This unique copy of Shakespeare’s plays from Windsor Castle library contains notes by King Charles I (1600–1649) in neat, legible handwriting. It is thought that Charles read and annotated the Comedies, histories and tragedies while imprisoned at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight in 1647–48, during the Civil War conflict between the Royalists and Parliament. While captive, Charles was granted many privileges including free choice of books from the royal library.

The Second Folio

This 1632 collection of Shakespeare’s plays, printed by Thomas Cotes, is known as the Second Folio. It is adapted from the First Folio edition published in 1623, which was the first to bring together 36 plays, half of which had never before been printed.

King Charles’s annotations

On the contents page listing Shakespeare's plays, Charles has added the names of important characters, alongside some of the comedy titles:

  • As you like it: ‘Rosalinde’
  • All’s well that ends well: ‘Mr. Paroles’

Critics have debated whether these are simply the King’s ideas about who were the central characters – possibly his favourites – or whether they might offer improvements on Shakespeare’s ambiguous titles, with more straightforward alternatives of his own.

Bennedik and Betrice

Either way, the notes give an early sense of which characters were most popular with 17th-century audiences. They suggest that Beatrice and Benedick, the witty and vivacious couple in Much Ado About Nothing, were already more popular than Claudio and Hero, the more conventional lovers at the centre of the ‘main’ plot.

As a teenager, Charles (the son of James I) may have attended a performance of the play as part of the celebration for the marriage of his sister Elizabeth to Frederick the Elector Palatine. The Lord Chamberlain’s accounts for 1613 refer to it as ‘Benedicte and Betteris’, confirming the couple's role as the play's central attraction.