A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare, Illustrations by Arthur Rackham, Limited Editions Club (1939)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of William Shakespeare‘s most famous and beloved plays. It was written sometime around 1596. The play has a number of interweaving plots that all that take place around the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. There is much comedy, with love as its centerpiece, set within a dreamlike world full of fairies. Benedetto Croce says of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Ariosto, Shakespeare and Corneille:

Here is the quick ardours, the inconstancies, the caprices, the illusions, the delusions, every sort of love folly, become embodied and weave a world of their own, as living and as real as that of those who are visited by these affections, tormented or rendered ecstatic, raised on high or hurled downward by them, in such a way  that everything is equally real or equally fantastic, as you may please to call it. The sense of dream, of a dream-reality, persists and prevents our feeling the chilly sense of allegory or of apology.

The play’s timeless appeal has made it one of the most performed plays in the world, not to mention the basis of scores of adaptations for films and television.  The play has also been the inspiration for multitudes of artists and illustrators, including the great English illustrator Arthur Rackham, whose illustrations grace the 1939 edition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream published by the Limited Editions Club (LEC). Mr. Rackham (1867-1939) is considered one of the greatest of all book illustrators. His works, especially those done for deluxe limited editions during the Golden Age of English book illustration (in the early 20th century), go for significant premiums compared to similar books without his involvement, while his original drawings often go for enormous sums at auction. Mr. Rackham was heavily sought out, allowing him to chose for his subjects work which interested him. As the LEC Monthly Letter (ML) associated with this volume tells us, he enjoyed making “fantastic and grotesque” illustrations. This made his pairing with A Midsummer Night’s Dream a perfect combination. The ML goes on to say of his illustrations in this edition:

They are full of fancy and fantasy, and they are, as is each of Mr. Rackham’s pictures, engaging to the eye, pretty to look upon.

That they are. I found myself going back and staring at them again and again as I read the play. The work really does strike the right mood with the reader, while also painting a representationally interesting visual narrative (for instance, see his frontispiece below of Titania and Bottom the Ass). In the ML, George Macy tells gives some interesting background on the reproduction of Mr. Rackham’s illustration for this edition.

Mr. Rackham has illustrated dozens upon dozens of books; he has usually insisted that his illustrations should be reproduced by the photoengraving process, by half-tone process blocks. Such a process gives a facsimile reproduction of his drawings; but the fine dots involved in half-tone blocks require that be printed on coated paper; and we refuse to permit the inclusion of coated paper on our Shakespeare. We decided to defy the lightning, and to have Mr. Rackham’s illustrations reproduced in a different manner this time. The illustrations were turned over to a lithographer in Paris named Fernand Mourlet. He made plates carefully separating the colors, then he drew four of these plates upon the lithographic stone, printing a plate in black, a plate in red, a plate in green and a plate in brown. At this stage, the pictures looked flat and mechanical. But then the drawings, together with the Mourlet prints, were sent to a colorist named Beaufumé, who proceeded to pile delicate colors on top of the Mourlet prints through stencils, or pochoirs. The color put on through the stencils was done with a watercolor brush, and the effect immediately became one of hand-painting, as though the artist himself had made the reproductions with his own brush, preserving the same little happy accidents of the brush in each case.  The result is that Mr. Rackham’s reproductions are not facsimiles of the originals, as they would have been if a mechanical photographic process had been used. But we consider that they preserve the spirit of Mr. Rackham’s drawings, and are infinitely more beautiful in reproduction.

Mr. Macy is correct in that the reproduction is fantastic. What is most amazing to me is the extent to which fine book publishers could and often did go to these extremes. The cost of doing this today, especially with a limitation of 1950, would result in one terribly expensive book.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream  is part of the marvelous 1939/1940 thirty seven volume The Plays of William Shakespeare by the Limited Editions Club (LEC), which was designed by the great Bruce Rogers. Like all editions in this set, it uses the text of the First Folio, with Quarto insertions, edited and amended where obscure by Herbert Farjeon. The type is an 18 point close facsimile of Janson, made by the Lanston Monotype Company, with the italic used being a creation of the Monotype Company since Bruce Rogers did not like the Janson 18 point italic; italic small capitals were made by re-cutting the Italic capitals of the Monotype Garamond Bold in a special size and with slight alterations of a few of the characters with a close new type face. It is bound with gilt tops and uncut edges in backs of American linen, with the titles stamped in gold on the spine. The cover design is based on a decorative wall design in a house that that Shakespeare was thought to have stayed at frequently. A different artist was used for each of the 37 volumes in this set. The Rackham illustrated A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the most sought after, and one often finds it listed as a single work for a significant percentage of what the entire 37 volume set can be had for. Frankly, this is ridiculous as all of the artists used in the set were amongst the top in the world and Rackham’s work here, while excellent, is not the best in the set. If one cannot get the entire set, this is certainly a nice single volume to have. However, do not overpay!

Lastly, as always, a few of my favorite quotes from the play.

From Lysander, words that forever ring true:

The course of true love never did run smooth…

Helena in talking with Lysander, speaks, so eloquently, of the folly of love:

Things base and vilde, holding no quantity,
Love can transpose to form and dignity,
Love lookes not with the eyes, but with the minde,
And therefore is wing’d Cupid painted blinde.
Nor hath loves minde of any judgement taste:
Wings and no eyes, figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is Love said to be a childe,
Because in choise he is so oft beguil’d,
As waggish boyes in game themselves forsweare,
So the boy Love is perjur’d every where.

Speaking of folly, Helena herself says to Demetrius despite his having nothing for her but insults:

Isle follow thee, and make a heaven of hell,
To die upon the hand I love so well.

Lysander, speaking to Helena after Puck had spread some of the magical juice of a flower named “love-in-idleness” on his eyelids, says:

Content with Hermia? No, I do repent
The tedious minutes I with her have spent.
Not Hermia, but Helena I love;
Who will not change a Raven for a Dove?

Bottom, who had his head transformed into that of a donkey by Puck, tells Titania:

…and yet to say the truth, reason and love keepe little company together, now-adayes.

Theseus, talking with Hippolita, speaks more of the folly and madness that love often brings:

Lovers and mad men have such seething braines,
Such shaping phantasies, that apprehend
More than coole reason ever comprehends.
The Lunaticke, the Lover, and the Poet,
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more divels then vaste hell can hold;
That is the mad man. The Lover, all as franticke,
Sees Helens beauty in a brow of Egipt.
The Poets eye in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven.

One of Shakespeare’s best plays, with illustrations from one of the twentieth centuries great book illustrators/artists, in an edition, part of a set designed by one of the great twentieth century book designers. What is there not to like?

About the Edition

  • Part of the 1939/1940 thirty seven volume The Plays of William Shakespeare by the Limited Editions Club
  • Designed by Bruce Rogers
  • Text of the First Folio, with Quarto insertions, edited and amended where obscure by Herbert Farjeon
  • Illustrations are watercolors by Arthur Rackham
    • Lithographic plates of the watercolors made by Fernand Mourlet
    • Colored via pochoir by Beaufumé
  • Note concerning the play (in the prospectus) by Sir Paul Harvey, from The Oxford Companion to English Literature
  • Preface to the play (in the prospectus) by Benedetto Croce, from “Ariosto, Shakespeare and Corneille” (Henry Holt)
  • Printed at the Press of A. Colish in New York
  • Type is an 18 point close facsimile of Janson, made by the Lanston Monotype Company, with the italic used being a creation of the Monotype Company since Rogers did not like the Janson 18 point italic; italic small capitals were made by re-cutting the Italic capitals of the Monotype Garamond Bold in a special size and with slight alterations of a few of the characters with a close new type face
  • New paper created for this edition by the Worthy Paper Company of Springfield
  • The binding was done by Russell-Rutter Company in New York
  • Bound with gilt tops and uncut edges in backs of American linen, with the titles stamped in gold on the spine
  • Cover design based on a decoration wall design in a house that that Shakespeare was thought to have stayed at frequently (a friend of his)
  • 8 3/4″ x 13″, 98 pages
  • Limited to 1950 copies

Pictures of the Edition

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A Midsummer Night's Dream, Limited Editions Club, Spine and Covers
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Limited Editions Club, Spine and Covers
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Side View
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Side View
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Limited Editions Club, Series Title Page
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Limited Editions Club, Series Title Page
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Limited Editions Club, Frontispiece and Title Page
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Limited Editions Club, Frontispiece and Title Page
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #1
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #1
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2
A Midsummer Night's Dream, Limited Editions Club, Colophon
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Limited Editions Club, Colophon

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