Use the play books once owned by actor-manager David Garrick (1717-1779) to trace the heritage of English dramatists, from William Shakespeare to lesser known playwrights of the 16th and 17th centuries.
About the collection
Printed plays were popular in the early modern period, but were not yet highly treasured. By the 18th century many had been lost, so the collection of 1,300 individual and collected plays bequeathed by David Garrick to the British Museum in 1780 was a significant gift. It constituted 90% of all English plays in the Museum until the arrival of King George III’s Library in 1828.
The plays were used by the famous Shakespeare commentator George Steevens and by Charles Lamb for his Specimens of the English Dramatic Poets Who Lived About the Time of Shakespeare (1808).
Garrick’s Collection includes:
- early English morality plays like John Bale's The chief promises of God (1547?) and early English comedies like those of John Heywood and Nicholas Udall
- Elizabethan plays by dramatists such as John Lyly, Thomas Kyd, George Peele, Thomas Lodge, Robert Greene and Christopher Marlowe
- Jacobean and Caroline drama including the famous plays of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher.
- Restoration drama by playwrights such as Sir George Etherege, William Wycherley, Thomas Shadwell, Nathaniel Lee, Thomas Otway and Thomas D'Urfey.
The collection now contains 1,169 individual plays since many were sold during the British Museum duplicate sales that ran until 1832. Some plays were added to the collection from the Thomason Tracts and from elsewhere. Some imperfect copies were ‘perfected’ in the 1840s by adding in pages from other copies. Others were mutilated by T J Wise in order to ‘perfect’ his own copies, now in the Ashley Library.
What is available online?Catalogues and finding aids
- Plays are listed on the British Library's main online catalogue Explore the British Library.
- More detailed records about the individual printed editions of the plays included in the Garrick Collection are given on The English Short Title Catalogue.
- You can see full-colour digitised pages of Edward Cappell's Manuscript catalogue and indexes of the Collection of Plays made by Garrick and bequeathed to the British Museum on our website.
Around 475 Garrick copies of plays are digitised in full-colour and freely available online on Explore the British Library. You can search by title or shelfmark (e.g. 644a*, 644b*, 644c*), then select the option to 'View Online'.
You can see images of some of Garrick's plays and find out more about them on our website:
- David Garrick’s copies of early Shakespeare editions
- John Webster's Duchess of Malfi c.1612-13
- Aphra Behn's The Rover
- the 'good' ‘second quarto’ of Shakespeare’s Hamlet .
Of associated interest is David Garrick’s annotated copy of The History of King Lear, an adaptation by Nahum Tate (this copy is not part of Garrick's Collection of English Plays).
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What is available in our Reading Rooms?
Printed copies of Garrick's plays
Registered Readers can request Garrick's plays to the Rare Books & Music Reading Room using Explore the British Library . Garrick copies are held at British Library shelfmarks 643.a-d.; 644.a–i; C.34.; and C.21 (find copies by shelfmark on Explore by typing 643a*, 644a* etc).
A small number of Garrick's plays are restricted from access. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Printed Specialist Catalogue
A printed catalogue - The Garrick Collection of Old English Plays: a Catalogue with an Historical Introduction (1982) - is held on open shelves in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room at shelfmark RAR 822.008.
Digital copies of Garrick's plays: Early English Books Online and Historic Texts
You can use Library networked PCs to access electronic facsimiles on subscription-based databases. In some cases the copy used for the facsimile is the Garrick copy (you can check by looking at the shelfmark of the item).
What is available in other organisations?
Until 1832, the British Museum sold duplicate copies of books to fund further acquisitions. Around 10% of the Garrick plays were sold so it is possible to find copies in other libraries.
- The copy of Shakespeare's First Folio which he owned at his death was not passed to the British Museum. It was retained by his wife, offered for sale in 1823, and is now at the Queen’s College, Oxford.
- The Brett-Smith Collection of plays and dramatic literature at Cambridge University Library offers plays by Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists. It includes first editions of approximately 40 Restoration playwrights.
- Edinburgh University Library holds the James Orchard Halliwell Collection consisting mainly of Jacobean, Restoration and early 18th-century plays. It includes nearly all the editions of Shakespeare printed before 1660.
- The National Library of Scotland has the Bute Collection comprising 1,266 16th-18th-century English plays and includes 39 Shakespeare quartos.
- Cardiff University Special Collections has a printed Drama Collection of early English Plays. Its volumes are particularly noted for their marginalia.
Digital facsimiles of other collections of early modern printed playbooks
- Early English Playbooks, 1594-1799 - Boston Public Library presents full colour facsimiles from its collection of 1,500 chiefly individual editions of English stage plays issued between 1594 and 1799.
The fundamental reference source for using the Garrick Collection is:
- G.M. Kahrl and D. Anderson, The Garrick Collection of Old English Plays: a Catalogue with an Historical Introduction (1982).
Other useful reference sources
- E. Capell (comp), [Ms Catalogues and Indexes of the Collection of Plays made by Garrick and Bequeathed to the British Museum] (2 v., 1778?) [643.l.30].
- F.C. Francis, ‘The Garrick Library’, in A. Nicoll (ed), Shakespeare Survey, 3 (1950), 43-57.
- D. F. Foxon, Thomas J. Wise and the Pre-Restoration Drama: a Study in theft and Sophistication (1959).
- H.R. Smith, David Garrick, 1717-1779 (1979): with bibliography.
- G.W. Stone and G. M. Kahrl, David Garrick: a Critical Biography (1979): especially 105-99.
- D. Anderson, ‘Reflections on Librarianship: Observations Arising from Examination of the Garrick Collection of Old Plays in the British Library’, Electronic British Library Journal (1980), art. 1, 1-6.
- T.A. Birrell, ‘The B.M. Duplicate Sales 1769-1832 and their Significance for Early Collections’, in G. Mandelbrote and B. Taylor (eds), Libraries within the Library (2009), 244-57.