Houghton Library

Shakespeare Promptbooks Collection

An anonymous promptbook for The Winter's Tale

An anonymous promptbook for The Winter’s Tale (TS Promptbook Sh154.401)

Houghton’s collection of Shakespeare promptbooks forms an extraordinary record of more than two hundred and fifty years’ worth of theatrical productions, from a 1756 staging of King Lear through to recent productions at Harvard’s own Loeb Drama Center. The annotated scripts, over four hundred in all, reflect the many ways in which their users made Shakespeare’s plays their own. 

The promptbooks can be roughly grouped into two categories. First, there are the true working copies. These promptbooks, whose condition frequently betrays their long history of service, often feature substantial alterations to the published text in the form of cuts, changes to phrasing, and even the occasional addition of an entire stanza. Additional markings reflect their user’s particular role in the production. Managers and directors’ promptbooks include notes on casting, blocking diagrams, and effects cues. Actors’ promptbooks feature markings to aid pronunciation and movement, and in some cases notes on characters’ psychology. Many of the performers’ promptbooks in the collection were used by well-known Shakespearean actors, including Edwin Booth, Henry Irving, Charles Kean, Ellen Terry, and Charlotte Cushman.

A souvenir promptbook for Edwin Booth’s 1870 production of Hamlet

A souvenir promptbook for Edwin Booth’s 1870 production of Hamlet (TS Promptbook Sh154.74)

The other type of promptbook in the collection is the “souvenir” or “memorial” piece. These volumes are the more polished cousins of the working text from which they were copied, streamlined versions that capture the details of the production’s ultimate form. Diagrams and illustrations, some quite finely done, help the reader to envision the look of the production. Particularly beautiful souvenir promptbooks in the collection include the book for Edwin’s Booth’s 1870 production of Hamlet and the book for Charles Kean’s 1858 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The bulk of the 18th-19th century promptbooks in the collection, which were microfilmed in the 1980s and written about in the Winter 1987 issue of the Harvard Library Bulletin were acquired in 1918, thanks to the very large bequest of Evert Jansen Wendell (Harvard Class of 1882). Other notable early contributors include the influential Shakespeare scholar Arthur Colby Sprague (1919) and Robert Gould Shaw (1869), first curator of the theater collection. These and other promptbooks from before 1950 form the core of the Shakespeare promptbooks collection and are housed together at Houghton. Two sets of promptbooks for more recent Shakespeare performances are also available to researchers. Promptbooks from the American Shakespeare Theatre (1956-1982) can be located with the help of this finding aid. Promptbooks from productions at the Harvard Loeb Drama Center, including productions by the American Repertory Theater and by Harvard dramatic societies, can be located with the help of this finding aid. The Harvard Theatre Collection Guide for Researchers may be helpful to those seeking other Shakespeare promptbooks, as well as promptbooks for non-Shakespearean plays.

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