“To me, fair friend, you never can be old”: Shakespeare’s 450th Birthday

April 23, 2014

Although historians are not 100% sure of the exact date of William Shakespeare’s birth (all that is known is that he was baptized on April 26, 1564), his birthday is usually celebrated on April 23.  In honor of the bard, we’ve pulled out two Shakespearean treasures from our Rare Book Collection…

Second Folio

Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (1632) was the second collected edition of Shakespeare’s theatrical works.  It is now known as the Second Folio, the word folio referring to the way the book’s pages were folded after printing.  The First Folio, or first edition, was printed in 1623 and has become one of the world’s most valuable and highly sought after books—without it, many of Shakespeare’s greatest plays probably would have been lost.  Although the Second Folio is less prestigious, it is arguably a better text, since it contains corrections and revisions, as well as a preliminary poem, “An Epitaph on the admirable Dramaticke Poet, W. Shakespeare,” by John Milton, his first published work.  More research is needed, but LSU’s copy of the Second Folio is thought to trace its provenance to the Earl of Newport, son of Penelope Rich, the “Stella” of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella.

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Another important Shakespeare item in Special Collections is A Collection of Prints, from Pictures Painted for the Purpose of Illustrating the Dramatic Works of Shakspeare.  Published in London in 1805, it grew out of a project initiated in 1786 by the engraver and entrepreneur John Boydell, who opened a gallery that featured paintings by contemporary artists of scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. 

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The mid eighteenth century had seen a revival of interest in Shakespeare, led by the leading actor of the day, David Garrick. This in turn created a demand for literary art. John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery became a fashionable gathering place, and reproductions of the originals served as conversation pieces in people’s homes. Many of the images demonstrate an exotic and even risqué proto-Romanticism that makes it easy to understand why they were so popular with audiences in the nineteenth century, over the course of which the prints were reissued several times.

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To learn more about the library’s holdings of Shakespeare, as well as other works by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British writers, check out these handy guides…

English Literature and Philosophy, 1550-1700

Eighteenth-Century British Literature