John Milton’s personal notes on Shakespeare’s 1623 folio discovered

By September 30, 2019Authors, News

Annotations in an early Shakespeare folio have been discovered to have been made by poet and intellectual, John Milton, who is known best for Paradise Lost. The notes have been discovered nearly 400 years after the first folio of Shakespeare was published in 1623, and scholars believe the annotated folio to be an important literary discovery.

The amazing discovery was made by Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren when he recognised Milton’s handwriting in an article he was reading. English professor Claire Bourne’s article contained annotations by an anonymous (at the time) note-taker, whom the author had dated to the mid-17th century, as they appeared to have “the sense, accuracy, and interpretative possibility of the dialogue”.

William Shakespeare’s first folio is the first collected edition of his plays, published seven years after his death. Around 750 first folios were printed, with 233 known to survive, making them rare and valuable with one selling for £1.87m in 2016.

Scott-Warren has made a detailed comparison of the annotator’s handwriting with Milton’s, believing the work the annotator did to ‘improve’ Shakespeare’s text is similar to work Milton did in other personal books including his copy of Boccaccio’s Life of Dante. After tentatively offering his thoughts to fellow scholars, his suspicions were confirmed.

“Not only does this hand look like Milton’s, but it behaves like Milton’s writing elsewhere does, doing exactly the things Milton does when he annotates books, and using exactly the same marks,” said Dr Will Poole at New College Oxford. “Shakespeare is our most famous writer, and the poet John Milton was his most famous younger contemporary. It was, until a few days ago, simply too much to hope that Milton’s own copy of Shakespeare might have survived — and yet the evidence here so far is persuasive. This may be one of the most important literary discoveries of modern times.”

“Everyone’s been weighing in, every day someone suggests a new similarity,” Scott-Warren said. “I feel 100% sure, but there are still people out there who remain to be convinced. I guess there is a question of if other people could have very similar handwriting.”

“The book is absolutely covered with lines in the margin of passages and when you’re reading those thinking the annotator is Milton they become really interesting,” Scott-Warren said. “It’s how they echo with his work, the sense that the volume offers you the opportunity to read Shakespeare through Milton’s eyes. Because the lines in the margin don’t give you any verbal content, you don’t know why he’s singled out a passage for attention, but it forces you to think your way into Milton’s head and it does really chime with a lot of what goes on in his poetry, so you can see him constructing himself through Shakespeare.”

Although the influence on Milton by Shakespeare on John Milton is no secret in the literary world, it is so wonderful to see it on paper. Within Milton’s folio copy lines in The Tempest have been highlighted:

“Come unto these yellow sands, / And then take hands: / Courtsied when you have and kiss’d / The wild waves whist.”

The unusual rhyme of “kiss’d” and “whist”, can also be found in John Milton’s On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity: “The winds with wonder whist, / Smoothly the waters kist.”

“We would already have known about that allusion, they are the only two writers who used that rhyme, but you can see him marking it in the text and responding to it,” Scott-Warren explains, “It gives you a sense of his sensitivity and alertness to Shakespeare. What’s quite remarkable as well is that he’s singled out for attention lots of the passages that have become incredibly famous – he goes through and marks out some of the most celebrated Shakespearean speeches.”

“It shows you the firsthand encounter between two great writers, which you don’t often get to see, especially in this period. A lot of that kind of evidence is lost, so that’s really exciting.”

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