"The Pen's Excellencie" :
Treasures from the Manuscript Collection
of the Folger Shakespeare Library

February 6 through June 8, 2002

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 are 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.

Descriptions and images of several manuscripts from the exhibition can be viewed by clicking on the thumbnail images below or by clicking on the underlined links in the text.


Medieval Manuscripts

The exhibition begins with examples from the Folger's collection of medieval manuscripts, including the famous Macro Manuscript, 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."

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 are Henry VIII, Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey, Mary I, Elizabeth I, James VI and I, and Henry, prince of Wales. Highlights include 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.

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 is 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.

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.

Emblems and Epigrams

Emblems and epigrams were popular literary forms in early modern England. An emblem consists of an allegorical illustration and a motto, followed by a short poem (an epigram) which interprets the text and image and conveys the emblem's moral message. Epigrams of a satirical nature often circulated in manuscript, their popularity lying in their references to the moral shortcomings of identifiable people. Henry Peacham's emblem book, John Harington's epigrams, and Esther Inglis' Octonaries were intended to be formal gifts from the authors to specific people, while Thomas Fella and Thomas Trevelyon compiled their collections of emblems and "diverse devices" for more personal use.

Not Your Everyday Manuscripts...

Some manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library defy categorization. Their unconventional size or shape, or their colorful or elaborate illustrations, challenge and enhance our assumptions about manuscript culture in the early modern period. An Elizabethan fold-out "game" with portraits and verses, an astrology manual with movable parts, a weaponry manual with an illustration of a "jet-pack" cat, and a treatise illustrating the corruption within London markets, have the ability to surprise and delight the modern eye.

Pastoral Romances

The pastoral romance was a popular genre in Renaissance England. Long prose narratives interspersed with song and poetry, pastoral romances idealized the simple and pure happiness of the shepherd's life compared to the corruption and artificiality of life at court. Love and adventure were two main elements of pastoral romances, which were often set in an unspecified "Golden Age" and contained allusions to contemporary people and political and religious events. This section of the exhibition includes a contemporary copy of Sir Philip Sidney's "Old" Arcadia, written in the hand of the professional scribe Richard Robinson, and an autograph copy of his niece Mary Wroth's Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, the first sonnet sequence written by an English woman. Also on display are pastoral romances in the autographs of William Basse and John Barclay.

Restoration Drama

After being closed for eighteen years during the English Civil Wars and the Protectorate, the public theaters of London reopened in 1660 with the restoration of a Stuart king, Charles II, to the throne. Restoration plays are known for their witty and often risqué language, their satires of identifiable people and political events, and their staging innovations. Two of the manuscript plays shown here were thought lost until their discovery in the twentieth century: The Change of Crownes by Edward Howard and The Country Gentleman by Sir Robert Howard (and the second Duke of Buckingham). Also shown are the plays and poems of Anne Finch, countess of Winchilsea, and receipts in the hands of Aphra Behn and John Dryden.

The Eighteenth Century

The actor, playwright, and manager David Garrick was the dominant figure in theater in the second half of the eighteenth century, with his "naturalistic" style of acting and his enthusiasm for Shakespeare. The Folger Shakespeare Library's collection of manuscripts relating to Garrick is unparalleled. Documents in the hands of Garrick, George Colman, Samuel Johnson, and Hannah More are on display, as are James Boswell's childhood commonplace book, a short work by Jonathan Swift, and the diaries of the actress, playwright, novelist, and literary critic Elizabeth Inchbald.

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.

Shakespeare and his 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. Mark Twain challenges Shakespeare's identity in his controversial work, Is Shakespeare Dead?

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).

The Nineteenth Century Stage

The close ties between the literary and theatrical worlds of nineteenth century London and New York are represented by manuscripts relating to the collaboration between the poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the American theater owner Augustin Daly, and the musician Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame). Also shown are manuscripts from Charles Dickens' amateur theatrical company and Bram Stoker's touching 1,276 page biography of the actor Sir Henry Irving. A prop "illuminated manuscript" used by the actor Charles Kean in Hamlet and a letter from Buffalo Bill to Daly are more playful artifacts from this era.

This page updated June 27, 2002