Shakespeare in Scraps: Halliwell-Phillipps and Theatre History

This is the first of two posts thinking about theatre history through particular theatre historians.  Lucy Munro’s blog on the Wallaces follows as a companion piece.


James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps was among the most prominent book collectors and Shakespearean scholars of Victorian England. Halliwell-Phillipps’s (HP’s) biography of Shakespeare, initially published in 1848 and revised throughout his life, offers a mine of information and references that have been incorporated into subsequent scholarship.

He also left to posterity a collection of scrapbooks and folders. These scraps include cuttings from early printed folios and quartos. Such a practice now seems alarming (not least when sat in a research library!)—and I suspect, amid a frenzy of antiquarian activity, book-buying, and concern about authenticity, that HP was conscious of what he was doing when “excerpting” (to offer a bibliographic euphemism) a piece of material from an early edition. [1]


John Gerard’s The herball (1597) in scraps…

Seeing theatre history through the scraps and “raw(-er) material” collected through years of research shows what materials and accumulations buttress any printed edition, commentary, or biography. It also gives a glimpse of the ways in which research agendas and received understandings develop through a mixture of personal idiosyncrasies and objective analysis, correspondence, debate, assistance, access to material, and categorisation. For me, HP’s research process is particularly instructive when seen at the stage, here, before “parts” are incorporated into a more explicit narrative whole. These questions are at the back of my mind as I participate in excerpting, cutting, transcribing, and writing-up our own ongoing research.

Conceptually, HP’s unpasted material exposes the scraps, structures, and assumptions underpinning all theatre history, and gives the excuse for this blog to test out some thoughts about scraps and theatre history. I’m increasingly interested in the way our questions about and understanding of theatre history is skewed, defined, or delimited by what is printed in major resources and collections and, equally, by what is omitted. Focussing on what is explicitly “theatrical” in a given historical document at the expense of its wider (sometimes equally important) context can border on a presentist picture of the dramatic past and minimise the overlapping of Elizabethan playing with a range of other activities and social concerns. Yet collections must inevitably cut and must inevitably shed context. Seeing Shakespeare in scraps through HP’s leftovers raised for me questions about what might be cut from collections and therefore the implicit narratives all forms of “cutting” tell.

A Shakespeare Life

Samuel Schoenbaum pointedly notes that “Halliwell investigated every obscure nook of the poet’s biography” (Shakespeare’s Lives [1970; 1991], 283), and his scrapbooks testify to such investigation. Schoenbaum offers a brief and fantastic sketch of Halliwell-Phillipps’s life—one that sits alongside many of HP’s equally colourful contemporaries, including the “Old Corrector” John Payne Collier (known for forging early modern materials) and Sir Thomas Phillipps. I feel an ITV/BBC miniseries coming on…

Among the more curious details is that HP’s father ran a glove-and-hosiery shop, one point of alignment with Shakespeare himself. In a life spent chasing, on and off, details about Shakespeare, the sense of a perceived kinship or association seems hard to shake. Accused of book theft while an undergraduate at Cambridge (an accusation renewed by later investigations), HP spent some years warding off suspicion about his character. He married Henrietta, the daughter of Sir Thomas Phillipps, another prominent antiquarian, and the union caused a great rift between father and daughter and between a father and son-in-law who were once close friends. Schoenbaum’s sketch of family life between HP and Henrietta recalls the recent Twitter hashtag #thanksfortyping, surrounding women’s unmentioned or marginalised labour in the production or creation of work: “She cut up, pasted, and collated for her ‘dear Jamie’, made transcripts, read proofs, and prepared indexes” (288).

Whatever we may make of the man whose publications bear his name, the earlier assemblages of materials that informed HP’s work were a collaborative endeavour, and we might wonder about the provenance of those later surviving scrapbooks deposited at the Folger—a suggestion also entertained in J. A. B. Somerset’s write-up of the scrapbooks. In 1872, Henrietta suffered a prolonged degenerative illness after falling from her horse, and in the wake of her decline, HP fell into a depression and took to drink and drug abuse. He regained his health, however, and remarried after Henrietta’s death in 1879 to Mary Rice, returning, as Schoenbaum puts it, to his “consuming passion in Shakespeare’s life” (302). It is from this period that the scrapbooks originate.

A Before Shakespeare Life

Somerset explains that the scrapbooks “offer (as well as vast amounts of antiquarian minutiae) fascinating insights into the character and career of their original owner” (9). Certainly, they suggest some insight into another’s research process: HP adorns cuttings with remarks—particularly his favourite term “curious,” frequently abbreviated to “cur.”—and with “categories” that fit into his writing and chapters and flag up opportunities for addition and expansion in forthcoming editions of his works.

Many of these categories, understandably, indicate his preoccupation with “Shakespeare” and his biography in his research; 150 items on “Robert Greene” almost entirely concerned the allusion to Shakespeare in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit and surrounding debates about Chettle and Nashe (a debate that also extends to two separate, though conceptually overlapping, folders). If unsurprising, HP’s reading of another category, “Shakespeare’s predecessors,” nevertheless remained something of a let down. I was hoping to find useful Before Shakespeare material in the folder that pointed to research on playwrights, their plays, and surrounding contexts. Yet the folder was limited to a handful of scornful remarks about the likes of Gorboduc and Ralph Roister Doister. The determination and character typical of HP’s researches might usefully have been set, even in part, to generating some more direct engagement with contemporaries and forerunners. (Alarm bells were set ringing in the Before Shakespeare camp by HP’s remarks about the decidedly fascinating play The Three Ladies of London: “Immediate predecessors. a specimen of the rubbish just before Marlowe.” Perhaps “Immediate Predecessors” or “The Rubbish Just Before Marlowe” should have been considered for this project’s title…)

These eccentricities are compounded by HP’s use of scissors on early and rare printed materials, and his decision to mutilate and then keep as “evidence” a selected physical part of the resources he was reading and using. It’s these excerptions that make me think about the practice of theatre history and the ends and uses of evidence in later collections and anthologies.

“They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps.”

While these materials are interesting as insight into HP and his workings, they also offer a parallel for the way history is produced at any given time. Eleanor Collins has recently shown the way that early scholars’ methods define, sometimes permanently, the archive; talking of the dispersal and repasting of Henry Herbert’s Office Book (a major “lost” source for 1620s and 1630s theatre history) in which HP participated, she explains

While the critical methods that Halliwell-Phillipps used to construct narratives from the records at hand have not, for the most part, been enduring or defining, the physical selection and prioritisation of the records clearly has. The particular interests of these scholars [including i.e. Malone, Chalmers, Ord] determined which records survive as transcripts today, to inform the critical judgements that we pass. Their spectral presences in the archive haunt our encounters with the evidence. (“Ghosts in the archive: Edmond Malone, Craven Ord, and the missing texts of Henry Herbert’s ‘office-book’”, Critical Quarterly 55.4 (2013): 30-41 [33])

For the Herbert Office Book, that is very literally the case, as the cuttings and transcriptions are the only access to the material at hand, which no longer survives in any other form.

I have little to add here to Collins’s brilliant reading of the significance of “how evidence has been selected, lost, and treated” (33), but I am intrigued by the way that HP’s “cuttings” are a material instantiation of the workings of theatre history. Excerption itself is a central pillar of theatre history, and it necessitates a partial loss of material (even in cases where the original materials remain extant, some more accessibly than others).

Victorian and early twentieth-century scholarship has produced increasingly compendious anthologies: the likes of Chambers, Malone Society Collections, and other early twentieth-century publications that offer a huge scope of documents in editions or appendices; the extraordinary Records for Early English Drama (REED) at Toronto, from whom we are thrilled to host a blog about their new online presence; English Professional Drama, 1530-1660 (eds Herbert Berry, William Ingram, and Glynne Wickham). These collections are invaluable, but thinking about them in light of HP’s floating scraps shows starkly how excerpts are themselves not neutral—even if they sometimes appear to us in publication formats that minimise the impact of elisions through quiet ellipsis or headings such as “extract from…”.

Yet exclusions are essential, as no matter how compendious a collection aims to be, it cannot include all relevant material and inevitably loses most or all contextual information. I am not interested in (or in agreement with) criticising the practice of editing and printing excerptions and extracts, and it would be “ungenerous,” as Pamela King has recently pointed out in a review in the TLS of REED Civic London to 1558, to criticise the likes of REED for “not doing what it never set out to do”: “When REED began its work, it was a scholarly imperative to distinguish drama from other forms of, largely literary, texts. REED was in the vanguard for its inclusion of performances, such as minstrelsy, which never had written scripts to make them identifiable as ‘plays’. [. . .] Editorial selection is of itself a critical intervention, and paritcularly so when records from a variety of sources are extracted out of context” (“Unbroken REED”; 26 May 2017, pg 33).

Excerpts, then, also present a particular angle on (and give a particular weight to) a given event, payment, figure, etc. (and even with the bounty of digital resources at our fingertips, not all that context is easily reclaimed by scholars who do not have access to, say, the un-digitised All Hallows account books from the 1520s). All histories have to take scissors to the evidence—which never exists as a seamless narrative—in order to glue points together or to present a thematised collection. The square brackets and ellipses in the likes of REED are narratives and “cuttings” in themselves.

The scraps, as they appear in HP’s folders at the Folger, also suggest that evidence does not exist in a vacuum, and most certainly does not survive in one. HP’s motivation in collecting these materials, as well as his statements explicitly bequeathing them in his will, ensured their survival; they are then passed down to us through a series of financial and institutional transactions (see, for instance, the provenance on the Folger finding aid page).

These issues, of course, pertain to any form of history, though perhaps theatre history has its own peculiarities. The discipline, by its very definition, reads the past by treating playing or theatre as discrete categories for investigation. Theatre history is defined by its shifting investments in the literary, social, and cultural value of theatre and performance, and this in turn shapes the questions we ask of the period. The sense of theatre as a self-evident category is something of an anachronism in a period where it sits alongside (and not always separate from) a wealth of recreational pursuits and social regulation. (Again, Pamela King reminds us that shaping a category of “performance” from the archive was itself an important critical development in the 1970s that opened up focus onto records of non-“literary” events.)  Yet in terms of historicising performances and excerpts alike, it’s important to revisit scholarly categories—especially when, as this project does, we ask questions such as “why did playhouses begin to open in the 1570s?” Michael West explores, in an essay out later this year, how Elizabethans were only beginning to start thinking about plays, playing, and playgoing as distinct things by questioning the notion of “going to a play” (“Were There Playgoers in the 1580s?” out later this year in Andy Kesson’s special issue of Shakespeare Studies on the 1580s). Sometimes records and acts talk about playing as their chief point; at other times, plays are part of wider concerns (as in the 53 clauses in the Act of Common Council of 1579 “Ffor reliefe of the poore & for settinge to worke of vagrant people,” only the last few points of which concern the “hauntinge of plaies & other ylle & wicked pastimes and exercises” [LMA JORS 20, 498v, 606r]. In sermons and pamphlets, playing is often talked of in the same breath as bearbaiting, prostitution, drinking, gambling, bowling, and other activities.

Indeed, theatre history is increasingly interested in its disciplinary quiddity, and William Ingram has written (in an excellent and open-access essay) about the need for and growing development of theoretical consciousness in the discipline, through an exploration of theatre history’s relationship to cultural and social history (and to fiction) (“Introduction: Early Modern Theater History: Where Are We Now, How We Got Here, Where We Go Next,” The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theatre [OUP, 2011]).

HP’s scraps and “excerpts” also beg reverse questions about what evidence is and how we might find further potential evidence or possibilities from what survives, and from what doesn’t. What if, rather than reducing to scraps, one is seeking to assemble scraps from little to no surviving material? These questions were raised and discussed at the latest Shakespeare Association of America meeting during the exciting and provocative Lost Plays seminar (7 April 2017), which explored the methodological issues involved in talking about what isn’t there (see also the publication and the Lost Plays Database). William Ingram raised the point that many of these questions are not problems to be solved, but are the very stuff of theatre history.

We are also working with “scraps” on the present project—surviving possible-play fragments such as Peele’s Hunting of Cupid, for example—which we have begun to workshop with participants at Mary Baldwin University, Staunton, Virginia (April 2017) and will be working more closely with in forthcoming workshops with James Wallace and The Dolphin’s Back. These texts have undergone their own HP-esque scissor-cutting, surviving in extracts in commonplace books and in printed miscellanies and anthologies of the period. Is there a relationship between the excerpting or cutting of contemporary readers and that of later theatre historians? How do you workshop, perform, or stage “scraps”? These are questions we will be tackling, in part, over the next year of the project; perhaps readers of this blog will have thoughts or suggestions.


We’re all working from “The fragments, scraps, the bits and greasy relics” (Troilus 5.2.3211) of the past. One of the exciting things to see when sifting through the paper sleeves of a great Victorian scholar in the Folger is the wealth of types of evidence that inform our narratives, the idiosyncrasies underpinning them, and above all the curiosity that drives our interest.

This seems to be a freshly self-reflexive time, methodologically, (even theoretically, as per Ingram’s piece), for projects like ours and those mentioned above—something all the conversations in the Lost Plays seminar proved in abundance—and HP’s “scraps” at the Folger, in their commingled layers of history, scholarship, and media, stand at an intersection of some of these current scholarly issues. “Going electric,” as in the move online from REED and other new and evolving digital projects, also opens up an array of possible connections that will allow us to navigate and “use” evidence in a new way. Interlinked and multi-indexed digital projects will no doubt give us the potential for a new wealth of narrative, contextual, and comparative possibilities that will again reshape the use and presentation of “scraps.”

Callan Davies


[1] Shelfmarks included in images at top in pencil or otherwise supplied in caption; images are taken by me and are of material housed at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington DC.

8 thoughts on “Shakespeare in Scraps: Halliwell-Phillipps and Theatre History

  1. Pingback: ‘barren of all interpretative comment’ | Before Shakespeare

  2. Hi Callan/Before Shakespeare team – not your fault but the introductory chapter you talk about from The Oxford Handbook wasn’t by Dutton (it’s editor) but by Bill Ingram, in fact. Pretty sure that’s right… All best, Eva.


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