Culture Night: Shakespeare’s Sources & the Boole Library’s Resources

The River-side welcomes this guest post from Dr Edel Semple, School of English on her experience using items from Special Collections’ early modern books collections in her Culture Night talk ‘Shakespeare’s Sources and Boole Library’s Resources.’

Shakespeare’s Sources and Boole Library’s Resources

Last month, I had the pleasure of giving a public lecture in the Boole Library as part of Culture Night 2016. My talk, “Shakespeare’s Sources and the Boole Library’s Resources”, sought to explore Shakespeare’s use of his sources and to give a general introduction to book history using the Library’s rare, early printed books. The talk was part of the British Council ‘Shakespeare Lives’ programme that commemorates the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death this year and is just one of several events in a year-long celebration of Shakespeare’s life and works at UCC and in universities around Ireland.

From the beginning, I should flag some limitations. Firstly, the talk and this blog post are in no way exhaustive explorations of all of Shakespeare’s sources; my research has been led by what early modern books are to be found in UCC’s Special Collections and so offers a selective discussion of some texts and their possible relevance to Shakespeare. Secondly, while Shakespeare and I are old friends, I am relatively new to the area of book history and thus any novice errors below are entirely my own. Nonetheless, in what follows, I hope to give a flavour of my talk which sought to highlight some of the early modern gems in Boole’s Special Collections and to offer a few insights into the pleasures of book history. In preparing for my talk, Elaine Harrington and the Special Collections staff were an invaluable source of information and support and I owe them many thanks.

Who is William Shakespeare?

Frontispiece to

Frontispiece to The plays and poems of William Shakspeare

In popular portrayals of William Shakespeare on film and TV – think Shakespeare in Love (1998) or the “The Shakespeare Code” episode of Doctor Who (2007) – the young Will is often shown as a genius in the making. These two screen iterations depict Will early in his career; he dashes about London, gets into scrapes, falls in love (or lust), and all of his experiences find their way into his plays. In their effort to create dramatic momentum, these screen depictions omit the fact that Shakespeare was an avid reader, a careful student of the classics, and a consumer of the latest works on the booksellers’ shelves. In the books that he read, bought and borrowed, Shakespeare found both incidental and foundational material for his writing.


Shakespeare’s London

Before exploring some of the books that Shakespeare used as sources of his plays, I opened my talk with two books that can give us a sense of Shakespeare’s world, of the sights and sounds that he experienced as an Elizabethan Londoner. John Stow’s Survey of London was first printed in 1598 and UCC’s Special Collections owns a fourth edition of the book, published in 1633. Stow’s Survey is a meticulously researched reference book on the history, topography, socio-economic conditions, and traditions of London. Such was its popularity, it was reprinted and enlarged for many years after its first iteration in 1598. As an example of the kind of information that Shakespeare could find in the book, or rather an example of an event he could have experienced in the city, I discussed Stow’s description of the “Sports and Pastimes” on offer to the average Londoner.


Shakespeare and The Bible

Using an early modern Bible, I discussed then the centrality of religion to early modern life and how details from, and the language of, the Bible may have found their way into Shakespeare. UCC’s Special Collections holds a Geneva Bible from 1587. The Catalogue’s notes on this item state that the “Old Testament is in the Geneva version, the earliest English bible printed in roman type and with verse divisions, first published at Geneva in 1560.” This book has a brown leather, blind-tooled cover (flowers and lacework patterns are discernable) and several pages have been repaired. I discussed the Bible’s typography (font, marginalia etc.), the uses of the images it contains (Eden, the parting of the Red Sea etc.) and why it is known as the “Breeches Bible” (see below the translation of Genesis, Chapter 3, verse 7).


Translation of Genesis 3:7 “”they sewed figge tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches.”


Shakespeare and Holinshed’s Chronicles

I next looked at Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, which has been long acknowledged as a key source for Shakespeare’s histories. This mammoth book was first published in two volumes in 1577, but the Boole Library owns the second edition which was printed in three volumes in 1586. I focused on Volume 3 of Holinshed’s Chronicles as here could be found the sources of several plays including Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, and Richard III. Having examined the tales of these monarchs, however, my attention was caught by the volume’s title page.