Who played Brutus?

Call no. 3925.35.13.1692

If you examine the close-up image of the seventeenth-century title page on the left, you will make out a few handwritten letters showing through from the other side of the paper. There they are, hiding between the printed lines of the title and subtitle. What do they say, or mean? I found these mystery marks while working in Princeton University Library’s Rare Books department, perusing a London 1691 printing of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

This book looks old, and it is: the old English type wobbles, jumping from large to smaller fonts; the tall letter s looks like f; and the paper is textured and mottled, shading toward brown. This is a far cry from how most of today’s readers encounter Shakespeare’s plays, in tidy modern publications, edited and re-edited by generations of scholars, and machine-printed on bright white paper. What do we really know about Shakespeare’s early legacy? How did people read and perform his work during the long period between his death in 1616, and the paperbacks with explanation and commentary we read in high school?

By far the most famous edition of Shakespeare is the First Folio of 1623, a mammoth undertaking that collected almost all of Shakespeare’s plays for the first time. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, however, different printers were hard at work producing editions of individual plays. These were relatively cheap quartos (a smaller format that was ideal for individual plays) that often got bound together with other plays and tracts. Today, relatively few copies of these early editions survive.

A recently launched project, the Shakespeare Census, aims to catalogue all existing copies of 17th-century editions of Shakespeare in libraries across the world. English professors Zachary Lesser (University of Pennsylvania) and Adam Hooks (University of Iowa) developed the project to collect valuable information about the early publication and reception of Shakespeare. If you search the Census, you’ll see that Princeton University Library has 35 copies of individual Shakespeare plays published between 1598 and 1700.

As it’s relatively rare to find significant marks made by early owners within these books, Gabriel Swift (Reference Librarian for Special Collections) and I were delighted when we noticed that the scribbles on the title page of Princeton’s 1691 Julius Caesar were actually inky show-through of four names written among the dramatis personae printed on its verso. Someone who saw the play had recorded the names of the actors playing various parts! We found a ‘Mr. Wilks’ and a ‘Mr. Booth’ — a jarringly familiar combination of names — but of course the murderer of Abraham Lincoln, a member of a lauded family of Shakespearean actors, was a much later figure (he appeared in Julius Caesar in 1864, but not in the role of Brutus).

With more research, we found a different production that included all four actors listed in Princeton’s Julius Caesar: Wilks, Booth, a Mr. Powell and a Mr. Mills. This occurred between 1708 and 1715 in Drury Lane, London (see C. B. Young, Introduction to The New Shakespeare Julius Caesar, Cambridge University Press, 1955, p. xxxvi-xxxvii). These names echoed through the 18th and 19th centuries. Shakespearean acting was a dynastic business, and actors with these names in multiple generations worked on both sides of the Atlantic. If you were a literate book-buying London theater-goer in 1710, you might have read an encouraging review and sought out these actors, or you might have been surprised by their performances and wanted to record the memory. You might have bought a copy of the play and annotated it.

Handwritten records like this one are one way that historians understand how people have enjoyed Shakespeare’s plays in different times and different places. Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears: If you go to a Broadway show and keep the ticket, or if you attend your daughter’s elementary school concert and underline her name on the program, you’re contributing to the historical record!

These are the kinds of discoveries we hope to make when we contribute to a research project like the Shakespeare Census, which aims to enrich our understanding of the literary past. The little detail of the actor identities, which we found three centuries later, helps us imagine the faces of the audience seeing Julius Caesar in 1710, gasping at the sudden flash of the knife, and hearing the now-familiar lines, perhaps for the first time.

Miranda Marraccini is a PhD candidate in Princeton University’s Department of English.