Reading with Rose, Romeo, and Rosalind

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

Shakespeare’s Sonnets

NPG 1; William Shakespeare attributed to John Taylor
William Shakespeare, associated with John Taylor. National Portrait Gallery, London. One of few portraits claimed to be painted from life.

Whether you’ve been to see Commonwealth Shakespeare’s production of Romeo & Juliet on the Common, or threw away your high school copy of that legendary tragedy, chances are you are familiar with the Bard. This month’s Reading with Rose blog post explores the Bard through his works in Rose Standish Nichols’ library: As You Like It, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Romeo & Juliet.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was the author of at least 38 plays and 150 poems. In the centuries following his death, he became one of–if not the–most revered writer in the English language. Shakespeare wrote As You Like It between 1599 and 1600; he followed up with Hamlet; Romeo & Juliet some four or five years prior. [1] Rose Nichols’ copies of these plays can be seen in the upper right corner of the bookshelf on the third floor landing, not far from Rose’s bedroom.

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Front of postcard showing Shakespeare’s garden from Rose Standish Nichols’ postcard collection.
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Back of postcard showing Shakespeare’s garden from Rose Standish Nichols’ postcard collection. The handwritten notes appear to describe the landscape design of the garden.

Although these works are grouped together on the third-floor landing, they are quite different thematically. As You Like It is a comedy featuring one of Shakespeare’s most enduring heroines, Rosalind, who wins the heart of her beloved while disguised in men’s clothes. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, ultimately about a son grieving the loss of his father. Romeo & Juliet, perhaps his most well-known play, presents the romantic tragedy of two star-crossed lovers whose families are bitter enemies. Of these three plays, only As You Like It was first published in the First Folio in 1623. Hamlet first appeared as a quarto in 1603; Romeo & Juliet as a quarto in 1597. Rose also owned a copy of Macbeth–about witchcraft, murder, and prophecies–inscribed 1887; it is stored in the museum’s archives as it is too fragile to sit on an open shelf. Along with As You Like It, Macbeth was first published in the First Folio. [2]

 

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Detail from RSN’s copy of Macbeth. Handwritten notes.

 

 

 

Rose’s copies of these four plays are inscribed between 1887 and 1899. They were published in New York by Harper & Brothers Publishers in 1887, and edited by William J. Rolfe, a former headmaster of “the high school, Cambridge, Mass.” Given that Rose’s copies of these plays have handwritten notes in them, it is possible to conjecture that Rose studied these plays while in high school. Rose and her sisters attended Mrs. Shaw’s School, which, according to her sister Margaret Nichols Shurcliff, had the capacity to teach enrolled students at all levels: “the boys and girls who attended could be carried from the kindergarten age straight through to college.”[3]

Rose kept a diary from 1896 to 1922, now housed in Harvard’s Houghton Library. In one entry, the writer reminisces on seeing Hamlet performed in London. It is unclear whether Rose herself is the writer, or if it was a friend or relative; Rose transcribed family correspondence in her diary. Whether Rose or a friend, the writer fondly remembers seeing the play: “as I grow older the
greatness of Shakespeare looms higher and higher every word every line is so deep, so true […].”[4]

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Ethel Barrymore by Burr McIntosh, 1901.

If you’ve visited the museum, you know that our matriarch Rose was a very studious and intellectual woman. We spend our time in the second-floor parlor discussing her numerous discussion-based activities, most of which were tea parties attended by some well-known local and international figures. This week, while researching Shurcliff family history (Rose’s youngest sister Margaret married Arthur Shurcliff in 1905), I came across a fortuitous nugget of information. In an oral history interview, Rose’s niece Elizabeth Lowell (Mrs. Francis Cabot Lowell) reminisces on some of “Aunt Rose’s” famous tea parties, including some famous guests. According to Elizabeth, actress Ethel Barrymore attended one of these parties. [5] An Academy Award nominee in 1944, Barrymore portrayed Juliet on stage in 1922; years before this production, Barrymore was offered a job by Ellen Terry, the leading Shakespearean actress of her time.[6]

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Postcard of Shakespeare’s Garden from Rose Standish Nichols’ postcard collection.

Be it by school, personal preference, or coincidental celebrity, the connection between the Bard and one Miss Rose Standish Nichols is an unexpected pleasure.

Notes

[1] Folger Shakespeare Library. “Shakespeare’s Work’s.” Folger Shakespeare Library. n.d. Web. 6 August 2017.                                                                                                                           [2] Ibid.                                                                                                                                                 [3] Shurcliff, Margaret Homer. Lively Days: Some Memoirs of Margaret Homer Shurcliff. Literature House, Ltd., 1965.                                                                                              [4] Rose Standish Nichols Papers, 1877-1922 (MS Am 2656). Houghton Library, Harvard University.                                                                                                                                            [5] “Conversation with Mrs. Francis Cabot Lowell,” Nichols House Museum Archives.      [6] “Obituary: Ethel Barrymore is Dead at 79,” 19 June 1959, New York Times. and Michael R. Booth, ‘Terry, Dame Ellen Alice (1847–1928)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011.

By Victoria Johnson, Visitor Services and Research Associate.

 

 

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Author: Nichols House Museum

The Nichols House Museum's mission is: To preserve and interpret the 1804 townhouse that was from 1885 until 1960 the home of Rose Standish Nichols, landscape gardener, suffragist and pacifist. The house was built by Jonathan Mason and is attributed to Charles Bulfinch. The museum educates visitors by providing a unique glimpse into the domestic life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries on Boston's historic Beacon Hill.