Illustrating Shakespeare: Three witches on the heath

Folger Finds delivers delightful and insightful moments with the Folger collection. Sarah Hovde, a cataloger at the Folger Shakespeare Library, shows us some surprise artwork in a 1910 edition of Macbeth.

When cataloging a rare book, librarians try to balance describing the things that are identical to every copy of that book (like the publisher, the number of pages, the name of the editor), and the things that make a library’s particular copy unique (such as special bindings, autographs and marginal annotations, or missing pages). This is especially important at the Folger, where many of our readers study these small differences to learn more about printing and publishing in the early modern world.

The two copies of a 1910 French edition of Macbeth shown below highlight a range of differences between both an individual copy of a book and the entire edition of which it is a part. This edition was produced in 1910 as part of ‘Ouvrages de Maurice Maeterlinck’ (“Works of Maurice Maeterlinck”), a series featuring the work of playwright and translator Maurice Maeterlinck.

Macbeth (1910) copies 1-2

The copy shown on the left is a standard copy, bound in a publisher’s paper wrapper with all pages neatly trimmed. The copy on the right, though, is clearly something special. It has marbled boards (the paper or wood cover of the book) with luxurious leather spine and corners, and more striking marbling on its endpapers (the pages between the cover and the text block). We can see even before opening it that the pages have not all been trimmed to equal size – many extend far beyond the body of the text.

These two copies are a great example of the multiple forms a set of printed pages can take after they are published, and the things that can make a individual copy of a book unique. In the early days of the hand-operated printing press, books were often produced as a set of loose pages, as they could be sold and transported more easily that way. The publisher would have a small number of books bound in a basic paper wrapper, but generally preferred to leave the cost of a fancier cover to the individual buyer; all binding was done by hand at this point, and could get very expensive.

As the publishing trade matured and mass production technologies such as machine-operated printing presses were widely adopted around the beginning of the nineteenth century, it became more affordable for publishers to produce books with paper covers as the default option. As shown above, though, some book owners still preferred a more elaborate presentation than a simple paperback.

Opening that elaborate leather-bound copy, we find that someone made good use of the wider pages.

Three witches on the heath (Actus Primus)

Following the list of characters, the title page for the first act is entirely taken over by a striking watercolor-and-pencil scene of the three witches on the heath, colored in atmospheric purples and greys. This added artwork evokes the eighteenth-century practice of “extra-illustration,” wherein book owners would enrich their personal copies with newspaper clippings, letters, illustrations, and other items related to the text. (You can read more about extra-illustrated books, and see digitized examples from the Folger collection, in this page on Extending the Book: the Art of Extra-Illustration, an exhibit organized and hosted by the Folger in 2010.)

Macbeth (1910) witch at far right closeup

At the bottom left is the signature of Carlos Schwabe, a Swiss painter and printmaker involved with the Symbolist art movement. Is this illustration really by Schwabe? It does seem likely: the signature matches Schwabe’s signature on many of his other works, although the final “E” is missing or obscured, and Schwabe and Maeterlinck were associates (Schwabe provided illustrations for Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas and Mélisande, among other collaborations).

Schwabe signature closeup

You might have taken notes, highlighted, or doodled in your own copies of Shakespeare. Were any of your drawings this elaborate?

One Comment


  • …darkness and doom…”how now secret, black and midnight hags” Macbeth pronounces in greeting, on first meeting with the three evil witches screeching into their cauldron of loathsome brew, on the desolate rain swept heath, thunder rumbling overhead… stark encounter….evoking such an impending and ominous sense of grim foboding, which casts a pall over the rest of the play. With elements of witchcraft and sorcery implied and aptly introduced the ‘darkness’ of the Tragedie is almost certain… the Folgers watercolor illustration is rather good, imaginatively depicting a coven….purple heather in the foreground, heavy rain clouds staining a dissolute sky, white hair flowing maniacally in the brisk winds…I tended to picture the witches somewhat more gnarled, bent over and gaunt and of aspect more sinister….while I did not doodle or draw in my Shakespeare texts, for lack of space, I did fill pages with many highlights, close scribbles and heavy margin notes….


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