For 75 years, the Free Library of Philadelphia has held a rare, annotated copy of a First Folio of William Shakespeare, one of just 233 in the world. But nobody knew who had made the notes in the margins, correcting typos and highlighting where Shakespeare deviated from iambic pentameter.

Until now, when a Cambridge University fellow and Penn State English professor revealed that the Free Library’s First Folio was likely annotated and owned by English poet John Milton.

Milton experts and curators of early books all over the world say that this could be one of the most important literary discoveries of our time.

While no expert will say with 100% certainty that the book, which includes 36 of Shakespeare’s plays, was owned and annotated by Milton, the evidence is highly convincing. The news was first reported by the Guardian, in connection with the Free Library of Philadelphia, who wrote about the findings on the library’s blog Monday.

Alice Dailey, an English professor at Villanova University who specializes in Shakespearean studies, said the find was “so huge that it’s hard to predict what sorts of things will become evidence as we study this text.”

“Two most significant writers of the 16th and 17th century talking, interacting, through the medium of this old book — it’s a remarkable opportunity to see how Milton read Shakespeare, get Milton’s reaction to Shakespeare," Dailey said. "That’s what we’re seeing through the annotations. It’s staggering to even comprehend because they are both such huge figures.”

In the Folio, the notes included a transcription of the prologue of Romeo and Juliet, which was published in the Second Folio, not the first. He also supplied the second verse to a song sung to Mariana in Measure for Measure, made corrections to misprints, and added edits when Shakespeare deviated from iambic pentameter

The Free Library’s rare book department will display the book through Oct. 19, along with other works by Shakespeare and a first edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost. It was last displayed in 2014 when the library celebrated Shakespeare’s 450th birthday.

The possibility of Milton’s ownership of the book, which was published in 1623, came to light when Cambridge University fellow Jason Scott-Warren read an article about the anonymous annotator by Claire Bourne, an assistant English professor at Penn State.

Bourne had encountered the Free Library’s First Folio when she was working on her Ph.D. in English at the University of Pennsylvania. A professor directed her attention to the book because of her interest in readers engaging with texts during the 16th and 17th centuries. Over the next decade, Bourne returned to the First Folio six or seven times, eventually publishing the article in Early Modern English Marginalia, which Scott-Warren also contributed to.

The Free Library has housed this copy since 1944, which has long been celebrated for its annotations. The book was a gift from Peter Arrell Browne Widener II and his sister Josephine Widener Witchfield, the grandchildren of Peter Arrell Browne Widener, a businessman and art collector who made his fortune by investing in the Philadelphia’s initial public transportation system. The gift was arranged by bookseller A.S.W. Rosenbach, who handled six First Folios over his career.

Before the book came to Philadelphia, it was sold at an auction in 1899 to a Scottish book collector by the Belleroche family, who said the book had been in their possession for over a century. Scholars have not yet been able to trace the book’s history beyond that.

“We did not suspect that it was annotated by a famous writer,” said Caitlin Goodman, the curator of the rare book department. “But in retrospect it makes sense why it survived, because at some point someone knew that it was Milton’s.”

A rare book which appears to have been owned by Paradise Lost poet John Milton and which he wrote notes in, a scholar reports that is his handwriting in the book, at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Vine Street, in Philadelphia, September 17, 2019.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
A rare book which appears to have been owned by Paradise Lost poet John Milton and which he wrote notes in, a scholar reports that is his handwriting in the book, at the Free Library of Philadelphia on Vine Street, in Philadelphia, September 17, 2019.

The book was cataloged in censuses of First Folios, but never really attracted scholars because it was housed in a public library and is currently not digitized. Goodman said that the Free Library is planning to digitize this copy but that staff is still working out the specifics of how.

“We are definitely not flatbed scanning it, though," she said, laughing.

“The annotations interested me because they referenced other books, like an early poetry collection,” Bourne said. “I realized what the reader was doing was comparing the texts in the folio, particularly Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, to other versions available at the time. I knew it was an early reader who understood and acknowledged multiple versions of Shakespeare.”

In the article, Bourne included many images of the handwritten notes found in the margins of the text, and Scott-Warren was struck by how they were similar to Milton’s hand.

He reached out to Bourne before publishing a blog post last week that asserted his theory. Bourne then contacted the Free Library last Wednesday morning to tell the rare book department of the news.

“These things aren’t just rare artifacts," Goodman said. "They still have stories to tell. And it’s the deep interpretive work done by researchers that make these discoveries possible.”

Having an annotated complete copy of the First Folio in a 17th-century calfskin binding was already exceptional, Goodman said, adding that collectors typically like to cut rare books out of their older bindings to display them in prettier Victorian ones.

Experts believe around 750 First Folios were printed. One copy was sold for $2.3 million at an auction in 2016.

Penn State assistant English professor Claire Mary Louise Bourne, at Penn State University, left, and Cambridge University's Dr. Jason Scott-Warren, right.
Courtesy / Courtesy
Penn State assistant English professor Claire Mary Louise Bourne, at Penn State University, left, and Cambridge University's Dr. Jason Scott-Warren, right.

“The value in this isn’t monetary for us,” Goodman said. “The value is in being able to make it available to Philadelphians so they can come, see, appreciate, and enjoy the book. We’re here to make things accessible."

Bourne said that this new research will likely draw interest from scholars who view Shakespeare and Milton as central literary figures.

“It shows how Milton was engaging with Shakespeare,” she said. “We’ve known that Shakespeare has influenced Milton for a long time, but this could be material proof. It’s quite rare to find this level of engagement from a reader, and when we do find traces of it, it’s pretty exciting.”

“What’s really remarkable to me, though, is how this discovery was made possible by the work of a young female graduate student who is now a junior professor,” Dailey said. “That is transformative because Shakespeare studies has been dominated by men historically. This suggests that our field is opening up to a broader range of mind that becomes possible when women are welcomed as participants in the field and when texts are held by nonelite libraries.”

After Scott-Warren published his blog post, he soon found that other scholars agreed with his findings. He’s now planning to collaborate with Bourne on a series of articles about the discovery, which might allow the scholars to identify more books annotated by Milton.

The rare book department was relatively quiet as of early Tuesday afternoon, but a few book aficionados came by to check out the discovery after being informed by staff.

“I just wanted to see [Milton’s] handwriting,” said Kay Boon, who was visiting Philadelphia with her friend from Australia. Boon considers herself a lifelong book lover. “It’s simply amazing.”

Visitors can see the First Folio on display from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays, until Oct. 19, at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St.