Senate House Library treasures volume: Featuring old clothes and Shakespearean contemporaries

Charles Lamb’s Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare (1808) is a compilation of extracts of plays, each preceded by a brief contextualisation of the extract. Represented dramatists include Beaumont and Fletcher, Philip Massinger (alone and in collaboration), James Shirley, Thomas Kyd, George Peele, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Decker, John Marston, George Chapman, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Middleton, William Rowley, John Webster and some who have dropped into obscurity: Robert Tailor, Joseph Cooke, Cyril Tourneur, Robert Narrington and Edward Ravenscroft among others. The book was well received and ran into several further editions and reprints in the nineteenth century, from 1813, and the twentieth, when evidence of its canonical status was demonstrated by its choice as an Everyman classic. Versions appeared with further editorial intervention, by the essayist and biographer E. V. Lucas and by William Macdonald.

For Senate House Library, the first edition of a book edited by a significant literary personage dealing with Shakespeare’s contemporaries is inevitably significant, the Library having developed strong Shakespearean holdings ever since acquiring Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence’s library in 1929. In itself, the first edition of Lamb’s book is not rare, with at least thirteen copies recorded in institutional libraries in the United Kingdom. But the Senate House Library copy is a presentation one, inscribed by Lamb’s friend and fellow poet Robert Southey: ‘R. Southey from the Editor, Keswick. Aug. 6. 1808.’ It originally formed part of what Southey called his ‘Cottonian library’. The name paid joking homage to the seventeenth-century bibliophile Sir Robert Cotton, while referring to a collection of books bound by members of his family, using whatever materials they had to hand (such as old dresses previously worn by the Southey ladies) – in this instance, flowered beige calico cloth. The book is the most striking of eleven titles by Lamb to have been given to Senate House Library in early editions by Sir Louis Sterling.



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