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Shakespeare Promptbooks

More than 400 annotated scripts reflect the many ways performers have made Shakespeare’s plays their own.
Drawing of the graveyard scene from a souvenir promptbook for Edwin Booth's "Hamlet," 1870 View Details.
Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library

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.

Lighting instructions for the ghost scene from a promptbook for Henry Irving's "Hamlet," 1874. View Details.
Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library

Highlights

Promptbook for "Romeo & Juliet" starring Charlotte Cushman, circa 1852.
Promptbook for "Romeo & Juliet" starring Charlotte Cushman, circa 1852. View Details.
Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library

Related Collections

Shakespeare promptbooks can also be found in the following collections:

Accessing These Materials

All material is available for use in Houghton Library’s reading room.

Most promptbooks are cataloged as part of the Shakespeare Promptbook Collection. A catalog of the collection was published in Harvard Library Bulletin in 1987. Later additions can be found in HOLLIS.