Let’s begin with the binding. The plays were probably bound together for the first time as early as the 1690s, judging from the book’s Cambridge-style binding.
The bi-colored binding of B5326, copy 2, is nearly contemporary to the plays found inside.
All eight quartos show signs of significant wear and tear, especially the first and the last, which are missing pages at the beginning and the end, respectively. This damage likely happened after the quartos had been collected into a single volume and suggests perhaps that the covers came detached at some point and then reattached using new endpapers. Indeed, the endpapers seem to have been added much later. However, none of this evidence rules out the possibility that the quartos may have been bound in different combinations before coming together in this current binding. Different systems of numbering underneath the title-page imprints of several suggest as much.
All eight quartos in the sammelband were published between 1681 and 1684. They are bound in the following order:
Date of publication is not the only organizing principle. Seven of the eight were published by Richard Bentley (all except The Rehearsal). One reader, likely the one who had them bound together, marked the titles of the eight plays listed above (and six others, not found in this volume) with Xs in the bookseller catalog printed on the second page of the Othello quarto.
The advertisement for plays published by Richard Bentley and Mary Magnes, included with Othello (1681).
In all, there are eleven names inscribed (and, in some cases, reinscribed) in the book. Mathew Wilkinson’s name appears—and has been crossed out—on the title pages of half the quartos. Robert Bedford has inscribed his name twice on the first page of the 2 Henry the Sixth playtext, but one of these has also been crossed out. Inscriptions for John Yales, Betty Buckle, and Mrs. Anloby each appear a single time in the volume, all in different plays. John Hardcastle has inscribed his name a few times in Sophonisba and, according to a note underneath the epilogue, has made a few corrections—“and happily too!” Many of these hands seem to date to the late seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. Only Betty Buckle’s inscription is dated: 1734.
Left: Mathew Wilkinson’s name is crossed out. Right: Robert Bedford’s name appears.
Two annotations, in particular, locate the book in Yorkshire. On the verso of the 2 Henry VI title page, one Mrs. Tanfield “of Tanfeild Hall / In the county of yorkshiear” has left her mark.
The inscription linking at least one reader to Yorkshire, specifically Tanfield Hall.
The second indication that the book circulated in Yorkshire is—quite literally—difficult to decipher. That’s because another reader named Jane Graves has used a numeric cipher to inscribe her name, her father’s name, and the name of her hometown, which happens to be Driffield, situated quite a ways east of Tanfield Hall. Jane used the back of the final leaf of Oedipus to experiment with her cipher, which is as simple as they get (though it took me several hours and some help on social media to figure it out):
1 = a
2 = e
3 = i
4 = o
5 = u
Jane has then assigned three of the remaining single-digit numbers to recurring consonants (6 = l; 8 = n; 9 = r).
Jane Graues plays with her cipher on the back of the Oedipus quarto.
On the back of the Oedipus quarto, Jane writes (twice) that the book was given to her by “Ch1962s G9152s,” or Charles Graues. Below, she writes her own name using the cipher (“3182 G9152s,” or “Iane Graues”), another name, perhaps that of a friend (“K1th29382 9h4d2s,” or “Katherine Rhodes”), and her location (“188 D93ff236d,” or “inn Driffeild”). At the bottom of the dedicatory epistle in the Sophonisba quarto, she’s written again: “Jane Graues Her Book / The Gift of CG / 188 D93ff236d.” Underneath this Sophonisba inscription, she’s repeated her name and written what seems to be “cont back,” which apparently refers to the work she’s done on the back of the Oedipus quarto. Both that work and the reference to it have been crossed out.
Jane Graues’ cipher associates the book with Driffield, also in Yorkshire.
While there are many other material features of the book to discuss, I want to conclude by discussing Ann Boner (Bower?), another female reader who left traces of her reading on the pages of this sammelband. It is extremely rare to find evidence of a reader engaging directly with the content of the plays themselves, but that’s exactly what Ann Boner does five times in four of the eight playbooks.
Like Frances Wolfreston, well-known for calling Othello “a sad one,” Ann Boner made her opinion of the plays known. In the middle of the Sophonisba quarto, she wrote: “This is my Beloveed [sic] Play. Ann Boner.” And in The Atheist, she declared, “I love this play well / AB.”
Top: Anne’s inscription in Sophonisba. Bottom: Anne expresses similar sentiments about The Atheist.
It can’t be accidental that she inscribed the latter remark right next to a line of dialogue reading: “Very well this; this is all but very well.” She also proves herself an attentive reader elsewhere. For example, in 2 Henry VI, when Lady Eleanor laments needing to “sneak away poor cheated Elianor Butler” instead of being “made Princesse of Wales,” Ann Boner has written “Right,” perhaps to affirm Eleanor’s decision.
Ann Boner responds to dialogue in 2 Henry the Sixth.
Furthermore, in Sophonisba, she writes and initials, “So am I resolve,” next to where Rosalinda, Hannibal’s mistress, declares: “This loyal heart shall never be but thine.” Here, the note seems to validate Rosalinda’s loyalty.
Here again, Ann proves herself a close reader.
Except for where names and some other manuscript content have been scratched out, the large number of readers who clearly interacted with, if not read, the book do not interact with each other’s interventions. Other than the constellation of Jane Graves, Charles Graves, and Katherine Rhodes, it’s not clear whether any of these readers ever knew each other. What is clear, however, is that this book deserves more sustained scholarly attention for what it can tell us about play-reading practices, the circulation of playbooks outside of London, and perhaps even the second-hand market for such material at the end of the seventeenth century.
Edit, 9/25/15: Added the possible alternate reading of Boner/Bower; initial reading suggests that it is an N, but several people have suggested W. Please comment if you have any thoughts one way or the other!