adrian edwards

Early Shakespeare sources: a guide for academic researchers. Part 2: the British Library's early Shakespeare collections

Adrian S Edwards outlines the history of collecting early Shakespeare editions, and examines in detail the collections of David Garrick, George III, Thomas Grenville and James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps, which make up three-quarters of the British Library’s early Shakespeare holdings.

Collecting early Shakespeare editions

In the decades and centuries after publication, the earliest editions of Shakespeare’s plays and poems became increasingly scarce.[1] They also fell out of fashion as newer collected editions of The Works were published from 1709.[2] These often introduced adaptations to reflect contemporary tastes and came with the attraction of having been prepared by notable editors of the day such as Alexander Pope, Samuel Johnson or Edmond Malone.[3]

The first illustrated works of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709

The first illustrated works of Shakespeare edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709

Frontispiece portrait of Shakespeare in Nicholas Rowe’s collected edition of 1709.

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Only towards the end of the 18th century did scholars, collectors and librarians begin to seek out these earliest sources in earnest, and volumes have continued to reach high prices at auction ever since.[4] Unfortunately this interest came too late for some editions: only one copy survives of each of the first editions of Venus and Adonis, Titus Andronicus and Henry VI, Part 3, and just a single fragment survives of what seems to be the first printing of Henry IV, Part 1.[5] Over time, many of the surviving volumes had become damaged and it was long considered appropriate in these cases to ‘perfect’ them by inserting material from other sources, whether original leaves taken from other copies or newly-created facsimiles in print or pen-and-ink. From the latter part of the 19th century, there are also facsimile pages made using photo-mechanical processes. The perfecting of copies even took place at the British Museum, whose trustees agreed with most bibliographic experts at the time that it was rendering a service to researchers by providing the full text.[6] The deliberate perfection of Shakespeare First Folios in particular means that many surviving copies around the world now contain replacement title pages, Droeshout portraits or other preliminaries.[7]

Shakespeare's First Folio

Shakespeare's First Folio - title page and introduction by Ben Johnson

The title page of the First Folio with Droeshout’s portrait of Shakespeare.

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Held by© British Library

Collectors and the British Library

The British Library today holds one of the world’s foremost collections of early Shakespeare editions. It has 120 copies that were published before the closure of the London theatres in 1642.[8] This figure comprises 17 copies of poetry, 92 copies of the quarto plays, five copies of the First Folio,[9] and six copies of the Second.[10] The Library also has dozens of editions issued after this date, including five copies of the Third Folio (one of the 1663 edition[11] and four of the 1664 extended version[12]), and five copies of the Fourth.[13] Many of these books were acquired individually, for example through the book trade and donation, but 75% (89 items) came from just four sources. These were the private collections of David Garrick, George III, Thomas Grenville and James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps. These collections were acquired by the British Museum and made up part of the founding collection of the British Library when it separated from the Museum in 1973.

David Garrick

39 copies of the Library’s pre-1642 Shakespearean editions, all quarto editions of the plays, originated with David Garrick (1717–1779). Best known as an actor-manager and promoter of all things Shakespeare, Garrick was also a book collector. Alongside his general library, he formed a collection of old English plays. By the end, this comprised around 1,300 publications from the late 16th- and early 17th-centuries, which he had bound into 242 volumes.[14] It is not known where Garrick obtained his Shakespearean material, apart from three items acquired from his friend Richard Warner.[15] The collection of plays was bequeathed to the British Museum in 1779. In several instances, material from other collections was interfiled with Garrick’s. The only Shakespearean example however is a 1655 edition of Othello, transferred from the existing library collection. The collected volumes into which the plays had been bound were broken up in 1840–46, and rebound as single plays with the Garrick coat of arms added to most of the new bindings. Some of the plays had been perfected in Garrick’s time, and the Museum continued this practice with a three further items: copies of Richard III (1598), The Two Noble Kinsmen (1634) and Henry IV, Part 1 (1639). Garrick’s bequest did not include any poetry editions or folios. The First Folio which he owned at his death was not passed to the British Museum; it was instead retained by his wife, offered for sale in 1823, and is now at the Queen’s College, Oxford.

Second quarto of Hamlet, 1605

Second quarto of Hamlet,1605

David Garrick’s copy of the 1605 quarto of Hamlet.

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George III

28 of the Library’s pre-1642 Shakespearean editions originated with George III (1738–1820): 27 individual plays in quarto and one First Folio. During his long lifetime, George III built a substantial collection of books, manuscripts, maps and engravings. Some of his earliest acquisitions included books previously owned by William III and Mary II, Queen Caroline of Ansbach, and his father, Frederick Prince of Wales; all these in turn seem to have incorporated volumes from even earlier royal collectors.[16] His library expanded considerably in 1763 with the purchase of an entire collection formed by Joseph Smith, the British consul at Venice. This was followed by extensive purchases made through the British and continental book trades. Acquisitions records for George’s library have not yet come to light, so it is not known when or how he acquired his early Shakespeare editions. In some cases, internal evidence (marks in books, bindings etc.) provide clues. Four items, for example, were previously owned by the literary editor George Steevens, and were likely acquired at the sale of his books in 1800.[17] There are also single plays that were earlier in the possession of John Ker, 3rd Duke of Roxburghe;[18] Dr Richard Wright;[19] and the Shakespearean forger William Henry Ireland.[20] The origin of George III’s First Folio is not currently known.

In several cases, copies of Shakespearean editions were disbound and the leaves inlaid into the pages of larger volumes. The result is the creation of wide margins of the kind often used for annotations.[21] That aside, George III’s books tend to be good copies. The collection was presented to the British Museum by his son, George IV, in 1823. By this time it comprised over 65,000 books and periodicals, and some 17,500 unbound pamphlets. 33 printed books were retained by George IV, and are now in the Royal Collections at Windsor Castle. Among these was a Shakespeare Second Folio; the copy now shelved with George III’s books in the British Library is a replacement purchased in 1844. The majority of George III’s library is now on public display in a glass tower at the British Library building in London.

Quarto of Much Ado About Nothing, 1600

Quarto of Much Ado About Nothing, 1600

George III’s copy of the quarto of Much Ado About Nothing.

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Thomas Grenville

Just seven pre-1642 Shakespeare items were received with the substantial library of the statesman Thomas Grenville (1755–1846).[22] Unlike Garrick or George III, Grenville did not collect the quarto edition plays; his bequest instead includes five early editions of poetry,[23] and one copy each of the First and Second Folios.[24] Grenville’s library, housed at his residence near London’s Hyde Park Corner, was built throughout his long lifetime, mainly by acquiring individual items through the book trade. Systematic acquisitions records do not survive, but clues can sometimes be found in the notes he attached to more important purchases. When his library was bequeathed to the British Museum in 1846, it comprised some 16,000 works in 20,240 volumes. Despite Grenville’s interest in historic fine bindings, he arranged for many of his volumes to be rebound in a style that reflected 19th-century tastes – red goat skin with gold tooled designs, and gilt and gauffered edges. This includes his copy of the First Folio, which bears his manuscript note, ‘This First edition of Shakespeare is an original and perfect copy, and was purchased by me in it’s [sic] first binding, & in it’s [sic] original state. T.G.’

Shakespeare's Collected Poems, 1640

Shakespeare's Collected Poems, 1640

Thomas Grenville’s copy of the Collected Poems.

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James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps

James Orchard Halliwell (1820–1889), later Halliwell-Phillipps, was a Shakespeare scholar and folklorist, known also as a book collector with a reputation as a thief. He developed an extensive collection of Shakespeare materials, and regularly sold or gave away his books, meaning that there are now items with Halliwell provenances dispersed across a number of institutions in Britain and America. The British Museum purchased 15 pre-1642 Shakespeare volumes from him in November 1858, all plays in quarto. Some of these bear evidence of earlier ownership. For example, one book was formerly owned by both George Steevens and John Ker, 3rd Duke of Roxburghe; another appears to have belonged to the playwright Thomas Middleton.[25] Halliwell’s quartos are not always complete: six are imperfect, generally with facsimile pages inserted in an attempt to make good their deficiencies, and one comprises only a handful of leaves.[26]

Bad quarto of Hamlet, 1603, also known as the first quarto of Hamlet

Bad' quarto of Hamlet, 1603

Halliwell-Phillipps’s copy of the 1603 quarto of Hamlet.

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Quarto 1 of King Lear, 1608

Quarto 1 of King Lear

Halliwell-Phillipps’s copy of the first quarto of King Lear.

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Others collectors

Looking at the remaining early Shakespeare editions in the Library, a few other provenances provide evidence of collectors at work. Foremost among these are the three items which originated with the Harleian Library, formed by the Earls of Oxford in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their extensive library was presented to the British Museum at its foundation in 1753, and is therefore the route through which the first Shakespearean items entered the collection. These include the Sir Thomas More manuscript[27] and two title pages extracted from early 17th-century editions of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.[28] The title pages in turn form part of the Bagford Collection, samples of early printing gathered by John Bagford (1650–1716) and acquired by Robert Harley in 1716.

The Book of Sir Thomas More: Shakespeare's only surviving literary manuscript

Shakespeare's handwriting in The Book of Sir Thomas More

Harley MS 7368, the only surviving play script to include Shakespeare’s handwriting.

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

At the start of the 20th century, first editions of Richard II, Richard III and The Merry Wives of Windsor[29] were received when Alfred H Huth allowed the museum to select fifty choice volumes from the library formed by his father, the merchant banker Henry Huth (1815–1878). The Huths had in fact collected many further early Shakespeare items, but these were dispersed at sales that ran from 1911 to 1922, with many finding a home at Yale University.[30]

Finally, an interesting donation arrived in 1952, when the Metropolitan Borough of Lambeth in London presented a collection of just over 100 books relating to Francis Bacon (1561–1626), who remains at the centre of the Baconian hypothesis of Shakespearean authorship. The books had formed the ‘Bacon Case’ at Tate Central Library in Brixton. Among the volumes passed to the British Museum were three early Shakespeare items: a Second Folio, a Third Folio (1663 version), and a Fourth Folio.[31]

Single but important early Shakespeare editions also originated with Clayton Mordaunt Cracherode (1730–1799),[32] Charles Burney (1757–1817),[33] Thomas James Wise (1859–1937),[34] and the library of the Earls of Leicester at Holkham Hall, Norfolk.[35] Provenances of all the early quartos now at the British Library can be found on Shakespeare in Quarto.

Wider picture

With 120 copies of pre-1642 editions, alongside substantial numbers of later editions and important manuscripts, the British Library’s holdings of early Shakespeare resources are world class. There are however other significant repositories. The locations of over 1,040 copies of early Shakespeare editions (plays and poetry) are recorded in the English Short Title Catalogue. This database records copies of English printed books created before 1801, with a clear bias towards the holdings of British and American research libraries. Nevertheless, it can act as a good guide to what survives and where. This shows that 45% of pre-1642 Shakespeare editions are held in the UK, 54% in the United States, and a little over 1% elsewhere. Copies are dispersed across dozens of libraries, museums and private collections. In the UK, the major repositories are British Library, the Bodleian Library (Oxford) and Trinity College Library (Cambridge), with smaller collections at the National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh), Edinburgh University and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (Stratford upon Avon). The largest single repository of early Shakespeare editions is in fact in the United States, where the Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington DC) owns – by way of example – 82 numbered First Folios, 13 of which are complete. This is followed in size by the Huntington Library (San Marino, Calif.), with smaller collections at Harvard University (Cambridge, Mass.), Yale University (New Haven, Conn.) and New York Public Library. Some collectors and research establishments specifically aim to collect the folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays. The most notable of these is Meisei University (Tokyo), which also runs an electronic library of digital facsimiles.


The British Library is fortunate to be the custodian of a significant proportion of the world’s earliest surviving Shakespeare publications. The research value of this material goes beyond the large number of different quarto, octavo and folio editions that are represented. The fact that the previous ownership of most of the items is known, and in many cases well documented, is also important. It allows researchers to investigate the way in which these books were sought after by collectors and literary editors, particularly in the late-18th and 19th centuries. The presence of two or more copies of many the editions allows bibliographers to see how different owners have bound, annotated and indeed perfected their copies. It also facilitates the kind of comparative work through which variant states of printing can be analysed. Some of the Library’s earliest Shakespeare volumes are also exceptionally rare: for example, the 1603 quarto of Hamlet and 1611 quarto of Pericles are thought to be the only surviving copies in Britain. Finally, there is the context of these Shakespeare items within the world’s largest collection of English books and manuscripts. This allows researchers to consult early Shakespeare texts alongside the broadest range of other literary and documentary sources, whether from the lifetime of the Bard himself or from any of the subsequent four centuries during which his work has continued to remain relevant and inspirational.


[1] See Adrian S Edwards, Early Shakespeare sources: a guide for researchers. Part 1: manuscript and early print sources for Shakespeare’s works for an account of the early editions.

[2] The first being The works of Mr. William Shakespear ... Revis’d and corrected, ed. by Nicholas Rowe (London: Jacob Tonson, 1709).

[3] The principal editions were those edited by Alexander Pope (1725), Lewis Theobald (1733), Thomas Hamner (1744), William Warburton (1747), Samuel Johnson (1765), Edward Capell (1768), George Steevens (1773) and Edmond Malone (1790). Supplements and revisions to some of these editions were also issued.

[4] For a very readable account of the history of the First Folio and some of its surviving copies, see Paul Collins, The Book of William: how Shakepeare’s First Folio conquered the World (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009).

[5] The copies of Venus and Adonis (1593) and Henry VI, Part 3 (1595) are held at the Bodleian Library, Oxford; the copy of Titus Andronicus (1594) and the fragment of Henry IV, Part 1 (1598) are held at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC.

[6] George M Kahrl, The Garrick Collection of Old English Plays: a catalogue with an historical introduction (London: British Library, 1982), p. 69.

[7] For example, George III’s copy of the First Folio at British Library, C.7.c.14 contains a replacement title page that is a composite made up of a portrait cut from a Second Folio (1632) and, joined to the head and foot of the portrait, facsimiles of the title page text that were probably printed in the early 19th century. The act of perfecting texts was not always intended to deceive; in this instance, the printer of the facsimile replaced the ‘&’ of the original with ‘and’, possibly as a sign to the reader that it was a later copy.

[8] Figures are correct as of April 2016.

[9] Copies at C.7.c.14, C.21.e.16, C.39.i.12, C.39.k.15 and G.11631.

[10] Copies at 79.l.5, C.39.i.13, C.39.k.12, C.122.g.2, C.132.h.48 and G.11632.

[11] Copy at C.122.g.3.

[12] Copies at 80.l.3, C.39.i.20, C.39.k.13 and G.11633.

[13] Copies at 80.l.2, C.39.k.16, C.39.k.17, C.122.g.4 and G.11634.

[14] Kahrl, The Garrick Collection of Old English Plays.

[15] Copies of Merchant of Venice (1652), Richard III (1629) and Romeo and Juliet (1622).

[16] John Goldfinch, ‘Royal Libraries in the King’s Library’, in 1000 Years of Royal Books and Manuscripts, ed. by Kathleen Doyle and Scot McKendrick (London: British Library, 2014).

[17] Copies of Henry IV, Part 1 (1599) at C.12.h.12, Henry IV, Part 2 (1600) at C.12.g.20, Pericles (1609 [i.e. 1619]) at C.12.h.6, and Troilus and Cressida (1609) at 163.i.12.

[18] Copy of The Merchant of Venice (1600) at C.12.g.11.

[19] Copy of Henry V (1600) at C.12.g.22.

[20] Copy of The Merchant of Venice (1600 [i.e. 1619]) at C.12.g.31.

[21] Examples include the Shakespearean quartos at C.12.h.5–6, 9–12 and 14, and at 163.i.12.

[22] Barry Taylor, ‘Thomas Grenville (1755–1846) and his books’, in Libraries within the Library: the Origins of the British Library’s Printed Collections, ed. by Giles Mandelbrote and Barry Taylor (London: British Library, 2009), pp. 321–40.

[23] Copies of Venus and Adonis (1594) at G.11180; Shakespeare’s Sonnets (1609) at G.11181; The Rape of Lucrece (1594) at G.11178, and (1624) at G.11179; and Poems (1640) at G.11183.

[24] First Folio at G.11631 and Second Folio at G.11632. In addition, Grenville’s library included a 1664 Third Folio and a Fourth Folio.

[25] Henry IV, Part 1 (1613) at C.34.k.9, and King Lear (1608) at C.34.k.17, respectively.

[26] The fragment is leaves E1–4 only of the quarto edition of Henry IV, Part 2 (1600) at C.34.k.13.

[27] At Harley MS 7368. For more detail on this manuscript, see Adrian S Edwards, Early Shakespeare sources: a guide for researchers. Part 1: manuscript and early print sources for Shakespeare’s works.

[28] Items at Harl.5990.(134.) and Harl.5993.(90.).

[29] Copies at Huth.46, Huth.47 and Huth.48.

[30] Also at Yale’s Elizabeth Club is an imperfect copy of Q1 of Richard III, which the British Museum discarded in return for Huth’s perfect copy.

[31] Copies at C.122.g.2, C.122.g.3 and C.122.g.4.

[32] First Folio at C.21.e.16, acquired 1791.

[33] First Folio at C.39.i.12, acquired 1818.

[34] Copy of The Two Noble Kinsmen (1634) at Ashley.85, acquired 1937.

[35] Second Folio at C.39.k.12, purchased 1951. 

  • Adrian S Edwards
  • Adrian S Edwards is the Head of Printed Heritage Collections at the British Library. He has worked for the Library in a variety of rare books roles since 1990. In recent years he has co-curated major exhibitions on the English language and British comics. Adrian’s research interests focus on the history of the British Library collections, native American linguistics, and the life and work of the 19th-century poet and Romani scholar Charles G Leland.

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