Milton's Shakespeare: Penn State professor helps uncover rare treasure

Susan Burlingame
October 04, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — An edition of Shakespeare’s First Folio from 1623 almost certainly belonged to John Milton, author of “Paradise Lost.” A Penn State professor played a role in the discovery.

Claire M.L. Bourne, assistant professor of English, studied the annotated copy of “William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies,” commonly known as the First Folio, for nearly a decade. She first encountered the volume in the Rare Book Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia during her graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania. The folio was housed there since 1944 and was extensively used for classes and research.

Without knowing the owner of the book, Bourne said she examined hand-written margin notes the reader had added to suggest different word choices, correct meter, highlight a passage of particular interest, or even cross-reference with another work.

Bourne often used her Twitter social media account to post factoids, passages, articles and photos she found interesting. She also posted about her recently published article, “Vide Supplementum: Early Modern Collation as Play-Reading in the First Folio,” in Early Modern English Marginalia, a journal edited by Katherine Acheson of the University of Waterloo.

Meanwhile, Jason Scott-Warren, a scholar at the University of Cambridge, was looking for material to assign for a course he teaches. He sat down to peruse Early Modern English Marginalia and came upon Bourne’s article and thought he recognized the handwriting in Bourne’s photos as that of John Milton.

Via personal message on Bourne’s Twitter account and in a personal blog post, Scott-Warren made his bold assertion. Decrying the many claims that have been made about lost literary artifact discoveries, Scott-Warren threw caution to the wind and declared: “I’m going to make my own unwise pronouncement on the basis of just a few hours of research. I’m going to claim to have identified John Milton’s copy of the Shakespeare First Folio of 1623.”

Since then, other Milton scholars have corroborated Scott-Warren’s hypothesis, and the news has gone viral, igniting the interest of Milton and Shakespeare scholars all over the world. Almost immediately, the news sparked features in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Guardian, and media outlets in Italy, England and Mexico.

Renowned Miltonist David Loewenstein, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English and the Humanities at Penn State, is in the process of editing two editions of “Paradise Lost” for the new Oxford University Press edition of "The Complete Works of John Milton." Loewenstein called the discovery “absolutely remarkable” and said the volume may very well be the Milton family’s copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, passed from father to son. John Milton senior was well-known in music and theater circles and was a trustee of the Blackfriar Theatre Company where many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed.

“If this indeed is Milton’s annotated copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, and it’s looking more and more like it is, we will have a better sense of how Milton engaged with Shakespeare’s plays early in his life,” Loewenstein said. “Here we have the greatest epic poet in English literature reading and annotating the works of the greatest playwright in English literature. It is a significant discovery for literary history.”  

While admittedly overwhelmed and excited about the discovery, Bourne is quick to claim only a small role.

“I love that collaboration led to the discovery,” she said, citing the contributions of Acheson, Scott-Warren, and the staff members at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Bourne also touted the power of social media in bringing the discovery to light.

“Twitter is an amazing resource. It exposes you to materials you never knew to look for,” she said. “And in this case, social media is creating an intellectual community that connects scholars and students to two of the most canonical figures of the past.”

“Just as the news about Milton’s annotations of Shakespeare has gone viral, it has caused quite a stir all over Penn State’s English Department,” said Department Head Mark Morrisson. “This new discovery makes the relationship between two of the most towering figures in English literature intimate and material. My colleagues and I are so excited that Claire Bourne, a rising star in Early Modern literary scholarship, was involved in this major discovery. I look forward to seeing what Bourne, our Miltonist colleague David Loewenstein, and others in the field learn from these annotations about Milton and about 17th-century reading practices.”

The Rare Book Department of the Free Library is displaying the First Folio for public viewing until Oct. 19, along with other items related to William Shakespeare and, of course, John Milton, including a first edition of Milton’s master work “Paradise Lost.”

Bourne and Scott-Warren, not known to each other before Milton’s Shakespeare brought them together, plan to collaborate on additional research.

  • MiltonJulietandRomeo

    Among the hundreds of other annotations in the Free Library of Philadelphia's copy of the Shakespeare First Folio, John Milton also copied out the prologue to "Romeo & Juliet," which is missing from the printed text.

    IMAGE: Claire M.L. Bourne
Last Updated October 17, 2019