Mr. William Shakespear’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (1685)

By V. M. Braganza

Title page of the Fourth Folio of Mr. William Shakespear’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies (1685), up for auction at Christie’s as part of the Theodore B. Baum sale in September 2021.

But this rough magic
I here abjure, and when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

Shakespeare, The Tempest (5.1.59-66)

You are what you read—at least, that’s how I have always understood the feeling of dissolving into a book. Books absorb us into their pages: we feel our edges blur and disappear. The world goes away, until reality breaks the charm and we resurface and reappear among the living.

Except when we don’t. Sometimes, those who are forgotten by history live on only in the books they left behind, fathoms beneath our memory of the past. That is exactly what happened to Charlotte Rowe (1718-1739), daughter of Nicholas Rowe, England’s fourth Poet Laureate and the first editor of Shakespeare’s works. Charlotte Rowe was swallowed by a book. In fact, she disappeared into the Fourth Folio of Shakespeare’s plays (1685).

Rowe’s signature on recto of the frontispiece leaf. The shadow of the intaglio portrait of Shakespeare on the verso is visible to the keen eye.

Charlotte is concealed by Shakespeare both historically and literally. If there’s a place one would least expect to find her name inscribed, it’s in Poets’ Corner, the most iconic pilgrimage site for lovers of English literature—yet there she is. Anyone who explores Westminster Abbey in London will soon find themselves in an alcove in the south transept crammed with tombs and memorials to some of the greatest English writers. In this part of the cathedral, there’s hardly an inch of space that isn’t carved with famous names. A visitor can’t take so much as a step without trodding on Charles Dickens or coming nose to nose with Geoffrey Chaucer. Even after the inscriptions had carpeted the stone floor and climbed up the marble walls, names began appearing in the stained-glass windows too. Poet’ Corner is one of the most magical places a passionate reader can find herself. The stone itself is alive, and one of its most electrifying features is an elaborate monument to Shakespeare.

The monument to Shakespeare in Poets’ Corner. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Drawn in by the sheer prominence of Shakespeare’s statue, most visitors don’t notice what sits just a few feet away. Next door is the tomb of Nicholas Rowe, which includes a memorial to his daughter, Charlotte.

The most prominent figures in the Rowe monument are a bust of Rowe and a symbolic statue of a mourning woman holding an open book. A carving of Charlotte in profile in a round frame hovers diffidently in the background. Even though it sits directly within view, it would easily escape the casual observer’s notice.

This only surviving portrait of Charlotte reflects the apparent position of many women. They hover in the background, metaphorically and spatially. Where their names survive, they play second fiddle to men’s names and achievements. And, too often, we can barely get a clear enough view of them to put a face to the name. The tiny glimpse we get of Charlotte raises more questions than answers.

Charlotte was born in 1718, the same year her father died. She never knew him personally, yet she owned a copy of Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio. Nicholas Rowe based his 1709 edition of Shakespeare primarily on the Fourth Folio which, at the time, was the most recently published version of the plays. It was also highly inaccurate, containing substantially different texts to those published in Shakespeare’s time and the First Folio (1623). Modern editors, who regard Shakespeare’s language as almost sacred, aim to recover it as accurately as possible. Today, the Fourth Folio’s differences are damning.

But that’s not how many of Rowe’s contemporaries would have seen it. From the late seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, writers and editors often took a liberty that would horrify Bardolaters today: they rewrote Shakespeare. Unthinkable though it seems to us, it wasn’t uncommon for Shakespeareans to take it upon themselves to ‘improve’ the plays. Nahum Tate, the Poet Laureate before Rowe, was put off by the unbearably tragic ending of King Lear—so he simply rewrote the play to give it a happy ending. In fact, it was Tate’s version, in which Lear and his beloved daughter Cordelia survive, and not Shakespeare’s original which ends in both characters’ deaths, that was performed on the English stage from 1681 until the mid-nineteenth century. For more than a hundred years, Shakespeare’s King Lear wasn’t Shakespeare’s King Lear!

In some ways, Rowe was ahead of his time. He pioneered many editorial features of Shakespeare’s plays that we take for granted: he divided the plays into five acts each, added stage directions, and included a Dramatis Personae, or list of characters, at the beginning of each play. He also claimed that he had compared “several Editions” to reproduce as nearly as possible “the Exactness of the Author’s Original Manuscripts.” In reality, his edition shows that he simply followed the Fourth Folio, and even included several plays incorrectly attributed to Shakespeare. But, in a time of Tates who freely abridged Shakespeare’s works, it was the thought that counted. Rowe was the first to express a desire to recover the author’s own versions—and Shakespeare’s original words have been pearls which editors have sought ever since.

That the daughter whom Rowe never met owned a copy of the Fourth Folio raises some unanswerable questions. Was this inscribed book her father’s copy, perhaps inherited after his death? Did Charlotte long to know more about the father she would never meet? And how might such a desire have driven her interest in Shakespeare? How would she have read a play like King Lear, in which death thwarts a reunion between a father and daughter? And is there a copy of Rowe’s 1709 six-volume edition with his daughter’s signature still waiting to be found—or have these volumes been drowned in the tides of time if they ever existed at all?

On these questions, Charlotte’s copy of the Fourth Folio is as silent as the grave. The book contains no further substantial annotations beyond her signature. Charlotte herself died at the age of twenty-one, giving birth to a daughter, Charlotte Fane (1739-1762), who would die, in her turn, at the age of twenty-three. The bare skeleton of these facts survives to tantalize us with truths we many never conjure from the pages of books. Charlotte’s Fourth Folio whispers,

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

The Tempest (1.2.474–479)

So Shakespeare seemed to Rowe—so Rowe might have seemed to Charlotte. So Charlotte appears to us.

The best historical writing makes the past and its inhabitants come alive. But what are we to do with those individuals who have undergone a sea change into something strange and elusive? Many women’s histories exist but remain undiscovered—but even more have been reduced to flickers and flashes, as indistinct as water is in water. In the face of large-scale social inequity and subsequent historical neglect, women have disappeared into the books they owned and read. As a result, rare books are some of the most evocative places we can look for and attempt to discover them. When we do so, whether as historians or curious readers, we seek the pearls of great price that humankind has unwisely thrown away: the books and people time’s tempests have submerged.

Many heartfelt thanks go to Rhiannon Knol for showing me this book and, as ever, to the members of the Books and Manuscripts Division at Christie’s, for their warm and wonderful support.

Source: Book offered for sale by Christie’s, September 14, 2021. All images reproduced with permission.

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