The Works of Mr. William Shakespeare, edited by Nicholas Rowe, 1709

The first edited edition of Shakespeare's plays

Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718) was the first editor of William Shakespeare, modernising the punctuation and spelling to the practice of his day. His edition, published in 6 volumes in 1709, was a first in a number of ways:

  • The first edition in octavo, following the four Folios of the seventeenth century
  • The first to bear an editor’s name
  • It contained the first formal biography of William Shakespeare, completed with the aid of researches done in Stratford-upon-Avon by the Restoration actor Thomas Betterton, who worked with actors who had known Shakespeare. The biography included several of the legends relating to Shakespeare’s life, including arguably the most famous one of how he was caught poaching deer at Charlecote Park (although this story had already been in circulation before Rowe’s edition).
  • A Dramatis Personae was attached to each play for the first time
  • The first complete division of the plays into acts and scenes
  • The edition was also the first to include illustrations, which were based on contemporary stage performances of the plays. The plates therefore give valuable evidence of early eighteenth century stage costume, showing that the plays were staged in what would have been modern costume at the time. Macbeth wears a three-cornered hat and William and Mary style wig and coat. Hamlet’s mother wears a late Stuart gown.

Rowe was the most successful dramatist of his time. He was also a poet and became Poet Laureate in 1715, succeeding Nahum Tate.