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Sources for Shakespeare’s biography

When opening a work of Shakespearean biography, it’s not unusual to find some sort of lament about a lack of data – albeit that it quickly becomes clear that this has not stood in the way of producing a substantial volume. However, rather than dwell on how this can still be done, perhaps we should re-examine what we mean when we say there is little to go on. Perhaps it is not so little after all, rather that, for some people, much of it is the wrong sort of information — that is, it doesn’t confirm the picture already in their mind’s eye, simply from reading Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, as to what sort of man he was. So, rather than taking too close a look at what we have, it is for them a safer option to express the traditional regret and dissatisfaction about how little has survived and then to dismiss the awkward bits as irrelevant (or too challenging) in their search for Shakespeare’s true identity.

First, though, are we any shorter of biographical data on Shakespeare than we can reasonably expect to be? Of course, it’s no use arguing that the material we have is plentiful. Archives from Shakespeare’s time did not survive because of their potential importance for posterity but because, generally speaking, there was some structure in place to improve their chances of survival; in particular the existence of an institution of some permanence in whose store rooms, often by accident rather than design, these archives could for centuries languish unnoticed and undisturbed. Thus, when looking at what has survived, mountains of data are still to found amongst the records of central government flanked by outliers arising out of the activities of other official agencies at regional, county, diocesan, town, parish, and manor level. In a different category are the records of the great landed families whose existence over centuries has led to the survival of respectable quantities of archive material, bearing in mind too the cross-over effect of members of such families frequently holding offices of state or important positions in the church. Records of other institutions of some permanence – schools, universities, Inns of Court – can also yield helpful data. But from this it follows that information on a particular individual, especially at a distance of 450 years, tends to be confined to occasions when he or she came into the orbit of these record-keeping agencies. So, when diving into such accumulations looking for information on Shakespeare, we will be largely dependent on the frequency with which he strayed in that direction.

Haunts of Shakespeare, no. 1 by Paul Braddon. Folger Digital Image Collection, Cornell University Library. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Shakespeare, however, attended a school whose records are lost, did not go to university or the Inns of Court; did not enter public service or become a government employee in any capacity; did not enter the households of the great or enjoy their patronage; hardly ever appeared in the civil courts; was never, as far as we know, prosecuted for a criminal offence or even a misdemeanour; and spent most of his life working for a theatrical company whose records are lost. Inevitably, then, biographical information is going be limited. Ironically, even the records which get us closest to the man – the several references to him in Richard Quiney’s correspondence (including the only surviving letter addressed to him) and evidence of Shakespeare’s attitude towards the Welcombe enclosures, to be found in Thomas Greene’s notes on the controversy in which he too had a personal interest – have only come down to us because, by fortunate accident, they became buried in the Stratford Corporation records. Quiney died in 1601 whilst serving as Stratford-upon-Avon’s bailiff, leaving a bundle of personal papers in the town’s official archives, and when Greene resigned as the Corporation’s steward in 1617, he didn’t clear his desk properly, leaving behind some personal material, including his Welcombe enclosure notes.

Bearing all this mind, then, perhaps Shakespeare’s biographers, rather than bemoaning the loss of archival data, should instead express some satisfaction that against the odds we still have quite a lot to go on. Of course, it doesn’t permit the writing of an intimate biography but then nor would this be a practical proposition for whole swathes of the population who lived outside what we might call the establishment and who never got into serious trouble with the authorities. So why not simply look at what has come down to us and draw what conclusions we can. For some – those who wish to know about his day-to-day life, his personal frustrations, his state of mind when he wrote his greatest plays, and his working relationship with his theatrical colleagues – this may have little appeal and they may instead seek to get closer to the writer through analysis of the words which he puts into his characters’ mouths, or less helpfully to indulge in flights of fancy. However, for those who prefer to stick to historical data, the surviving records do allow other themes to be profitably explored. For instance, they provide good evidence of the gradual improvement in Shakespeare’s financial and social position through careful management of his business affairs and the investment in real estate and other income-generating assets to provide longer term security for himself and his family; and also, later in his career, when his income from theatrical sources began to slacken off, how he took steps to ensure that this investment income would not be undermined. At the same time, though, by comparison with the financial position of other town gentry and by taking a realistic view of his daughters’ marriages and the later history of his family, we can see that by the time of his death Shakespeare had barely made it into the ranks of the minor gentry of a local market town. Such considerations are often ignored or glossed over as mundane or irrelevant when discussing the life of a literary genius but this was not necessarily how Shakespeare saw things.

We can’t be sure, of course, quite what lay behind his financial decision-making but the surviving data clearly show that he took a realistic attitude towards the need to provide security for himself and his family and allow us, as it would his contemporaries, to measure to what extent he succeeded simply by examining his ‘lifestyle’. Why dismiss this evidence as peripheral when in fact it provides the best-documented insight we have into one important aspect of his life? It doesn’t throw much light on the inner workings of Shakespeare’s creative mind, but it does at least remind us that he was a man of his time with worldly considerations to contend with in what to us would be a harsh and unforgiving world.

Recent Comments

  1. steve

    1) Exactly Zero of Shakespeare’s personal papers survive. That is highly unusual considering the shear volume of material that must have existed, the scarcity of valuable paper that would have been saved if only for scrap, and the army of researchers that have spent centuries reviewing every scrap of paper in Europe to find any trace of the man.

    2) No correspondence from a William Shakespeare has ever been discovered. This is highly unusual because the Works of William Shakespeare are crammed with references to the latest discoveries in science; scholars date the plays by identifying contemporary events in the plays. The writer MUST have been in constant communication with intellectuals, but none of them thought Shakespeare important enought to save his personal writings.

    3) No person ever mentions William Shakespeare in the 3rd person e.g. “I dined with Shakespeare” or “Shakespeare borrowed a book of mine…”

    So although there is plenty of material that relates to a William Shaksper of Stratford, none of that material relates to any literary activity. Its as if Shake-speare (spelling from the cover of The Sonnets) the Writer and Shaksper (the most common spelling from the Stratford records) are two different people…

  2. Richard M. Waugaman, M.D.

    The best book on this is The Truth about William Shakespeare, by David Ellis of the University of Kent. He says the excessive speculation in Shakespeare biographies not only discredits Shakespeare biographies, but discredits the very genre of biography itself.

    And Diana Price has written in Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography that there’s ample evidence to prove other Elizabethan authors were known to have been writers during their lifetimes. Not a scrap of unequivocal evidence for Shakspere of Stratford, however.

  3. […] Sources for Shakespeare's biography Shakespeare, however, attended a school whose records are lost, did not go to university or the Inns of Court; did not enter public service or become a government employee in any capacity; did not enter the households of the great or enjoy their … Read more on OUPblog (blog) […]

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