Promptbooks from the Harvard Theatre Collection document over three centuries of Shakespeare plays in performance, ranging from a 17th-century staging of Hamlet to modern productions at Harvard’s own American Repertory Theater. The annotated scripts, over 400 in all, reflect the myriad ways performers have made Shakespeare’s plays their own.
What Is a Promptbook?
Promptbooks are scripts that have been marked up for performance. They can be roughly grouped into two categories. There are true working scripts kept by stage managers or prompters which typically include cast lists, stage directions, blocking diagrams, and cues for effects like lighting and music. They often indicate cuts or alterations to the text made during rehearsals. And their condition frequently betrays their long history of service. Promptbooks kept by actors might also include notes on pronunciation, movement, or a characters’ psychology.
The other type of promptbook is intended as a record or souvenir. These volumes are polished versions of the working script that seek to capture details about a production’s final form.
- The oldest promptbook in the collection is marked for the part of Hamlet, most likely by actor Thomas Betterton. It is one of three surviving Hamlet promptbooks from the 1600s and the only one at Harvard.
- A promptbook for an 1850s production of Romeo & Juliet follows the then-popular version with Juliet waking before Romeo dies. The production starred Charlotte Cushman who achieved international fame for playing Romeo opposite her sister Susan and others as Juliet.
- Charles Kean’s 1858 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is an elaborate example of a souvenir promptbook that includes 11 watercolor drawings of the drop curtain and ten of the scenes.
- The collection also includes handwritten parts for incidental music as well as scripts with just the lines and cues for a specific role, called sides.
- Ian McKellen used this promptbook from his one-man show Acting Shakespeare during its Boston run in 1987.
Shakespeare promptbooks can also be found in the following collections:
- British prompt book and theatrical manuscript collection (circa 1680-2000)
- American Shakespeare Theatre (Stratford, Conn.) plays and prompt books (1956-1982)
- American Repertory Theater records (1979-2019)
Accessing These Materials
All material is available for use in Houghton Library’s reading room.