Updating Folios: Readers’ Reconfigurations and Customisations of Shakespeare

Noriko Sumimoto
Meisei University


  1. Readers’ annotations and other marginalia seem to have established themselves as an important field of interdisciplinary studies of readership. In A Dictionary of English Manuscript Terminology, Peter Beal recently wrote that the “Marginalia, made by readers of books from medieval times onwards,” which include, amongst other things, “glosses, side-notes, markings . . . , corrections of errata or textual emendations . . . or else brief or detailed comments on the text itself . . . can throw . . . great light on the responses of contemporary or early readers and on their engagement with the texts, providing valuable sources for the history of readership” (247). Following up on Beal’s comment, this essay will focus specifically on what William H. Sherman has called the “customisation” of books (Used Books 36), a term he uses to describe the way that books were altered “according to [readers’] needs and tastes” (36). The concept of “customizing books” by readers offers us a way to interpret “the mysterious marks that get left behind” (Sherman, Used Books xi)[1] by unknown readers in the manuscript marginalia of some of the surviving copies of the four Shakespearean Folios.

  2. When we started the Meisei University Shakespeare Collection Database with the richly annotated First Folio copy (MR 774; West 201), we had hoped that eventually all the folios in our website would contain at least some manuscript annotations.[2] The Third Folio copy shelfmarked MR 733 especially made us feel fortunate, since it is annotated throughout the volume except for the apocryphal pages. Yet, at the same time, the copy puzzled us as to how to make sense of the meticulous ink strokes that frequently fill the copy’s lower or sometimes outer margins as well, as, for example, on Ttt1r (see fig. 1).

    Fig. 1 MR733, Ttt1r Meisei University Library
  3. It was soon to be discovered that its annotator transferred onto the copy the footnotes of Sir Thomas Hanmer’s edition.[3] Nevertheless, a couple of questions remained. Why did the annotator do that? And was this person the only one ever to have annotated Folio copies in such a manner? By comparing the “customisation” of this copy with that of other Shakespeare Folios with manuscript marginalia, I was able to begin to answer both of these questions.

  4. To date we know of two scholars who were once similarly bewildered facing, in their own folio copies, numerous manuscript additions that each seemed to do very little more than reproduce the editorial contributions of a single, eighteenth-century edition.[4] One is John Fitchett Marsh, who, reading a Third Folio copy now housed in the Folger Shakespeare Libary and shelfmarked S2914 Fo. 3. No. 2, noticed that the annotations were almost identical with those found in Alexander Pope’s edition. This led him initially to believe that the copy was once owned and annotated by Pope himself, but when the graphology revealed that the annotations were not penned by Pope, Marsh was so puzzled that he wrote that it was “difficult to imagine an adequate motive for taking the trouble of” copying Pope’s annotations (199).

  5. Bodleian Arch. Gc. 9, a Second Folio copy bound together with the Fourth Folio’s apocryphal pages, appeared similarly to puzzle Mary Bradford Whiting. In a signed memorandum, dated January 1889 and now pasted on the copy’s free endpaper, she observed that the notes and stage directions were derived from Nicholas Rowe’s edition.

  6. MR733, Folger Third Folio copy 20 and Bodleian Arch. Gc. 9 each bear witness of their respective annotator’s extended and sustained efforts to carry out page-to-page collation, covering over 900 folio pages with annotations from, respectively, Sir Thomas Hanmer’s, Alexander Pope’s, and Nicholas Rowe’s editions of Shakespeare’s plays.[5] By investigating how the readers-annotators of each of these folios followed or diverged from the scholarly editions to which they appeared to refer, we might begin to understand how they customised their folios, and how these customisations reconfigured Shakespeare.

    Bodleian Second/Fourth Folio: Arch. Gc. 9

  7. By far, the majority of manuscript additions and annotations left in the Bodleian Arch. Gc. 9 folio copy can be identified as having been derived from Nicholas Rowe’s edition. Among the innovations which Rowe’s edition had brought to the experience of reading Shakespeare in 1709 were a critical biography of the author, plates that illustrated a scene and served as frontispieces to each play, character lists, more complete stage directions, and more systematic scene designations. John Prater, the apparent owner of this copy whose signature appears on the title page (with the date 1698) and elsewhere in the folio (with the date 1700), seems to have considered almost all of Rowe’s additions to be worth transcribing as a way, as Whiting puts it, to “improve” his folio copy.[6]

  8. Prater was an attentive and voracious reader of Rowe’s famous “Some Account of the Life, etc. Of Mr. William Shakespeare.” He not only created a short version of Shakespeare’s life out of the account and wrote it under the list of “Names of the Principal Actors” (Sig. *), but also inscribed various pieces of information it offered him wherever he thought fit throughout the copy. About The Merchant of Venice, Rowe writes, “. . .tho’ we have seen that Play [i.e. MV] Receiv’d and Acted as a Comedy, and the Part of the Jew perform’d by an Excellent Comedian, yet I cannot but think it was design’d Tragically by the Author. . . .The Play it self, take it all together, seems to me to be one of the most finish’d of any of Shakespear’s” (“Some Account,” xix-xx). Prater took notice of these lines and wrote “this Row Says is one of ye most finisht of all his [.] he says it was he beleevs designd a Tragidy” in the upper margin of the first page of the play (O4r). His “much ye Same tale as Sophocles Electra”on Hamlet’s first page (pp2v) can be ascribed to Rowe’s “Hamlet is founded on much the same Tale with the Electra of Sophocles” (xxxi). Even a terse inscription of “Q:Elizabeth” beside “a fair Vestall, throned by the West” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (N3r) looks like his homage to Rowe’s enlightening information. As Whiting notes in her memorandum, even the inscription in the outer margin of the first page of Much Ado about Nothing, that “Benedict &Beat[rice] have much wit,” (N3r) can be found in Rowe’s account.

  9. Prater even describes the picture plates that Rowe had attached to each of several of Shakespeare’s plays in a delightfully unique way. “Picture is” is Prater’s opening formula for the ekphrasis. That of Romeo and Juliet, for example, runs thus:
      Picture is│Romeo & Paris│lying dead Juliet│kneeling by: a dager│she holds at her │breast a great │torch burning│sevral coming│with halberts│& a torch at a│distance (ii5v).
  10. Indeed Prater redesigned the final page of each play by filling it with information he found on the first page of each play of Rowe’s edition—namely the character list and the scene information together with the plate. Rowe’s character list and the scene location are transcribed into the space almost verbatim for most of the plays, although plays like Macbeth have different renditions, as will be mentioned later.

  11. Rowe’s act and scene designations are precisely followed, with very few exceptions. In fact, so far as I can surmise from my analysis of digitized page images of twelve of the plays, there are only two exceptions to this pattern: Romeo and Juliet 1.2 and The Merchant of Venice 2.2. Moreover, Prater not only marks Rowe’s act and scene designations wherever they are lacking in the folio text: he also modifies the folio’s designations to conform to Rowe’s. In addition, Prater usually, but not always, transcribes Rowe’s indicators of location.

  12. While Prater seldom shows interest in textual emendations at word level, he seems to have valued Rowe’s stage directions, including the entrances and exits which Rowe enlarged. While he does not reproduce all of Rowe’s directions, he does transcribe the majority of them, with the notable exception of the Ghost “spreading his arms” and “cock crows” in Hamlet Act 1, Scene 1 and “To Juliet” and “Kissing her” in the sonnet sequence of Romeo and Juliet. Almost all Prater’s stage directions are derived from Rowe either verbatim or in paraphrases.

  13. However, not all of Prater’s annotations can be attributed to Rowe’s influence, for quite a few of his entries reflect his interest in his contemporary Shakespearean stage, including titles of contemporary adaptations such as Faerie Queen and Bottom the Weaver and The Injured Princess or the Fatal Wager in the title pages of the relevant plays. His annotations also include, in some cases with the date and venue of performance, actors’ names, probably drawn from the printed texts or some contemporary performance documents, if not from the memory of attendance at the theatres in person. For example, Prater refers to a performance of Macbeth at Haymarket on 29 December 1707 in a cast list that he prepares on a different sheet of paper and then attaches to the centre of the finis box (pp2r). The listed cast, starting with Betterton playing the part of Macbeth, is identical with that recorded by The London Stage, which lists a Macbeth performance for that date at the Queen’s Theatre (Part 2 1700-1729, 162).

  14. Moreover, the annotator often refers to “Shadwell” or “the new” in his pen and ink additions to the text of Macbeth, as if he is trying to update his folio text by recording what alterations were made in the contemporary version of the play. His annotations are justified if you compare them with Davenant’s Macbeth first published in 1674. He enters parentheses in the side margins to show the passage omitted in Davenant’s play (oo5r), and makes brief notes about the new lines and scenes added as in oo2v: “ad 60 lines bet: Macduff & Wife in Shadw.” He is rather careful about the characters omitted or replaced in the adaptation and revises the Folio entrance and exit stage directions accordingly (nn4r). He also adds the new stage directions he finds useful to enhance the imaginary understanding of the play in performance, as in nn5r: “Macbeth going out Stops & speaks whilst ye K: talks wth Banqo in Shadwell.” The annotator seems erroneously to attribute the Macbeth adaptation to Shadwell (although he accurately attributes the Timon of Athens adaptation to him).

    Folger Third Folio copy 20: S2914 Fo.3 no.20

  15. The present state of Folger Third Folio copy 20 reveals the repair work that the copy has undergone. It is rather heavily damaged at the tail throughout, so that many leaves are repaired with a reinforcing strip, and the text that has been mutilated is written on a piece of paper interleaved where appropriate. These interleaves are written in the same hand as that of the marginalia of the main text, and both appear almost exclusively to be either transcribed or to refer to the edition by Alexander Pope first published in 1725.

  16. Although John Fitchett Marsh was silent about them in his N&Q article, there are three entries in which the annotator directly mentions Pope in this copy. The three entries are all about Pope’s rearrangement of scene order as, for example, in Henry V: “This Chorus in Mr: Pope’s Edition is placed at the beginning of the 2d Act” (Ll4v).[7] Almost all the other manuscript additions and annotations in this copy can be safely said to have been derived from Pope’s.

  17. Pope built his edition of Shakespeare’s plays in part by amending Rowe’s: by adding source information for 13 plays, systematic scene designations, footnotes, commas for shining passages, and stars for beautiful scenes, and by degrading parts of the text that Pope thought unworthy of Shakespeare to the bottom of the page. To all of these features the annotator of Folger Third Folio copy 20 pays rather close attention.

  18. Whereas John Prater added scene information he found in Rowe into the final page of each play, the annotator of this copy chose to place scene information in the upper margins above head titles of each play. Pope supplied no scene information to The Second Part of Henry the Fourth, and the annotator followed suit. In addition, Pope’s scene designations are fairly faithfully introduced throughout the copy. The annotator reproduces Pope even where Pope gives erroneous numerals in Lear Act II, where Scene VI is given to two consecutive scenes. As for the location indicators usually accompanying scene designations, the annotator follows Pope a little half-heartedly. Although the Folio text space is often forbiddingly tight to allow an easy practice of this sort, even where ample space is available, location indicators are sometimes just ignored.

  19. Pope famously wanted the lower margin of his edition to be the space where his editorial duty discharged should “show itself” to the readers. Thus, he puts “various Readings” in the lower margin in footnote form (vol.1, xxii). The annotator, apparently comparing Pope’s emendations with the Third Folio’s readings, usually, although not universally, records Pope’s emendations in the Folio margins when they are different. Occasionally, he also employs Pope’s silent emendations to create an original footnote.

  20. Pope also explicates, in footnotes of various length, “The more obsolete or unusual words” (ibid.). The annotator seems to have been able to cope with many of Pope’s short notes, but lengthy ones must have posed difficulty in transcribing onto a copy with such severely shaved margins. Sometimes the annotator deals with the scarcity of space by summarising Pope’s note, or just stopping in the middle of a transcription thereof.

  21. Finally, Pope evaluates passages of the play. For example, he explains that “some suspected passages which are excessively bad, . . . are degraded to the bottom of the page; with an Asterisk referring to the places of their insertion” (ibid.), and he places triple daggers at the heads of scenes he found too gross in taste. Pope also marks his approbation of certain passages and scenes: he writes, “some of the most shining passages are distinguish’d by comma’s in the margin; and where the beauty lay not in particulars but in the whole, a star is prefix’d to the scene” (xxiii). The annotator, apparently in agreement with Pope’s evaluations, places boxes around those passages which Pope deemed to be “excessively bad,” as seen in Figure 2. He also reproduced almost all of Pope’s commendatory marks, using inverted commas and asterisks. Remarkably, the annotator not only copies these marks from Pope but also contributes his own, using double commas to signal his own commendation of passages and asterisks to mark his favouring of specific scenes.[8] He even draws the profile of a face looking at the words “Scaena Quarta. X,” which introduce the scene in which King Richard the second is killed in the prison cell (Ff4v), most probably as a token of admiration (see fig. 2).[9] Thus, the annotator seems to have judged the scene rather enthusiastically.

  22. In addition to supplementing Pope’s evaluations of the play with his own, the annotator appears to have consulted other sources. For example, while the source information supplied by Pope is transcribed diligently for twelve of the thirteen plays, the annotator does not seem to have been sufficiently impressed by Pope’s observation that “This Story was not invented by our Author; tho' from whence he took it, I know not” (vol. 6, 344). Instead, in a speculation probably derived from the edition by Theobald (vol. 7, 226), the annotator wrote, “This Story is taken from Saxo Grammaticus in his Danish History.”[10]

  23. Fig. 2 S2914 Fo.3 no.20, Ff4v. By Permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

    Meisei Third Folio: MR733

  24. Meisei Third Folio, copy shelfmarked MR733, is the second issue published in 1664. On its title page is inscribed “John Millett Prescot,” who must have been an owner of this copy at one time, but whether the manuscript annotations in this copy are also in his hand is difficult to say.

  25. The annotator demonstrates a selective attitude toward the various features of the Sir Thomas Hanmer edition. In his preface, Hanmer says he has devoted his attention to emending the text, to placing spurious passages at the bottom of the page (adding in the process a few sentences to the passages that Pope had degraded to the bottom of the page of his edition), to adding a glossary at the end of the edition, and to supplying footnotes that clear up difficulties arising “from a reference to some antiquated customs now forgotten, or other causes of that kind” (vol.1, v). For his or her part, the annotator takes care to transcribe onto the recto pages of both the front and rear flyleaves the glossary that Hanmer appended to his edition’s sixth volume. He or she also transcribed the explanatory footnotes, but appears to have opted not to follow Hanmer’s practice of degrading passages of the text. As for other editorial features, the annotator transcribed all but one explanation of source information that Hanmer supplied for 13 plays, and only one of the character lists that Hanmer appended to all of the plays.[11] Although the annotator does sometimes pick up scene designations, location indicators, stage directions, and textual emendations, they are quite clearly not his or her chief concern.[12]

  26. There are about 430 footnotes in Hanmer’s Shakespeare, 65 percent of which are those aimed at explanations, while the rest are for recording those portions of the text that he discards because they are “spurious.” The annotator copied more than 85 percent of Hanmer’s explanatory notes into his or her own copy of the Third Folio. In 21 out of the Folio’s 36 plays, the annotator transcribed all of them. As in King Lear (Ttt1r) [see fig.1], nearly 80 percent of the entries the annotator brought to the copy are transcribed very carefully and almost verbatim, if we admit certain accidentals such as the use of capitalization, punctuations and various forms of contractions. For the remaining 20 percent of the notes, the annotator edited them into shorter forms chiefly for the purpose of saving space.

  27. Reproducing Hanmer’s notes verbatim wherever possible must have been the annotator’s preferred method, as the surviving errors seem to indicate. Only four errors can be found throughout the copy, an example of which is shown in figure 3. Here the annotator had erroneously inscribed “Plenty” for Hanmer’s “fullness,” an error which he corrected by crossing it out.

  28. Fig.3 MR 733, I1r. Meisei University Library.

  29. Had it not have been for the annotator’s interest in copying Hanmer’s notes faithfully, these errors might have seemed by no means serious enough to be crossed out, for these corrections risk marring the text’s elegance, about which the annotator seems to have been also very particular.

  30. In fact, his or her careful treatment of show-through clearly indicates the annotator’s investment in producing an elegant text. As Akihiro Yamada repeatedly remarks in transcribing the marginalia left in West 201, show-through often made the annotations difficult to read. Throughout MR 733, no case is found where show-through from the recto page has made the annotations on the verso difficult to read. The annotator successfully avoids such difficulty, for example, by shortening Hanmer’s note in Lear TLN 355 (Ttt1v): where Hanmer’s notes reads “As the treading upon another’s heels is an expression used to signify the being not far behind him; so toe another means to come up to and be upon even ground with him,” the annotator’s is shortened to “To toe a Man, signifies to come up to & be upon even Ground with him” (see fig. 4).

    Fig. 4 MR733 Ttt1v. Meisei University Library.

  31. In one case, the annotator even prevents show-through by transferring a note to another page. Hanmer’s note about the word “Nuthook,” which the annotator should have inscribed on D2 verso, is transferred to Ll1 recto, the sole alternative page available in the Folio on which the same word occurs, and unlike the D2 verso, free of show-through.

  32. And yet, the copy does not simply reproduce Hanmer’s notations. While the copy includes 241 footnotes directly from Hanmer, it also includes three which seem to have come from elsewhere. One of them is the case in Hamlet (Qqq4v), where the annotator added “Startling means I should think sterling” as a note to the word “startling,” a form peculiar to the Third Folio. The hand seems to me to be identical to the one above it on the page, but it may be a product of some second session of annotation. I think it possible to find in the annotator’s employment of “I should think”—the same phrase as professional editors sometimes use in their notes—a joyful feeling of the annotator’s self-esteem.

  33. These three cases are not the only cases of such Folio customisations. Although Bodleian Gc. 9, so far as my research has determined, is the only copy whose customisation is informed by Rowe’s edition, Folger Third Folio copy 20 and Meisei MR 733 are by no means the sole examples of Pope- or Hanmer-based customisations. For example, some of the comedies in Folger Second Folio copy 22 are also annotated after the edition of Pope. Hanmer’s edition might have been used as a source for another thorough-going folio customisation, namely Folger First Folio copy 70 (West 128) which, as far as I have been able to access to date, is the only copy among the First Folios that has similar types of annotations throughout.

  34. In one sense the particular type of Folio customisation that the eighteenth-century annotators of Shakespearean folios might be said to demonstrate can safely be called “updating,” a process stimulated, perhaps, by the successive publications of brand new editions of Shakespeare in the eighteenth century. Yet the source of stimulation might be found earlier and elsewhere than in the printed pages of newly edited Shakespeare. John Prater, if we may regard him as the annotator of Bodleian Gc.9, seems to have begun somehow updating his Second/Fourth Folio copy around 1700, probably shortly after his acquisition of the copy. He found his updating source in the contemporary Shakespeare, either in performance or in printed material, including Restoration Quartos of Shakespearean adaptations. In a gracefully un-intruding way in the side margins, he recorded parts of the folio text that were omitted or altered in the “new” forms of Shakespeare. He also added some character lists, emendations, and helpful stage directions. We could not tell how long and how far he would continue his project of reconfiguring Shakespeare by this method. However, what the remaining annotations in the copy indicate is that once the brand new configuration of Shakespeare in the shape of Rowe’s edition appeared in 1709, Prater found it both valuable and convenient. This lead him to embrace it as the sole source for his updating project.

  35. In the case of Folger Third Folio copy 20, the updating project was part of the work of repairing the physically-damaged Folio copy. The annotator seems to have found almost every configuration of Pope’s worth transcribing. He or she, nonetheless, must have been alert enough to notice Theobald’s criticism against Pope’s edition in Shakespeare Restored or in his published edition. The annotator borrowed from this second source as well, though he or she did so only in very limited instances. His or her strong preference for Pope’s annotations never wavered.

  36. The annotations left in Meisei MR 733 reveal the annotator’s great concern for the physical elegance of the final product, as if he or she were seeking to rival the elegant beauty of the first Oxford edition of Shakespeare. More importantly, however, the annotator seems to have been fascinated by Hanmer’s elucidation of the text, especially the footnotes and glossary that clarified obscure words and phrases. Yet the annotator’s admiration for Hanmer did not prevent him/her from enriching the text with personal emendations and updates.

  37. I would like to conclude this short paper with a simple note of what the detailed analysis of the annotations have revealed to me about the three annotators: in using Rowe, Pope, and Hanmer to update their folios, these annotators are not following their single source blindly through and through. As we have seen above, they are ready to choose otherwise or diverge if need arises, a flexibility, I believe, only a great reader of Shakespeare, if not a scholarly reader, could possibly have.


I would like to thank Jean-Christophe Mayer and all the colleagues for inviting me to read a paper at the 2010 “Shakespearean Configurations” conference in Montpellier. This essay is a modified version of that paper. Karen Cosgrove-Smith helped me with editing the earlier version of this essay and Margaret Vasileiou offered me many valuable suggestions to make it more readable. I am pleased to acknowledge both of them. Part of this work was supported by KAKENHI (19520266).

[1]See also Sherman, “What Did Renaissance Readers Write in Their Books?” 119.

[2] URL: http://shakes.meisei-u.ac.jp/. This website incorporates data from Yamada, The First Folio of Shakespeare through permission of the author. It should be noted that we were inspired by University of Glasgow’s pioneer contribution to the field of sharing marginalia through the internet.

[3] Cf. Sumimoto, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009.

[4] At the moment, the study of marginalia in Shakespearean Four Folios apparently remains to be cultivated and organized. Except for the marginalia in the First Folios, the whereabouts and other basic information of which are provided by West’s Census of First Folios, those in the Second, Third and Fourth Folios are recorded in very few research tools apart from Hamnet, the Folger Shakespeare Library’s online catalogue, which has also informed West.

[5] MR 733 and Folger Third Folio copy 20 are both second issues of the Third Folio. Their “apocryphal” pages (from Pericles to Locrine [a1r - ¶G6v]) are void of annotations.

[6] The Oxford DNB has nothing to add to what Whiting had already written back in 1889 about Prater: “no information [about him] can be obtained.”

[7] The other two entries are both in Cymbeline: “For ye 8th scene wch pope places here / See ye 1st two Scenes mark” (Dddd4r) and “This Scene Pope has placed at ye end of ye 3d Act” (Dddd5v).

[8] The double commas given to the first seven lines of Lear’s “O reason not the need” speech (Ttt6r) or an asterisk to the garden scene in Romeo and Juliet (Iii2v), two examples out of many.

[9] See also the word of reprobation, “bad very bad,” in an ornamental style with the use of flourishes at the end of The Two Gentlemen of Verona (D1v), which might have been inscribed by the annotator.

[10] In a few cases, readings derived from another edition than Pope’s, probably from Theobald’s, are recorded in the lower margin, as in the case of the “wretch/wench” emendation in Othello (Yyy2r).

[11] The source information of Macbeth is not recorded, and only Lear has the character list transcribed.

[12] As You Like It is the only exception in this copy where the annotator seems to have done a more thorough textual collation using Hanmer’s edition.


Works Cited



Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editors at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2013-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).