Shakespeare in the John Johnson Collection for scholars and dilettantes

The Bard immortalized in ephemera

Such is Shakespeare’s fame, that he has, inevitably, permeated the culture of our land. Quotations and misquotations from his works pepper advertisements from cosmetics to shoe polish, artificial teeth to linen mesh underwear. The Bard lent a certain gravitas.

Keen's mustard detail
Food 7 (38b) detail
Keen's mustard ad
Food 7 (38b)

Shakespeare’s portrait graced match boxes and cigar labels, and advertisements for (among others) soap, patent medicines, mustard & candles. In her excellent work Portraits of Shakespeare (Oxford, Bodleian Library, 2015) Katherine Duncan-Jones situates these humble ephemera as derivative of the Droeshout engraving or the Chandos portrait.

Shakespeare: Great English writers on candles
Oil and Candles 1 (57)


Shakespeare cigar lights
Labels 12 (43c)


Pears soap ad showing Shakespeare
Soap 7 (14)




Cellular cloth and clothing catalogue showing Shakespeare collar, 1892
Oxford Trade Pamphlets (7) p. 13







A women’s clothing company (The Shakespeare Manufacturing Company of  Manchester) took his name and a collar was called after Shakespeare.

Inevitably, many circulating libraries and bookshops bore his name or his portrait on their trade card.

Clubb & Greening trade card with Shakespeare portrait
Booktrade Trade Cards 4





Hodgson's New Characters in The Tempest Miniature Theatre sheet, 1823
Hodgson’s New Characters in The Tempest Miniature Theatre sheet, 1823

In our ProQuest project (free within the UK), in addition to advertisements, there are sheet music covers, minature theatre sheets, popular and humorous prints, scraps and prospectuses.

However, the major corpus of Shakespeare-related ephemera in the John Johnson Collection is theatrical, with over 2,000 playbills and programmes from London and provincial theatres fully indexed and digitised on our ProQuest site with some playbills from the end of the 18th century on DigitalBodleian.  These playbills constitute a major scholarly resource.

Mrs SIddons in Macbeth, April 14 1812
London Playbills Covent Garden vol. 1811-1812 (159), with Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth

Not only can researchers find details of which plays were performed, when and in which venue, but also who performed them, in whose edition and in what context. As all performers are indexed, scholars can find Sarah Siddons in Macbeth, John Kemble in Coriolanus, Edmund Kean in Richard III.

The couplings of Shakespeare tragedies with somewhat lighter works are alien to our current theatre-going practices and reveal much about the nature of an evening’s entertainment expected by Georgians, Victorians and Edwardians.  Inserted into these long evenings were songs, dances, ballets, burlettas, masquerades, etc.  Musicologists can search for specific pieces or composers of incidental music or discrete works.

In addition to resources available electronically, there are eight boxes and three folders of ephemera and secondary material relating to the Bard, including undigitised prospectuses of Shakespeare editions. The Shakespeare index is online.

Don’t forget to explore ballads relating to Shakespeare too: