The Pen's Excellencie

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The recto of the final concord between William Shakespeare and Hercules Underhill, Gent. 1602. Folger Digital Image 3231.

The Pen's Excellencie, part of the Exhibitions at the Folger, opened February 6, 2002 and closed on June 8, 2002. The exhibition was curated by Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts. The exhibition catalog can be purchased from the Folger Shop.

The experience of looking at a mansucript is quite different from the experience of reading a printed book or viewing a work of art. Most of the one hundred "treasures" selected for the Folger's first all-manuscript exhibition were originally created for private use rather than public display, so their importance is measured not only in artistic terms but also in their literary or historical significance. As we view them we find ourselves, as it were, peering over the shoulders of individuals from other times and places, hunched over their desks, scribbling furiously. We sympathize with their hurried handwriting and careless mistakes, while we marvel at the beauty or historical import of their words.

Ranging in date from the early fourteenth century to the early twentieth century, many of these manuscripts were on display for the first time ever. The plays, poems, essays, letters, warrants, deeds, receipts, diaries, commonplace books, emblem books, and prose works of individuals as diverse as Shakespeare and Dickens, Henry VIII and Buffalo Bill, John Donne and Mark Twain, and Aphra Behn and Oscar Wilde, can only hint at the depth and scope of the 55,000 items in the Folger's manuscript collection.

Exhibition material

A leaf from Wisdom, one of the morality plays from the ca. 1475 Macro Manuscript. Folger Digital Image 31516.

Medieval manuscripts

The exhibition began with examples from the Folger's collection of medieval manuscripts, including the famous Macro Manuscript (V.a.354), a fifteenth century manuscript which contains the the full texts of three of the four surviving morality plays written in English before 1500, and a manuscript in the hand of the well-known humanist copyist Peter Meghen, the "one-eyed Flemish scribe."

The Macro Plays

Without this humble manuscript, we would know little about the once flourishing genre of English morality plays. The last page of The Castle of Perseverance, shown here, provides the earliest known stage diagram for an English play. The bottom right corner of the last page of Wisdom contains the ownership statement of the monk Thomas Hyngham, which in English reads: "O book, if anyone should . . . ask to whom you belong, you shall say, I belong above all to monk Hyngham."

Items included

Kings and Queens

The Folger Shakespeare Library has letters and documents signed by every Tudor and Stuart monarch from Henry VII (1485-1509) to Anne (1702-1714). Represented in this exhibition were Henry VIII, Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey, Mary I, Elizabeth I, James VI and I, and Henry, prince of Wales. Highlights included New Year's gift rolls of Henry VIII (eight feet long) and Elizabeth I (eleven feet long), one of the few surviving official signed documents from the reign of Queen Jane, two autograph letters of Elizabeth I, an autograph letter of James I, and James I's warrant releasing Sir Walter Raleigh from the Tower.

James I's warrant releasing Sir Walter Raleigh

Within four months of James I's accession in 1603, Sir Walter Raleigh, a devoted courtier under Elizabeth I, was accused of high treason and sentenced to death. Although his death sentence was lifted the day before his execution, he spent the next thirteen years imprisoned in the Tower of London. This royal warrant, dated January 30, 1617, is the order for Raleigh's release. Soon after, Raleigh led fourteen ships and 900 men on a disastrous gold-seeking expedition to Guiana. Since Raleigh's conviction of treason had never been removed, upon his return he was escorted back to the Tower and executed.

Items included

  • Henry VIII. New Year’s gift roll of Henry VIII, King of England. Manuscript, 1538/9 January 1. Call number: Z.d.11 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Elizabeth I. Autograph letter signed from Elizabeth I, Queen of England, to Henry IV, King of France. Manuscript, ca. 1590. Call number: V.b.131 Map case and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Elizabeth I. Autograph letter signed from Elizabeth I, Queen of England, to James VI, King of Scotland. Manuscript, ca. March 1592/3. Call number: X.d.397 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Elizabeth I. New Year’s gift roll of Elizabeth I, Queen of England. Manuscript, 1584/5 January 1. Call number: Z.d.16 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • James I. Warrant under the Great Seal for the release of Sir Walter Raleigh from the Tower of London. Manuscript, 30 January 1616/17. Call number: L.b.358 and LUNA Digital Image.

Shakespeare and his contemporaries

Very few contemporary manuscripts relating to Shakespeare survive. Shakespeare manuscripts at the Folger include his personal copy of the Final Concord for his purchase of New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon and his copy of the deed of bargain and sale for his purchase of the Blackfriars Gatehouse. Richard Stonley's diary records the first known purchase of a work by Shakespeare (Venus and Adonis), and John Ward's diary provides the only known account of Shakespeare's death. Also on display was the earliest known manuscript copy of a work by Shakespeare: Sir Edward Dering's conflated and abridged text of the two parts of Henry IV, written in 1623 for private performance. Documents relating to theater owners James Burbage, Edward Alleyn, and Philip Henslowe and to actor/playwrights Thomas Dekker and Samuel Rowley appear alongside two copies of Thomas Middleton's A Game at Chesse.

Shakespeare's Blackfriars deed

This is Shakespeare's copy of the deed for his purchase of the Blackfriars Gatehouse in London, on March 10, 1613. His purchase included free entry through the gate and yard, and also to "all and singular cellars, sollars [attics], rooms, lights, easements, profits, commodities, and hereditaments whatsoever to the said dwelling house or tenement belonging." Despite its convenient location near the Blackfriars Playhouse, the winter headquarters for the King's Men since 1609, the gatehouse dwelling was apparently only an investment for Shakespeare, who lived for the most part at New Place in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Items included

  • John Ward. Notebook of John Ward. Manuscript, 1662-1663. Call number V.a.292 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Alleyn, Edward. Memorandum relating to Dulwich College. Manuscript, 1626 September 22 and 27. Call number X.d.255 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Samuel Rowley. Request from Samuel Rowley to Philip Henslowe to pay John Daye. Manuscript, 1601. Call number X.d.261 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Thomas Middleton. A Game at Chess: as it was acted nine dayes together. Manuscript, ca. 1624. V.a.342.
  • Thomas Middleton. A Game at Chess. Manuscript, 1624 August 13. Call number V.a.231.
  • Final concord between William Shakespeare and Hercules Underhill, Gent. Manuscript, 1602 Michaelmas. Call number Z.c.36 (110-111) Map case and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Deed of bargain and sale for Shakespeare's purchase of the Blackfriars Gatehouse from Henry Walker. Manuscript, March 10, 1613. Call number Z.c.22 (45) Map case and LUNA Digital Image.
The 1617 royal warrant for the release of Sir Walter Raleigh from the Tower of London. Folger Digital Image 3138.

Autograph hands

Manuscripts are in a sense living extensions of their authors—the intimacy of handwriting brings us closer to understanding the process of composition. The materiality and subject matter of the manuscripts shown in this section, written in the hands of four well-known Renaissance writers and one composer, make it possible to imagine the circumstances of their production: Edmund Spenser adding his transcriptions of two poems and a letter to a blank page in a printed book; Gabriel Harvey filling the margins of a book with his overflowing observations; John Dowland copying out music for a young lute student; John Donne pleading with his father-in-law for forgiveness for secretly marrying his daughter; Thomas Traherne struggling to finish a long poem after being urged by a friend to continue.

John Donne's Letter to Sir George More

John Donne sent this passionate letter to Sir George More during one of the greatest crises of his life. Three weeks earlier, More had learned of Donne's secret marriage to his daughter Ann. Initially, Donne was imprisoned, and More persuaded Donne's employer to dismiss him from his service. In this letter, Donne humbly importunes More for forgiveness, writing, "In all the world is not more true sorrow than in my heart." As a result, Donne and Ann More were reunited, but her father refused to contribute to her support. This letter is part of the most substantial and important body of letters by Donne known to survive.

Items included

  • Gabriel Harvey. Annotations by Gabriel Harvey in Facetie, motti, et burle di diversi signori et persone private and Detti, et fatti piacevoli et gravi, di diversi principi filosofi, et cortigiani. Manuscript, ca. 1580-1608?. Call number H.a.2 (ms. content) and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Collection of songs and dances for the lute. Manuscript, ca. 1594-ca. 1600. Call number V.b.280 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • John Donne. Autograph letter signed, to Sir George More. Manuscript, 1 March 1602. Call number L.b.532 and LUNA Digital Image.

The Age of Romanticism

The "Lake Poets" William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey, and their close friends Charles Lamb and Thomas De Quincey, were some of the most influential figures of the Romantic movement in England in the first part of the nineteenth century. The letters, poem, essay, and commonplace book shown in this part of the exhibition represent their friendships and their passionate immersion in the literary culture of the period. Also on display is an autograph copy of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartoldy's famous overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Mendelssohn's Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy composed his famous overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream when he was just seventeen years old and living in Berlin with his parents. He first wrote the overture as a piano duet, which he played with his sister Fanny in November 1826. The overture publically premiered the following year, after being arranged for orchestral performance. This copy of the piano version in his own hand is thought to have been made during his first trip to England in 1829. Mendelssohn was one of the most popular composers in England in the nineteenth century, visiting the country ten times in his short lifetime.

Items included

  • William Wordsworth. Autograph letters signed from William Wordsworth, Rydal Mount, Westmorland, to various people. Manuscript, 1816-1840. Call number Y.c.1455 (1-2).
  • Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Overture to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream arranged as a duet for two performers. Manuscript, 10 July 1829. Call number V.a.372 and LUNA Digital Image.
Manuscript request from Samuel Rowley to Philip Henslowe to pay John Daye, 1601. Folger Digital Image 7689.

Shakespeare's nineteenth century commentators

All writers engage with Shakespeare at some point in their careers, whether it be to adapt, imitate, criticize, defend, or admire him. Elizabeth Barrett Browning uses Hamlet to support her belief in the superiority of literary activity above all other activities, while George Sand's Hamlet essay is inspired by a performance of the title role by William Macready. Oscar Wilde criticizes Shakespeare for privileging life over art in his later plays, Algernon Charles Swinburne explicates each period of Shakespeare's development in a book-length study, Walt Whitman argues that Shakespeare's historical plays represent the seeds of modern democracy, and Washington Irving speculates on the influence of an ill-fated voyage to Virginia on The Tempest.

Twain's Is Shakespeare Dead?

Mark Twain challenges Shakespeare's identity in his controversial work, Is Shakespeare Dead? His interest in the "Shakespeare question," first sparked by his reading of Delia Bacon's The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere Unfolded (Boston, 1857), was reignited in 1908 when he read The Shakespeare Problem Restated (London, 1908) by the British MP Sir George Greenwood. Twain was intrigued by Greenwood's argument that, while there is no evidence that Shakespeare the actor had any familiarity with the law, the author of the plays must have been a lawyer. In fact, Twain was so taken by Greenwood's theory that he lifted, word for word, Greenwood's chapter on "Shakespeare as a lawyer" directly into his own book Is Shakespeare Dead?, without citing Greenwood's name as his source.

Despite the fact that Twain included the title of Greenwood's book in a footnote on the first page of the chapter and set the chapter in smaller type, Greenwood's London publishers accused Twain of copyright violation and prevented Twain's book from being imported to England until the attribution problem was corrected. The dispute between Greenwood's and Twain's publishers was carried out in the New York Times. The Folger's manuscript copy of Is Shakespeare Dead?, written in Twain's hand, is dated less than two months before it was published by Harper and Brothers.

Items included

  • George Sand. Hamlet. Manuscript, 1845. Call number Y.d.518.
  • Oscar Wilde. Forgery of fragment of The decay of lying. Manuscript, ca. 1920. Call number Y.d.520.
  • Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens). Is Shakespeare Dead? From my Autobiography. Manuscript, 13 February 1909. Call number S.a.107 and LUNA Digital Image.

Inspired by Shakespeare and the Renaissance

Writers, musicians, and artists have read Shakespeare's plays and poems for inspiration for the last four hundred years. Characters from A Winter's Tale, A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It, Cymbeleine, Macbeth, and King Lear, make appearances in manuscripts in the hands of the composer Guiseppe Verdi, the poet and artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and the authors of the classic works Little Women, Winnie-the-Pooh, Treasure Island, and Middlemarch (Louisa May Alcott, A. A. Milne, Robert Louis Stevenson, and George Eliot).

George Eliot's notebook

This "Partridge and Cooper's Patent Improved Metallic Book" contains 172 pages of quotations in the hand of George Eliot, compiled in preparation for her novel Middlemarch. One of two Eliot notebooks at the Folger, it includes extracts from the works of dozens of poets, dramatists, historians, literary critics, philosophers, and mythologists. Eliot began the notebook in August 1868 and finished it near the end of 1871, at the same time that the first of eight bi-monthly volumes of Middlemarch was published in London. The opening shown here, headed "Fine declamation," includes quotations from Milton and Shakespeare.

Items included

  • Giuseppe Verdi. Autograph letters signed from Giuseppe Verdi, Genova and S. Agata, to various people. Manuscript, 1853-1865?. Call number Y.c.1447 (1-2).
  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Autograph letters signed and initialled from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to various people. Manuscript, 1864-1881?. Call number Y.c.1457 (1-5).
  • Louisa May Alcott. Little Pyramus and Thisbe by Louisa May Alcott. Manuscript, 19th century. Call number N.a.32 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • A.A. Milne. Autograph letter and poem signed from A.A. Milne, London, to Malcolm Watson. Manuscript, 1928 September 29. Call number Y.d.517 (1-2).
  • George Eliot. Miscellaneous Quotations. Manuscript, August 1868-ca. 1871. Call number M.a.13 and LUNA Digital Image.