British Library makes 300 Shakespeare treasures available online for the first time

Page from the Friendship album of Moyses Walens, British Library, photographed by Joseph Turp

The British Library has made 300 stunning manuscripts, books, maps, paintings, illustrations, pamphlets, ballads, playbills and photos relating to Shakespeare available online for the first time on its Discovering Literature website.

Highlights include:

  • the only surviving playscript in Shakespeare’s hand, Sir Thomas More
  • A 17th-century manuscript thought to preserve the original tune of one of the Fool’s songs from King Lear
  • Coleridge’s personal copy of The Dramatic Works of Shakespeare with extensive annotations on the plays, including his famous comments on Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity’

Discovering Literature: Shakespeare is a new website created by the British Library which aims to bring the world of Shakespeare to life for a new generation of students and lovers of literature everywhere. Through 300 newly digitised collection items and over 80 essays written by scholars such as Elaine Showalter andEmma Smith, as well as actors Hugh Quarshie and Simon Callow, the site reveals the politics, society and culture which shaped his imagination and legacy.

The website launches as a survey of more than 500 English teachers reveals that over half say their students find it difficult to relate to (56%) or are not inspired by (55%) the plays of William Shakespeare, despite eight out of ten teachers agreeing that Shakespeare is an iconic author who should be taught in schools (84%).

Aside from students struggling to understand the language of Shakespeare’s plays (60%), teachers identify that the next biggest challenges to learning are students being put off by a pre-conceived idea that they will not understand Shakespeare’s plays (43%), and a lack of awareness of the political, social and cultural context of the plays (35%), indicating that this is a much-needed resource. 83% of English teachers agree that teachers need more support in making Shakespeare’s plays relevant to students.

Key highlights on the Discovering Literature: Shakespeare website include: -

  • The only surviving playscript in Shakespeare’s hand, taken from the manuscript of a play called Sir Thomas More to which Shakespeare contributed a scene in which More courageously quells a mob of anti-French rioters who are calling for immigrants to be banished
  • The only surviving self portrait of John Dee - the Elizabethan scholar, astrologer and magician thought to have inspired Shakespeare’s Prospero – contained in a remarkable six foot manuscript scroll in which he attempts to trace his lineage back to the Tudor Kings
  • Miniature paintings of 17th-century Europe depicting the glamour of Venice, a city that inspired Shakespeare to set many of his plays in faraway Italy
  • Striking hand-coloured depictions of the first Native Americans from the ‘New World’ which rocked Shakespearean society
  • Coleridge’s personal copy of The Dramatic Works of Shakespeare with extensive annotations on the plays, including his famous comments on Iago’s ‘motiveless malignity’
  • 17th-century manuscript thought to preserve the original tune of the one of the Fool’s songs from King Lear

Alex Whitfield, Digital Learning Manager at the British Library commented:

 “From the influential first drawings of Native Americans of the ‘New World’, to depictions of exotic Venice and civil unrest in the streets of London, seeing original digitised artefacts can vividly evoke the political, social and historical times in which Shakespeare was writing, shrinking the gap between the past and the present and bringing the world that shaped his imagination to life.

Until now, you would have had to visit the British Library Reading Rooms or exhibitions to see these treasures – now Discovering Literature: Shakespearemakes these wonderful research materials accessible to students and lovers of literature everywhere.”

Paul Clayton, Director of The National Association for the Teaching of English, said:

 “These far-ranging, diverse and fascinating documents, essays and guides bring Shakespeare alive. This stunning addition to the Discovering Literature website will enable teachers and their students to enter the worlds of the plays, and the world in which the plays were written, in completely new ways.”

A selection of the items on Discovering Literature: Shakespeare, including the Sir Thomas More playscript in his hand, will be on display in the British Library’s upcoming exhibition, Shakespeare in Ten Acts (15 April – 3 September 2016), which examines how he became a cultural icon through ten key performances. Over 200 of the British Library’s historic theatre playbills relating to Shakespeare will also be explored through a new website produced in partnership with the BBC, Shakespeare on Tour, which launches 21 March 2016.

In 2014 the British Library first launched the Discovering Literature website with collections related to Romantic and Victorian authors, and the site has received more than 4 million hits worldwide. The British Library will continue to add to the site until it covers the entire range of English literature, from Beowulf until the present day.

The project has been generously supported by Dr Naim Dangoor CBE The Exilarch’s Foundation, along with the British Library Trust and the British Library Patrons. Further development of the project is being supported by the Garfield Weston Foundation, Mark Piggott KBE OBE, Evalyn Lee, Luci Baines Johnson and Ian Turpin, The American Trust for the British Library, The John S Cohen Foundation, The Andor Trust, and Allan and Nesta Ferguson Charitable Trust.


Unless stated otherwise, media content on the press area of our website, including images, is protected by third-party rights such as copyright or trademarks. The British Library is permitted to make the content available to you for promoting associated British Library’s exhibitions, events or activities. If you are not using images to promote a British Library activity, you must clear all rights for your use of any in-copyright material beyond uses permitted under the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988.

  • Dimensions:
  • File size:

Notes to Editors

#DiscoveringLiterature #Shakespeare


ComRes interviewed 511 secondary school and college teachers of English Language and English Literature online between 19th and 29th February 2016. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full data tables are available at

For more information:

Sophie McIvor
The British Library
t: +44 (0)20 7412 7790

Evenings and weekends:
+44 (0) 20 7412 7150

Press Office contacts