John Milton’s Hand Annotated Copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio: A New Discovery by a Cambridge Scholar

Per­haps the most well-read writer of his time, Eng­lish poet John Mil­ton “knew the bib­li­cal lan­guages, along with Homer’s Greek and Vergil’s Latin,” notes the NYPL. He like­ly had Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy in mind when he wrote Par­adise Lost. His own Protes­tant epic, if not a the­o­log­i­cal response to the Divine Com­e­dy, had as much lit­er­ary impact on the Eng­lish lan­guage as Dante’s poem did on Ital­ian. Mil­ton would also have as much influ­ence on Eng­lish as Shake­speare, his near con­tem­po­rary, who died eight years after the Par­adise Lost author was born.

In some sense, Mil­ton can be called a direct lit­er­ary heir of Shake­speare, though he wrote in a dif­fer­ent medi­um and idiom (almost a dif­fer­ent lan­guage), and with a very dif­fer­ent set of con­cerns.

Milton’s father was a trustee of the Blackfriar’s The­atre, where Shakespeare’s com­pa­ny of actors, the King’s Men, began per­form­ing in 1609, the year after Milton’s birth. And Milton’s first pub­lished poem appeared anony­mous­ly in the 1632 sec­ond folio of Shakespeare’s plays under the title “An Epi­taph on the admirable Dra­mat­icke Poet, W. Shake­speare.”

Now known as “On Shake­speare,” the poem laments the sor­ry state of Shakespeare’s legacy—his mon­u­ment a “weak wit­ness,” his work an “unval­ued book.” It may be dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a time when Shake­speare wasn’t revered, but his rep­u­ta­tion only began to spread beyond the the­ater in the ear­ly 17th cen­tu­ry. Milton’s poem was one of the first to pro­claim Shakespeare’s great­ness, as a poet who should lie “in such pomp” that “kings for such a tomb would wish to die.”

Now, it seems that sig­nif­i­cant fur­ther evi­dence of Milton’s admi­ra­tion, and crit­i­cal appre­ci­a­tion, of Shake­speare has emerged: in the form of Milton’s own, per­son­al copy of the 1623 First Folio edi­tion of Shake­speare’s plays, with anno­ta­tions in Milton’s own hand. More­over, it seems this evi­dence has been sit­ting under scholar’s noses for decades, housed in the pub­lic Free Library of Philadelphia’s Rare Book Depart­ment, one of over 230 extant copies of the First Folio.

In a blog post at the Cen­tre for Mate­r­i­al Texts, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cambridge’s Jason Scott-War­ren makes his case that the anno­tat­ed First Folio is Milton’s own, pri­mar­i­ly, he writes, on the basis of pale­og­ra­phy, or hand­writ­ing analy­sis. “This just looks like Milton’s hand,” he says, then walks through sev­er­al com­par­isons with oth­er known Mil­ton man­u­scripts, such as his com­mon­place book and anno­tat­ed Bible.

There is also the copi­ous evi­dence for dat­ing the book to the time Mil­ton would have owned it, from the many mar­gin­al ref­er­ences to con­tem­po­rary works like Samuel Pur­chas’ 1625 Pil­grimes and John Fletcher’s The Bloody Broth­er. Mil­ton “added mar­gin­al mark­ings to all of the plays except for Hen­ry VI 1–3 and Titus Andron­i­cus,” notes Scott-War­ren. His corrections—from the Quarto—emendations, and “smart cross-ref­er­ences” are “intel­li­gent and assid­u­ous.”

Antic­i­pat­ing blow­back for his Mil­ton the­o­ry, Scott-War­ren asks, “wouldn’t his copy be bristling with cross-ref­er­ences, packed with smart obser­va­tions and angri­ly cen­so­ri­ous com­ments?” It would indeed, and “sev­er­al dis­tin­guished Mil­ton­ists” have agreed with Scott-Warren’s analy­sis, many con­tact­ing him, he writes in a post­script, to say they’re “con­fi­dent that this iden­ti­fi­ca­tion is cor­rect.” He adds that he has “been round­ly rebuked for under­stat­ing the sig­nif­i­cance of the dis­cov­ery.”

This kind of self-report­ed val­i­da­tion isn’t exact­ly peer review, but we don’t have to take his word for it. Said schol­ars have made their approval pub­licly, enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly, known on Twit­ter. And Penn State Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish Claire M.L. Bourne has writ­ten a con­grat­u­la­to­ry essay on her blog. It was Bourne who spurred on Scott-Warren’s inves­ti­ga­tion with her own essay “Vide Sup­ple­men­tum: Ear­ly Mod­ern Col­la­tion as Play-Read­ing in the First Folio,” pub­lished just months ear­li­er this year.

Bourne was one of the first few schol­ars to thor­ough­ly exam­ine the Free Library of Philadelphia’s copy of the First Folio. But, she admits, she com­plete­ly missed the Mil­ton con­nec­tion. “You can work for a decade,” she writes rue­ful­ly, “as I did, on a sin­gle book… and still be left with gap­ing holes in the nar­ra­tive.” This new schol­ar­ship may not only have filled in the mys­tery of the book’s first own­er and anno­ta­tor; it may also show the full degree to which Mil­ton engaged with Shake­speare, and give Mil­ton schol­ars “a new and sig­nif­i­cant field of ref­er­ence” for read­ing his work.

via MetaFil­ter

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William Blake’s Hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry Illus­tra­tions of John Milton’s Par­adise Lost

3,000 Illus­tra­tions of Shakespeare’s Com­plete Works from Vic­to­ri­an Eng­land, Neat­ly Pre­sent­ed in a New Dig­i­tal Archive

Spenser and Mil­ton (Free Course) 

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Daniel Purdy says:

    These dis­cus­sions can get quite com­pli­cat­ed. There is lots of room for con­fu­sion. For exam­ple, Claire Bourne, who is men­tioned in the essay, is a col­league of mine at Penn State Uni­ver­si­ty, not the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Thanks for catch­ing that error! Cor­rect­ed.…

  • William Bennett says:

    Almost as keen as my delight at this won­der­ful find is my sym­pa­thy for Prof. Bourne. The tweet shows she’s a class act, but ouch.

  • Bob Jasper says:

    “Now known as ‘On Shake­speare,’ the poem laments the sor­ry state of Shakespeare’s legacy—his mon­u­ment a ‘weak wit­ness,’ his work an ‘unval­ued book.’ ”

    This is a mis­read­ing of “On Shake­speare.”

    Mil­ton’s poem asks: why would Shake­speare need such a “weak wit­ness” to his fame as an actu­al, phys­i­cal mon­u­ment or piece of funer­ary archi­tec­ture?

    His true, last­ing mon­u­ment is “our won­der and aston­ish­ment,” which we under­go when we read him: we become mar­ble stat­u­ary our­selves.

    His “unval­ued book” means his “invalu­able book”: OED “1. a. Not esti­mat­ed or fixed in val­ue; extreme­ly great or valu­able.”

  • Patti Cole says:

    Thank you for your look at Mil­ton’s poem Thank you.

  • John Engle says:

    Do you mean ear­ly 18th cen­tu­ry?

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