300 years of Shakespeare illustrations to see and download

The British Library’s digitised, public domain archive includes drawings, engravings and miniature paintings that can be used freely.

From influential early drawings of the ‘New World’ to a sketch of the funeral procession of Elizabeth I, The British Library has released pretty much everything Shakespeare online.

Along with 80 essays, the 300 newly digitised items include manuscripts, books, maps, paintings, illustrations, pamphlets, ballads and playbills. Oh, and some photos too. As I said, pretty much everything Shakespeare.

And it's all on the Discovering Literature: Shakespeare website, in a far-ranging collection that doesn’t just bring Shakespeare himself to life, but also the turbulent times he lived in.

Image: Page from the Friendship album of Moyses Walens, photographed by Joseph Turp.

The website launches with a survey of over 500 English teachers that concludes that over half of students find it difficult to relate to or be inspired by Shakespeare, despite 84% of teachers agreeing that Shakespeare should be taught in schools. 

It is hoped that the online release will encourage kids – and indifferent adults – to immerse themselves in Shakespeare in a way that previously only a museum or exhibition could offer. 

Art, of course, is key to that aim - instantaneously grabbing people’s attention and offering a quick, yet scenic route to understanding the past.

Image: Part of William Strachey’s eyewitness account of life in the ‘New World’ (aka Virginia), this engraving is part of some of the earliest and most influential images of Native Americans.

The online release in a run-up to the British Library’s upcoming exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts, which is open from 15 April – 3 September.

Image:  Genealogy and self-portrait of John Dee, an Elizabethan scholar, alchemist and magician - and is now winner of the Digital Arts award for the coolest list of jobs. His portrait was found in a six foot scroll in which John Dee attempted to trace his lineage to the Tudor Kings.

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Included in the haul is also the last surviving play script handwritten by Shakespeare, in which he imagines Sir Thomas More asking for the humane treatment of refugees at a time where French Protestants sought asylum in London. Though the play was not written by Shakespeare, the Bard contributed the powerful scene. 

Image: Shakespeare's handwriting in The Book of Sir Thomas More

This 17th century manuscript is thought to preserve the original tune to one of the Fool’s songs from King Lear

Image: The Fool’s song from King Lear, a 17th century music manuscrip

Image: View of London in Civitates Orbis Terrarum

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Image: Medieval dreambook: Somnia Danielis

Image: Drawings of the funeral procession of Elizabeth I

Image: A Virginian Indian in St James's Park, from the friendship album of Michael van Meer, courtesy of The University of Edinburgh

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