The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

“This Play I Red” and other marginal notes on reading

A guest post by Claire M. L. Bourne

As a long-term fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library this year, I have been surveying all the English playbooks in the collection—from 1500 to 1709—in order to understand changing conventions of dramatic typography over the first two centuries of printing plays. This is slow, painstaking work, but it is showing me that early modern typographic experimentation was often keyed to innovations in theatrical performance. I’m interested in how printers, publishers, playwrights, and other agents in the book trade harnessed the capacity of print to account for extra-lexical effects created in the theater by, for example, actors’ voices and bodies, the particularities of stage architecture, the temporality of performance, and new technologies like moveable scenes. In other words, instead of looking to marginalia and readers’ marks to make claims about how plays were read, I am studying how plays were designed to be read.

That said, working systematically through so many plays here has not only yielded vast amounts of data about the typographical arrangements of early modern plays in print; it has also provided access to a corpus of readers’ marks, notes, and emendations, many of which would be difficult to find in a surgical strike on the Folger’s resources given that their presence in these books is not always mentioned in the copy-specific notes in Hamnet, the library’s online catalog. 

As other scholars have noted, when early modern readers wrote in their playbooks, they tended to do one or more of five things: supply missing speech prefixes, add stage directions, single out passages for transcription into their commonplace books, suggest variant words and phrases, and correct spelling or typographical errors. 1 Occasionally, I’ve come across a pre-1660 quarto marked up for performance. Some readers inscribed their names (usually on the title page), while others seized on blank spaces to practice their handwriting, do accounts, or write other things that had nothing at all to do with the play.

Roughly 20% of the playbooks I’ve looked at so far have some kind of manuscript intervention, including many attributable to post-Renaissance readers, editors, and catalogers. The presence of contemporary readers’ marks, notes, and emendations is far less common—certainly the exception rather than the rule. The relative scarcity of 16th- and 17th-century marginalia may be due to the desire among 19th-century collectors for “clean” copies of old books (especially literary ones), which sometimes led to the “washing” of old readers’ marks from the pages of early modern playbooks. Or it could be due to an actual lower rate of early modern annotation in playbooks compared to other kinds of books.

As William H. Sherman has put it, the material traces of practices associated with reading that survive in Renaissance books of all kinds “usually tell[…] us something different from what we expected and often less than we need to do much with them.” Those who wrestle with how to make sense of these readerly interventions tend to agree (albeit reluctantly) with Sherman’s conclusion that much of this so-called evidence “will remain invisible, indecipherable, or (worst of all) boring.” 2 That is, the signs of reading and use that do exist on the pages of 16th- and 17th-century playbooks are by and large too irregular to yield big-picture conclusions about how plays were actually read—and why. 3

But what about the question of whether the extant copies of printed plays were read in their entirety—or even at all? There’s at least one playbook in the Folger’s collection that has clearly never been read:

Trial of Chivalry features unopened pages, making it one of very few extant examples of a playbook as prospective readers would have encountered it in the London bookstalls.
Trial of Chivalry features unopened pages, making it one of very few extant examples of a playbook as prospective readers would have encountered it in the London bookstalls.

This copy of The Trial of Chivalry (1605; STC 24935a) looks almost exactly as it and other playbooks would have looked in a 17th-century London bookstall—its pages unopened, untrimmed, and unread for more than four centuries.

By contrast, there are several playbooks in the Folger’s collection that bear readerly claims to having read the whole play. The most striking of these can be found on the last page of the second quarto of Englishmen for My Money; or, A Woman Will Have Her Will (1626; STC 12932), where the a reader has very simply written “perlegi” (Latin for “read”): 4

A reader has inscribed “perlegi” in Italic hand on the last page of Englishmen for My Money (sig. K3v)
the printed text declares it is finished with “FINIS”; then, the reader declares the same (sig. K3v)

In one of the Folger’s copies of the next edition of the same play (1631; STC 12933 Copy 1), we find a similar inscription. Here, even though the ink has faded, it’s clear that a reader has written “(Legi)” on the title page:

Here, a faint “(Legi)” is visible on the title page of Englishmen for My Money (sig. A1r)
a faint “(Legi)” is visible on the title page of Englishmen for My Money (sig. A1r; click to see full title page)

The 1674 edition of William Davenant and John Dryden’s The Tempest; or, The Enchanted Island (S2945 Copy 1), an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, features the same inscription on the title page but this time with a date:

This read has also inscribed “Legi” and dated the inscription January 11, 1731 on the title page of The Tempest (sig. A1r)
read on January 11, 1731 (sig. A1r)

The fourth edition of Edward Sharpham’s The Fleer (1631; STC 22387 Copy 2) has one title-page annotation—and maybe two more, if you count the “R”s as abbreviations for “Read”—that indicate that it has been completed:

marking The Fleer as read; click to view full title page

And the reader of The Committee-Man Curried (S3160), a political dialogue published in 1647, documents having “Red ov[er?]” the whole playtext:

noting the play has been read; click to view full title page

Some readers not only noted they had read the whole playbook, but they also recorded their assessment. In a tantalizing note on the title page of Thomas Nabbes’s The Unfortunate Mother (1640; STC 18346 Copy 2)—a play that was “denied the credit which it might have gain’d from the Stage” (A2r), that is, never performed publicly—this reader declares, “This Play I Red, … And find it very…”:

The reader’s assessment of The Unfortunate Mother has been cropped (sig. A1r)
a reader’s tantalizing assessment of The Unfortunate Mother (sig. A1r; click to view the entire title page)

Unfortunately, the page was cropped when the playbook was rebound, cutting off the meatiest part of this note and denying us the satisfaction of knowing the reader’s assessment. However, the reader of John Fletcher’s The Woman Hater (1607; STC 1693) jotted down his or her assessment in no uncertain terms:

This reader found The Woman-Hater to be a “very good play” (sig. A1r)
this reader found The Woman-Hater to be “A very good play” (sig. A1r)

This last note (like the others) probably dates to the mid- to late 17th century, based on the style of the handwriting as well as, in this case, the reference to the play’s prologue in an edition of William Davenant’s “Poemes.” 5

All these examples suggest that some early modern play-readers were willing to heed the directives often found in prefatory epistles that counsel them on how to read the play in hand (or, in some cases, how not to read it). Many such paratexts implored readers not to jump to conclusions about the quality of the play based on, for example, its lack of success in performance or its failure to adhere faithfully to its source text. Instead, they encouraged readers to “peruse” the whole play carefully before passing judgment, or as Nabbes put it in his epistle to The Unfortunate Mother: “Read it with observation … and be / My Judge from reasons not from tyranny.” We know the reader of the Folger’s copy of the play did this and that he recorded his verdict on the title page of his copy, even if we don’t know what that verdict was—and never will.

There is one more cluster of four playbooks that’s worth mentioning here—The Whore of Babylon (1607; STC 6532), Sir Thomas Wyatt (1612; STC 6538), The Courageous Turk; or Amurath the First (1632; STC 11977 Copy 2), and Orestes (1633; STC 11982 Copy 2)—since all have a remarkably similar combination of readers’ marks on their title pages:

The Whore of Babylon (1607) title page features a range of readers’ notes, including an inscription that it was “read” (sig. A1r)
The Whore of Babylon‘s title page features a range of readers’ notes, including an inscription that it was “read” (sig. A1r).
Sir Thomas Wyatt (sig. A1r). Part of the inscribed date of reading (“17[??]”) is visible on the right-hand edge of the page, which has been severely cropped.
Part of the inscribed date of reading (“17[??]”) is visible on the right-hand edge of Sir Thomas Wyatt‘s title page (sig. A1r), which has been severely cropped.
The Courageous Turk; or Amurath the First also features dates of reading and re-reading on the title page (sig. A1r)
The Courageous Turk also features dates of reading and re-reading on the title page (sig. A1r).
Orestes doesn’t include the reader’s assessment but is marked as having been “read” (sig. A1r)
Orestes was “dulle” according to its reader (sig. A1r).

On all four title pages, the reader lists the dates he or she has “Read” (and re-read) the play. This reader also passes judgment on three of the four—The Whore of Babylon and Orestes are “dull(e)” and Sir Thomas Wyatt is just “ordinary.” A harsh critic, indeed.

On the whole, this constellation of marks shows that some early modern readers were conceptualizing the playbook itself as the unit of reading. In the wake of recent scholarship that has rightly illuminated practices of selective reading, these notes serve to remind us that early modern play-readers were not only reading for choice passages to copy down into their commonplace books. 6 Manuscript notes that declare, “I read this play!” suggest that some readers were also reading—or claiming to have read—plays more holistically.

What strikes me as so fascinating about the last set of four playbooks, in particular, is that they not only record complete reading but they also record re-reading. Of course, the selective reading practice of copying profitable passages into a commonplace book certainly counts as a form of re-reading. But in these particular cases, we see modeled the kind of readerly disposition that John Heming and Henry Condell called for in their epistle to the readers of the Shakespeare First Folio: “[W]e hope, to your divers capacities, you will finde enough, both to draw, and hold you: … Reade him, therefore; and againe, and againe.” True, Dekker and Goffe were not Shakespeare, but one reader seems to have “found enough” in their playbooks to read them completely—“and againe.”

Keeping a record of having read the whole play is a practice that the actor John Philip Kemble would adopt at the end of the 18th century in his vast collection of early modern playbooks. In addition to inscribing his name on the title-page and subscribing the phrase “Collated & Perfect,” he also habitually dated his completion of the play underneath the final “FINIS” or “The End,” as he did here on the last page of Aglaura (1646; S6121):

Kemble’s typical inscription on the last page of Aglaura (sig. F4v)

Each of these notes records an act of reading and may have helped readers remember which plays they had finished. It’s enticing indeed to imagine a 17th-century reader with a collection of playbooks so large that keeping track of which had been read—and which were left to read—would have been necessary. Although readers’ marks such as these can never fully capture the dynamism and ephemerality of what it meant to read a play, it’s still possible to treat them as records of a desire for completion—one of several simultaneous and multifarious possible engagements with plays in print.

UPDATE (March 9): Thanks to ongoing conversations with Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts at the Folger, I have noticed a couple of things about these readers’ marks that I’d like to share. First, while I initially read the reader’s assessment of Orestes (STC 11982 Copy 2) as “dulle”, it’s clear now that the last character is actually an ampersand: “dull &”. The trimming of the page to inlay it at the end of the 18th century also cut off the second part of the reader’s evaluation. Secondly, Heather observed that the title page of Sir Thomas Wyatt not only records the possible reading date of “17[??]” on the right-hand side of the page (as noted in the caption above), but it also signals that the playbook was “[re]ad / [16]95” in the top left-hand corner. Here again the note was cropped during the process of inlaying the page.


CLAIRE M. L. BOURNE is Assistant Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she teaches courses on Shakespeare, early modern drama, the history of the book, and theater history. During the 2014–15 academic year, she is a long-term fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Her current research is situated at the intersection of book and theater history, and she is working on a book project that connects typographic experiments in printed plays to theatrical innovations born of emergent dramatic genres in early modern England. You can find her on Twitter as @roaringgirle.

  1. For a detailed account of these kinds of intervention, see Sonia Massai, Shakespeare and the Rise of the Editor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
  2. William H. Sherman, “What Did Renaissance Readers Write in Their Books?” in Books and Readers in Early Modern England, ed. Jennifer Andersen and Elizabeth Sauer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 116-134, esp. 133. See also Sherman, Used Books (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), esp. xii.
  3. Readers’ marks have yielded some fascinating, more localized accounts of play-reading. For a recent example, see Lucy Munro, “Reading Printed Comedy: Edward Shaprham’s The Fleer,” in The Book of the Play: Playwrights, Stationers, and Readers in Early Modern England, ed. Marta Straznicky (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006), 39-58.
  4. There are four other books that I’ve found in the Folger’s collection that feature the “perlegi” tag: STC 16954.5, STC 12988 Copy 5, STC 12395, and 133- 383q. None of them seems to be the same hand as our Englishmen reader.
  5. Editions of Davenant’s poems were published in 1638, 1648, and then as part of his Works in 1673, meaning that 1638 was the earliest the reader could have made his or her mark on the book.
  6. See especially Zachary Lesser and Peter Stallybrass, “The First Literary Hamlet and the Commonplacing of Professional Plays,” Shakespeare Quarterly 59.4 (2008), 371-420. See also Adam G. Hooks’ excellent précis of Renaissance reading practices in “How to read like a Renaissance Reader.”


  • That unopened Trial of Chivalry reminds me of trying to read a 1928 edition of the Samuel Pepys ballad collection at a nearby university library last week. You guessed it– about 20% of the pages were uncut! Unlike when I asked for a suitable letter-opener at the Folger a few years ago, the university librarian promptly went to hunt one for me, and let me cut pages to my heart’s content!

  • So interesting, especially the cluster of four books that were read and re-read in the 1690s. I wonder if the reader might have been the antiquary Sir Daniel Fleming? It looks like “D ffleming” appears at the top of all four, partially trimmed.

    • Heather, I too thought of Sir Daniel Fleming when I saw evidence of this inscription on all four title pages. I think it will be worth tracking down other books/MSS he is known to have owned to see if the inscriptions/hands match. I was also intrigued by the other inscription (?) that I initially read as “Gower” on those same four title pages. During the course of some lively debates about it on Twitter, consensus formed around “Gower,” although I would still be open to other suggestions from fresh eyes. (I’m interested in this recurring inscription because it always appears near the dated “Read” notes.) The fact that John Philip Kemble ended up owning three of these four quartos suggests that they passed through the hands of at least two (maybe three or more) owners together. Were these plays bound together at one point? Sadly, Kemble’s predilection for cropping and inlaying the pages of his quartos has erased evidence of binding that would have perhaps helped us answer this question. But, hopefully, with some more sleuthing, we can confirm Fleming as the owner and settle the “Gower” question once and for all!

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