Finding Shakespeare at the Library of Congress

The following is a guest post by Abby Yochelson, English and American Literature Reference specialist at the Library of Congress’s Main Reading Room, Humanities and Social Sciences Division. This is the second in a small series of blog posts on Shakespeare at the Library of Congress.

Main Reading Room. Portrait statue of Shakespeare along the balustrade. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division.

Main Reading Room. Portrait statue of Shakespeare along the balustrade. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington, D.C. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/highsm.02099

Sometimes it’s possible to feel a little insecure about our Shakespeare holdings as we reside right next door to the Folger Shakespeare Library. While the Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, the Folger has the world’s largest collection of materials relating to Shakespeare and his works. We are proud to hold two copies of the First Folio; the Folger has 82 copies, far surpassing the British Library with a mere five. The First Folio was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, with most of his plays gathered in this large volume. Many of his plays were printed for the first time in this collection, which is actually titled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, though First Folio has stuck as a nickname.

The Library of Congress does, however, have some unique material so that the Folger borrows items from us from time to time for their exhibits. Their current exhibit, “Shakespeare’s America,” includes materials from the “Voodoo Macbeth.”  A recent post on Folger’s Shakespeare & Beyond blog describes Orson Welles’ sensational production of Macbeth in Harlem in 1936 as part of the Federal Theatre Project. The Federal Theatre Project (1935-1939) was one of five arts-related projects established during the first term of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The Library of Congress’s Music Division is the home of this rich collection of scripts, programs, posters, production notebooks, and costume and set designs.

Junius Brutus Booth, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, as "Brutus." Prints and Photographs Division.

Junius Brutus Booth, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, as “Brutus.” //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a44723

Back in 2007, The Library of Congress had its own small display of “Shakespeare in America.” drawing on materials from many different parts of this institution. The Music Division has the extensive papers of composers Cole Porter and Leonard Bernstein. Their collections include outlines, correspondence, notes, lyrics, and music to the popular 20th century Shakespeare musical adaptations Kiss Me Kate and West Side Story.

While Cole Porter and Leonard Bernstein collections reside in the Music Division, a number of famous actors’ papers are archived in our Manuscript Division. Charlotte Cushman, Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, and Junius Brutus Booth (father of John Wilkes Booth) were all famous for their Shakespeare roles.

Stand not upon the order of your going, but go at once. Shakespeare, Macbeth 3-4. Enlist now. Prints and Photographs Division.

“Stand not upon the order of your going, but go at once. Shakespeare, Macbeth 3-4. Enlist now.” [WWI Recruitment Poster] //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g10928

A quick search of the Prints and Photographs Division’s online catalog on the word Shakespeare brings up a wealth of engravings, photographs of famous actors in costume, posters, and political cartoons. Famed cartoonist Herbert Lawrence Block, whose drawings comprise the Division’s Herblock Collection, drew on lines from Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Henry V and other plays for his captions.

The Library of Congress also holds a vast number of newspapers not found at the Folger. While many newspapers still are found in paper or microfilm or through subscription databases on our premises, Chronicling America is freely available. Libraries nationwide are digitizing newspapers that appeared from 1836-1922. Want to see just how popular Charlotte Cushman was? A search on her name brings almost 2800 entries–advertisements, reviews, and notices of upcoming plays. Searching on the word Shakespeare brings 169,678 entriesprimary source proof that he was the most popular playwright in the United States in the 19th century.

The Library of Congress also has more than 200 Shakespeare-related films and television programs; we have the only copy known to exist for some of these items.

As for the number of books we have about William Shakespeare–that’s a topic for another blog post! In the meantime, if you have any questions about the Library’s Shakespeare holdings, please feel free to contact me through my division’s Ask a Librarian service.

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