Three individuals and one family are key figures who helped bring together Edinburgh's two world-class collections of Shakespeare plays. Their stories are told in the 'Beyond Macbeth' exhibition at the National Library of Scotland.


17th century:

William Drummond of Hawthornden

William Drummond © Scottish National Portrait Gallery
William Drummond,
by Abraham van
© Scottish National
Portrait Gallery

Illustration of bookshop interior
A 17th-century bookshop.
© Rijksmuseum

William Drummond (1584-1649) was a Scottish poet who was a contemporary of William Shakespeare. Drummond's uncle was the poet William Fowler.

Drummond bought and read Shakespeare's plays, and Shakespeare's language is echoed in some of Drummond's own poems.

He owned several quartos in his substantial library, which he gifted to the University of Edinburgh Library, where he had been educated.

Drummond's own annotiations on his copies of the lays offer us a rare opportunity to see how an early reader responded to Shakespeare's work.

During the 17th century, Shakespeare was not considered an important writer, as he is today.

It was unusual for anyone to think that his plays belonged in a university library, to be preserved for future readers, as Drummond did.


18th century:

Lady Mary Montague and the Bute family

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu
Lady Mary Wortley

Theatre Royal, Edinburgh © Capital Collections
Theatre Royal,
© Capital Collections

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) was a glamorous Georgian court lady, celebrated as the first Western European woman to travel to Constantinople and write of her experiences.

She was not afraid to pass judgement on what she read — annotating her books with comments such as 'trash' or 'intolerable'.

Lady Mary's daughter married John Stuart, the third Earl of Bute (1713-1792).

As a friend of the Prince of Wales, he joined the Prince's circle in performing Shakespeare plays at country house parties. He went on to become Prime Minister after the Prince's son became George III. His political enemies named him 'MacBoot', a pun on Macbeth.

The Earl's eldest child, also named John Stuart, was created the first Marquess of Bute (1744-1814), as a reward for diplomatic service. He inherited Lady Mary's books, and added some of the most interesting early Shakespearean quartos to the family collection.

It was during the 18th century that the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh was built. Shakespeare's statue looked down from the top of the building, and the playwright's works we a constant feature of the theatre's repertoire. Read playbills from Edinburgh Theatre Royal.


19th century:

James Halliwell-Phillipps

James Halliwell-Phillipps

University of Edinburgh Library, 19th century

James Halliwell-Phillipps (1820-1889) produced a pioneering biography of Shakespeare, as well as a complete edition of the plays.

He created his Shakespeare collections mainly to further his studies, and arranged clippings from other early printed works in scrapbooks along with his own notes.

He also produced facsimiles of the quartos, so that he had copies of editions he could not buy.

Halliwell-Phillipps donated a large collection of books and manuscripts to the university library in 1872.

At his death he was recognised as a great Shakespearean scholar.


20th century:

John Dover Wilson

Portrait of John Dover Wilson by Robert Lyon
John Dover Wilson,
by Robert Lyon.
By permission of the
University of Edinburgh.

Illustration of the clown from 'Hamlet'

John Dover Wilson (1886-1969) pioneered new ways of determining reliable texts of Shakespeare's plays.

Born in Surrey, he moved to Edinburgh in 1935 to take up a professorship at the university. He produced a groundbreaking new edition of Shakespeare's works.

Wilson compared the moment when he became passionately interested in Shakespeare to falling in love.

In particular, he was facinated by 'Hamlet'. The book he wrote to explain his ideas about the play, 'What happens in Hamlet', was a popular success, and made his reputation among general readers.

Some of the century's finest theatre actors sought his advice – Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Michael Redgrave, Tyrone Guthrie, to name a few.

Although not himself a collector, Wilson influenced the destiny of important collections. He helped arrange for the National Library to acquire the Bute collection, and influenced the university to buy a second of Halliwell-Phillipps' libraries at auction.

He wrote in his autobiography 'Milestones on the Dover Road' [NLS shelfmark: NC.263.c.8]:

'… Edinburgh has become the home of two of the fines collections of dramatic material, especially that bearing on Shakespeare himself, in the British Isles.'


Shakespeare exhibition page