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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Recounting Shakespeare's Life

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 22

What do we know about Shakespeare’s life? The answer: Not as much as we would like to. As much or as little, in other words, as we would about any middle-class Englishman of his time. 

This episode of Shakespeare Unlimited considers not only that question, but two others: During the past four centuries, when and how did biographers learn about Shakespeare’s life? And does knowing about any writer’s biography, including Shakespeare’s, make any difference in responding to their work?

To tackle those big, and intriguing, questions, Rebecca Sheir talks with Brian Cummings, Anniversary Professor of English at the University of York. Cummings delivered the 2014 Shakespeare’s Birthday Lecture on “Shakespeare, Biography, and Anti-Biography” at the Folger Shakespeare Library; the lecture also opened the Folger Institute’s NEH-funded collaborative research conference, Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography, which Cummings co-organized.

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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Published April 8, 2015. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “The Story of My Life from Year to Year,” was produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. Edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. With help from Lisa Burch and Chris Robins at the University of York.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. This podcast is called “The Story of My Life from Year to Year.”

Every April, in celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday, the Folger invites an eminent scholar to deliver a lecture on Shakespeare. 2014 marks Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, and the talk was on a topic perfectly suited for such an auspicious anniversary: What exactly do we know about Shakespeare? Most scholars acknowledge that the answer is, not as much as we would like, about as much as we know for other middle-class Englishmen of his time.

The speaker, Brian Cummings, Anniversary Professor of English at the University of York, included a fascinating glimpse of where precisely that paltry amount of information comes from, its impact on our understanding of Shakespeare, and how much any of that matters in the end, when looking at the life of someone who spent his career making things up. Brian was kind enough to come back into a studio at his university to talk more about this with Rebecca Sheir.

SHEIR: So Brian, we don’t really have a lot of facts about Shakespeare’s life. What effect did that have on his biography?

CUMMINGS: Well, in a way, there’s two different kinds of story here. There’s the story of Shakespeare’s life, and then there’s a quite separate story of the telling of Shakespeare’s life. And the telling of Shakespeare’s life didn’t really get going until a long time after Shakespeare died. So, in a way, it was a question of the biography trying to catch up with the life, and only being able to do so after the event, by which time there was nobody around anymore that could remember Shakespeare, or tell the stories that people wanted to hear, which didn’t, of course, stop them from trying to find people who could tell stories anyway. But it meant that there is this basic lack of fit between the original life itself and the way that the story of that life has been told.

SHEIR: So doesn’t that kind of create a problem for getting anything that might be considered authentic?

CUMMINGS: It’s extremely difficult to get something that might be considered authentic. If you wanted to make a list, a sort of inventory of facts about Shakespeare’s life, I’ve done it. You can do it in about two and a half pages. You’re left with a baptismal record, a record of burial, there is the tomb in the church in Stratford, and then beyond that, over time, what we might call a documentary record of Shakespeare’s life has been built together, very painstakingly, with a certain amount of material that was found very quickly in the 17th century and then a lot more material that was found mainly in the 19th century, as people got really interested in the question. But, as I say, you’d be talking about a couple of pages, things to do with the bare, bare facts of a life, plus documents associated with house purchases, plus some documents associated with Shakespeare’s part in the theater, but not as a writer, as an actor and a shareholder in the company.

SHEIR: And that’s fascinating because, like you say, the handful of things we do know about Shakespeare, barely anything has to do with his writing. So, what were the earliest biographers working with?

CUMMINGS: They were working with anecdotes. I mean, you have to remember here that the whole idea of how to write a life is something that we’ve developed since those times, and, you know, when somebody now sets about trying to write the biography of a famous writer like Samuel Beckett, or whoever it might be, that there’s a sense of where you go to find that material.

In the 17th century, there were anecdotes that were told, there’s a kind of tradition of writing what we might now call “pen portraits,” in which you write a brief character of somebody in a couple of paragraphs. But nothing like the attention that we have to the sense of “Where does somebody come from?” And in some sense, not even the same shape or structure of what we think a life story even looks like. I mean, the idea that you think about childhood, especially, and that you’re trying to find out about how somebody might have first formed their life, the way in which we might think that writing associates itself with personal experience. These things we think about in a very different way now. So, in a way, we’re trying to make a story that doesn’t exist in its original form.

SHEIR: It seems even the definition of biography has changed a lot. I mean, Samuel Johnson didn’t include Shakespeare in his Lives of the English Poets, but the reason you give is interesting, in that, it had nothing to do with Shakespeare, but a lot to do with the contemporary definition of biography.

CUMMINGS: Yes. I mean, “biography” itself as a word is late 17th century, and that’s not just in English. You could find a similar story about other European languages. French, for instance, it would be late 17th, early 18th even. And so Samuel Johnson, when he wrote his first essay of a kind of poetic life was 1744, with the Life of Richard Savage. And then, in the 1770s, 1780s, he developed that into a whole set of lives.

But his original idea was not so much what we might call a life. It was prefaces to the writing of a poet, and in some ways, a large part of that was describing the character of that poetry, the style, and then that started to mix with a sense of life details and how you could associate those. But Johnson had mainly a sense that you could only do that with a writer that you had some knowledge of, personal knowledge of, so he concentrated on writers either that he’d known and met, or else on others that he could get reports from, because he was looking for what we might think of as anecdotes, more than, I suppose, our sense of a documentary record.

SHEIR: The first person to write anything biographical about Shakespeare is Thomas Fuller.


SHEIR: Can you talk about him and his Worthies of Warwickshire?

CUMMINGS: Well, Fuller is interesting for several reasons. One is to do with him as a person. So Fuller was not just a writer of lives, he was also an antiquarian in general, and especially about the Church of England, so he wrote a history of the church in England, which went back before the Reformation. The second thing is when he was writing. Fuller was collecting his materials in the wake of Civil War, and there was a kind of conscious nostalgia about him of trying to recover what life had been like, before Charles I had been executed, before the country had been turned upside down. And Shakespeare is part of a massive effort called his Worthies, where he goes county by county, as if on a kind of tour of the country, uncovering interesting lives and interesting facts about people who lived all over the country.

SHEIR: So, today, we consider maybe our modern-day Worthies are our celebrities?

CUMMINGS: In some ways, actually it’s really rather a similar effort, and a similar sense about it that it casts you on a literary, it’s not archival. Fuller wants to give us a picture of what a person is like, and that’s what he does with Shakespeare, and, frankly, he makes up most of what he has.

SHEIR: Did Fuller set Shakespeare apart? That is, did he set him above all other writers, like we do today? Or, at that point in time, did he lump William Shakespeare in with his contemporaries, like, say, Ben Jonson?

CUMMINGS: No… sure, that’s a really interesting question. I mean, there are two ways in which you can go with that, and they’re both slightly wrong. One important thing to say is that Shakespeare is not as famous in the 17th century, anywhere near as he is now. So, Shakespeare as “the great writer of the English language” is an 18th-century figure. But then, it’s easy to exaggerate that and give a sense that Shakespeare is completely unknown. That’s not at all the case. Shakespeare is a name to reckon with in the mid-17th century.

But the comparison that Fuller makes very explicitly is with Ben Jonson. And he does so, actually so much that you begin to doubt how much of it’s based upon truth, because it’s such a sort of clear dichotomy between whole theories of writing. So he makes Jonson a figure of art, who is a classicist, who is interested in Latin and Greek writing, and Shakespeare is presented as a kind of natural genius, and in fact, he gives a kind of strange naval metaphor for it, in which he compares Jonson to a sort of Spanish warship and Shakespeare to a little sort of English fighting boat, much faster and quicker, but with less firepower, as it were. And actually, he gives Shakespeare the advantage in that. In a way, that’s the national myth that’s remained. One of the reasons that is given for Shakespeare as a great genius of the English language is, somehow, a “poet of nature” rather than a poet of art or learning or schooling.

SHEIR: This comparison between William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, John Aubrey does something similar. Who was John Aubrey?

CUMMINGS: Well, John Aubrey was an educated man, something like a man of leisure, you might call him, but with a fascination for curiosities of all kinds. And he kept something like journals or daybooks, in which he jotted down interesting facts. Eventually, these were collected into something called his Brief Lives, which, in many ways, you could call, along with Fuller, the first really big book of biographical sketches. But it wasn’t just biography, you know. He was interested in kind of interesting facts about the weather, or strange happenings that go on in the countryside, or sightings of witchcraft, or whatever it might be.

SHEIR: So, it’s kind of like an encyclopedia?

CUMMINGS: It’s a kind of somewhere between an encyclopedia and a blog, yeah.

SHEIR: Does he tell any anecdotes about Shakespeare?

CUMMINGS: He tries to. He gives a kind of character sketch in which he says that, you know, Shakespeare’s a witty man and a fine companion, and he comes up with a story of Shakespeare, kind of as a sort of incipient poet, arising out of his father’s work, which he thinks is a butcher. So he thinks Shakespeare’s the son of a butcher, and he has him kind of creating epic-style poems on the basis of his encounters with animals in the workshop.

SHEIR: Do we know what Shakespeare’s father actually did in real life?

CUMMINGS: Yes, if we’ve got the right Shakespeare [LAUGH] to be his father, which we probably do, then he was a businessman, certainly traded in animal skin for the making of gloves, and also had larger business interests in Stratford-upon-Avon, where he became a sort of local civic dignitary and alderman.

SHEIR: Many people credit Nicholas Rowe as writing the first Shakespeare life. What was Rowe’s book?

CUMMINGS: Well, Rowe was a man of the theater, quite an interesting guy, actually, a writer, a sort of entrepreneur of the theater, a director, as we might call them now. And he decided to put together an edition of Shakespeare’s works and it’s a very important book, in that it’s the first separate edition of Shakespeare. So in the 17th century, the First Folio was produced after Shakespeare’s death and was reprinted in revised forms three times, so there are four full Folios of the 17th century. And then Rowe, in 1709, brought out the first independent edition of Shakespeare in six volumes. But he begins with a kind of literary introduction, which includes what he calls “Some Account of the Life of William Shakespeare.” And to do that, he sent people off, as a sort of tourist kind of investigators, back to Stratford, and tried to pick up anything like a kind of train of anecdotal remembrance of anything that anybody could remember of Shakespeare.

SHEIR: Wasn’t Rowe the one who came up with that fantastical story that Queen Elizabeth commissioned a play from Shakespeare and actually suggested to him what the topic should be?

CUMMINGS: Well, the first person that came up with the story may have been John Dennis, just a few years before, but it’s the same decade as Rowe, and Rowe certainly mentions it. Obviously, it was evident from the plays themselves that the character of Falstaff was grafted into a new form, in that he begins as a figure in history plays and then has a comedy all to himself. And so, Dennis and then Rowe come up with this, yeah, this story out of nowhere that Queen Elizabeth saw Falstaff on stage and said she would like to have him in love and so, The Merry Wives of Windsor is the play that they say was based on that.

SHEIR: But not true.

CUMMINGS: Well, there’s absolutely no record of Elizabeth doing any such thing. I mean, it is true that Shakespeare’s plays, among other plays of the time, were performed for the court, as well as the public performances in theaters. And there are records from three or four different years, mainly in the reign of James actually, rather than Elizabeth, but there are records of plays being put on before the monarch. So, it’s not impossible that Elizabeth could have seen a performance of Henry IV, Part 1 or Henry IV, Part 2, but there’s absolutely no record of it, and that kind of version of Elizabeth turning up to the Globe and cheering things on that we get from Shakespeare In Love, that’s complete invention. We’ve got no record of the queen ever turning up to a public theater. In fact, it’s most unlikely that she did.

SHEIR: And Nicholas Rowe also put in stories about Shakespeare as an actor, too, didn’t he?

CUMMINGS: Well, this was one of the things that Rowe and other people really wanted to get at, and thought they had perhaps some prospect of getting at. So, there was a kind of tradition of acting that was in Rowe’s own time, where there’s a feeling of legacy from the theater of the past. The first theaters of the Restoration included actors who would say, “I learned my trade at the hands of such-and-such a person,” and would link themselves back to the theater of the pre-Civil War period.

So there was that kind of interest, but there was much less of a real record than you might think. And so, the main stories are stories that only appear around about 1700, the story of Shakespeare playing the part of the Ghost in Hamlet or playing the old servant in As You Like It. They all come from around about the same time and some of them actually are stories probably made up by the sexton at Shakespeare’s church, who was certainly old, and claimed he was so old that he knew Shakespeare from life. But actually, if you do the math, he’s making that up, too. But he was plausible, you know? He looked like a kind of plausible character.

SHEIR: During this time, we also get the now-famous story of the deer poaching incident. Tell us what that is and where that story came from.

CUMMINGS: Where it came from? We’d all like to know that, but it arose around about the same time as these other stories with Rowe, so Rowe certainly includes it in 1709. There’s an independent appearance in some scattered records by a vicar called Richard Davies in Shropshire, and they tell more or less the same story, so you might even think perhaps they have some origin in local storytelling.

And they go along the lines of, there’s a local gentry man called Sir Thomas Lucy, he had a park, and there’s a story that there’s some poaching going on, not only of deer but also of rabbits, and somehow or other, the story comes up that Shakespeare was involved in this, that he was some kind of Sir Jackanapes, and got into trouble, and Lucy dealt with him in a very kind of heavy-handed way, and Shakespeare kind of bore a grudge against him. And at the same time, this is the key bit with Rowe, is that this gives him a kind of excuse for getting Shakespeare out of Stratford into London. I mean, that is the totally unexplained mystery of Shakespeare’s life. There’s a person called Shakespeare certainly living in Stratford. There’s a person called Shakespeare certainly working in the theater in London, but how you get from A to B, that’s the big story that any biography wants to tell, and so, this became for Rowe just a hook that he could throw something on. So, he could say, Shakespeare’s in trouble with the law, he has to leave in a hurry, and he ends up in London. Then the next question, how he gets to a theater, well, it’s basically, the next sentence starts, he’s in the theater.

SHEIR: In 2014, you gave the Shakespeare’s Birthday Lecture at the Folger, and you mentioned something kind of fun that relates to all this. It was something about how the smaller the piece of information, or the less likely it is to be true, the more importance it seems to have in the history of scholarship. Isn’t that a bit of a paradox?

CUMMINGS: Well, of course, it’s a kind of a professorial joke and I hope it’s one that’s aimed against myself as much as against my colleagues. I like to relate it, though, to something quite serious, and the easiest way of formulating this is by Daniel Kahneman’s definition in his works, he’s the Nobel Prize-winning economist, came up with the theory of the availability heuristic. So, if we know something, we assume that that thing is significant, and Kahneman does this as a way of explaining choices that we make all the time in our lives. Of course, he’s especially interested in the economic consequences of that. That because something is the case, we attach significance to our knowledge of that thing, and then we extrapolate that for an argument.

Now, we like to think that serious academic argument is immune from this kind of influence, but unfortunately, we’re only human, and so we work with what we have. Yeah, in saying that somehow it’s almost the insignificance that becomes significant, there I suppose I’m trying to be witty, but I’m also I think saying something serious, which is that sometimes the smallness of something is a way of making the argument in itself. So, we don’t look as if we’re telling a whopper about Shakespeare, we’re introducing something, you know, in itself, perhaps quite trivial. But it can lead to a chain of consequence, and the very fact that we can verify this at this level of detail, makes it seem more true than it would seem otherwise.

SHEIR: So, while we’re talking about facts and stories about Shakespeare, tell us about James Orchard Halliwell.

CUMMINGS: Ahh. In some ways, he’s my favorite Shakespearean, and a kind of paradigm Shakespearean for all time, in that he is somehow 50 percent scholar and 50 percent kleptomaniac, and you take your pick, really. There is no doubt that he is a genuinely bookish person, so, a phenomenal chaser of bibliographical facts, and tried to collect together a sense of the editorial history of Shakespeare in a serious kind of way. Also, to give him on the credit side, again, he certainly understood what we might think of as being archival accuracy. He was determined to find the facts as they were and then to say, “Well, what can we say on the basis of that?”

So, in some ways, you could say that he’s a skeptical biographer, in terms of the motivation that he has, but this goes with what we might also call character flaws. So, one, the very first things that… I mean, he was a phenomenon, a kind of prodigy, educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and became a fellow of the Royal Society and a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, you know, these are the really serious institutions to belong to. But, almost as soon as he becomes known, he was thrown out of Cambridge for stealing books, and that story stays with him. There’s a very good reason for thinking that he stole the only extant copy of the First Quarto of Hamlet a bit later. And since that involved his father-in-law-to-be, he lived with that for a long time, shall we say.

SHEIR: In addition to being a kleptomaniac, from what I understand, he was also a bit of a dumpster diver, as we call it in America? He was asking people to go through a huge garbage dump that he found in Stratford?

CUMMINGS: Well, in some ways you could say, yeah, he is that kind of dumpster chaser, or you could compare him with the kind of guy that works for an intelligence agency and that tries to pick up any kind of dirt on something, but in his case, the dirt he wanted was on Shakespeare. So if he heard that there was some piece of building works going on in Stratford, he would follow it up and make sure that they dug around to see if there was any paperwork. So, there was an old well that was found. He didn’t just clear it once, he actually had it cleared four times to make sure that if there was any scrap of paper that mentioned Shakespeare, he would be the guy that would find it.

SHEIR: And did he, in fact, find anything new about Shakespeare?

CUMMINGS: He did, actually. He did that, actually, by rather more regular kinds of archival work, so, not just the garbage clearance, but, you know, he had a very good sense of which archives had not yet been explored properly. And his most important discoveries were around the theater company, and he had the intelligence to realize that these might not be in the most obvious places. So, he would chase any records that he could of the theater companies and, as a result, found Shakespeare’s name in several documents to do with disputes over money associated with the shareholdings in those companies.

And so, you know, that’s not all of his work, but the result of that work is that we can reconstruct the size of Shakespeare’s owning in the company over a 20-year period and his main associations with other actors. And in many cases, those confirm the picture that we already have from the First Folio and also some of the records that we have, both from Shakespeare’s will and from the wills of other members of the company. So they gave each other gifts in kind on death that suggest this long-term friendship within the theater, which is actually a very, very important thing about understanding Shakespeare as a theatrical person.

SHEIR: In your lecture you gave at the Folger, you talked about two Americans who, in 1909, went looking for new Shakespeare anecdotes. Who were these Americans?

CUMMINGS: Well, Charles William Wallace was an academic. He worked at the University of Nebraska, and he and his wife combined that kind of academic work with what can only be described as an absolute personal dedication to the story of Shakespeare. And they took any opportunity in university vacation time to go to the Public Record Office in London and to scour through in the hope, well, actually, with the absolute intention of making the Shakespeare discovery of the century. They meant to do it, and it took them about 10 years and they definitely found something quite new, quite different, the nearest thing we have to a story about Shakespeare in everyday life, that’s not associated with business transactions of his.

SHEIR: Ooh, what is it?

CUMMINGS: Well, the lovely thing is that it’s a trial, which is exactly where you would expect to find a record. I mean, to be honest, if you’re looking for any record of a 17th-century person that isn’t involved in government, the chances are that it’ll only be if they’ve been sued for something, or they sued somebody else for something, or if they’re a witness.

So, in this case, Shakespeare is the witness in a very minor trial about a dispute about a marriage, about whether somebody’s made a promise to marry somebody or not. And he turns out to be somebody who knows this family, living as a lodger in the same house and gives a deposition, where he seems to be telling as much as he wants to tell about the case.

So it’s sensational in a certain sense, because it’s the independent life of Shakespeare. But the Wallaces themselves, they recorded a kind of diary of their, they actually call it their feelings, as they were doing this search, and what they record is that they knew the bigness of it, but they hoped for something bigger. So they were disappointed. There was almost a sense of a kind of the idea turning to dust on their own lips as they realized that although this was big by the standards of Shakespeare biography, it’s pretty small by the standards of the biography of any other person that’s ever been written.

SHEIR: In terms of looking at the life of a writer like William Shakespeare, do we really need to know all about his life in order to understand him as a writer?

CUMMINGS: Well, this is, in a way, you’ve hit upon the exact motivation that I have for thinking about this question. We live in a time which is fascinated by life story, by life writing, and I think for very profound and interesting reasons. But, as a result of that, we somehow assume that we always need to know the life to understand something, and what I think is so fascinating about the Shakespeare case is that it shows that, here we have the writer we most want to have a life about, and in that sense, we might say we most need a life in order to understand. That life doesn’t exist in the form that we want it to, and yet, there is no shortage of things to say about Shakespeare and his writing.

And in some ways, my work on this is a plea for us to read and to watch the plays, as sensitively as we can, and to make something of that enjoyment and try to explain it, and not to use a life in order to just kind of substitute for that explanation. And it’s something that begins with the life of Shakespeare, but then it turns out to affect the way that we think about many writers for whom we have a perfectly good life. I mean, 20th-century writers, especially. And the interesting thing there is that 20th-century writers keep on telling us, please don’t think that by understanding my biography, you will understand how I write. And we keep on ignoring these writers and keep on looking for the life history to explain how writing comes to be.

SHEIR: Well, Brian Cummings, thank you so much for talking with me.

CUMMINGS: Well, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you.

WITMORE: Brian Cummings is Anniversary Professor of English at the University of York. He has written widely on 16th-century religion and literature and delivered our Shakespeare’s Birthday Lecture in 2014. He was interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.

Brian’s original lecture also opened the Folger Institute’s NEH-funded collaborative research conference, Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography, which he co-organized.

“The Story of My Life from Year to Year” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Lisa Birch and Chris Robins at the University of York.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.