William Shakespeare, Comedies, Histories and Tragedies (1632)

We have seen several examples of female book ownership of plays lately, but this is a particularly interesting one, of the 1632 Folio of Shakespeare’s complete works. The wonderfully useful Shakespeare Census has located 53 copies of pre-1800 Shakespeare works owned by a woman and currently housed in libraries all over the world. But occasionally an example ends up for sale and thereafter possibly in private ownership.

This copy of Shakespeare’s Second Folio has a lovely binding and multiple ownership inscriptions.

A closer look at the title page, which I enhanced with Adobe Lightroom, reveals at least one female owner, Joanna White, who appears to be the person who has not only written her name, but also copied the title of the play that begins next to the page, The Winter’s Tale. The other name, Richard Carrington, seems to be written in a different hand than the one that wrote and practiced the title of the play. If it is Joanna, she might be marking a particular fondness for Shakespeare’s late romance.

Potential other female scribblings can be seen on the page, with some upside down (something we see frequently in early modern books). It is possible that one reads “mery” or Mary, a name we also see below Joanna White’s signature in the image above.

The bookseller has a blog and short video on their website, allowing us to see the book in more detail (including another page of pen trials with male names). This copy of the Folio was on the market earlier this year.

Source: book for sale on 26 February 2020 by Peter Harrington. Images reproduced with permission.

Richard Brome, Five New Playes (1653)

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As we have seen on this blog, women owned all kinds of books in the early modern period, including plays. Although we cannot date this particular signature with any degree of certainty, Mary Feltham wrote it in a copy (presumably hers) of a collection of plays by the popular playwright Richard Brome, published in 1653.  Rather than putting her signature on the title page, she put it above the Letter “to the Readers” by the person who put the collection together, the royalist poet Alexander Brome (who was not related to the playwright). Thus, she marks herself as one of the readers to whom the letter is addressed.

Credit: Early English Playbooks, 1594-1799. Owned by the Boston Public Library. Public Domain.

John Lyly, Sixe Court Comedies (1632)

By Emily Fine

Sixe Court Comedies is only the third example on this website (so far!) of a woman owning a copy of early modern plays. Yet, as Kitamura Sae discusses, early modern women purchased playbooks, gave and received them as gifts and, in some cases, were involved in printing them. Clearly, we have more work to do to find these women and their playbooks!

Sixe Court Comedies is a collection of plays by English playwright John Lyly: Endymion, Campaspe, Sapho and Phao, Gallathea, Midas, and Mother Bombie. It was printed by William Stansby for Edward Blount, who, along with William and Isaac Jaggard, also printed Shakespeare’s First Folio.

This copy of Sixe Court Comedies has three indications of potential ownership. Thomas Baynard inscribed his name on the title page and the first page of Act 1, Scene 1 of Endymion. The title page also contains a faint “W,” perhaps belonging to the William Sainbourne whose name can be found at the end of the volume.

On the verso side of the final page, he wrote “M Willam Sainbourne his book.” Lower on the page, “Mr. William” appears again, presumably the same person. This final page also includes the name of a Mrs Mary Meller, who experimented with the style of her signature. She wrote her name out in full twice, and twice abbreviated it as Mrs M M. The stylistic variations of each of these signatures suggest she may have been practicing a new signature and perhaps, for that matter, a new name.


John Lyly, Sixe Court Comedies (1632). STC 17088 copy 2. title page recto, B1r, and 2D12v. Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington, DC. Photographed by Emily Fine.

Further Reading

Kitamura Sae, “A Shakespeare of One’s Own: Female Users of Playbooks from the Seventeenth to the Mid-Eighteenth century.” Palgrave Communications 3, 17021 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1057/palcomms.2017.21

Aphra Behn, The Counterfeit Bridegroom (1677)

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We have only showcased a few books on this website so far that were both owned and written by a woman, and as we have seen in the case of Hannah Woolley, attribution can be problematic. Here is another instance of problematic attribution: a play that has been attributed to Aphra Behn. The Counterfeit Bridegroom, published  in 1677, is an adaptation of No Wit, No Help Like a Woman’s (1613) by Thomas Middleton. However, the play was published anonymously and Behn’s authorship has been questioned, and we cannot know if this particular female reader even knew this was perhaps a play by Behn. A woman named Millisent Smith wrote her name twice on a page, once at the very top and once upside down next to the text. The handwriting looks as if it may be that of a young person. The positioning of the writing next to the prologue and the double presence of her name suggests she may have been practicing her signature, a way of claiming ownership that disregards the actual content of the book. It is difficult to date the handwriting, which may well be later than the seventeenth century.

Credit: book in the Boston Public Library collection. Images taken from Early English Playbooks, 1594-1799, reproduced with permission.

John Mason, The Turke: A Worthie Tragedie (1610)

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This is one of a few examples of early modern female book ownership of a play. The name inscribed on the front flyleaf seems to be “Mary Willson,” and clearly an attempt was made at some point to remove the inscription. Not much is known about the playwright John Mason, who was a co-owner of Whitefriars Theater where this, his best known play, was performed by the King’s Revels Children, a boy company. It was part of a fashion for plays featuring the exotic figure of the “Turk.” While the play reproduces stereotypes of the evil and cruel Muslim, it also, Claire Jowitt has argued, provided complex reflections on Jacobean foreign policy.

Credit: Book in Boston Public Library. Images taken from Early English Playbooks, 1594-1799. Reproduced with permission.


Claire Jowitt, “Political Allegory in Late Elizabethan and Early Jacobean ‘Turk’ Plays: Lust’s Dominion and The Turke,”  Comparative Drama 36.3-4 (2002-03): 411-43.