Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Altogether, it became necessary for me to look carefully at the plays, to see whether the aid of art might not be called in to add both to the information and enjoyment of the reader of Shakspere, by representing the Realities upon which the imagination of the poet must have rested.  ~Charles Knight, from Passages of a Working Life

  • Introduction
  • From Shakespeariana: “The Editors of Shakespeare”
  • Knight Explains his involvement in publication of a Pictorial Shakespeare 
  • Links to Editions of Shakespeare Edited by Charles Knight
  • Works By/About Knight


Charles Knight was the son of another Charles Knight, a bookseller and publisher of Windsor.  Knight senior was on friendly terms with George III, “who used to come to turn over his books.”  Charles began school at Ealing, but was removed to become an apprentice to his father in 1805.  As a young man Knight wrote poetry, and in 1813 wrote a play, Arminius, which was  self-published, and “had some success” (Passages, p.111).  In 1812 he began reporting for the Globe and British Press.  He was avid to instruct through print,  and “so early as 1814 had sketched out athe plan of a weekly series, which should bring all kinds of knowledge, mixed with lighter matter, within the reach of the poorest” (DNB).  In 1820 he produced the Plain Englishman, and then became editor of the London weekly The Guardian.  He became friends with J. W. Croker, and at “partly at Croker’s instigation” (DNB) became a publisher in London in 1823.  He started published Knight’s Quarterly Magazine (with contributions by Macaulay, De Quincey and many others) from 1823-1824.  The magazine was not a success and after various literary endeavors finally “undertook to supervise” the publications of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, which he came to edit.  He soon became and remained the Society’s publisher until 1846.  As such he produced the Quarterly Journal of Education, the Penny Magazine, the Penny Cyclopaedia, the Gallery of Portraits, and similar works.  In 1836 he began to publish, in parts, the Pictorial Bible, followed by Lane’s Arabian Nights and Craik and MacFarlane’s Pictorial History of England.  London, 1841-1844 “was largely written by Knight himself” (DNB).  As noted below, from 1838-1841 he published his Pictorial Shakespeare.  The Pictorial Shakespeare leaned almost exclusively on the First Folio for its textual authority.  It’s selling point were its illustrations, of course, over 1000 of them.  Boydell had produced spectacular prints at enormous cost, and Valpy had imitated Boydell by printing cheap knock-off copies of his illustrations using uninspired steel-plate engravings, but Knight’s intended for his illustrations to be historically accurate.  His encyclopedic body of knowledge of English history social customs made him the ideal editor to undertake such a project.

“In 1837 I began to look about me for artistic materials adapted to a Pictorial Edition of Shakspere. At first view, the existing stores of illustrations seemed almost boundless. There were embellishments to various editions from the time of Rowe, chiefly of a theatrical character, and, for the most part, thoroughly unnatural. The grand historical pictures of the Shakspere Gallery were not in a very much higher taste, furnishing a remarkable example how painters of the highest rank in their day had contrived to make the characters of Shakspere little more than vehicles for the display of false costume. There were a few valuable antiquarian illustrations, such as those given by Mr. Douce. Altogether, it became necessary for me to look carefully at the plays, to see whether the aid of art might not be called in to add both to the information and enjoyment of the reader of Shakspere, by representing the Realities upon which the imagination of the poet must have rested. There were the localities of the various scenes, whether English or foreign; the portraits of the real personages of the historical plays; the objects of natural history, so constantly occurring; accurate costume in all its rich variety. Whilst engaged in my search after such pictorial illustrations, a gentleman, who has since distinguished himself by his antiquarian knowledge, lent me his note-book, in which he had jotted down a somewhat large list of archaeological subjects. This kindness of Mr. William Fairholt was of essential use to me. I very early put myself in communication with Mr. Poynter, who made for me a series of the most beautiful architectural drawings, which imparted a character of truthfulness to many scenes, which upon the stage had in general been merely fanciful creations of the painter. Mr. Harvey undertook to produce a series of frontispieces, which, embodying the realities of costume and other accessaries, would have enough of an imaginative character to render them pleasing.

“The foundations of my edition as an illustrated work of art being thus laid, I diligently applied myself to a critical examination of the text to be adopted. I procured a copy of the first folio, which was read aloud to me whilst I marked upon a copy of the common trade edition, all the variations that presented themselves. I found that no book could be more incorrectly printed than this booksellers’ stereotyped volume. I subsequently expressed my belief that the text of Shakspere had not been compared with the originals carefully and systematically for half a century. Not only had words been changed by printers, but whole lines had been omitted. The punctuation of the received text was in the most confused state. Thus far, my way was clear to produce a pictorial edition with a more correct text, even if I absolutely relied upon the authority of the first folio compared with the quartos. Of these scarce morsels I could avail myself in Steevens’ very accurate reprint” (Passages of a Working Life During Half a Century, With a Prelude of Early Reminiscences, vol. II, p.283-285).

In 1840 Knight became one of the founding members of the ill-fated Shakespeare Society, along with the other gread mid-century editors Alexander Dyce and J. O. Halliwell, and the forger and liar John Payne Collier, whose indefatigable industry later ruined the organization.  From 1842-44 Knight brought out the Library Edition, which included more readings from the quartos.  Knight also gathered as much information on the life of Shakespeare as he could, and in 1843 published William Shakspere; A Biography, which became an accompanying volume to future Knight editions.  “In 1847 he began his Half- hours with the Best Authors, and The Land we Live in, containing pictures and descriptions of everything noteworthy ш England” (DNB).

Knight gradually withdrew from the printing trade, and by 1851 his own works were published by Bradbury and Evans.  He remained an active writer, producing the English Cyclopedia, from 1853-61 (“practically only the old ‘Penny Cyclopedia ‘ revised and brought up to date”—DNB) and an 8-volumePopular History of England completed in 1862.  In 1864-65 he wrote Passages of a Working Life During Half a Century, With a Prelude of Early Reminiscences, (3 volumes:  Vol. I, Vol. II, Vol. III).  He died at Addlestone in 1873.

Knights text was a staple of many nineteenth century publishing ventures.  He was responsible for not only the Pictorial edition, but the Library edition, the National edition, the Cabinet edition, the Stratford edition, and others.  After his death, in 1875 a two-volume edition of the Works with excellent engravings by Sir John Gilbert appeared.  From 1873-76 the so called “Imperial Edition” also appeared: The Works of Shakespere, Imperial Edition, Edited by Charles Knight, With Illustrations on Steel.

From Shakespeariana: “The Editors of Shakespeare”, by J. Parker Norris, January, 1888, p. 72.

CHARLES KNIGHT, whose name is one of the most familiar on the list of the editors of Shakespeare, was born at Windsor, England, on March 15, 1791. His father was a bookseller and printer. He was educated at Baling, and afterwards adopted his father’s business.

He edited and published a large number of works, among the principal of which may be named: Capital and Labor, 18mo. ; London, pictorially illustrated, 1841-44, six vols., royal 8vo. ; Cyclopaedia of the Industry of all Nations, 1851, 8vo. ; Geography of the British Empire, 1853, two vols. imperial 8vo. ; Half Hours with the Best Authors, 1847-48, four vols. 8vo. ; Half Hours of English History, 1853, two vols. ; Knowledge is Power, etc., 1855, 8vo. ; Life of Caxton, 18mo. ; National Cyclopaedia of Useful Knowledge, 1847-51, two vols.; Old England, 4to. ; Once Upon a Time, 1854, two vols. 12mo.; Pictorial Half Hours, two vols. ; Shilling Volumes for All Readers, 1844-49, one hundred and eighty-six vols. 18mo. ; Store of Knowledge, 1841, imperial 8vo. ; The Land We Live In, 1848, four vols. imperial 8vo. ; The Old Printer and the Modern Press, 1854, 8vo., and Shadows of Old Booksellers, 1865.

After a long and useful life he died at Addlestone, Surrey, on March 9th, 1873.

In 1838 Knight commenced the publication of his first edition of Shakespeare. This was in eight volumes, royal octavo, and was originally issued in parts. The title-page of the first volume is as follows:—

The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakespeare. Edited by Charles Knight. Histories. Vol.1. London: Charles Knight & Co.

It is well printed on tinted paper, in double columns, except the introductory notices, and it is especially noticeable for the beauty of its illustrations. These are on wood, and are fine specimens of wood engraving for the time when they were published. Many of the pictures represent costumes, armor, architecture, etc., of the period covered by the plays, and are archaeologically correct. Never had Shakespeare’s plays been so well illustrated before. Boydell had published a magnificent edition of the poet’s works, with steel plates after the foremost painters of his day; but they chose scenes from the plays, and their illustrations are of little value, except as of examples of British art at the commencement of the nineteenth century. Knight, however, entered into the true spirit and purpose of illustrating Shakespeare pictorially, and his edition at once received the recognition it deserved.

The plays are divided into three classes—Histories, Comedies, and Tragedies—and are arranged according to Knight’s idea of their chronological order in each class, except that in the case of the first class the historical order has been preserved. Each play is .preceded by an elaborate ” introductory notice ” which contains much information as to the date and plot, the state of the text, etc. These are admirably written, and are one of the most valuable features of the work.

Knight’s text closely follows that of the First Folio. In carrying out thus he has often neglected the better reading of the Quartos, but his text is one of the purest that had then appeared.

The notes are at the foot of the page, but what are called ” illustrations” (in reality, additional notes) are printed at the end of each act. The “supplementary notice” which follows each play is a pleasantly written aesthetic essay on the drama in question.

Knight printed the poems, accompanied by elaborate comment, and also gave the “doubtful plays.” The volume which contains the latter also has a long appendix, consisting mainly of  “a history of opinion on the writings of Shakespeare,” which must have cost Knight much labor and time to prepare. This was afterwards added to and published, with other matter, in an octavo volume by itself, under the title of Studies of Shakespeare, 1849.

The eighth volume is wholly taken up with a life of Shakespeare, which is also largely a history of the customs, manners, theatres, contemporaries, etc., of the poet’s time. In this work, which is very well known, the author did not tie himself down to bare facts, but gave free rein to his imagination. As a chronicle of what might have happened to the poet and what he probably did, the people he was likely to have met, etc., this is not surpassed by anything which has been written on the subject. But those who wish to ascertain what we really know of Shakespeare must consult other books.

The “Pictorial Edition ” was several years in passing through the press, owing to the manner of its publication; and at the end of the second volume of the Tragedies (which is really the sixth volume of the work) there is printed a “postscript.” This is dated December 21, 1841,and Knight there said:—

It is now more than three years since I commenced the publication of  “The Pictorial Edition of Shakespeare” in monthly parts, and during that period I have produced a part on the first day of each month, with a single exception. The task of editing this work has been to me a most agreeable one. It has been absorbing enough to require my daily attention, to occupy my habitual thoughts, to shut out dark forebodings, to lighten the pressure of instant evils. It has furnished me a useful and honourable occupation, which has not been less zealously pursued because it was associated with the discharge of duties not so pleasurable. …. It is my intention—and the intention has long been cherished— to commence the publication early in 1842 of a new edition of  “The Works of Shakespeare, edited by Charles Knight.” This will not be a “pictorial edition” in the former sense of the term, although those wood-engravings will be introduced which really illustrate the author better than any verbal explanations.

The edition thus announced appeared in twelve volumes, octavo, in 1842-44. The title-page to Volume I reads:—

The Comedies, Histories, Tragedies, and Poems of William Shakespeare. Edited by Charles Knight. [Here follows an extract from Udall’s Preface to Erasmus’s Apothegms.] The Second Edition. Volume I. London: Charles Knight A Co., Ludgate Street. MDCCCXLII.

It is a very well-printed book, and has long been a favorite edition of the poet’s works. It is in the main a reprint of the ” Pictorial Edition,” omitting many of the illustrations of that work; but Knight announced that he would collate the Quartos especially for this edition. However, this did not materially affect his text, and it is virtually the same as that in the former work. The latter is often called the “Library Edition.”

The “Pictorial Edition” appears to have been either stereotyped or electrotyped, for a later issue of it appeared about 1864—67 which was evidently printed from the same plates. Slight changes in the text and notes were made by cutting the plates. The illustrations are far inferior to those in the original “Pictorial Edition,” as the plates had become worn.

It will be seen by the above list that Knight’s editions have been great favorites with the public, and their number is truly surprising. As before stated, his text is a very pure one; and the reverence with which he regarded Shakespeare is a very agreeable contrast to the patronizing spirit displayed by many of the editors of the former century. His essays on the plays are charmingly written, and the disquisitions on the text, etc., are scholarly and able. Knight did much to make Shakespeare’s works appreciated and understood by the great mass of the reading public, and deserves in perpetuity the praise facetiously bestowed on him by a contemporary who, when the editor was leaving the room, called out, ” Good Knight!”

J. Parker Norris.

Links to Editions of Shakespeare Edited by Charles Knight

The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakspere originally appeared in 56 parts from 1838 to 1843 (Murphy §483).  They were also issued in 8 volumes, dated 1839.  A companion volume, William Shakspere: A Biography, was later added (1843).  I have produced links to GBS versions of the 1839 edition, though they appear there in Snippet view only, but can be searched and provide bibliographic information and other useful features.  It is difficult to understand why a valuable book from 1839 that has been fully scanned is restricted to snippet view, but that is how it is.  It must be a requirement of the U. of California, the source partner, or an error.  I have also supplied a link to the 1843 Biography, which appears in full view.  Since Knight’s text and especially the illustrations are the interesting part of his edition, I have also provided links to an edition of 1867 (the one I believe Norris refers to in the article above—it refers to itself as the “second edition”—Murphy §598) of The Pictorial Edition, which usefully appears from GBS in full view.  I have also supplied links in square brackets to the same edition from the Internet Archive [IA] published by Virtue & Co. from 1867 and utilizing the same Harvey illustrations.  Knight’s text and often the illustrations from The Pictorial Edition appeared in many other editions of Shakespeare throughout the nineteenth century: The Library Edition, The Cabinet Edition, The National Edition, The Stratford Edition, and so on.

Kinght’s original “lavishly illustrated” Pictorial Shakespeare sold for 2s 6p per part, comprised of 56 parts, or for a total cost of 7£ (Murphy, p. 174), an astonishing cost when compared with the enormous cost of the Boydell Shakespeare of 1791-1802.


Shakespeare, William, and Charles Knight. The Pictorial Edition of the Works of Shakspere. London: C. Knight and Co, 1839. [GBS, snippet view only] vols. I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII

Knight, Charles. William Shakspere; A Biography. London: C. Knight and Co., 1843. [GBS – full view]

Knight, Charles.  Studies of Shakspere: Forming a Companion Volume to Every Edition of the Text, C. Knight, 1849.  This volume contains “a history of opinion on the writings of Shakespeare,” which can be found in the original Vol. VII to the Pictorial Edition along with other materials later added by Knight, and is meant to be a supplement to his editions.

Shakespeare, William, and Charles Knight.  The Pictorial edition of the works of Shakspere, ed. by C. Knight. [8 vols., including a vol. entitled William Shakspere, by C. Knight], The Second Edition, Revised.  George Routledge and Sons, 1867.

  • Vol. I (Comedies Vol. I) [IA]
    • The Two Gentlemen of Verona
    • Love’s Labour’s Lost
    • The Merry Wives of Windsor
    • Comedy of Errors
    • Taming of the Shrew
    • Midsummer Night’s Dream
    • The Merchant of Venice
  • Vol. II (Comedies Vol. II) [IA]
    • All’s Well That Ends Well
    • Much Ado About Nothing
    • Twelfth Night
    • As You Like It
    • Measure for Measure
    • Winter’s Tale
    • Tempest
  • Vol. III (The Histories Vol. I) [IA]
    • King John
    • King Richard II
    • King Henry IV Part I
    • King Henry IV Part II
    • King Henry V
  • Vol. IV (Histories Vol. II) [IA]
    • King Henry VI Part I
    • King Henry VI Part II
    • The First Part Of The Contention Of The Two Famous Houses Of York And Lancaster
    • King Henry VI Part III
    • The Second Part of the Contention Of The Two Famous Houses Of York And Lancaster
    • King Richard III
    • King Henry VIII
    • An Essay On The Three Parts Of King Henry VI And Richard III
  • Vol. V (Tragedies Vol. I) [IA]
    • Romeo and Juliet
    • Hamlet
    • Cymbeline
    • Othello
    • Timon of Athens
    • King Lear
  • Vol. VI (Tragedies Vol. II and Poems) [IA]
    • Macbeth
    • Troilus and Cressida
    • Coriolanus
    • Julius Caesar
    • Antony and Cleopatra
    • Supplementary Notice to the Three Roman Plays
    • Venus and Adonis
    • The Rape of Lucrece
    • Sonnets
    • A Lover’s Complaint
    • The Passionate Pilgrim
    • Verses Among the Additional Poems to Chester’s Love’s Martyr, 1601
    • Supplementary Notice to the Poems
  • Vol. VII (Doubtful Plays, Etc. [known as the “Supplemental Volume”] see also, Studies of Shakspere linked above).  Extracts from the texts of Ascribed plays, along with Knight’s comments, appear in this volume. [IA]
    • Titus Andronicus
    • Pericles
    • The Two Noble Kinsmen
    • Plays Ascribed to Shakespeare
    • Locrine
    • Sir John Oldcastle, Part I
    • The Life and Death of Thomas Lord Cromwell
    • The London Prodigal
    • The Puritan
    • A Yorkshire Tragedy
    • Notice on the Authorship of A Yorkshire Tragedy
    • Arden of Feversham
    • The Reign of King Edward III
    • George-A-Greene
    • Fair Em
    • Mucedorus
    • The Birth of Merlin
    • The Merry Devil of Edmonton
    • Appendix
    • Indexes
  • Vol. VIII [No View – This volume contains the biography, for which see the 1843 version, linked above, or the 1860 version, linked below] [IA]

Shakespeare, William. The works of William Shakspere; from the text of the editions by C. Knight. With glossarial notes and facts connected with his life, illustr. by W. HarveyH. G. Bohn, 1859.  A single volume edition using the Knight text with several of the Harvey illustrations.

Shakespeare, William, Charles Knight, and John Gilbert. The Works of Shakspere with 340 Illustrations by Sir John Gilbert, A.R.A.. London,  G. Routledge & Sons, 1875.  Vol. I, Vol. II.

Knight, Charles.  William Shakspere: A Biography, George Routledge and Sons, 1860.  Kmight’s biography accompanied many of his editions and was reprinted widely in the nineteenth century.

Works By/About Knight

Works By Knight

  • Clowes, Alice A.  Charles Knight: A Sketch, R. Bentley & son, 1892.  Clowes was Knight’s granddaughter.
  • Knight, Charles.  Passages of a Working Life During Half a Century, With a Prelude of Early Reminiscences, 3 volumes:  Vol. I, Vol. II, Vol. III, Published by Bradbury & Evans, 1864-1865.  Knight’s reminiscences regarding the Pictorial edition of 1838-43 can be found in vol. II, pp. 283-311.
  • Knight, Charles.  Studies of Shakspere: Forming a Companion Volume to Every Edition of the Text, C Knight, 1849.  This volume contains “a history of opinion on the writings of Shakespeare,” which can be found in the original Vol. VIII to the Pictorial Edition along with other materials later added by Knight, and is meant to be a supplement to his editions.
  • Stephen Leslie, Lee, Sidney, et al. “Knight, Charles” in the Dictionary of National Biography, 1909.
  • Charles Knight’s Imperial Edition, 38 illustrations from that edition.