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UNESCO Recognizes Shakespeare Documents

The United Nations agency UNESCO has recently added 90 manuscripts related to William Shakespeare’s life to its International Memory of the World register.

Stored at multiple rare book libraries and archives, the documents touch on Shakespeare’s baptism, burial, family matters, property records, legal actions, and business dealings. Six of the Shakespeare documents are in the Folger collection, and regular visitors to the Folger may remember seeing them in the 2016 exhibition Shakespeare, Life of an Icon.

The Memory of the World program, started by the United Nations agency in 1992, conveys internationally recognized status to documentary heritage that has “universal value” in order to preserve the material and widen access to it.

“We are delighted that UNESCO has recognized the importance of these documents, which represent a cultural treasure but also a vital resource for ongoing scholarly work,” says Folger Shakespeare Library Director Michael Witmore.

Two of the Folger documents relate to Shakespeare’s real estate purchases: The copy of bargain and sale signed by the vendor when Shakespeare purchased the Blackfriars Gatehouse in London in 1613, and the 1602 buyer and vendor copies of the final concord when Shakespeare purchased New Place, his house in Stratford-upon-Avon. These buyers’ copies would likely have been kept by Shakespeare among his administrative papers.

Another pair of documents highlight the heraldic controversy around the Shakespeare coat of arms: A 1602 compilation by Ralph Brooke, York Herald, of various coat of arms awarded by William Dethick, in which Shakespeare appears fourth in a list of 23 names challenged, and a later copy of Brooke’s book containing a depiction of the Shakespeare coats of arms as “Shakespeare the player by Garter.” (Garter refers to Dethick’s heraldic title of Garter King of Arms.)

The final two documents attest to Shakespeare’s creative output and public reception: A 1593 diary entry by Richard Stonley that shows the earliest purchase of Shakespeare’s first work to appear in print, Venus and Adonis, and a manuscript copy of a Cambridge University play, Progress to Parnassus (c. 1606), that refers to Shakespeare as a poet and a playwright, citing and alluding to his works.

The other 84 documents selected by UNESCO come from six UK libraries and archives: the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, which led the successful nomination with The National Archives, Worcestershire Archives and Archaeology Service, the College of Arms, the British Library, and London Metropolitan Archives. The Folger is the only American institution included.

The link to the Folger goes beyond the six documents that are carefully preserved here. All 90 documents can be seen on Shakespeare Documented, a website created by the Folger in partnership with 38 other institutions, which features more than 400 primary-source materials, including all known references and allusions to Shakespeare and his works during his lifetime and shortly thereafter, as well as additional references to his family..

“If libraries are the diary of humankind, this group of documents represents one of that story’s most exciting chapters,” says Witmore.

This article is from the Spring 2018 issue of  Folger Magazine.