What’s my line? Exploring promptbooks for Othello

A shelf full of promptbooks for 'Othello' in the Folger vault
A shelf full of promptbooks for ‘Othello’ in the Folger vault

Museum Week, from July 19 – 25, is an international online event: museums, libraries, archives, and other institutions around the world share their collections with their followers and with each other. Each of the seven days has a theme: today, it’s #BooksMW.

There are lots of books at the Folger—about 160,000 printed books and 60,000 manuscripts. In addition to those, the collection also has 2,000 promptbooks, a treasure trove for scholars of Shakespeare performance.

Promptbooks are marked copies of plays prepared for professional productions. Thanks to books like these, we can peer into the minds of theater-makers from more than 300 years ago and see how they imagined the play. Which scenes did they like, and which scenes did they think they would be better off without? Did Iago enter from stage left or stage right? Where did Othello stand when he explained to the Duke how he’d won Desdemona’s love? These books are among the best evidence we have of details of staging, effects, costumes, and cuts and adaptations of the text—elements that add up to the practitioner’s interpretation of the play.

Here’s a copy of the third folio—the third collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays—that also served as a promptbook for a Dublin production of Othello in the 1670s. It’s one of the earliest promptbooks in our collection. The hash marks indicate characters’ entrances; a large section containing Desdemona’s willow song is marked for deletion. According to Denise A. Whalen, curator of the Folger’s 2014 exhibition Here is a Play Fitted, critics at this time found Desdemona’s tune a bit “maudlin,” and later acting editions would cut the entire scene.

Promptbook for a production of 'Othello' from the 1670s.
Promptbook for a production of ‘Othello’ from the 1670s.

 

More than 200 years later, Paul Robeson would make history as the first modern African-American man to play the role of Othello. This promptbook features detailed notes from that 1930 London production, which featured Robeson opposite white actress Peggy Ashcroft—an instance of mixed-race casting that would have been unthinkable at the time in the United States of America. Robeson would go on to play Othello on Broadway in 1943, in a production that would set the record as the longest-running Shakespeare play on Broadway.

Not all of our promptbooks are quite so old. At the end of every theater season, Folger Theatre sends its stage managers’ promptbooks to be incorporated into the collection. Here’s another promptbook for Othello, this one from a 2011 production right here on the Folger’s stage, directed by Robert Richmond and stage managed by Che Wernsman.

Promptbook for Folger Theatre's 2011 production of 'Othello'
Promptbook for Folger Theatre’s 2011 production of ‘Othello’

Of course, the Folger has promptbooks for your favorite comedies as well. One of our favorites is this promptbook for Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s 1911 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Tree was so dedicated to creating an immersive illusion onstage that the production featured live rabbits that hopped around the stage throughout the action. According to Whalen, the rabbits were meant to follow trails of bran around the stage. In the first scene of Act 2, Tree directed a “fairy child” to catch up to one of the bunnies and pull its tail. Never let anyone tell you that acting is easy.

Promptbook for Herbert Beerbohm Tree's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
Promptbook for Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (featuring a rabbit).

If you’re a university student or a scholar, you might have subscription access through your institution to Shakespeare in Performance, our digital collection of all of the Folger’s promptbooks. Take a look and see what bizarre stagings and notes you can find. Want to see more of our promptbooks? Check out this blog post from The Collation, which features some unusual bindings.

One Comment


  • hi Ben,

    Do you have more details about that production of Othello in Dublin in the 1670s? I can’t find anything online and it triggered my curiosity. Many thanks in advance!


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