William Shakespeare


Shakespeare is probably the world's most studied writer, every aspect of whose life and works is subject to a very lengthy bibliography. Although the lack of his original manuscripts has long been lamented, his representation in surviving documentation is not small by comparison with his contemporaries. We have examples of his signature, of relatively early copies of plays and poems by him, of seventeenth-century prompt-books of his plays, of corrected proofsheets, and of extensive extracts from his works by seventeenth-century readers.

Autograph Manuscripts

There are six known genuine autograph signatures of Shakespeare. Three of them are on his celebrated Will, of 25 March 1616 (*ShW 128); another is on his deposition in the case of Belott versus Mountjoy, 11 May 1612 (*ShW 125); and two more are on the conveyance and and mortgage of the Blackfriars gate-house, 10 and 11 March 1612/13 (*ShW 126-127). These documents have been reproduced in facsimile innumerable times. They, and many other documents relating to Shakespeare's life which have not been given separate entries here, are well reproduced in S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (Oxford, 1975), and also in William Shakespeare: A Documentary Volume, ed. Catherine Loomis, Dictionary of Literary Biography, 263 (Detroit, 2002).

On the basis of these signatures the celebrated ‘Hand D’ in the manuscript of Sir Thomas More (*ShW 88) has been attributed to Shakespeare, an attribution which is strongly supported and very likely, but which will always remain debatable so long as no authentic holograph of Shakespeare comes to light for comparison.

No other probable or genuine specimens of Shakespeare's handwriting are known, despite the numerous apocryphal ‘discoveries’ and attributions over the years (which lie outside our present purview). Nor are there any manuscript copies of any works by Shakespeare that have his authority or are known to be made by anyone in his close circle. Printed books supposedly from Shakespeare's library also periodically come to light. Perhaps the only one which is still open to debate is the inscription ‘W. Shakespere’ in a printed exemplum of William Lambarde's Archaionomia (1568) in the Folger Shakespeare Library: see Giles E. Dawson, ‘A Seventh Signature for Shakespeare’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 43/1 (Spring 1992), 72-9.

Dramatic Works

Among the most notable items given entries below are marked proof sheets for the First Folio of Shakespeare's Works (London, 1623). Five examples have so far been discovered (ShW 36, ShW 53-4, ShW 70, ShW 84). Several 17th-century manuscript acting versions of plays are recorded (ShW 38, ShW 40, ShW 48, ShW 51-2, ShW 59, ShW 64, ShW 85, ShW 106), and also the Peacham document of Titus Andronicus (ShW 104), which may be the earliest illustration of a Shakespearian performance, although, like most Shakespeareana, it remains subject to debate.

What has clearly been established by Laetitia Yeandle as ‘the earliest extant manuscript of a play by Shakespeare’ is the Dering manuscript of a conflation of the two Henry IV plays, copied in 1622-3 by one ‘Carington’: see ShW 48.

Various extracts from Shakespeare's plays in seventeenth-century miscellanies are likewise recorded below, although these could be extended indefinitely if eighteenth- and nineteenth-century manuscript quotations and extracts were included. The earliest known quotations would appear to be those in a miscellany compiled by Edward Pudsey (1573-1613), a native of Derbyshire, who lived part of his life in London and died in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. In this manuscript (divided between Bodleian, MS Eng. poet. d. 3 and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, ER 82/1/21) Pudsey copied extracts from eight of Shakespeare's plays (ShW 45, ShW 61, ShW 68, ShW 73, ShW 80, ShW 83, ShW 86, ShW 87, ShW 105). All were presumably transcribed from the early Quartos except Othello (ShW 73), extracts from which were identified by Juliet Mary Gowan after the rediscovery of the missing leaves of the manuscript in 1977. Since Othello is not known to have been printed until 1622 — unless an unrecorded edition appeared before 1613 — these extracts must have been quoted by Pudsey from memory or from notes made during an early performance.

Songs in Shakespeare's Plays

Another group of Shakespearian texts found in manuscript sources is of songs from the plays. Like those in other contemporary plays, Shakespeare's songs sometimes circulated as independent pieces, the most interesting texts being those which preserve early — if not the original — musical settings. The important subject of music in Shakespeare's plays lies largely outside our present purview. There are various copies of the words or music of songs that are only cited in the plays and not necessarily written by Shakespeare himself. Entries below include examples of these, although no doubt many more could be added.

The possible connection between Edgar's ‘Tom o' Bedlam’ song in King Lear and other manuscript Bedlamite verses is explored in Robert Graves, Loving Mad Tom (1927; reprinted Welwyn Garden City, 1969), and in Stanley Wells, ‘Tom o' Bedlam's Song and King Lear’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 12 (1961), 311-15. These and similar items, such as Ophelia's songs in Hamlet, are the subject of much discussion by musicologists. For a brief list of settings of ‘Shakespearian’ songs and of some important critical studies, see Vincent Duckles, ‘The Music for the Lyrics in Early Seventeenth-Century English Drama: A Bibliography of the Primary Sources’, Music in English Renaissance Drama, ed. John H. Long (Lexington, 1968), 117-60 (pp. 151-6).


Contemporary prompt-books of plays by Shakespeare are unknown, although a number of examples from later in the seventeenth century have survived and are given entries below. The majority of them, originally belonging to a Third Folio of 1663, is a series associated with Joseph Ashbury's Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin. These are discussed in R.C. Bald, ‘Shakespeare on the Stage in Restoration Dublin’, PMLA, 56/1 (1941), 369-78, and in James G. McManaway, ‘Additional Prompt-Books of Shakespeare from the Smock Alley Theatre’, Modern Language Review, 45 (1950), 64-5. The latter adduces evidence from an Evans (Sotheby's) sale catalogue of 25 April 1827 (the John Dent sale), lot 1270, that the Third Folio in question once also included a Smock Alley prompt-book of Troilus and Cressida, which perished (along with Julius Caesar) in the fire at the Shakespeare Memorial Library, Birmingham, in 1879. Most of these now dispersed prompt-books have been edited in facsimile by G. Blakemore Evans.

Prompt-books from the early eighteenth century onwards are legion. The principal descriptive catalogue of these is Charles H. Shattuck, The Shakespeare Promptbooks (Urbana & London, 1965); a supplementary list appears in Theatre Notebook, 24 (1969), 5-17. See also Edward A. Langhans, Eighteenth Century British and Irish Promptbooks: A Descriptive Bibliography (New York, Westport, Conn. & London, 1987), pp. 140-93.

Exempla of some other seventeenth-century printed editions of plays by Shakespeare contain manuscript lists of actors who currently performed in the plays. These are of interest to theatre historians, but have not been collected here. Neither have all the exempla of Shakespeare printed quartos and of the three Folios of his Works (1623, 1632 and 1663) which bear readers' markings and annotations. A number of annotated exempla of the First Folio are recorded in Anthony James West, The Shakespeare First Folio: The History of the Book, Volume II (Oxford, 2003).


It is well-known that at least some of Shakespeare's Sonnets had a limited manuscript circulation in the 1590s. Among the works of the ‘mellifluous & hony-tongued Shakespeare’ which Francis Meres praises in Palladis Tamia (London, 1598), pp. 281-2, are ‘his sugred Sonnets among his priuate friends’. While no contemporary manuscript copies of any of these ‘sugred Sonnets’ are known to have survived, some of them — especially Sonnet 2 — certainly came into fashion in manuscript circulation in the 1620s and '30s (see ShW 6-30). It remains debatable whether these variant later texts are ‘corrupt versions’, based on the printed edition of 1609, or are based on earlier sources, or are deliberate later reworkings — perhaps, for instance, for fresh musical settings. (Compare, for instance, the Harvard manuscript of George Herbert's poems revised to suit musical Psalm tunes (Harvard, MS Eng 1544)).


A variety of other plays and poems have been attributed to Shakespeare over the years. With the present development of technological systems of linguistic analysis it is likely that steps to identify writings by Shakespeare — or to clarify the evidence for dismissing earlier attributions — will proceed apace.

The Shakespeare apocrypha is not represented in the entries below, but a few examples of poems that are found in manuscripts, and were once attributed to Shakespeare, may briefly be listed as follows:

“From the rich Lavinian shore”: Edinburgh University Library, MS H.-P. Coll. 401, f. 60v.

Shakespeare on Sir John Crowne (‘Crowns have their compass; length of days, their date’): Folger, MS V.a.345, p. 232; Folger, MS V.a.160, p. 2; Bodleian, MS Ashmole 38, p. 39 (ascribed to Robert Barker); Bodleian, MS Rawl. D. 1372, f. 2v.

“Shall I dye, shall I fly”: Bodleian, MS Rawl. poet. 160, ff. 108r-9r (ascribed to William Shakespeare), and Yale, Osborn MS b 197, p. 135 (anon).

“When yt thyne eye hath chose the dame” (The Passionate Pilgrim No. 18): Folger, MS V.a.89, pp. 25-6.


An additional item of interest is the account written by Simon Forman (1552-1611) of the performances of The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, and Macbeth (also a play on Richard II) which he saw at the Globe probably in April and May of 1611 (though Macbeth is dated 1610). His original account — perfectly genuine despite its first publication in 1836 by the forger John Payne Collier — is in the Bodleian (MS Ashmole 208, ff. 201-7v). This account is printed, with facsimiles, in Halliwell-Phillipps's edition of Shakespeare (1853-65), VIII, 41; IX, 8; XIV, 61; XV, 417. A facsimile of f. 206r (the account of Cymbeline) appears in S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (1975), p. 215.

Peter Beal