By Dan Linke
The impetus for the current exhibition in Firestone Library’s Milberg Gallery, “In the Company of Good Books: Shakespeare to Morrison,” is the 400th anniversary of the publication of William Shakespeare’s First Folio, containing 36 of his plays, a monumental literary event that changed the world’s understanding of his work. But more locally, when and how have the Bard’s plays and poems been read and taught at Princeton University?
Princeton aficionados of Shakespeare, including me, can take satisfaction that his works have been on campus for probably as long as the University has existed in Princeton, if not before. A set of his writings was recorded in the first library catalog, published in 1760. The entry (p. 31) is listed out of alphabetical order and contains a glaring typo: “Sheakspear’s Works, Oxford Edition, 9 vol. Lond. 1747.” Though there are many variants of the Bard’s last name, this spelling is not one of them. The rendering in the set itself is Shakespear, which was not uncommon.
It is possible that this set traveled within the two boxes of books that moved with the institution from Newark to Princeton in 1756 or that it was part of the 400-plus volumes that New Jersey colonial governor Jonathan Belcher donated upon his death the following year. However, the 1802 Nassau Hall fire that consumed the volumes makes it impossible to know their origins for certain.
It is known from the catalog that this was an octavo edition, and the title page of a replacement copy later added to the library states that “The genuine text (collated with all the former editions, and then corrected and emended) is here settled: being restored from the blunders of the first editors, and the interpolations of the two last…”
The blundering editors must include the compilers of the iconic First Folio, three copies of which are featured in the “Good Books” exhibition, including what is believed to be the first known copy in America, owned by William Parker in 1791. It was not, however, until 1928 that a First Folio was added to Princeton’s rare book collection. The other two First Folios on display (including Parker’s) were acquired by the Scheide Library in 1922 and 1935, though they arrived in Princeton only in 1965, when the library’s holdings were moved from Pennsylvania to Firestone Library. But, even then, they were not formally gifted to the University until 2015.
In addition to the library’s holdings, the library records of Whig and Clio (then separate organizations) reveal that students borrowed editions of his work as early as 1813, and the Nassau Literary Review first invoked him in 1843, just months after beginning publication. Judging from the Nass Lit’s early mentions, it is apparent that Shakespeare was already well established as a canonical standard. He was either quoted or his name was deployed in phrases such as “the American Shakespeare” or the “Shakespeare of India” to laud contemporary writers. One of my favorite references is when the editors declared that students should edify their evenings by reading the Bible, Shakespeare, and their very own magazine.
In addition, Shakespeare’s works were part of the Princeton campus milieu as early as the 18th century. A 1764 account (pp. 25-6) of the college noted that seniors had regular evening “declamations of their own composing on the stage” drawing from “select pieces from Cicero, Demosthenes, Livy, and other ancient authors; and from Shakespear [sic], Milton, Addison, and such illustrious moderns, as are best adapted to display the various passions, and exemplify the graces of utterance and gesture.”
But while the playwright and his works were present in student life, Shakespeare as a subject of classroom study would not appear until after the Civil War. Early evidence that the Bard had infiltrated the curriculum is found in the 1877-78 General Catalogue (p. 24), where a description of one of the first English literature courses notes its use of A Manual of English Literature, published in 1874 by George L. Craik. The Manual mentions or discusses Shakespeare over 50 times throughout its 300-plus pages. By 1882, the General Catalogue lists courses (pp. 50, 54-55) open to juniors and seniors whose readings include A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, Macbeth, King John, The Tempest, and Hamlet. The 1890-91 General Catalogue states (p. 40) that students of English literature can expect the first semester of their senior year to be “wholly occupied with Shakespeare.”
Fittingly, the playwright had a supporting role in the history of the Triangle Club. In 1893, it performed a musical parody of Julius Caesar, the club’s first production under its current name. Written by Booth Tarkington ’1893, who also played Cassius, the play was so well received that it was staged again the following year. The production was revived in 1919, with new songs, making it one of only a few Triangle shows produced in more than one season. Other productions would make Shakespearean allusions and puns, none more so than A Midsummer Night Screame (1960-1961), in which Queen Elizabeth I is depicted as the true author of the Bard’s works.
Today Shakespeare’s literary legacy continues to be taught, though its content, interpretation, and context have evolved, as well as to be found in campus theater productions, exhibitions, and other venues, including a University Chapel window, proving that at Princeton, the Bard may be, for now at least, immortal.
American Whig Society Records (AC011)
Blair, Samuel. An Account of the College of New-Jersey. Woodbridge, New Jersey: James Parker: 1764.
Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111)
Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112)
Triangle Club Records (AC122)