James Halliwell-Phillipps video transcript

James Halliwell-Phillipps was a pioneering Shakespearean scholar. Working independently, he built up great collections of early printed books. But his handling of them would raise eyebrows today. He had no qualms about cutting out pages and pasting them into scrapbooks, assembling a single complete copy of a book from surviving fragments, and mixing real and facsimile pages.

For Halliwell-Phillipps, collecting books was a means to an end. He scoured the country seeking out neglected sources which might shed light on the playwrightʼs life. He bought many copies of early editions of the plays, to help him compare, or collate, them with each other. As he wrote to the great Scottish antiquarian and librarian David Laing, ʻIt is of such immense importance to me to have the early quarto Shakespeares in my own hands for collation, I hope you will kindly excuse my asking you to bear me in mind should you hear of any for sale, either perfect or imperfect. I am willing to give the wildest prices.ʼ

In 1865, Halliwell-Phillipps sought Laingʼs help again with a particularly delicate request. To aid him in his studies, he was making facsimiles of all the surviving early editions of Shakespeareʼs plays. Of one edition, the 1600 second quarto of Titus Andronicus, he could find no copy other than that kept in the library of the University of Edinburgh. Might Laing help him to secure a loan of this exceptionally rare and valuable item? Laing agreed to help, and the book was transported to Halliwell-Phillippsʼs London home for three months in early 1866.

This generosity was not forgotten. Six years later, Halliwell-Phillipps wrote a letter to the Principal of the University in which he declared, ʻI am anxious, with your kind permission, to have the honour of founding a Shakespearian library in the beautiful city of Edinburghʼ.

The University accepted, and became the proud custodian of an exceptional collection of playbooks, including the Shakespeare quartos, and of 400 volumes of letters, scrapbooks, working papers and manuscripts.

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