In early January 2021, rare-book librarian Jane Siegel discovered a previously untraced play owned by early woman reader Frances Wolfreston (1607–1677), Lewis Sharpe’s The Noble Stranger, at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Sharpe’s play was printed only once in 1640 and the ESTC records a little over two dozen surviving copies. The Folger Shakespeare Library’s Digital Anthology of Early Modern Drama indicates that the play was first performed in 1639 by Queen Henrietta Maria’s Men, who put on many of the plays that Frances Wolfreston owned in print: Richard Brome’s The Antipodes, Shackerley Marmion’s The Antiquary, Thomas Nabbes’ Covent Garden, Thomas Heywood’s The English Traveller, and John Ford’s Love’s Sacrifice, among others.
Little scholarship has been done on this relatively minor and obscure play and its even obscurer author, whom Matteo A. Pangallo calls a “nonaristocratic playwriting playgoer” (23). The Noble Stranger seems to have been Sharpe’s only printed play. The dramatis personae includes the King of Naples, the princess, and Honorio, the eponymous stranger.
In contrast to many of her playbooks, this is one that Wolfreston did not annotate. However, she did sign it in a favored location on the caption title page and in her customary way: “frances wolfreston her bouk.”
The book was first sold in 1856 as lot 361 of the now famous single-day Sotheby’s auction of the Wolferstan* family library. The lot contained two other minor plays, Henry Shirley’s The Martyr’d Souldier (1638), now at the Huntington, and an English translation of an Italian work by Guidubaldo Bonarelli, Filli di Sciro, or, Phillis of Scyros (1655), untraced. In contrast to the Shakespeare plays appearing a few lots before them, which sold for between £1 (two damaged copies of Richard the Third and Richard the Second) and £13 13s (the complete copy of Richard the Second now at the Harry Ransom Center), these three lesser known plays were purchased by bookseller Joseph Lilly for just a single shilling.
Siegel notes that Wolfreston’s copy of The Noble Stranger entered Columbia University’s collections as an anonymous gift some forty years after the Sotheby’s sale in October 1895. She goes on to say:
In the Report of the Librarian [George H. Baker] for the Academic Year ending June 30, 1895, on page 192, “There have been added to the library, through Prof. Geo. E. Woodberry [professor of Comparative Literature], from a sum of money put at his disposal by a gentleman, 1169 volumes. These books bear a bookplate with the words “Ex dono Amici Litterarum.” They are largely works in English drama, and in criticism and literary history.” [T]he accession register listings of other parts of this gift on the pages around The Noble Stranger include a number of other 17th century plays acquired at the same time.
At least one other signed book from Frances Wolfreston’s library now resides at Columbia University, Robert Mead’s play The Combat of Love and Friendship (1653), which Wolfreston deemed “a uery prity one, all of loue 3 copells of louers.”
*Wolferstan is the spelling adopted by Wolfreston’s eldest son Francis and used to this day by her descendants.
Source: Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, B823 Sh25. Images taken by Jane Siegel and reproduced with permission.
Matteo A. Pangallo, Playwriting Playgoers in Shakespeare’s Theater. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.