Handwritten character lists at the Folger Shakespeare Library

This post was written by Emma Depledge and Marissa Nicosia.

There are a lot of characters in Shakespeare’s plays. Understandably, readers felt the need to write in their books to keep track of them. Before character lists became standard features of playbooks, publishers and readers experimented with various strategies for recording roles, relationships, and defining features. This post is a partial look at two ways that seventeenth-century book users listed Shakespeare’s characters. It’s also an account of a research journey that began on Twitter and ended in a dark conference room on Deck A at the Folger Shakespeare Library. [In short, you can read the Twitter conversation here – Storify-d to the best of our ability – and you can see – and contribute to – this working bibliography of known “Character Lists in Manuscript” on Folgerpedia.]

In his octavo edition of Shakespeare’s plays in six volumes for Jacob Tonson (1709), Nicholas Rowe was the first person to supply character-lists for every Shakespeare play, but the demand for them clearly existed before 1709 as a number of early book users felt compelled to add their own character lists.

Folger v.a.85The image that started all this is from a manuscript copy of Julius Caesar, Folger v.a.85. This copy, which lacks the final scene of Act 5, adds stage directions not found in the Restoration quartos. (The dramatis personae included in the 1684 first quarto enumerated both the actors and the characters they played thus straddling the boundary of cast and character lists.) The Julius Caesar manuscript is also in a different hand to that which commonplaced sections of Samuel Butler’s Hudibras later on in the volume. The character list, or ‘Dramatic Personae’, as it is titled, prefixes the action proper of the play. It is therefore in the location in which we expect to find character lists thereby mimicking quarto playbook editions. (For more on dramatic typography, see Claire Bourne’s work.)

Tiffany Stern has stated that ‘person-lists’ were often included with ‘arguments’ and that these are among the kinds of theatrical documents that circulated independently from playbooks (Documents of Performance). The inclusion of character lists along with arguments, which offered plot summaries of sorts, highlights their function to help audiences follow plays in performance. As Stallybrass and De Grazia have noted, character lists also enable one ‘to arbitrate for themselves the boundaries of identity, constructing (or failing to construct, or refusing to construct) “individual” characters in the process of reading’ (“The Materiality of the Shakespearean Text”). Our annotator of Merry Wives of Windsor appears to be interested not only in individual characters, but also in the the connections between them.

After our conversation about Julius Caesar on the internet, we wanted to see what we could do in the library. We called up Folger First Folio. 1623. Shelfmark STC 22273 Fo.1 no.57. On E6v at end of Merry Wives of Windsor an annotator has mapped the relationships between Shakespeare’s characters in an annotation which has been mostly washed from the page. With the help of a light sheet, a magnifying glass, photos, and, finally, UV light we were able to transcribe most of the annotation. As anyone who has read Merry Wives of Windsor knows, the play follows a series of lovers and it can be hard to keep track of who is romantically entangled. Our annotator documents who is wooing who in Shakespeare’s comedy and we were curious to recover what they had written down.

Column 1

of windsor
Mistress* fford another girl of winsor
[Mr] Fenton a suiter to MRS Anne Page
[Doctor] Caius too other suiters to her
& MR slende[r]
Column 2

Mistress [Pa]ge
Mistress For[d]
suier [y    ??]rat tend on both
Mistress [unintelligible]

*The annotator’s preferred abbreviations for “Mistress” are “MS” and “MEIS.” We have italicized the body of the word “Mistress” above to streamline the text while acknowledging our expansion.

This is a brief and partially obscured annotation, but it lets us know that an early reader of this copy of Shakespeare’s first folio was curious about the romantic entanglements in this play and wanted to make some notes. Our annotator seems to focus on the characters who speak in the closing lines of the play and on character constellations. Falstaff appears to be absent, but given the state of the page we will never know. It is interesting that this list appears at the end of the play for two reasons. First of all, this was the normal location for character lists in the First Folio. (All seven plays that have one, have one at the end. ) Of the first four plays in the Folio’s “Comedies” section, Merry Wives of Windsor is the only play from which a character list is conspicuously absent. (For more on this see Emma Smith’s essay in Shakespeare and Textual Studies). It may well be that our annotator had become accustomed to seeing such a list at the end of a play and felt a need to supply one and felt a need to fill the textual absence.

We would like to thank the reading room staff the Folger Shakespeare Library, Melanie Leung from the photography department for her assistance with the UV light, Lucy Nicholas for tackling a difficult word in the transcription, and especially to Jonathan Holmes for bringing this character list to our attention and starting the Folgerpedia page.

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