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Shakespeare and the Documents, Part 2:


The origins of Shakespeare's professional career, though, are still controversial. We still don't know where or with whom he became an actor and writer. But after 1592 his life in London becomes clearer. In 1592 a rave review - and a panning by a jealous rival as an "upstart crow" - are our first definite notices, though he had probably been living in the city since 1589. Shakespeare's early fame came through history plays, a trilogy on the Wars of the Roses, and by end of 1592 he had written their sequel, "Richard III." His first great rival and inspirer, Christopher Marlowe, was murdered in May 1593. In 1594-5 Shakespeare wrote his first masterpieces, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Romeo and Juliet," and soon a second brilliant tetralogy on English history starting with "Richard II" and his first "Henry IV" play in 1595-6. The first play published with his name on the cover was a revision of "Love's Labour's Lost" in 1598.

In his private life he is always hard to pin down, but interesting light can be cast on his time in London by looking at his neighborhoods. London has a very rich body of source material, much of it accessible in the Guildhall Library: parish registers, guild companies' accounts and memoranda books, early maps, clothworkers' company plans; early books include the indispensable guide book of John Stow from 1598, and the Carriers Cosmographie by John Taylor (on the London inns); among court records the Middlesex Court Sessions offer vivid detail on crime in Shakespeare's Shoreditch; there are even wonderful black and white photographs of areas only destroyed in the nineteenth century such as Bishopsgate, and which are now kept in the National Monument Record. Out of these it is possible to paint a vivid picture of the places where Shakespeare lived and worked, and to begin to map the pattern of his friends and contacts.

Eight addresses are suggested by our sources, starting perhaps with the rough theatre area of Shoreditch where later tradition said Shakespeare got his first job as a runner, prompt boy and horse holder. His first definite address is Bishopsgate which he left as a tax debtor in autumn 1596, very soon after death of his son. He had probably been living there as far back as 1592, and maybe earlier. Crosby Hall, which may have been right outside his window, is written into "Richard III." Perhaps he moved to this better neighborhood once he had started earning good money.

His next address was in Paris Garden on the South Bank, near the new Swan theatre where his company, who were in dispute with their landlord in Shoreditch, may have played the winter season of 1596. The tax men tracked him down there in 1596-7, and there too he is named, in a summons for causing grievous bodily harm in autumn 1596, with Francis Langley the owner of the Swan, who lived in the manor House on Upper Ground. Local landmarks again appear in the plays of this time - the Castle (today's Anchor in Bank End), and the Windmill, in the "Henry IV" plays, and famously the Elephant, at the end of Horseshoe Lane is named in "Twelfth Night" as the "best place to Lodge." By spring 1599 when the Globe Theatre was under construction, William was living in a house on site; around this time he also appears residing in the Liberty of the Clink close to the Bishop of Winchester's palace, whose ruins still survive today near Borough Market.

By late in Elizabeth's reign Shakespeare was a famous poet and playwright and there are a number of references to him and his plays between 1598 and 1602. The contemporary critic Francis Meres refers to him as the best English writer for comedy and tragedy; university students loved his erotic poem Venus and Adonis: "Sweet Mr Shakespeare," wrote one, "I'll sleep with his Venus and Adonis under my pillow." His private sonnets circulated in manuscript among London's literary types. Several plays are published now with his name, and three of the histories - "Richard II," "Richard III" and "Henry IV Part 1" - were modest bestsellers which ran through several editions. He is also named in documents for his company, the Chamberlain's Men, who were also sought after for private performances and for shows for foreign dignitaries, such as the ambassador from Morocco in 1601, a noble moor who may perhaps find an echo in "Othello."

In early 1602 he was living back north of the river. A court case over a disputed dowry shows he was lodging with the Mountjoy family in a house on the corner of Silver Street, and Monkwell (or Muggle) Street. William had been the go-between in the marriage of their daughter to their apprentice Stephen Belott which took place in November 1604; he may still have been living there through the writing of "King Lear" (autumn-winter 1605-6) and "Macbeth," which was written through summer 1606, and performed late that year. His life in Silver Street is lit up by a vivid series of documents and in the court case he is named 26 times, signing one deposition in his own hand. When questioned he tells the court of Mountjoy's "goodwill and affection" towards the apprentice, and how Marie's mother Mary "did solicit and entreat [me] to move and persuade Belott to effect the marriage": Shakespeare for once speaking in his own voice!

All this time it is assumed Shakespeare's family were living back in Stratford. (He would have only gone home for a lengthy period at Lent when the theatres were closed.) The death of his son Hamnet in the summer of 1596 must have been a terrible blow and may shadow some of the sonnets written the next year. Some of the things he does in the aftermath are revealing. Ten weeks later William applied for a coat of arms for his father and himself at the College of Arms. The College still exists, and its collection of documents offers one of the most interesting insights into Shakespeare, with detailed notes taken by the Herald on the family history, including William's tradition that his great grandfather had fought valiantly for Henry VII and been rewarded with land. In early 1597 he bought the second biggest house in Stratford, New Place (one of the purchase documents survives) and seems to have put some effort into renovating it (the Stratford council minutes record their purchase from him of surplus stone). From this time too comes the only surviving letter to Shakespeare: from his friend Richard Quiney "to my loving and good countryman" asking to borrow money. Like his father, it is quite likely that William operated on the side as a money lender.

Among some fascinating documents from the early seventeenth century which name Shakespeare, one cluster centers on his appointment as a King's Man and a royal servant. In the PRO in Kew is the royal license to William and company to do shows all over England as the King's Men. Also in the PRO is a document of the Master of Revels, long thought a forgery but now proved authentic, which lists the entertainments put on at James's first Christmas court, including plays by "Shaxberd." Another fascinating Public Record Office document lists the issue of "scarlet red cloth" to William and colleagues for the royal entry of 1604. This was for William's scarlet woollen livery which he wore as a gentleman usher: very likely the jacket he wears in the famous Folio engraving, our only certain portrait.

James processed through London under huge wooden triumphal arches topped with obelisks, and two of William's sonnets, 123 and 125, evidently refer to the pomp, spin and outward show of the day somewhat disparagingly. From the same time perhaps is Sonnet 124 which is about "heretic" politics; and the "witnesses" the poet calls upon, the "fools of time which die for goodness who have lived for crime" are usually taken as being those died for their faith at Tyburn.

"Shakespeare and the Documents: the sources for the bard's life"
by Michael Wood

Shakespeare and The Documents

Part 1: Early Life
Part 2: Career
Part 3: Religion

The Evidence

John Shakespeare's fine for wool dealing
Stratford Council records
Baptismal register, Stratford parish church
Shakespeare's summons
Marriage certificate
William Knell coroner's report
Coat of arms application
Burial of Hamnet Shakespeare
Shakespeare's will
Burial of William Shakespeare
In your state
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