. Open to page 172-173. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: The Phoenix and the Turtle, first edition

A separately titled section of “new compositions” by Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, George Chapman, and John Marston completes this book of poems on the theme of love, allegorically represented by “the phoenix and turtle” (that is, the mythological bird and the turtle dove). Shakespeare’s poem, which begins two pages earlier and ends on the page on the left, laments the death of the female phoenix and the male turtle dove, who exemplified a perfect union of love. Scholars are not sure whether or not the birds refer to historical figures from Shakespeare’s time.

5) William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Shake-speares sonnets. London: George Eld for Thomas Thorpe, 1609. Folger STC 22353. Open to leaf A2 verso || B1 recto. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Sonnets, first edition variant

This is the first edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, a series of 154 14-line poems in the English sonnet form that intrigue, challenge, and reward us as few other poetry collections do. Publisher Thomas Thorpe dedicates the volume to “W.H.,” whose identity is still uncertain, as are the identities of the “Fair Youth” to whom the first 126 sonnets are addressed and the “dark lady” of the remaining sonnets. Scholars continue to debate whether some of the sonnets are the “sugared sonnets” shared among Shakespeare’s “private friends,” as noted by Francis Meres in 1598, or whether he wrote or at least actively revised them for publication in 1609.

The Dawn of Copyright (2.2)

Unlike today, Shakespeare and other early modern authors could not assert intellectual ownership of their printed texts.

They sold their texts to publishers, who, as freemen of the Stationers’ Company, protected their investments by applying to their senior officers for the exclusive right to publish them. Once granted, this right was typically entered into the Registers of the Stationers’ Company.

The Register entries, which do not often include the name of the author—only the title, publisher, and sometimes, the printer—are now recognized as the earliest examples of copyright registration in the world. The Registers contain 34 entries for Shakespeare’s plays and poems, up to and including the First Folio (1623). They have never before been exhibited outside of London’s Stationers’ Hall.

Items Included

1) Liber B. Manuscript, 1576-1602. Stationers’ Company Archives, Liber B, fol. 297v. LOAN COURTESY OF THE WORSHIPFUL COMPANY OF STATIONERS AND NEWSPAPER MAKERS. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Stationers' Register entry for Venus and Adonis

Liber B includes the entry for Shakespeare’s first publication, the poem Venus and Adonis, registered by the printer and publisher Richard Field on April 18, 1593. Field grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon before apprenticing in London. He later transferred the publication rights to the bookseller John Harrison, while continuing to serve as the poem’s printer. Publishers could transfer, and beginning in the 17th century, bequeath, their copyright to other members of the company.

A Shakespeare Best Seller (2.3)

Shakespeare’s most popular poem was Venus and Adonis, published in 10 editions between 1593 and 1602.

In Shakespeare’s re-telling of the classical tale, Venus, the goddess of love, tries to seduce Adonis, a young hunter, but is rebuffed. Adonis is then killed on a hunting expedition by a wild boar. Readers were titillated by the erotic nature of the poem, and lines from it were frequently excerpted in print and manuscript.

Items Included

1) William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Venus and Adonis. London: R. Field? for J. Harrison I, 1595? Folger STC 22356. Open to B6 verso || B7 recto. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Venus and Adonis, third edition.

This is the only known surviving copy of the third edition of Shakespeare’s first printed work. It is a heavily-repaired fragment, with the first section now lost. The first edition did not contain his name, but, beginning with the second edition, a dedication to the Earl of Southampton is signed “Your Honors in all dutie, William Shakespeare.” The volume is open to the scene in which Adonis yields to Venus’s kisses before going on his fateful hunting trip.

2) Richard Stonley (1519/20-1600). Diary labelled “KK”. Manuscript, May 1593 to May 1594. Folger MS V.a.460. Open to 8 verso || 9 recto. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: First recorded purchase of Shakespeare's first printed work: Venus and Adonis

Richard Stonley, a government accountant who was briefly imprisoned for embezzlement, kept track of his daily expenditures in his diary. His entry for June 12, 1593 includes the first recorded purchase of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, less than two months after it was entered in the Stationers’ Register. Stonely spent 12 pence on two books, Venus and Adonis and John Eliot’s The Survey, or Topographical Description of France, in addition to 10 shillings on food and 3 shillings, 12 pence on clothes.


Books for the Survey of France with

the Venus & Adonis by Shakespeare 12 pence

Apparel for three dozen of Scottish Buttons 12 pence

for ½ yards of serge for pairs of Canions 3 shillings 

3) Richard Carew (1555-1620). The Excellencie of the English Tongue. Manuscript, 1595 or 1596. BL, Cotton MS Julius.F.XI. LOAN COURTESY OF THE BRITISH LIBRARY. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: The excellencie of the English tongue: Richard Carew compares Shakespeare and Marlowe to Catullus 

In the final section of this treatise on language, Carew argues that English is as lively and graceful as any other language. He cites contemporary English writers to illustrate his point: “Shakespheare” and Christopher Marlowe are equal to Catullus; Samuel Daniel is equal to Ovid; Edmund Spenser is equal to Lucan; Sir Philip Sidney is “the miracle of our age.” Carew here equates Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Marlowe’s Hero and Leander (unfinished at his death in 1593) to the Roman poet Catullus’s Ariadne and Theseus. Carew’s treatise was published in 1614 in William Camden’s Remaines.


Whatsoever grace any other language carrieth, in Verse, or Prose, in Tropes, or Metaphors, in Echoes or Agnominations, they may all be lively and exactly represented in ours. … Will you read Virgil? Take the Earl of Surrey. Catullus? Shakespeare, and Marlowe’s fragment. Ovid? Daniel. Lucan? Spencer. Martial? Sir John Davies and others. Will you have all in all for Prose & Verse? Take the miracle of our age, Sir Philip Sidney.

4) Richard Barnfield (1574-1620). The Encomion of Lady Pecunia. London: G. S[haw] for John Jaggard, 1598. Folger STC 1485. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: "Remembrance of some English poets": Early praise for Shakespeare the poet.

In “A Remembrance of some English Poets,” Richard Barnfield praises Edmund Spenser, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, and Shakespeare. According to Barnfield, Shakespeare’s honey-flowing veins produce poetry that pleases the world, and Venus and Adonis and Lucrece have placed his name “in fame’s immortal book.” The ode that follows, “As it fell upon a day,” appears as Shakespeare’s in The Passionate Pilgrim in 1599, but because of its early appearance here, it is now attributed to Barnfield.

The Ultimate Annotator Reads Shakespeare (2.4)

Shakespeare was one of the many writers that the scholar Gabriel Harvey turned to for inspiration.

An inventor of words, and friend of the writer Edmund Spenser, Harvey constantly sought to improve himself through note-taking and repetitive reading. He was widely known and ridiculed for making copious notes in the margins of printed books.

Items Included

1) Gabriel Harvey (1550?-1631). Manuscript marginalia, ca. 1598-ca. 1606. In Thomas Speght’s edition of The Workes of... Chaucer (London, 1598). BL, Add. MS 42518. LOAN COURTESY THE BRITISH LIBRARY. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Manuscript marginalia: Gabriel Harvey refers to Hamlet, Lucrece, and Venus and Adonis

In a series of marginal notes, Harvey discusses “our best English [works], ancient & modern.” He includes Sidney’s Arcadia and Spenser’s Faerie Queene before praising Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, Lucrece, and Hamlet. Harvey mentions Shakespeare a second time when he suggests that Sir Edward Dyer’s Amaryllis and Sir Walter Raleigh’s Cynthia are worthy of emulation by a number of authors—“Spenser, Constable, Fraunce, Watson, Daniel, Warner, Chapman, Sylvester, Shakespeare, & the rest of our flourishing metricians.”


… The younger sort takes much delight in Shakespeare’s Venus, & Adonis: but his Lucrece, & his tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, have it in them, to please the wiser sort. Or such Poets: or better: or none. Vilia miretur vulgus: mihi fl avus Apollo

Pocula Castaliae plena ministret aquae: quoth Sir Edward Dier, between jest, & earnest. Whose written devices far excel most of the sonnets, and cantos in print. His Amaryllis, & Sir Walter Raleigh’s Cynthia, how fine & sweet inventions? Excellent matter of emulation for Spenser, Constable, France, Watson, Daniel, Warner, Chapman, Sylvester, Shakespeare, & the rest of our flourishing metricians.

2) Gabriel Harvey (1550?-1631). Manuscript marginalia, ca. 1580-1608?. In Domenichi’s Facetie (Venice, 1571) and Guicciardini’s Detti… (Venice, 1571). Folger MS H.a.2. Open to folio 161 verso || folio 162 recto. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Manuscript marginalia: Gabriel Harvey refers to Hamlet and Richard III

Harvey fills every available margin of these two bound-together Italian books of aphorisms with notes in English, Latin, and Italian. Turning the book 90 degrees, Harvey notes here that a good “discourser at the Table” needs to absorb a wide range of writing, including English verse such as Robert Greene’s Quip for an Upstart Courtier (1592), George Gascoigne’s Steel-glass (1576), and Shakespeare’s two plays, “The Tragedie of Hamlet: Richard 3.”


He shall never be good at an extemporal descant, that hath not all Heywood …. Neither can a discourser at the Table want his Quintessence, and Mensa Philosophica …. Eliot’s Dialogues: Gascoigne’s Steel-glasse: Greene’s Quip for an Upstart Courtier; & his Art of Cony-catching: Diet’s Dry Dinner; a fresh supplie of Mensa Philosophica: the Tragedy of Hamlet: Richard 3. …

Shakespeare, The Man

An abundance of administrative documents provide important details of Shakespeare’s economic and social status: he had a coat of arms, he was accorded “gentleman” status, he loaned money, he invested in real estate, his family lived in a big house in Stratford-upon-Avon, he moved around in London, and he bequeathed his assets to family, friends, and the poor.

Shakespeare’s personal papers do not survive, which is frustrating, but not surprising. Personal papers survived only if they became part of institutional or aristocratic archives. Shakespeare’s last direct descendant died in 1670—at which point his house, New Place, was sold. It wasn’t until the 18th century that people began to value and romanticize the personal relics of famous authors.

Shakespeare Buys A House (3.1)

Shakespeare purchased New Place, one of the largest houses in Stratford-upon-Avon, from William Underhill in 1597.

Shortly after the sale, Underhill was poisoned to death by his eldest son, Fulke, who was hanged in 1599 after being prosecuted for the crime. Fulke’s estates reverted to the crown until his brother, Hercules, came of legal age in 1602. In that year, Hercules confirmed the sale of New Place to Shakespeare; Shakespeare was probably motivated to create a new agreement to protect his investment. The three official copies of this 1602 agreement are reunited here for the first time in over 400 years.

Items Included

1) Final concord between William Shakespeare and Hercules Underhill Shakespeare’s copy and Underhill’s copy. Manuscript, 1602. Folger MS Z.c.36 (110-111). Displayed recto. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Shakespeare purchases New Place: 1602 buyer and vendor copies of final concord

Foot of fine (court copy) Manuscript, 1602. LOAN COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES, UK, CP 25/2/237/44/45ELIZIMICH. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Shakespeare purchases New Place: 1602 foot of fine

Most legal documents that transferred property consisted of three copies: one for the buyer, one for the seller, and one for the court. For final concords such as this one, the agreement was copied out three times on a single membrane of parchment, which was then “indented,” or cut apart along wavy lines. In case of future disputes, they could be fitted together again to prove their authenticity. Shown here are the three parts of the final concord ratifying Shakespeare’s purchase of New Place. The court’s copy, known as the “foot of fine,” has been filed with other “feet” among the records of the Court of Common Pleas since 1602. Archivists believe that Shakespeare retained both of the other two copies himself, since they have remained together over the years.

2) Peg and pot sherd from New Place excavation. Yellow ware, possibly from a salt or chalice. Small bone peg, turned at proximal end, possibly for a cribbage-style game. ca. 16th-17th centuries. LOAN COURTESY OF THE SHAKESPEARE BIRTHPLACE TRUST.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust began an archeological investigation of the grounds of New Place in 2015, in the area known to be the site of Shakespeare’s living quarters. The dig has resulted in numerous finds from the 16th and 17th centuries, including this cribbage peg and a fragment of yellow stoneware that may have been part of a drinking cup or a vessel for holding salt.

The Shakespeare Coat of Arms (3.2)

William Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, successfully applied for a coat of arms in 1596.

The prosperous playwright most likely petitioned for it on behalf of his aging father. The design for the arms, a gold spear with a silver tip on a black diagonal stripe against a gold background, had originally been proposed by his father 20 years earlier, according to a note on one of the draft grants. The spear is a visual pun on the Shakespeare name. William Shakespeare was entitled to use his father’s coat of arms, with a small mark of “difference” on it, as soon as it was granted to his father. When John died, William was entitled to bear them in the original form.

A coat of arms was the visible symbol of one’s inward gentility, a status achieved primarily through honorable actions and family lineage.

Items Included

1 & 2) Sir William Dethick, Garter King of Arms (1543-1612) Grants of arms to John Shakespeare (drafts). Manuscript, October 20, 1596. College of Arms, Shakespeare draft grant of arms 1 and 2. LOAN COURTESY OF THE KINGS, HERALDS, AND PURSUIVANTS OF ARMS. See these items on Shakespeare Documented: Grant of arms to John Shakespeare: draft 1 and Grant of arms to John Shakespeare: draft 2

Two draft grants of arms survive from the 1596 application, both dated October 20, 1596, and both in the handwriting of William Dethick, the most senior of the 13 heralds of the College of Arms. The drafts describe the arms as “gold, on a bend sable [black], a spear of the first, the point steeled argent [silver].” The crest above the arms consists of a “falcon, his wings displayed, argent, standing on a wreath of his colors, supporting a spear gold, steeled argent.” The second draft’s neater script and format, together with the fact that it incorporates some of the changes made to the first, suggest that it was intended as the model to be followed for the official copy. Shakespeare’s motto Non sanz droict (Not without right) is included on the drafts, although mottoes were not part of grants of arms and did not need to be recorded.

3) Sir William Dethick, Garter King of Arms (1543-1612). Confirmation of arms for John Shakespeare (draft). Manuscript, 1599. College of Arms, Shakespeare draft confirmation of arms 3. LOAN COURTESY OF THE KINGS, HERALDS, AND PURSUIVANTS OF ARMS. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: John Shakespeare's draft exemplification of arms

In this 1599 draft grant, William Dethick and fellow herald William Camden accept John Shakespeare’s application to impale, or combine, the arms of Arden with his own. John Shakespeare’s wife—William’s mother—was from the local Arden family, a step up from the Shakespeares. Including the Arden arms would add luster to the Shakespeare family name.Two Arden coats of arms are drawn on this draft, however. The first, a mistake, is from another family with the Arden name; the second, added after the error was realized, is the proper arms of the family of Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden. We don’t know why Shakespeare did not adopt the impaled (combined) version of the coat of arms.

A Dispute Between Heralds (3.3)

In 1602, the herald Ralph Brooke challenged 23 coats of arms granted by William Dethick, including the arms originally granted to Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, and now belonging to William Shakespeare.

Brooke argued that these coats of arms were granted to unworthy or deceased individuals, or, in the case of Shakespeare, that they too closely resembled the ancient arms of another family. Dethick defended Shakespeare’s coat of arms by pointing out their unique features and John Shakespeare’s civic career and marriage into the Arden family. The outcome is not recorded, but the dispute appears to have been resolved in favor of Dethick.

Items Included

1) Ralph Brooke, York Herald (1553-1625), compiler, Coats of arms granted by William Dethick as York Herald and Garter King of Arms. Manuscript, ca. 1595-1600. Folger MS V.a.156. Open to folio 1 recto. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Ralph Brooke's compilation of arms granted by William Dethick, with list including Shakespeare's name

In this manuscript, Ralph Brooke lavishly illustrates arms which he claims were incorrectly granted by William Dethick to plasterers, embroiderers, stockingsellers,soapmakers, fishmongers, and foreigners, among others. He makes additional notes at the beginning and end of the volume, including a list of 23 names in the upper left corner of the first page. Shakespeare’s name is fourth on the list. The list forms the basis for Brooke’s document below.

[1] Norton 12 Cowley

2 Lound 13 Macatrot

3 Hall 14 Laurence

4 Shakespeare 15 Wythens

5 Clarke 16 Whitmore

6 Sanderson 17 Gibson

7 Smyth 18 Elkyn

8 Parre 19 Hickman

9 Pettous 20 Thwates

10 Yonge 21 Lee

11 Peake 22 Molesworth

23 Heyward

2) Ralph Brooke, York Herald (1553-1625). The Armes presented vnto her Maiestie. Manuscript, ca. 1602. College of Arms, Records R21, fol. 285. LOAN COURTESY OF THE KINGS, HERALDS, AND PURSUIVANTS OF ARMS. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Shakespeare's arms challenged by Ralph Brooke, as presented to Queen Elizabeth

Shakespeare’s coat of arms appears in the top row of this illustration by Ralph Brooke of 25 coats of arms granted by William Dethick. There are twon additional coats of arms at the end; otherwise, the names and order are exactly as the list of 23 coats of arms made by Brooke in the manuscript shown above. A note by Brooke on the other side indicates that he presented a copy of the document to Queen Elizabeth. The manuscript typifies Brooke’s frustrated ambition and his energetic attacks against Dethick, among other heralds.


This depiction of Shakespeare’s coat of arms in a herald’s personal copy of a document presented to Queen Elizabeth had not previously been known to Shakespeare scholars. This is the first time that it has ever been exhibited.

3) Sir William Dethick, Garter King of Arms (1543-1612). The answeres of Garter and Clarencieux Kings of Arms to the Scrowle of Arms exhibited by Raffe Brokesmouth called York Herauld. Manuscript, March 21, 1602. Bod., Ashmole 846, fol. 50. LOAN COURTESY OF THE BODLEIAN LIBRARIES, UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Shakespeare's arms defended: the Bodleian Library's copy of Garter and Clarenceux's reply to the York herald

This is one of two versions of Dethick’s reply to Brooke’s “scroll of arms.” Dethick argued that although the basic pattern of Shakespeare’s arms resembled others, the use of the spear made it unique. He also noted that John Shakespeare was of “good substance and ability,” a magistrate and justice of the peace in Stratford-upon-Avon who married a daughter and heir of Arden.


Dethick’s answer is in his own handwriting, and diff ers in subtle but substantial ways from the copy in the College of Arms, which also includes a small revision in his hand. For example, Dethick notes here that Brooke’s complaint “hath so injuriously defamed” the people who hold the coats of arms, a detail omitted in the College of Arms copy. Because Shakespeare’s father died on September 7, 1601, William Shakespeare, who inherited the arms, would have been the target of defamation. Was the dispute between Brooke and Dethick more than just an internal affair? A rich collection of heraldic archival material scattered across the United States and England will surely yield further details.

4) Ralph Brooke, York Herald (1553-1625), with additions by Mercury Patten, Bluemantle. Pursuivant. A Noate of some few Coates and Creasts lately come to my hands. Geuen by William Dethick.... Manuscript, ca. 1600. College of Arms, MS Dethick’s Grants X, fol. 28. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE KINGS, HERALDS, AND PURSUIVANTS OF ARMS. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Ralph Brooke's compilation of arms granted by William Dethick: 1600 copy with the arms of "Shakespeare the player"

This is the only depiction of Shakespeare’s arms in his lifetime that clearly refers to William, rather than his father, John. It is labeled “Shakespeare the player by Garter.” (Garter refers to the heraldic title of William Dethick, who granted the arms to John Shakespeare). It is in the handwriting of one of the lower-ranking heralds, Mercury Patten, who signs and dates the page after this one. The reference to Shakespeare as a player (that is, an actor) is in keeping with the derogatory way in which Brooke, sometimes misleadingly, depicts other holders of coats of arms as tradesmen, rather than honorable and land-holding gentlemen.


The “Shakespeare the player” coat of arms in this manuscript is new to Shakespeare scholars. It shows that in his own lifetime, William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was identified as a “player,” and that the heralds were aware of his professional status even though the dispute concerned the granting of arms to his father.

At Home in Stratford-Upon-Avon (3.4)

Shakespeare divided his time between his theatrical career in London and business and personal matters in Stratford-upon-Avon, the town where he was born, grew up, and raised three children with his wife Anne: Hamnet (who died when he was 11), Susanna, and Judith.

These documents from the town’s corporate archives illustrate his Stratfordian connections and the constant balancing of debt and credit among its more prominent citizens.

Items Included

1) Richard Quiney (d. 1602). Letter to William Shakespeare, October 25, 1598. SBT, ER 27/4. LOAN COURTESY OF THE SHAKESPEARE BIRTHPLACE TRUST. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Shakespeare purchases New Place: 1597 exemplification of fine

This is the only surviving letter written to Shakespeare, but Shakespeare never actually received it. When the bailiff of Stratford-upon-Avon (similar to a modern-day mayor), Richard Quiney, died in 1602, his unsent letter became part of the archives of the Stratford corporation. It was still in its folded, and possibly sealed, state, when Shakespeare scholar-editor Edmond Malone discovered it in 1793. While on town business in London, Quiney writes to his “Loving good friend and countryman Mr William Shackesp[er]e,” to ask for a 30-pound loan (the equivalent of several thousand dollars). Other surviving letters suggest that Quiney secured the loan from other sources, perhaps with Shakespeare’s assistance after an in-person meeting, which is why the letter was never sent. The families were well-acquainted with each other and Quiney’s son Thomas went on to marry Shakespeare’s daughter Judith in 1616.

2) The noate of Corne [wheat] & malte [barley]. Manuscript, February 4, 1598. SBT, BRU 15/1/106. LOAN COURTESY OF THE SHAKESPEARE BIRTHPLACE TRUST. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: A survey of those within the borough of Stratford-upon-Avon, holding quantities of "corne and malt" including Shakespeare

In this 1598 survey of grain hoarders in Stratford-upon-Avon, “W[illia]m Shackesp[ear]e” is listed as holding 10 quarters of malt. Due to poor harvests and rising prices, local justices of the peace were required by the Privy Council to survey all households and prevent profiteering. Since malt-making was a significant cottage industry in Stratford-upon-Avon, most citizens of the town kept grains, including Shakespeare’s friend Richard Quiney, also listed on this page.

Shakespeare's Will (3.5)

William Shakespeare’s last will and testament provides one of the richest surviving accounts for understanding his familial and professional networks. The will names many of the important people in his life, including family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors, as well as describing specific pieces of personal property. Drawn up by a clerk, it is written on three sheets of paper, with William Shakespeare’s signature appended to each sheet—half of his surviving signatures are found on this single document.

Shakespeare left the bulk of his estate to his two daughters, Susanna Hall and Judith Quiney: New Place, the house on Henley Street in which he was born, a cottage near New Place, the Blackfriars gatehouse, and other property. He left money, clothes, and the right to live in the Henley Street house to his sister, Joan Hart, and her three sons, and silver plate to his granddaughter Elizabeth Hall. To his wife he left his “second best bed with the furniture” (valance, hangings, linen).

He left a sword to family friend Thomas Combe, bequests to his lawyer, his overseer, and the poor of Stratford, and money to buy mourning rings for three of his theatrical colleagues: Richard Burbage, John Heminge, and Henry Condell. Of the three, Burbage died in 1619, but it was Heminge and Condell who put together the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays.

Items Included

William Shakespeare (1564-1616). Last will and testament. Manuscript, March 25, 1616. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES, UK, PROB 1/4. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: William Shakespeare's last will and testament: original copy including Shakespeare's three signatures

Shakespeare's Baptism and Death (3.6)

The parish register for Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon contains five references to William Shakespeare. It records Shakespeare’s baptism on April 26, 1564; his daughter Susanna’s baptism on May 26, 1583; the baptisms of his twins Hamnet and Judith on February 2, 1585; Hamnet’s burial on August 11, 1596; and Shakespeare’s own burial on April 25, 1616. The register also contains 19 additional references to members of Shakespeare’s extended family.

Items Included

1) Parish Register for Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. Manuscript, 1558-1776. On deposit at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE SHAKESPEARE BIRTHPLACE TRUST. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Parish Register, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon

A House in the City (3.7)

In addition to owning one of the largest houses in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare purchased other properties, including one in London near the Blackfriars Theatre—the indoor theater where his acting company performed. Shakespeare’s acquisition is typically called a gatehouse because part of the building is described in the deed as being “erected over a great gate.” The gatehouse may have been an investment by the business-savvy Shakespeare or a convenient London residence.

A type of deed known as a “bargain and sale” was used to convey the property from Henry Walker, “citizen and minstrel of London,” to William Shakespeare, “of Stratford upon Avon in the Countie of Warwick gentleman” on March 10, 1613, for 140 pounds. Two indentures, or indented copies, of the bargain and sale were made: one for Shakespeare and one for Walker. Each copy begins with the phrase “This indenture made…” because the top edge is cut in a wavy, or “indented,” line. A third copy was entered into a large roll in the Court of Chancery.

Items Included

1) Bargain and sale for Shakespeare’s purchase of the Blackfriars Gatehouse from Henry Walker. William Shakespeare’s copy (buyer’s copy, signed by Henry Walker). March 10, 1613. Folger MS Z.c.22 (45). Displayed Recto. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Bargain and sale from Henry Walker, citizen and minstrel of London,[...]

This is Shakespeare’s copy of the bargain and sale for the Blackfriars Gatehouse. It was signed at the bottom by the seller, Henry Walker, but the seal has since disappeared. As part of the sale, Henry Walker was to give Shakespeare all the earlier deeds to the property that had been passed down by prior owners. Image at right; original displayed at left

2) Bargain and sale for Shakespeare’s purchase of the Blackfriars Gatehouse from Henry Walker. Henry Walker’s copy (seller’s copy, signed by William Shakespeare and trustees). Manuscript, March 10, 1613. LMA, CLC/522/MS03738. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE LONDON METROPOLITAN ARCHIVES. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Shakespeare purchases the Blackfriars Gatehouse: Vendor's copy of the bargain and sale

This is Walker’s copy of the bargain and sale for the Blackfriars Gatehouse, signed by William Shakespeare and two trustees: William Johnson and John Jackson. Shakespeare’s third trustee, colleague John Heminge, would have signed the blank fourth tag if he had been present. It is shown here as part of a pair: the top part is Shakespeare’s copy, the bottom half is Walker’s. Some pairs of indenture, like this one, were cut from the same large parchment, or calfskin.

3) Mortgage for the Blackfriars Gatehouse (Henry Walker’s copy). Manuscript, March 11, 1613. BL, Egerton MS 1787. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE BRITISH LIBRARY. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Mortgage by William Shakespeare, of Stratford-on-Avon, gentleman, and others, to Henry Walker, of London, vintner, of a dwelling-house in Blackfriars

On March 11, 1613, the day after he purchased the gatehouse, Shakespeare secured a 60 pound mortgage on the property from the seller, Henry Walker. This copy of the mortgage, signed by Shakespeare and two of his trustees, William Johnson and John Jackson (with the fourth tag for John Heminge again left blank), belonged to Henry Walker.

As with Walker’s copy of the “bargain and sale,” Shakespeare and Johnson both use the seal of the scribe’s servant (“HL,” for Henry Lawrence), while Jackson used a seal with a coat of arms. Seals were constantly borrowed, in the same way that we would borrow a pen to sign our name on a legal document. Given the identical witnesses, scribe, and signatures on the mortgage and the bargain and sale, the two documents were probably signed on the same day despite being dated a day apart.

Shakespeare, The Icon

Shakespeare died 400 years ago, but today more people than ever KNOW HIS NAME, and his plays are among the best-selling works of all time. Shakespeare’s ENDURING FAME was predicted by one of his playwriting friends, Ben Jonson. After Shakespeare’s death, Jonson described him as “a monument without a tomb” and proclaimed that “he was not of an age but for all time!” The first edition of his collected plays in 1623, known as the First Folio, solidified this legacy, and original copies are considered to be some of the most valuable books in the world.

Shakespeare Remembered (4.1)

Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, at the age of 52. He was buried two days later in Holy Trinity Church at Stratford-upon-Avon.

The epitaph on his monument, written soon after, refers to him as a writer whose wit exceeds that of all living writers: “all that he hath writ / leaves living art but page unto his wit.” Friends and colleagues acknowledged the loss of the great writer in their own epitaphs and elegies, contributing to his posthumous role as a literary icon.

Items Included

1) Epitaphs on Shakespeare. In Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Manuscript, ca. 1620s?. Folger STC 22273, no. 26. See this item on Shakespeare Documented. Anonymous manuscript epitaph on Shakespeare, written in a contemporary hand on the rear endleaf of a copy of the First Folio

Three epitaphs to Shakespeare are copied onto the last leaf of this First Folio. The first is from Shakespeare’s monument in Holy Trinity Church. The second, which describes him as “the wittiest poet in the World,” “whom none but death could shake,” survives only in this manuscript. The third comes from Shakespeare’s tombstone on the floor of Holy Trinity Church. The handwriting style is consistent with an early 17th-century dating.


An Epitaph on Mr William Shakespeare

Stay passenger why go’st thou by so fast

read if thou Canst, whom envious death hath placed

within this monument: Shakespeare: with whom

quick nature died; whose name doth deck this tomb

far more than cost; since all that he hath writ

leaves living art but Page unto his wit./

Another upon the same

Here Shakespeare lies whom none but death could shake

and here shall lie till judgement all awake;

when the last trumpet doth unclose his eyes

the wittiest poet in the world shall rise./

an Epitaph (upon his Tomb stone incised)

Good Friend for Jesus’ sake forebear

To dig the dust enclosed here

blest be the man that paved these stones

but Cursed be he that moves these bones./

2) William Basse (ca. 1583-1653?). “On Mr William Shakspeare”. Manuscript, ca. 1620s. Folger MS V.a.103, part 1. Open to fol. 3v

In his elegy on Shakespeare, the poet William Basse suggests that the “rare Tragedian,” sleeping alone “under this carved marble of thine own,” be instead buried alongside Edmund Spenser, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the recently deceased playwright Francis Beaumont in Westminster Abbey. Ben Jonson alludes to Basse’s words in his own elegy to Shakespeare in the First Folio (shown right), and the elegy survives in over thirty manuscripts from the 17th century.


Mr Basse On Mr William Shakespeare

Renowned Spencer lie a thought more nigh

To learned Beaumont, and rare Beaumont ly

A little nearer Chaucer, to make room

For Shakespeare in your three-fold, four-fold Tomb.

To lodge all four in one bed make a shift

Until doomsday, for hardly will fifth

Betwixt this day and that, by fate be slain,

For whom the curtains shall be drawn again.

But if Precedency in death do bar,

A fourth place in your sacred sepulcher;

In this uncarved marble of thy own,

Sleep brave Tragedian, Shakspeare sleep alone:

Thy unmolested breast, unshared Cave

Possess as Lord, not Tenant to thy grave

That unto others it may counted be

Honor hereafter to be laid by thee

3) Ben Jonson (1572-1637). “To the memory of my beloved, the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare: and what he hath left us”. In Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. London: Isaac Jaggard and Edward Blount, 1623. Folger STC 22273, no. 4.

Playwright Ben Jonson’s famous elegy on Shakespeare is the longest of the four elegies that appear in the introduction to the First Folio. Near the end of Jonson’s poem, he refers to the two rivers of Shakespeare’s life, the Avon river in Stratford-upon-Avon and the Thames river in London. He calls him, memorably, the “Sweet Swan of Avon” who made “those flights upon the banks of Thames,/ That so did take Eliza, and our James!” Eliza and James are Queen Elizabeth and King James, who are described as taken by Shakespeare’s brilliant“flights” of drama.

Gossip and Tale Tales (4.2)

In the decades immediately after his death, stories about Shakespeare circulated far and wide, evolving with each re-telling.

Three of the manuscripts in this case refer to his jovial friendship with Ben Jonson, the playwright whose elegy on Shakespeare appears in the First Folio. A fourth manuscript explains why Shakespeare changed the name of the future Henry V’s friend from Sir John Oldcastle to Falstaff in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.

Items Included

1) Sir Nicholas L’Estrange (1603-1655). Merry passages and jests. Manuscript, ca. 1650. BL, Harleian MS 6395. LOAN COURTESY OF THE BRITISH LIBRARY. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and the "Latin" spoons in L'Estrange's jest book

L’Estrange recorded over 600 jokes and anecdotes from his Norfolk friends and family in this manuscript, noting the source for each one in a separate section. All of the jests on this page were told by his mother, except for one by Lady Hobart and one by a “Mr. Dun,” about Shakespeare giving a gift of 12 “Latin” spoons to his godchild, Ben Jonson’s child, so that Jonson could “translate” them. The story relies on a pun on “latten,” which was a generic term for brass or another copper alloy, and “translate,” the alchemical process of changing a cheaper metal into silver. Silver spoons were a typical gift at a christening.


Shakespeare was Godfather to one of Ben: Jonson’s

children, and after the christening, being in a deep study,

Jonson came to cheer him up, and asked him why

he was so Melancholy? No, faith Ben: (says he) not I, but I

have been considering a great while what should be

the fittest gift for me to bestow upon my Godchild, and I have resolved at last; I prithee what, says he? I faith

Ben: I’ll e’en give him a dozen good Latin spoons, and thou shalt translate them.

2) Richard James (1591-1638). Dedicatory epistle to Occleve’s poem, The Legend and defence of the Noble Knight and Martyr Sir John Oldcastel Manuscript, 1625. BL, Add. MS 33785, fol. 2. LOAN COURTESY OF THE BRITISH LIBRARY. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Shakespeare's Oldcastle/Falstaff controversy: Richard James's account

The antiquarian Richard James explains here why Shakespeare changed the character originally named “Sir John Oldcastle” to one named “Sir John Falstaff ” in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. After defending the Protestant heroism of the real historical figures with those names, James suggests that because the Oldcastle character in Shakespeare’s plays was a “buffoon,” the “Personages descended from his title” took offense. The off ended descendants were William Brooke, tenth Baron Cobham, and his son, Henry. Brooke was patron of Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, at the same time that the plays were being performed.


A young Gentle Lady of your acquaintance having read the

works of Shakespeare made me this question. How Sir

John Fastalff … could be dead in the time of Harry the fifth, and again live in the time of Harry the sixth to be banished

for cowardice?

… That in Shakespeare’s first show of Harrie the fifth, the person with which he undertook to play a buff oon was

not Falstaff but Sir John Oldcastle, and that offense being

worthily taken by Personages descended from his title …

3) John Ward (1629?-1681). Notebook. Manuscript, 1662-1663. Folger MS V.a.292. Open to leaf 139 verso || 140 recto. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: John Ward's notebook: Only known account of Shakespeare's death and other references

John Ward, vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon and physician, collected extensive notes on religion, medicine, and literature alongside miscellaneous gossip. This notebook contains several references to Shakespeare, including the only known account of Shakespeare’s death; a reference to Shakespeare’s earnings, lifestyle, and “natural wit”; and a reminder to himself “to peruse Shakespeare’s plays” so that he would not be “ignorant in that matter” (on the right hand page).


I have heard that Mr. Shakespeare was a natural wit without any art at all. He frequented the plays all his younger time, but in his elder days lived at Stratford: and supplied the stage with 2 plays every year and for that had an allowance so large that he spent at the rate of £1000 a year as I have heard.

Remember to peruse Shakespeare’s plays and be versed in them that I may not be ignorant in that matter.


Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry

meeting and it seems drank too hard for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.

4) Some Notes for my Perambulations in and round the Citye of London. Manuscript, ca. 1643. EUL, MS La. II 422/211, fol. 8r. LOAN COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Shakespeare the Roisterer at the Tabard Inn

An unidentified antiquarian here describes Shakespeare, Richard Burbage, Ben Jonson, and their “roystering associates” spending time at the Tabard Inn in Southwark. He bases his description on the fact that he saw the names of Shakespeare and the others carved on the famous inn’s wooden panels. The pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales met at the Tabard Inn, and perhaps Shakespeare and his colleagues went there not only to drink, but to pay homage to the great 14th-century author.


The Tabard I find to have been the resort [of] Master Will

Shakespeare, Sir Sander Duncombe, Lawrence Fletcher,

Richard Burbage, Ben Jonson, and the rest of their

roystering associates in King James’ time, as in the large

room they have set their names on the Panels.


This manuscript, discovered in 2013 by Martha Carlin, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is exhibited publicly for the first time.

Shakespeare's Plays After Shakespeare (4.3)

Shakespeare’s plays continued to be published and performed in the years immediately following his death in 1616.

In 1619, an enterprising publisher unsuccessfully attempted to issue ten of Shakespeare’s plays as a collection. In 1623, the same year that the plays were published together as a single publication—the First Folio—a young historian created a combined version of two of Shakespeare’s history plays, to be performed by his family and friends.

Items Included

1) Collection of plays by or attributed to Shakespeare. London: William Jaggard for Thomas Pavier, 1619. Folger STC 26101 copy 3. Shown closed. See this item on Shakespeare Documented: Henry VI Parts 2 and 3, third editions

This is the only known complete copy of the “Pavier quartos,” the earliest attempt to publish a group of Shakespeare’s plays as a collected edition. All ten plays were printed for Thomas Pavier in 1619, but some have title pages with false imprints that give earlier dates and diff erent names. Pavier only owned the rights to four of the plays, so he may have needed to make the other six look like surplus old inventory. Two of the ten plays are no longer attributed to Shakespeare: Sir John Oldcastle and A Yorkshire Tragedy. The volume still has a distinctive gold-tooled binding with the name of its first owner, Edward Gwynn, who died around 1645.

2) Sir Edward Dering (1598-1644), adaptor. Adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 Manuscript, ca. 1623. Folger MS V.b.34. Open to A1 verso || 1 recto. See this on Shakespeare Documented: Earliest manuscript copy of a Shakespeare play: conflated version of the two parts of Henry IV

In 1623, the antiquarian Sir Edward Dering turned the two parts of Henry IV into a single play, cutting 3000 lines from both. Dering’s adaptation is the earliest known manuscript copy, and first documented amateur performance of, a Shakespeare play (or rather, parts of two plays). The blanks in the title were meant to be filled in with ornamental initials. On the facing page is a cast list for a household performance of another play, John Fletcher’s The Spanish Curate, with the names of members of the Dering household and their friends.

William Shakespeare, A Timeline

1564 William Shakespeare is born in Stratford-upon-Avon

1582 Shakespeare marries Anne Hathaway

1583 Shakespeare’s first child, Susanna, is born

1585 Shakespeare’s twins, Judith and Hamnet, are born

1592 Shakespeare is first alluded to as a playwright, in Greene’s Groates-worth of Wit

1593 Shakespeare’s first printed poem, Venus and Adonis, appears

1594 Shakespeare’s first printed play, Titus Andronicus, appears

1596 Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, is granted a coat of arms

Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, dies

1597 Shakespeare purchases New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon

1598 Shakespeare is first mentioned as a sonneteer and author of 12 plays in Palladis Tamia

1599 Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, is granted a confirmation of arms

Shakespeare’s acting company takes down its old theater and uses the timber to build the Globe

1600 Extracts from Shakespeare’s plays and poetry appear in Bel-vedere, the first printed literary commonplace book to include plays

1601 Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, dies

1602 The heralds dispute the legitimacy of a group of coat of arms, including Shakespeare’s

Shakespeare ratifies his purchase of New Place

1603 Shakespeare’s acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, becomes the King’s Men at the accession of James

Hamlet appears in print

1607 Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna marries John Hall

1608 Blackfriars Theatre is established as the indoor theater of the King’s Men

Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden Shakespeare, dies; his granddaughter Elizabeth is born

1609 Shakespeare’s Sonnets appears in print

1613 Shakespeare purchases the Blackfriars gatehouse in London

The Globe burns down during a performance of Henry VIII and is rebuilt within a year

1616 Shakespeare writes his will

Shakespeare’s daughter Judith marries Thomas Quiney

Shakespeare dies

1623 The First Folio is published

Shakespeare’s widow Anne dies