A mulberry tree and other Shakespeare bindings

By Esther Ferington

Among the curious items in the Will & Jane exhibition is a 19th-century edition of Shakespeare’s works in an unusual binding.

A small frame in the binding’s front cover encloses a piece of wood, described in an inscription as “Part of the Mulberry Tree Planted by Wm. Shakespeare.” Needless to say, no single tree could supply the wood for all of the items that are said to be made from Shakespeare’s mulberry tree. Yet the binding is an intriguing example of the posthumous celebrity that is examined by Will & Jane, known in Shakespeare’s case as bardolatry.

Shakespeare mulberry tree binding.
PR2752 1821c copy 1 Sh.Col., front outside cover. Folger Shakespeare Library.

The book is also just one item from the Folger’s vast collection of 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century Shakespeare editions. For years, these editions were challenging to research, cataloged in an on-site card catalog and printed index with few details. They were recataloged online through a multi-year NEH-funded project, described in 2011 on The Collation.

In a recent farewell interview, we talked with Georgianna Ziegler, Louis B. Thalheimer Associate Librarian and Head of Reference Emerita, about this collection of Shakespeare editions and the hidden gems among them. As a reference librarian and Shakespearean, Ziegler took a keen interest in this part of the Folger collection.

Q. Tell me about the later Shakespeare editions in the collection, those published after 1700.

In 1999, when I was on sabbatical, I went through all of the Victorian editions of Shakespeare at the Folger, sitting down in the vault on a high ladder and looking at them, pulling them off the shelves. This was well before we had recataloged the collection. There were a lot of things there that people didn’t know we had, or forgot we had. And so, I knew about some particularly interesting, lovely copies.

We showed some of them in The Curatorial Eye (a 2009 exhibition in which cases were curated by different staff members). I did two cases on the Shakespeare editions. One case had “association copies”—copies owned by figures like President Franklin Roosevelt, actress Ellen Terry, and actor Edwin Booth. For the other case, I picked out interestingly bound editions of Shakespeare, which I had come across when browsing the collection.

Q. I noticed another edition in an interesting binding in Shakespeare’s the Thing, which you curated—a binding with a piece of wood embedded in the cover.

Yes, there was a piece of the “True Cross”—Shakespeare’s mulberry tree—in one of the bindings in Shakespeare’s the Thing in 2014. It’s actually out in the Will & Jane exhibition now, too.

In 2014, of course, the exhibition was about 1564—that is, 2014 was the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth in 1564. Caryn Lazzuri, the former exhibitions manager, and I did Shakespeare’s the Thing. But we sort of “crowdsourced” that. We thought it would be interesting with that exhibition to ask people who work here, What was the most interesting or unusual Shakespeare item they liked from the collection? What stood out?

We ended up getting some very interesting responses. Carrie Smith, in Cataloging, suggested this mulberry tree binding, which she had cataloged. We’d had a big push to get our Shakespeare Collection all cataloged online under a grant project. And so a couple of people who were involved with that had suggestions of things to include.

Shakespeare mulberry tree binding.
PR2752 1821c copy 1 Sh.Col., front outside cover. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Q. As you said, it’s on exhibition now in Will & Jane, for which you’ve been the Folger liaison with the exhibition curators, Janine Barchas and Kristina Straub.

In Will & Jane, of course, it’s the cult of celebrity, which is so big for both of them. The two outside curators are really the ones who chose the materials and planned the exhibition.

It was very interesting working with them and seeing the amazing parallels between the afterlives of Shakespeare and Jane Austen, and how they each gave rise to all of this extra literature. People want continuations, they want rewrites, they want statues, they want dolls, they want all kinds of things—Band-Aids, air fresheners, you name it. There’s so much associated with both of these authors.

I can’t think of another author in English, not even Dickens, who has quite taken on the way Jane Austen has, outside of Shakespeare—becoming famous and loved, together. And so it makes sense that the curve of fame for both is very similar, with the movies and the spin-offs, and all of these things.

These stories are from an interview with Georgianna Ziegler, Louis B. Thalheimer Associate Librarian and Head of Reference Emerita, some of which appears in the Summer/Fall 2016 issue of Folger Magazine. The magazine is complimentary for members of the Folger.

Esther Ferington conducted the interview with Georgianna Ziegler.