Beyond Words: Book Illustration in the Age of Shakespeare

Press Contacts

Garland Scott
(202) 675–0342

Esther French
(202) 675–0326

Ben Lauer
(202) 675–0376

Curator-Led Tours
Available upon request

On View

February 24–June 3, 2018

Washington, DC—Printed images in early modern books can be a delight to the eye, but they also offer much more, providing information and ideas on an extraordinary range of subjects—and new insights into the world of early book printing, as well.

Beyond Words: Book Illustration in the Age of Shakespeare, curated by Caroline Duroselle-Melish, includes more than 80 illustrated rare books and prints from the 15th to the 18th century from the Folger Shakespeare Library. The images include woodcuts, produced from carved woodblocks, and engravings and etchings, printed from copper plates. Some are even in color, supplied either by printing with different inks or, for individual copies, by hand-coloring. The majority of these works have never been displayed by the Folger before.

The books and prints are from England and a number of European nations, bringing to life the circulation of ideas—both verbal and visual—in Shakespeare's day. The images are extraordinarily wide-ranging, from religious and allegorical figures to maps, diagrams, portraits, and illustrations of contemporary events, daily life, distant lands, plants and animals, astronomical bodies, and much more. Among the artists who produced them are such well-known figures as Hans Baldung Grien, Marcantonio Raimondi, and Wenceslaus Hollar.

Works on drama and theater in the exhibition include one of the earliest costume books ever published, from 1563, and a 1638 treatise on special effects. Volumes of plays often include images of the stage that place the reader in the position of a spectator in the audience. Still other works document extraordinary displays, such as a large, foldout image of the ballet for the Duke of Parma's wedding in 1690, with dramatic figures suspended in the air.

In addition to its fascinating mix of subjects, the exhibition also examines how images in books were printed. One intriguing way to explore that question is through the numerous and varied printing errors on view, which reveal what steps were required and what missteps could occur. Visitors can also learn more about how illustrated books were printed through period images and a video included in the exhibition.

Exhibition Highlights

  • A very early illustrated book of plays by the Roman author Terence, printed in 1493
  • Hand-colored images of urine flasks from a 1506 medical guide, meant to diagnose illnesses based on different colors
  • The title page of a sermon by Martin Luther printed in Wittenberg in 1522, packed with images of animals, people, and a printing press
  • A hand-colored woodcut of a lettuce plant in a 1562 Czech herbal—and the woodblock that produced it
  • Two engravings by Martin Droeshout: his portrait of Shakespeare in the 1623 First Folio and a work from about 1632 on man's sinful nature and the soul, pictured as a phoenix
  • A 1635 map of the North Atlantic with the North Pole at its center
  • An intriguing 1691 portrait of an Ethiopian abbot, a rare image of an African scholar of the time


Caroline Duroselle-Melish is the Andrew W. Mellon curator of early modern books and prints at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She has co-curated several Folger exhibitions, including Age of Lawyers: The Roots of American Law in Shakespeare’s Britain and First Folio! Shakespeare’s American Tour. Duroselle-Melish has worked with a wide range of collections in university libraries and independent rare book libraries. Most recently, she was assistant curator at the Houghton Library, Harvard University. She has published on a range of topics associated with early modern book printing and printmaking.

Images for press use are available on Dropbox. Please credit Folger Shakespeare Library. 


Folger website and social media
The exhibition is featured on the Folger's website at, as well as on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter via the hashtag #FolgerBeyond


Folger Family Programs
Recommended for ages 5–14

Printers School
Saturday, March 3; 10–11am (ages 5–7), 11am–noon (ages 8–14). Free. Registration required.
Learn the art of book printing.
NOTE: This particular program has a limited number of spots. Please register and receive a confirmation before attending.

Folger Institute Scholarly Programs
Image and Knowledge in Early Modern Books
Friday and Saturday, March 9–10; Faculty Weekend Seminar
Note: Admission applications now closed.
Daniela Bleichmar. Examines the ways in which images in early modern books participated in the production and circulation of knowledge from about 1450 to 1800.


Folger Shakespeare Library is located at 201 East Capitol Street, Washington, DC 20003, one block east of the US Capitol. 

Hours and Admission
Monday through Saturday, 10am–5pm
Sunday, noon–5pm
Admission is free.

Monday–Saturday at 11am, 1pm, and 3pm; Sunday at 12pm and 3pm
Folger docents offer guided tours of the exhibition, as well as the Folger’s national landmark building, free of charge. No advance reservations required.

Group Tours 

Docent-led tours of the exhibition, as well as the Folger's national landmark building, are offered for groups of 10 or more. To arrange, please call (202) 675–0395.


Folger Shakespeare Library is the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the ultimate resource for exploring Shakespeare and his world. The Folger welcomes millions of visitors online and in person. We provide unparalleled access to a huge array of resources, from original sources to modern interpretations. With the Folger, you can experience the power of performance, the wonder of exhibitions, and the excitement of pathbreaking research. We offer the opportunity to see and even work with early modern sources, driving discovery and transforming education for students of all ages. Join us online, on the road, or in Washington, DC. 

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Press Contacts

Garland Scott
(202) 675–0342

Esther French
(202) 675–0326

Ben Lauer
(202) 675–0376

Curator-Led Tours
Available upon request