Navigate / search

From the Outside In: Title page from William Shakespeare's "A Midsommer Nights Dreame," 1619

By Edgar Walters

Title page from "A Midsommer Nights Dreame."
Title page from "A Midsommer Nights Dreame."

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows

This image of the title page to William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream reads, “A Midsommer Nights Dreame, As it hath beene sundry times publikely acted, by the Right Honourable, the Lord Chamberlaine his seruants.” Below the title, the printer and date are identified as James Roberts, 1600, but this is a misrepresentation. Although 1600 was the first date of publication of the play, this image is of the title page of a second edition, printed in 1619 by William Jaggard and Thomas Pavier. Jaggard ran the printing shop that had been founded by James Roberts, and his edition was an unauthorized printing that upset Shakespeare’s playing company, the King’s Men. The company asked the king to order the immediate ban of publication of their works by other parties. Jaggard continued to publish the play, however, by using the date of the first edition to sell it as old stock. Notably, William Jaggard had previously printed an unauthorized collection of Shakespeare’s sonnets in 1599 under the title The Passionate Pilgrim. As was customary in Elizabethan publishing, Jaggard retained copyright as publisher, and no profits of the sale went to Shakespeare or his company.

The Jaggard printing from 1619 was later used as the publisher’s copy for the text of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the 1623 First Folio. Shakespeare’s plays were published in a number of early editions. The first single-play copies were published as “quartos,” so called because pieces of paper were folded in four to make the pages. The first collection of all of the plays—the First Folio—was published seven years after Shakespeare’s death by John Heminges and Henry Condell, members of the King’s Men who would have known Shakespeare. Their edition was published in the larger “folio” format, with the paper folded in two, and it contained the 36 plays generally accepted as Shakespeare’s. The first quarto of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 1600 had contained few errors or corruptions, but the second quarto by Jaggard in 1619 contained many errors. When Heminges and Condell put together the First Folio, they used a corrected copy of the second quarto as the text for this play. Because of their knowledge of Shakespeare and his plays, they could make the First Folio more accurate than either of the previous quartos. The First Folio is particularly important because it covers the full body of Shakespeare’s work. Half of the plays in the First Folio, including Macbeth and The Tempest, had never been published before and would have been lost had they not been collected at this time. The 1623 First Folio was also the first licensed printing of the works of Shakespeare.

Among Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the closest example to the Renaissance genre of the masque, and it was most likely written in the mid-1590s for the occasion of an important wedding. Popular court entertainments, full of music, dancing, and pageantry, masques were written by many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, such as Ben Jonson. A Midsummer Night’s Dream explores romantic desire through the wedding of the mythological royal couple Theseus and Hippolyta, and features four young people of Athens (Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia, and Helena), a squabble between King Oberon and Queen Titania of the Fairies, and Bottom and his company of actors who are rehearsing a play (Pyramus and Thisby) for the nuptials. The title alludes to the rites of Midsummer’s Eve, but the setting is May Day—a day associated with madness and an appropriate time for young lovers to get swept up into an argument at the fairy court. The themes and characters would have been familiar to the Elizabethan audience: Theseus and Hippolyta are a couple who had appeared in works of Chaucer and Plutarch; Pyramus and Thisby, from the play within a play, had been written of by Chaucer and Ovid; and Oberon was from Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene.

This copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is part of the Carl H. Pforzheimer library at the Harry Ransom Center. The Pforzheimer library of early English literature comprises 1,100 books and was purchased in 1986. Acquiring this collection was a coup for the Ransom Center because it includes many of the finest examples of the plays, poems, novels, essays, polemical writings, and translations of the most influential English writers from 1475 to 1700. It includes first and important editions of John Milton, Andrew Marvell, John Donne, William Congreve, Christopher Marlowe, and Francis Bacon. In addition, the Ransom Center’s collections of British and Irish Literature are rich in the publishing, performance, and reception history of Shakespeare. Early editions in the Pforzheimer, Wrenn, and other collections include several quarto plays printed during Shakespeare’s lifetime and all four Folio editions, including three copies of the First Folio (1623).

Ransom Center volunteer Sara Childress wrote this post.