This is the first illustrated edition of The works of Mr. William Shakespear (1709), a beautiful set of six volumes edited by Nicholas Rowe (1674–1718). The illustrations, showing Shakespeare’s characters in distinctively 18th-century costumes and wigs, were designed by the French-born artist, François Boitard (1670–c.1715), and engraved by the British Elisha Kirkall.

There is one defining image for 37 plays by Shakespeare and 6 others for additional plays (such as Sir John Oldcastle and London Prodigal) which were mistakenly thought to be written by him. Each image appears directly before the corresponding title page, with the exception of The Tempest, where the title page appears first.

How was this edition innovative?

As well as including images, Rowe’s edition is ground-breaking in a number of other ways. For the first time Shakespeare’s plays appear as portable, octavo texts rather than larger folios or quartos. Rowe is the first to include a Dramatis Personae (or list of characters) at the start of each Shakespeare play; he makes the first complete division of the plays into acts and scenes, and includes stage directions. For the first time he also includes an account of Shakespeare’s life at the start of the collection. These innovations reflect Rowe’s practical experience as the most successful dramatist of his day, showing a keen awareness of the plays in performance.

‘Some account of the Life … of Mr. William Shakespear’ (pp. i–xl)

Nicholas Rowe’s biography was completed using research by Thomas Betterton (1635–1710), a leading Restoration actor. Betterton visited Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, to glean ‘any little Personal story’ (p. i) of the playwright from people there.

The ‘account’ reflects a growing sense that the ‘knowledge of the Author may sometimes conduce to the better understanding of his Book’ (p. ii). Details of Shakespeare’s life are used to explain his ‘Genius’ (p. v). Rowe presumes that part of Shakespeare’s ‘Fire’ comes from his supposed ‘Ignorance of the Antients’ (or classical authors) and recourse to his own ‘Imagination’ (pp. iii–iv). He repeats the now-discredited story that Shakespeare only saw the ‘Play-house’ in London because he had been convicted of ‘Deer-stealing’ and forced to flee Warwickshire (pp. v–vi). Famously, he also claims that the ‘top’ of Shakespeare’s performance as an actor ‘was the Ghost in his own Hamlet’ (pp. vi).

Rowe gives us a fascinating glimpse of early responses to Shakespeare’s plays, especially in terms of their genre. He says, for example, that The Merchant of Venice is ‘Acted as a Comedy’ but seems more like a tragedy because of the ‘deadly Spirit of Revenge’ and the ‘savage Fierceness’ of Shylock (pp. xix–xx).

Francois Boitard’s engravings

The frontispieces by Boitard are the first thing we encounter, inevitably influencing our reading of the plot, characters and setting. Some images depict key moments of action, while others combine different elements of scenes from across the play.

They give us an interesting insight into the theatrical conventions of the early 18th century and the use of contemporary costume on stage. However, there has been some debate over how far they record particular stage productions.

Nicholas Rowe’s edition

Rowe’s work was commissioned by the publisher, Jacob Tonson, as part of a wider effort to produce a uniform edition of English classics. The text (and Rowe’s choice of 43 works) is largely based on the corrupt Fourth Folio version of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1685, but he also restores some passages from the earlier quarto versions. The poetical works (such as the Sonnets and Venus and Adonis) were not included until Rowe’s revised 9-volume edition appeared in 1714.

Images for The Tempest and Hamlet

Two images have attracted particular attention. Boitard’s frontispiece for The Tempest, with its dramatic sea scene and flying devils has been linked to the opening stage directions for Shadwell’s operatic version of the Dryden-D’Avenant Tempest (1674). As in this engraving, Shadwell calls for a ‘Tempestuous Sea’ with ‘several Spirits in horrid shapes flying down amongst the Sailers, then rising and crossing in the Air…accompanied with Lightning, and several Claps of Thunder’ (p. 1).

The illustration for Rowe’s Hamlet reveals interesting aspects of 18th and 19th-century stagecraft. It shows Hamlet (in traditional Stuart wig and formal wide-skirted coat) reacting to the ghost’s appearance in the closet scene (Act 3, Scene 4), probably reflecting Thomas Betterton’s performance. In Charles Knight’s Pictorial Shakspere (1838–41) he prints a reproduction of Boitard’s image noting, ‘Our readers will smile at the costume, and will observe that the stage trick of kicking down the chair upon the entrance of the ghost is more than a century old’.