Notes scribbled in Free Library’s copy of Shakespeare were written by ‘Paradise Lost’ poet John Milton

A copy of a nearly 400-year old folio of plays by William Shakespeare in the Rare Book Department of the Free Library was found to have notes scribbled in the margins by the 17th century poet who wrote 'Paradise Lost,' John Milton. (Courtesy of the Free Library)

A copy of a nearly 400-year old folio of plays by William Shakespeare in the Rare Book Department of the Free Library was found to have notes scribbled in the margins by the 17th century poet who wrote 'Paradise Lost,' John Milton. (Courtesy of the Free Library)

A nearly 400 year-old folio of plays by William Shakespeare has been in the collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia for 75 years.

Suddenly, scholars around the world are sitting up and taking notice. A new discovery connecting the folio with poet John Milton is shaking up English literature majors worldwide.

The first folio is the first printing of a collection of Shakespeare plays, dating to 1623. There are 235 known to exist. The one in the Rare Book Department of the Free Library has a bunch of notes scribbled in the margins.

No one had been able to determine who wrote those annotations in the margins. The book was donated to the Free Library in 1944 by the descendants of celebrated book collector Harry Widener. Before that it was owned by the Belleroche family.

Before that, it gets fuzzy.

“You could call it a hazy provenance,” said Caitlin Goodman, a curator in the Free Library’s Rare Book Department.

Turns out, those notes were written by Milton, the 17th century poet who wrote “Paradise Lost.” The folio was apparently his personal copy, and he was working out his thoughts about Shakespeare.

A scholar at Cambridge University, Jason Scott-Warren, made the connection by analyzing the handwriting in a photo accompanying a paper by a Claire Bourne, a professor at Penn State.

It’s a very big deal.

A copy of a nearly 400-year old folio of plays by William Shakespeare in the Rare Book Department of the Free Library was found to have notes scribbled in the margins written by 17th century poet who wrote ‘Paradise Lost,’ John Milton. This image features a prologue to Romeo and Juliet in John Milton’s hand. (Courtesy of the Free Library)

“Because Milton is so deeply inspired by Shakespeare, I think then you can do a whole new reading of the annotations with an eye to Milton’s work, Milton’s travels, and what he was doing with his life and career at the time,” said Goodman.

The work of analysis is not finished. Goodman says the handwriting varies slightly over the length of the book. Milton may have continued to make notes in the book as his handwriting aged, or there is more than one author of the marginalia.

The Free Library is expecting a clamoring of academics requesting a private audience with the folio to study its annotations, but not before the public gets a chance to see it. For the next four weeks it will be on display in the Rare Book room at the Parkway Central branch.

“The Rare Book Department is part of the public library,” said Goodman. “Our first priority is to the public.”

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