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ENGL 3000 Shakespeare for Non-Majors, an Introduction to Shakespearean Works Held in the Rare Books Collection

This guide highlights works Shakespearean and related early modern works held by the Rare Books Collection, Rare and Distinctive Collections.

The Mercator Atlas

Gerhard Mercator, Gerardi Mercatoris atlas sive cosmographicae meditationes de fabrica mundi et fabricati figura (1630)
Rare Books Collection, Rare and Distinctive Collections, CU Boulder Libraries

Though renowned for his cartographic skills and his innovative projection that improved navigation at sea, the Flemish cartographer Gerhard Mercator (c. 1594) traveled little.  He depended upon scholar and correspondents around the globe, including Elizabeth mathematician, astrologer, and courtier, John Dee, who promoted Mercator's work in the English court, encouraging exploration to the east by way of an as yet undiscovered northern sea passage that would avoid the potential for piracy and conflict to the East. 

Etched and hand-painted - the painting in the early years done by Mercator's wife and daughters - the atlas provides a window into late sixteenth-century and early seventeenth-century understanding of the world. 

Although it's difficult to be certain that Shakespeare was able to study Mercator's great atlas, Leonard Digges (1588-1635), Elizabethan and Jacobian courtier and admirer of Shakespeare, owned a volume of the atlas, which he donated to his college, Oxford.  

Castiglione's Courtyer


               Baldessare Castiglione, The Covrtyer (1577)
Rare Books Collection, Rare and Distinctive Collections, CU Boulder Libraries


Count of Casatico Baldassare Castigione (d. 1529) was an Italian ambassador, diplomat, soldier, and, beginning in 1504, resident in the court of Urbino.  The Covrtyer, first published by the Aldine Press in 1528, remained immensely popular in courts across sixteenth-century Europe. 

Elizabethan courtier and poet Edward de Vere, the seventeenth earl of Oxford sponsored Bartholomew Clerke's Latin translation and Latin foreword.  The English edition of 1577, translated by Thomas Hoby, became just one source for Shakespeare.

This copy is a translation of Castiglione’s Courtier by Englishman Thomas Hoby.  It set standards of social behavior for the English aristocracy and was read or owned by contemporaries of Shakespeare:  politician and philosopher Francis Bacon; playwright Ben Jonson; and James I.   

Castiglione's residence at Urbino shaped his thought on the ideal courtier.  Philosophical conversation presided over by Elisabetta Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino, and her sister-in-law, Emilia Pia, centered on questions of what constituted the perfect courtier or the ideal Renaissance gentleman and woman.  Read a little of his recommendations for courtiers and gentlewomen trying to navigate the challenges of court above. 

A full scan of the Rare Books Collection's copy of Castiligione's Courtyer is available here.    

Saviolo, His Practice ... The Use of the Rapier and the Dagger


Vincentio Saviolo, His Practice (1595)
Rare Books Collection, Rare and Distinctive Collection, CU Boulder Libraries



Vincentio Saviolo, a swordsman and writer on fencing, was born in Padua. After arriving in England, he established a school located in rooms under what became the second Blackfriars playhouse. 

In 1595 he issued Vincentio Saviolo, his practise, in two bookes, the first intreating of the use of the rapier and dagger;  the second, of honour and honourable quarrels, the first manual on fencing to be published in England. Saviolo enjoyed the patronage of Robert, earl of Essex, whom he described ‘the English Achilles.’

Saviolo’s worked may have influenced Shakespeare.  He described ‘On the manner and diversitie of lies,’ which has been seen a possible source for the seven kinds of lies described by Touchstone in Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It.’ 

Of honour and honourable quarrels, seen above, includes an interesting passage on the nobility of women, which lavishly praises Queen Elizabeth.  He writes: ‘These lines therefore shalbe adorned and honoured with the name of this most glorious Princesse Elizabeth our gracious Queen, whose fame hath built her towers of triumphes, even in Countries farthest removed from her, and forced her very enemies in the storme of their malice and spite to praise her name, to admire her mercifulnes and wisdom, and to feare her power: this is such a manifest and worthy example of womanly worthiness and feminine perfection, that the perfectest men must by truths enforcement acknowledge themselves most unperfect …’

A full scan of the Rare Books Collection's copy of Vicentio Saviolo's work is available here.   

Gerard's Herball

John Gerard, The Herball or General Historie of Plants (1636)
Rare Books Collection, Rare and Distinctive Collections

Herbalist John Gerard (c.1545–1612) served as superintendent of the gardens of William Cecil, Lord Burghley in the Strand and as curator for the physic garden owned by the College of Physicians.  Gerard’s Herball, or, Generall Historie of Plants Gathered by John Gerarde of London was dedicated to Lord Burghley. 

Writing in 2015, historian Mark Griffith proposed that the dashing figure that appears on the title page of Gerard’s earlier, 1598 edition is none other than a thirty-three-year-old William Shakespeare.  Both Gerard and Shakespeare were indebted to Lord Burghley for their careers and would have moved in the same circles. 

The Rare Books Collection holds both the 1633 and the 1636 editions.  A fully digitized scan of the 1633 edition of Gerard's Herball is available here. 

Shakespeare's many references to plants and herbs can be found in the Herball, which includes detailed discussion of the virtues - both real and legendary - of each plant.  The page above is open to the mandrake (left) and Henbane (right). 

More commonly known for the plant's screeching properties heard in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the mandrake was used by Shakespeare in Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Henry IV.  The playwright employed henbane as a poison in Hamlet

Rare and Distinctive Collections


Classroom: Norlin N345

Reading Room: Norlin M350B



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