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Digital Beaumont & Fletcher About the Book

About the Book

by Taylor Hare and David LeBlanc

The Pennsylvania State University Libraries’ copy of Comedies and Tragedies, a large folio volume published in 1647 by Humphrey Moseley and Humphrey Robinson with an overall attribution to the writing partnership of Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher, stands out as an important historical and scholarly artifact. The edition contains 35 previously-unpublished theatrical works (34 plays and one masque), many of them written solo by Beaumont or Fletcher or in collaboration with playwrights in Fletcher's circle, most notably Philip Massinger. The book was published five years after public performance in London had been officially shut down and was marketed as a means of keeping theatrical culture alive, at least in the readerly imagination. 

Three of the plays in PSU Libraries' copy of this remarkable book — A Wife for a Month, The Spanish Curate, and The Loyal Subject — are annotated for performance by an early modern hand, making this folio utterly unique and of particular interest to both book and theater historians. The folio is not simply a collection of abstract texts (i.e., a series of “plays”); it is a sui generis object. This object has its own history, characteristics, and idiosyncrasies — it is a material book with its own story. The account of its history and physical attributes that follows is devoted to exploring that story. 

If you would like to see the folio in person, it can be viewed by registered researchers and guests in PSU’s Eberly Family Special Collections Library.

The entry for Comedies and Tragedies is available in PSU Libraries' online catalogue.

Cover-to-cover digital images of Comedies and Tragedies can also be viewed by anyone via the library's digital collection. 



The scribal annotations that appear in three of the folio's playtexts hint at the book’s previous use. The most prominent of these annotations, written in ink by an early hand, consist largely of calls for characters (i.e., the actors playing the named characters) to “be ready” in anticipation of an entrance onto the stage. Corresponding entrances are often noted with one or more cross-hatched lines.[1] In addition, the annotator occasionally notes the need to ready certain props. In the case of A Wife for a Month, they also mark several passages with long, vertical brackets, perhaps to indicate dialogue that could be cut in performance. Overall, the annotator’s emphasis on marking stage business suggests that the PSU folio could very well have played a role in theatrical performance. 

The folio also contains numerous emendations in a second early hand. These annotations, most of which are made in pencil, alter the printed dialogue of the play, providing more accurate readings of textual moments or correcting obvious misprints. We have collated these corrections with changes found in the 1679 second folio (Fifty Comedies and Tragedies, Wing B1582) and the 1711 collected works published by Jacob Tonson, yet neither edition corresponds exactly to the hand-written corrections found in PSU’s folio. This implies the corrector either worked from memory or corrected based on their own close-reading of the playtexts. 


Previous scholars have used the annotations found in the book as the basis for arguments about the folio’s theatrical function and history. In 1979, James P. O’Donnell observed that the mark-up found in the folio is only partially complete. That the annotations remain sparse and inconsistent relative to other early modern prompt-books made from printed texts leads him to suggest that this folio was either annotated quickly or, alternatively, that the annotations represent the early stages in a process of preparing the text for theatrical performance that was later abandoned.[2] In 1981, Edward A. Langhans built upon the supposition that the annotations represent a version of theatrical mark-up by proposing that the folio was intended for use by either John Rhodes’s Company in the period immediately following the Interregnum (during which Rhodes tried and ultimately failed to secure a legal and successful theater company) or later by the King’s Company.[3]  

Though the full context of the performance annotations found in the PSU folio is still largely a mystery, it is worth considering a few other theatrical/performance contexts for the book beyond those suggested by Langhans and O’Donnell. 

The Duke’s Company. Because of the folio’s association with Lincoln’s Inn Fields at the beginning of the eighteenth century (through the bookplate and previous owners' signatures, as discussed below), it is possible the folio had connections to the company managed by Sir William Davenant: the Duke of York’s Company. Davenant famously leased and renovated Lisle’s Tennis Court near Lincoln’s Inn, converting it into what would become known as the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre. The company moved into this converted space in June 1661. Davenant had secured the exclusive rights to perform two of the folio’s three marked up plays — The Loyal Subject and The Spanish Curate — for two months starting on December 12, 1660.[4] It seems that The Spanish Curate  was performed at the company's temporary playing space on Salisbury Street on March 16, 1661 (notably, beyond the two-month time limit stipulated in the December 1660 performance warrant), just months before Davenant would move shop to Lincoln's Inn Fields.[5] The need to quickly ready the plays for performance during this short period could align with O’Donnell’s theory about the rapidity of the annotation process. Moreover, the book could have moved with the company's other material goods to the converted playing space at Lincoln's Inn Fields, where we know it had been acquired by a member of the Inn by 1703.  

Interregnum Performance. Yet another possibility is that this folio was marked up and/or used in the second half of the Interregnum for unsanctioned or private performances. This might explain why the annotations were made in a style that predates the style typical of Restoration promptbooks.[6] Hyder Rollins once suggested that former members of the King's Men and Beeston’s Boys, who were connected to the collection and printing of the folio, were also associated with performances of several Beaumont and Fletcher plays.[7] However, there were many other groups who are thought to have performed plays by Beaumont and Fletcher while the playhouses were officially closed and who could have annotated the folio for performance.[8] Of course, it is also possible that the folio was marked up for private amateur performance.  



The clearest and earliest connection we have between the folio and a real historical person is the bookplate and associated signature found on the folio's opening leaves. The bookplate, which reads, "Edward Goldesbrough / of Lincolns Inn Eſq^r. 1703," is pasted to the blank recto of the book's title page. He inscribed his name on the title page. Both markers of early provenance suggest that PSU’s copy of the folio was owned at one time by Goldesbrough, a lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn. So far, records associated with Goldesbrough have been hard to come by.[9] What we do know is that the book was in his possession sometime around 1703, perhaps a little earlier or a little later. Goldesbrough’s bookplate places his ownership around the time when the folio is thought to have been rebound for the first time, though it is not certain if Goldesbrough himself commissioned the rebinding.[10] It has not yet been determined from whom Goldesbrough received or bought the book, or to whom the folio passed either through sale or upon Goldesbrough’s death. We are following up several leads and will update this page with any new information. 


The inscription of a “James Webb” appears on the first page of The Mad Lover, the first play in the folio. There was also a James Webb admitted to Lincoln’s Inn on 3 March 1661/2, “son and heir app[arent] of John W., of Butleigh, Somerset.”[11] This individual may have been an early owner of the folio (and possibly the person who owned it before and bequeathed or sold it to Goldesbrough). Another James Webb of note — though not necessarily the same Webb admitted to Lincoln’s Inn — was one of several sons of John Webb, notable architect and adopted protegé of famous early modern architect Inigo Jones. Jones and John Webb were known book collectors and had connections with the people and places associated with early modern theatrical culture.[12] Both Jones and Webb regularly entertained and interacted with theater companies and their owners. The majority of John Webbs’s books — particularly those of his large library of architectural books — passed to his eldest son William. It is unknown if any books passed to his other children, including James. The possibility of the folio’s connection with the Webb family of architects is a tantalizing one, though more historical data would need to be rallied to support this theory. A different James Webb might also have owned the book after Goldesbrough. 


PSU’s acquisition and ownership of the folio is still being investigated. The folio was acquired by the first head and subsequent chair of the Eberly Family Special Collections Library, Dr. Charles W. Mann.[13] Mann acquired the folio sometime in the mid-20th century, most likely before 1974, though the acquisition records have yet to be found.[14] It is likely Mann purchased the folio from Bernard Quaritch Ltd, though this has yet to be verified. 

There is a small annotation in pencil at the bottom of the final printed page of the book. This annotation may be a shelfmark or inventory number from a previous seller (such as Quaritch), or it may be a lot number from an auction where the folio was up for sale. The precise nature of this annotation still needs to be determined. 


PSU Libraries’ copy of the Beaumont and Fletcher first folio has been rebound several times. During the process of digitizing the book, the most recent binding structure failed along the spine, prompting Dr. Bourne to ask for a full assessment of the book's material condition by the library's book conservators. Below is a summary of senior conservator Willam Minter's report on the book, including the history of these (re)construction efforts and their implications for understanding past uses of the book — and shaping how the book might be used by future students and scholars. 


The material and style of the original 17th-century binding suggest a relatively cheap binding process of trade quality. The book seems to have been originally bound in calfskin, a common binding material among early modern English binders. Of note is the inclusion of a second double fillet close to the spine (now only partially visible), dating this binding to the period between 1640 and 1680. From this dating and from the relatively well-preserved condition of the interior leaves of the copy, it is assumed the folio was bound not long after its printing. The front and back leather from the original binding was preserved and pasted to the outside of the folio when it was later rebound. 


Dating the folio’s first rebinding is difficult due to the common style and materials of the cover and spine. The minimalist style of the updated binding and spine — a calfskin wrap with blind border fillets and lacking any distinguishing fleurons, centrepiece, or stamps — was common throughout the late 17th and well into the 18th centuries.[15] The individual(s) who rebound the folio (or the individual who commissioned the rebinding) was committed enough to the historical and/or aesthetic significance of the volume to have preserved some of the original binding. Beyond this, the quality of the materials and style of the work suggests they did not spend exorbitant amounts of money on the rebinding effort. This suggests the rebinding was commissioned more for practical than aesthetic reasons.  


A purely cosmetic attempt to reback the binding in the mid-20th century compromised the integrity of the folio.[16] The sewn cords dating from when the book was initially rebound were cut and new cords were glued in their place. New binding material was then simply glued to the inside of the folio’s spine. Due to this strictly cosmetic repair, the integrity of the folio was compromised and failed during PSU’s digitization efforts. At the moment, the book's spine is completely cracked. The folio as a whole is scheduled for more robust repairs to be performed by the library’s conservation department. We will continue to update this page with information about this process.


[1] This kind of cross-hatched symbol is a common feature of seventeenth-century promptbooks. See G. Blakemore Evans, Shakespearean Prompt-Books of the Seventeenth Century, 22; Charles H. Shattuck, The Shakespeare Promptbooks: A Descriptive Catalogue, 15-16; and James P. O'Donnell, “Some Beaumont and Fletcher Prompt Annotations," 335.

[2] Preparing a prompt-book from a printed play was typically completed in a series of steps. For example, an annotator would begin by working through the play to mark up all the entrances and exits. The same or a different annotator might then mark up all the prop cues. This process would continue until all other cues that a book-keeper might need to facilitate performance from the back of the house were marked. As O’Donnell notes, PSU’s Beaumont and Fletcher folio shows that only the first and possibly second steps of performance mark-ups were made. 

[3] Langhans lays out his theory in Restoration Promptbooks, 3-21.

[4] Van Lennep, The London Stage, 1660-1800: A Calendar of Plays, Entertainments & Afterpieces, 22. 

[5] For the record of this performance of The Spanish Curate, see van Lennep, The London Stage, 26. 

[6] O’Donnell notes that the “be ready” annotations that characterize the interventions were somewhat dated by 1660. However, he also suggests these annotations were possibly made later by someone trained in an older style (337). 

[7] Rollins describes how a group of players performed illegally at Salisbury Court in the fall of 1648, printing play bills and hanging them publicly despite the prohibition of public performances (Rollins, "A Contribution to the History of the English Commonwealth Drama," 282-83).

[8] All these groups were known to have performed plays by Beaumont and Fletcher with some frequency in the decade following the publication of the 1647 folio (Rollins, 279-80).

[9] Compounding the challenge of identifying this individual in the historical record are the number of variations on the name Goldesbrough: Goldsbrough, Goldesburgh, Goldsburgh, and Goldesborough.

[10] PSU Libraries' senior book conservator William Minter dates the remnants of the book's (possibly) second binding to the turn of the eighteenth century ("Conservation Centre Assessment"). 

[11] See The Records of the Honorable Society of Lincoln’s Inn, vol. 1, 287.

[12] Pritchard, "A Source for the Lives of Inigo Jones and John Webb," 138.

[13] For an account of Mann’s career, see

[14] PSU Libraries’ original shelf list card for the folio has a code at the bottom reading “PSt-74.” The “74” is likely the date the card was created, meaning the folio must have been acquired either in (or prior to) 1974.

[15] Pearson, English Bookbinding Styles, 1450-1800, 94.

[16] Minter, "Conservation Centre Assessment."


Evans, G. Blakemore. Shakespearean Prompt-Books of the Seventeenth Century. Charlottesville: Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia, 1960. 

Langhans, Edward A. Restoration Promptbooks. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1981. 

Minter, William. "Conservation Centre Assessment: Comedies & Tragedies (1647)." University Park PA: PSU Libraries (December 6, 2019). 

O'Donnell, James P. “Some Beaumont and Fletcher Prompt Annotations.” The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 73 (1979): 334-37.

Pearson, David. English Bookbinding Styles, 1450-1800: A Handbook. London: The British Library, 2005.

Pritchard, Allan. "A Source for the Lives of Inigo Jones and John Webb." Architectural History 23 (1980): 138. 

Rollins, Hyder E. "A Contribution to the History of the English Commonwealth Drama." Studies in Philology 18.3 (1921): 267-333. 

Shattuck, Charles Harlen. The Shakespeare Promptbooks: A Descriptive Catalogue. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1965. 

The Records of the Honorable Society of Lincoln's Inn. London: Lincoln's Inn, 1896. 

Van Lennep, William. The London Stage, 1660-1800: A Calendar of Plays, Entertainments & Afterpieces Together with Casts, Box-Receipts and Contemporary Comment, vol. 1. Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968. 

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