Shakespeare in Performance

Prompt books from the Folger Shakespeare Library

Go behind the scenes and explore how Shakespeare’s plays have been interpreted by theatre companies, actors and directors across the centuries.

This resource features the world-famous prompt book collection at the Folger Shakespeare Library. These prompt books tell the story of Shakespeare’s plays as they were performed in theatres throughout Great Britain, the United States and internationally, between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries.

A prompt book is the main copy of a production script. They include personal notes, sketches and cues for lighting and music, from set design and costume to music and acting. Researchers can follow how each individual production unfolded; see what amendments were made to the text and stage management over the years; and explore the influences and connections between different productions of the same play.

This remarkable resource will transform understanding of how Shakespeare’s plays have been interpreted and performed since they were written.


  • Prompt books for over 90% of Shakespeare’s plays, including editions owned by notable actors and directors such as Charles and John Philip Kemble, Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Laurence Olivier
  • Performances of particular cultural importance have been selected as case studies including David Garrick’s revised 1772 production of Hamlet, Henry Irving’s famous 1879 production of ­The Merchant of Venice, and Laurence Olivier’s Academy Award-winning cinema release of Hamlet in 1948.

Key data

Period covered

1670s to 1970s (bulk nineteenth century)

Source archive

  • Folger Shakespeare Library
  • Stage management
  • War, empire and colonialism
  • Love and marriage
  • Magic and folklore
  • History, politics and corruption
  • Women and femininity
  • Royalty, aristocracy and class
  • Religion, culture and society
  • Souvenir copies
  • Ephemera
  • Illustrations and drawings
  • Photographs
  • Music scores
  • Correspondence
  • Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute
  • Gregory Doran, Artistic Director, Royal Shakespeare Company
  • Jeffrey Kahan, University of La Verne
  • Denise Walen, Vassar College
  • Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts, Folger Shakespeare Library
  • Great Britain, Republic of Ireland and Northern Irish Studies
  • Literature
  • North American Studies
  • Theatre
  • Ability to compare prompt books alongside each other
  • Documents are indexed by play, country of performance, theatre, associated names, and other key search terms
  • Full-text searchability
  • Visual galleries
  • Chronology
  • Case studies
  • Academic essays


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