What is a Prompt Book?
Introduced by Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute
Prompt book basics
Prompt books come in all shapes and sizes, designed for slightly different purposes or for use by people in different roles within the theatre. But essentially they all have one function in common: to help the actors, stage managers, prompters and directors piece together a theatrical production.
The prompt book is the production's bible, containing a wealth of instructions and information alongside the basic text of the play. As well as the actors’ lines, you will often see cues for music, movement, light, and many other aspects of stage business. Cuts and annotations are sometimes scribbled beside or on top of the text or in the margins. You will even occasionally see doodles or sketches of how a piece of staging is supposed to look, or which costume a character should wear in a scene. Some prompt books are extremely detailed, while others have hardly any notes at all.
Most prompt books in the resource have a 'Primary Association' - that is, the individual with the closest connection to that particular copy of the prompt book. In many cases this is the owner of the book, or the person who made the annotations.
Prompt books could be used in different ways by different people, so in the resource metadata you will see that we have broken down the term 'Prompt Book' into more specific document types, to more effectively explain how that particular book was used. You will see, for instance: Part Books, Memorial Books, Stage Manager's Books, Preparation Copies, and many more. See the Glossary for explanations of what these terms mean.
In 1965, Charles H. Shattuck, eminent Shakespearean scholar and professor of English at the University of Illinois, published The Shakespeare Promptbooks; a Descriptive Catalogue. He painstakingly tracked down hundreds of prompt books from libraries, museums and private collections all over the world, and compiled information about them in order to aid other Shakespearean scholars with their research. He gave every prompt book a code, by which they are still commonly known today. Since publication of his catalogue, other prompt books have come to light which, too late to be included in the catalogue, inevitably do not have a Shattuck code. Where they exist, we have included these codes in the document metadata. The Reference field in the metadata represents the identifying number or name by which the prompt books are known within the Folger Shakespeare Library.
Annotations and markings in the prompt books
Click on any of the purple circles below to find out more about some of the most common types of annotations you will see in the prompt books.