Shakespeare in the Rare Book Collection

by Bronwyn Mitchell, Editor, Queensland Museum

This year on World Book and Copyright Day, discover The Library Shakspeare, an 1890 illustrated edition of the Bard’s collected plays in the museum’s Rare Book Collection.

UNESCO World Book and Copyright Day was established in 1995 to promote the worldwide enjoyment of reading, and to recognise the role of books as ‘a link between the past and the future, a bridge between generations and across cultures’. It is celebrated each year on 23 April, a significant date in world literature. William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes and Garcilaso de la Vega — also called ‘El Inca’, one of the great Spanish chroniclers of the 16th century — all died on this day in 1616. (Although, in a twist of historical incongruity, Cervantes actually died 10 days before Shakespeare, since England was still using the Julian calendar while Spain had adopted the Gregorian, the calendar we mostly use today — they both died on 23 April, but not on the same day in real time.)

The museum library’s Rare Book Collection houses just over 2400 items of scientific, literary or historical significance. While the oldest book in the Collection pre-dates Shakespeare himself by a decade, more than half the works are from the 19th century. The provenance of the books varies — some are received through a donation or cultural gift while others are purchased, although in some cases a book’s origin within the Collection is unknown.

The Bard in Brisbane

One of the works in the Rare Book Collection is an illustrated edition of Shakespeare’s plays from 1890. The Library Shakspeare (the spelling used at the time of publication) was issued as a nine-volume set by William McKenzie of 22 Paternoster Row, a narrow street in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral. This street had been the centre of London’s publishing and bookselling trade since the middle of the 16th century. The spelling of ‘Shakespeare’, as we know it today, did not become the accepted spelling until the early 20th century, with multiple variations appearing in print before then, including ‘Shakspeare’, ‘Shakspere’ and ‘Shaksper’.

The Library Shakspeare includes the 36 plays first published in 1623 as Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, commonly referred to by modern scholars as the First Folio. The plays are reproduced across the first eight books, with the ninth volume titled ‘Notes, critical and explanatory’ by Samuel Neil.

The edition held by Queensland Museum (although unfortunately incomplete) was donated in September 1959 by Mr Hector Roughley. While the accompanying letter contains little information about the circumstances of the donation, it appears that the Roughley family, originally from Lancashire, migrated to Australia in 1911 and settled near Hervey Bay on the Fraser Coast. The set of plays — each volume bound in green cloth and elaborately decorated with gilt — was perhaps a treasured possession worthy of accompanying the family on their sea voyage to Queensland. The handwritten name inside each volume suggests that this copy probably belonged to John Edward Roughley, Hector’s father.

Shakespeare in Victorian England

While Shakespeare was regarded as a very good playwright in the two centuries following his death, the 1800s saw a gradual evolution of his rise to literary icon, particularly during the Victorian period. Performances of his plays in Victorian England featured lavish costume and set design, and illustrated editions of his works became increasingly common during the 19th century — particularly the period from 1840 to 1870, which has been called the ‘golden age’ of Shakespeare illustration. The medium of wood engraving, combined with new developments in printing technology, made illustrated books more widely available to the reading public, and the popularity and critical admiration of Shakespeare’s works bordered on adulation. The Folger Shakespeare Library’s podcast, Shakespeare Unlimited, explores the Victorian cult of Shakespeare in more detail.

The Library Shakspeare features artwork by three of the leading illustrators of the time. One of these was Sir John Gilbert (1817–1897), who made more than 30,000 drawings during his career, including many illustrations and wood-engravings for the Illustrated London News. Gilbert’s illustrations were mostly taken from previous editions of the plays, such as this full page introductory illustration from The Tempest, from an 1867 publication. (Note: Sir John Gilbert should not be confused with a different John Gilbert (1812–1845), the naturalist and explorer who served as an assistant to John Gould (the ‘father of Australian ornithology’) and who accompanied Ludwig Leichhardt on his first expedition, during which he unfortunately died on the Cape York Peninsula in 1845.) The Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive includes all the drawings Gilbert made for Shakespeare’s works.

The other two artists featured in The Library Shakspeare were caricaturist George Cruikshank (1792–1878), who illustrated a number of early works by Charles Dickens before their friendship soured; and Robert Dudley (1826–1909), a lithographer and chromolithographer, and an accomplished designer of book covers and Christmas cards.  These nine volumes include 36 mounted chromolithographed colour plates, as well as monochromatic plates of Shakespeare’s house, Ann Hathaway’s cottage and Stratford-upon-Avon, and approximately 700 engravings reproduced throughout the plays.

To learn more about other treasures of the museum’s Rare Book Collection, listen to Episode 5 of the Museum Revealed podcast with librarian Shannon Robinson.

Shakespeare’s house in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon. The house is now a historical museum.
Image credit: Peter Waddington
‘William Shakspeare: A life-sketch’ in the last volume of The Library Shakspeare. Image credit: Peter Waddington
Samuel Neil, author of multiple works on Shakespeare, wrote critical and explanatory notes on all the plays published in this illustrated edition. Image credit: Peter Waddington
Each volume in The Library Shakspeare has its original green cloth binding, elaborately decorated in gilt. Image credit: Peter Waddington
A colour plate by Robert Dudley of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet (Act II, Sc. II). Romeo: “It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon.” Image credit: Peter Waddington
A colour plate by Robert Dudley of ‘The Fairies’ Song’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Act II, Sc. II). Image credit: Peter Waddington
Title page of Volume 1, Comedies of The Library Shakspeare, donated to Queensland Museum in September 1959 by Hector Roughley. Image credit: Peter Waddington
Sir John Gilbert’s full page introductory illustration for The Tempest. Image credit: Peter Waddington