A tale told by an idiot: Shakespeare through the ages

01 August 2016

If you didn't already know (of course you did) this year is a HUGELY exciting one for scholars, thespians and fans of William Shakespeare. 2016 marks the the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death, and cultural organisations the whole world over have been pulling out all the stops to celebrate his life and works. Special events, performances and festivals have been taking place since the start of the year, and now Adam Matthew can proudly unveil our contribution to the festivities: Shakespeare in Performance: Prompt Books from the Folger Shakespeare Library.




The engraving of Shakespeare that appeared in the First Folio, taken from a portrait by Droeshout. Image © Folger Shakespeare Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.



The resource features over 1,000 prompt books for productions of Shakespeare's plays that were staged between the 1670s and the 1970s. They are an absolutely fascinating source of information, revealing details of how different stage-managers, directors and actors tweaked the original text, cut things, added things in, moved stuff around, and generally created their own interpretations for the stage.




There are some real treasures that spark the imagination, such as this one: a prompt book for a 1785 production of Cymbeline that was put on by the boys of Hackney School. My mind immediately pictures a scruffy group of twelve-year-olds, bashing each other with wooden swords while the schoolmaster desperately tries to keep order. However, the book belonged to the rather upper-class-sounding Lumley St. George Skeffington, who played the Queen (larks!) and read the Epilogue. Other names on the cast list include 'Ponsonby', 'Dalrymple' and even 'Lord Henry Fitzroy', a name with royal connections. So obviously this production wasn't your average band of unruly schoolboys - more Bertie Wooster than Artful Dodger.

The cast list from Hackney School's 1785 prompt book for Cymbeline. Image © Folger Shakespeare Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


The beauty of the prompt books is that every one is unique and tells its own story. Some of them are more heavily annotated than others, and are so detailed you could restage the exact production to the letter! Others, like Mr Skeffington's contribution, leave more to the imagination. Whatever gems you discover when you start exploring the resource, I defy you not to be amazed anew at Shakespeare's timeless appeal.

In Macbeth he wrote:

"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."1

Of all the players whoever strutted upon the stage, Shakespeare's voice has transcended centuries to be heard throughout the world and immortalised forever. I wonder what he would have said if someone had told him during his lifetime that he would one day be the most famous playwright in the world. Probably "Thou liest, most ignorant monster!"2. Or something much ruder.



Shakespeare in Performance is available now. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please e-mail us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Full access is restricted to authenticated academic institutions which have purchased a licence. Open access to the clickable documents featured in this blog will be available for 30 days.

1Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5
2The Tempest, Act III, Scene 2


About the Author

Harriet Brunsdon Jones

Harriet Brunsdon Jones

I’ve been working at Adam Matthew since March 2013, following several years in magazine and journals publishing. Projects I’ve worked on include Shakespeare in Performance, Popular Medicine in America, Global Commodities, and China, America and the Pacific – all assisted by copious quantities of tea.