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Collection Connections: ‘License to Quill’

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s new virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, Folger staff provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, Rachel B. Dankert, Learning and Engagement Librarian, shares the items she presented on November 5, 2020 as an introduction to License to Quill by Jacopo Della Quercia. Discussion questions from the evening can be found here.


Part of what makes James Bond films so memorable is that they are infused with the cultural moment in which they are created. Similarly, License to Quill surrounds you with the London and Venice of the early 1600s as the heroes William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe move through these places most familiar to them. Elements of the story include plague, military arts, ciphers, human and animal surgery, witchcraft, swordfighting, deep-sea diving, and a plot to blow up Parliament on November 5, 1605, which combine to propel the reader through a series of events that might have exhausted even 007.

Remember, remember, the 5th of November, Gunpowder treason and plot

Motivated to succeed where the 1601 Essex Rebellion had failed, a band of Catholic recusants plotted to blow up Parliament, attended by James I, on November 5, 1605.

Illustration of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators
Eygentliche Abbildung wie ettlich Englische Edelleut einen Raht schliessen den König sampt dem gantzen Parlament mit Pulfer zuvertilgen, 1606. Folger Shakespeare Library: ART Box P281 no.7.

As you can see from this German history print from 1606, their plans were folied and led to the men dying the death of traitors, with heads on pikes as both a warning and trophies.

Most famously, Guy Fawkes (center) became the face of what is now known as the Gunpowder Plot because he was caught holding the matches and lantern that would have changed history. In the novel License to Quill, we owe much thanks to the counterintelligence work of Shakespeare and Marlowe in the prevention of the plot. Thanks to their own early modern “Q,” Sir Francis Bacon, the heroes had all sorts of gadgetry, transportation, and especially encrypted communication at hand.

Image of Francis Bacon's biliteral cipher
Opera Francisci Baronis de Verulamio, vice-comitis Sancti Albani, tomus primus: qui continet De dignitate & augmentis scientiarum libros IX. Ad regem suum. 1623. Folger Shakespeare Library: STC 1108.

Bacon’s biliteral cipher not only used a’s and b’s to disguise the letters of the alphabet, but also relied on variations in written letter shapes to convey different meanings. In the novel, this scientific approach to secrecy goes head to head with otherworldly figures of the “cunning folk” in Arden wood.

When Guy Fawkes engages William Shakespeare to write a play set in Scotland that features three witches, the playwright struggles for inspiration. Shakespeare consults one of his favorite sources, Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and finds three witches in the history of the kings of Scotland.

Image of Holinshed's Chronicles showing Banquo and Macbeth meeting the witches
The firste volume of the Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande by Raphael Holinshed, 1577. Folger Shakespeare Library: STC 13568.5 Vol. 1.

On this page, we hear the echo of those famous lines, prophetic, misleading, and timeless:

The first of them spake & sayde: All hayle Makbeth Thane of Glammis (for he had lately entred into that dignitie and office by the death of his father Synel.) The.ii. of them said: hayle Makbeth Thane of Cawder: but the third sayde: All hayle Makbeth that hereafter shall be king of Scotland. 

To immerse yourself in the real-world materials that influenced this month’s pick, visit our curated collection of License to Quill images.


Shakespeare bust with glassesRegistration for the December 3 session on Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet opens Tuesday, November 10 at 4pm. We hope you make a plan to join us!

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