Lena Cowen Orlin on The Private Life of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 180

Dr. Lena Cowen Orlin’s new book, The Private Life of Shakespeare, isn’t exactly a biography. Rather, it’s an exhaustive return to the primary sources that document Shakespeare’s life, a book that scholar James Shapiro says “demolishes shoddy claims and biased inferences that have distorted our understanding of Shakespeare’s life.” Orlin focuses on five much-talked-about elements of Shakespeare’s life, and then lays out fact after fact after fact about them drawn from her assiduous research. We talk with her about a few of those elements, including Shakespeare’s relationship with Anne Shakespeare, how he escaped an apprenticeship and career in Stratford-upon-Avon, and his funerary monument in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church. Orlin is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Soundcloud, NPR One, or wherever you find your podcasts.

Lena Cowen Orlin at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford on Avon.Dr. Lena Cowen Orlin is an Emerita Professor of English at Georgetown University. From 1982 to 1996, Orlin coordinated postdoctoral seminars and conferences as Executive Director of the Folger Institute. In 2011 and 2012, she researched at the Folger as one of our Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellows. Her new book, The Private Life of William Shakespeare, was published by Oxford University Press in November of 2021.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published December 7, 2021. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “I See a Man’s Life.,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. Leonor Fernandez edits our transcripts. We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Lauren Schild and John Rigatuso at Clean Cuts studios in Washington, DC.

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Shakespeare Documented
Explore the largest and most authoritative collection of primary-source materials documenting the Shakespeare's life in a groundbreaking digital exhibition.

Excerpt: The Private Life of William Shakespeare
Read an excerpt from Dr. Orlin's book about Shakespeare's memorial bust on our Shakespeare and Beyond blog.

Shakespeare Unlimited: Myths About Shakespeare, with Emma Smith
The author of This Is Shakespeare and co-author of 30 Myths About Shakespeare does some Shakespearean mythbusting about topics like the second-best bed and the curse of "the Scottish Play."

Shakespeare Unlimited: James Shapiro on The Year of Lear
The Shakespeare biographer takes an up-close look at 1606, the year Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra.


MICHAEL WITMORE: It’s almost impossible to look into the distant past and know everything and even anything for sure. But for some reason, that hasn’t stopped people from crafting stories about the life of William Shakespeare that we end up taking as the absolute truth.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director. From 1982 until 1996, Lena Cowen Orlin was Executive Director of the Folger Institute. And from 2011 until 2012, she was here at the Folger as one of our Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellows, working on a book that she titled, The Private Life of William Shakespeare.

This book, as you’ll hear, is not a Shakespeare biography. Instead, Dr. Orlin focuses on five elements of Shakespeare’s life, and then lays out fact after fact after fact about them. The result, as you might imagine, is an exhaustive understanding of the facts of Shakespeare’s life and an equally exhaustive understanding of the stories people have told over the years, based on their assembly of those facts: true stories, untrue stories, unproveable stories, and stories that are honestly just too good to check.

Dr. Orlin came into a studio in Washington, DC recently to tell us about some of this material for a podcast we call “I See a Man’s Life.” Dr. Lena Cowen Orlin is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: Not every book has a great origin story, I have to say that. But I think yours qualifies. So, tell us, how did the myth about Shakespeare hating his wife because he left her his second-best bed lead you to write this book?

LENA COWEN ORLIN: I was reading another project without any intention of ever working on Shakespeare, but I started to notice that I was seeing an awful lot of “second-best” beds. And I even came across one woman who had seven children and who left her first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh-best bed. They like that term, “best.”

BOGAEV: So yeah, that’s funny. Does that mean if you got the seventh-best bed, you should feel bad about it? Or you should feel good about all the best beds?

ORLIN: Yeah, what I was coming across was that nobody ever gave a bed as an insult. They were also perfectly happy to give a “worst” bed. So, I might read a will where somebody got a house, the best horse, a garden, and the worst bed. What I gathered from that was that Shakespeare’s family knew what the second-best bed was, and so it was just a kind of family language.

BOGAEV: Okay, well, that’s interesting in and of itself. It’s like saying the “tall bed.” But what made your ears prick up at that? In terms of Shakespeare; writing a book about Shakespeare.

ORLIN: Yeah. People had put together a kind of myth that Shakespeare despised his wife. It dated back to the early 18th century, with a man who was charged to write a biography of Shakespeare and who never finished it, William Oldys.

He read Sonnet 93 in which the author of the sonnet said, “I will live like a despised husband.” And, even though it was a simile, nonetheless, Oldys and a great number of his followers wanted to believe that that was evidence that Shakespeare despised his wife. Over time, they put together other pieces of it. One piece of which was the second-best bed.

BOGAEV: Okay, so you’re reading about best beds and second-best beds and third-best beds. So, did you suddenly have this lightbulb go off in your head, and you thought, “Wait a second, there are all these suppositions made about this. I think I have to set the record straight.”

ORLIN: Well, at that point, I didn’t know whether or not I had anything more than a second-best bed, if you see what I mean. I didn’t know that whether I had anything more than a discussion of the will.

I decided that I would go spend some time in Stratford-Upon-Avon, working through records that are archived there, and came across other things. The book that I’ve written is not properly a biography. I would call it biographical because it’s not a complete history of his life. It just touches down wherever I found something in the archives—and it could be one of the key documents we’ve always known about, but that I saw in a new light, or it could be new documents that other people hadn’t talked about.

As I said, I just kind of touched down where I found things that I thought were of interest and that might help us understand his life in a different way than we’ve been led to think.

BOGAEV: Yeah, and it sounds like a complicated process, because when you started looking in these archives, you found a lot of contradictory facts In the book, you clump them together and you call these evidence clusters. Then, your process—or it looks like your process—was to take three or four pieces of evidence from these disparate sources sometimes and pull them together to get closer to the truth. As an example, you do this for the real date of Shakespeare’s birth. So, where did you look for your evidence about that?

ORLIN: The evidence cluster that had been put together about his birthdate was a way of coping with the fact that we know when he was baptized, April 26th, but we don’t know when he was born.

In the 19th century, a man named James Halliwell-Phillipps—who I know has also featured in your podcast before—came across the record of the family of a man named John Dee. John Dee was an astrologer, and so he’s the unusual instance in which we actually have recorded birthdates. Halliwell-Phillipps pointed out that of John Dee’s four children, two of them were baptized three days after their birth. So, that’s the first piece of evidence in the cluster.

The second piece is that The Book of Common Prayer, the common liturgy for the period, directed that children should be baptized on Sundays, or holy days.

The third piece of the cluster was that, well, although, if he was not baptized on April 23, which we know to have been a Sunday, that would mean that he can’t have been born before April 23, people have reasoned. What about the fact that April 25, actually was a holy day? He wasn’t baptized until the 26th… so why wasn’t he baptized on the 25th? Well, then came forward a man who argued that Saint Mark’s Day, April 25, was known to be unlucky, so people avoid baptizing children then.

The evidence cluster is really a kind of issue of suppositions that, as you listen to it, you will recognize what people are trying to do, which is to drive the birth to April 23, because the 23rd was the feast day, the holy day, for the patron saint of England. It just seemed so fitting to people in the 18th and 19th centuries that the national poet should have been born on Saint George’s Day.

If you look at the records however—which is what I did—you find out, first of all, we have almost no information about actual birthdates compared to baptismal dates. Secondly, there were something like, thirty percent of the children who were born in Stratford-upon-Avon in the year 1564, who were baptized on Sundays or holy days. That means all the rest were not, in defiance of The Book of Common Prayer. Thirdly, children in Stratford were baptized on Saint Mark’s Day, so the family was not trying to avoid an unlucky day.

Put it all together, and what it means is that we have a kind of tissue of speculation about the date, that really has no relevance.

BOGAEV: I love how you come back to the beginning like a snake eating its own tail there. We know nothing. But we do know that… well, we do know that people have a lot of vested interest in figuring this out. And you really sleuthed to get to this conclusion: that we know nothing. But how did you know where to look for all of this evidence?

ORLIN: It’s a combination of things. I mean, the Parish Register still exists. And, you know, I went to The Book of Common Prayer, for example, and it’s pretty clear from the book that the reason they recommend baptisms on Sundays or on holy days has to do exclusively with the notion of the community celebration. It doesn’t have anything to do with the safety of the child, either physically or spiritually.

I tend to think that he was baptized on the 26th, which was a Wednesday, because Thursday was Market Day in Stratford-on-Avon, and I think they knew they were going to be busy. I think that they were taking care of the business of getting him baptized before they faced the big commercial day of the week.

BOGAEV: So practical, you’re thinking. But then there were the biographers or the scholars looking into it before, who really wanted it to conveniently coincide with Saint George’s Day. It almost—as I read your book, I get the sense that your book is almost as much about the origins of this genre of biography.

You write about early scholars, like, for instance, Malone, who began crafting narratives for Shakespeare’s life. Some of these biographers, they work on their theories even when they knew that the information they were putting out there was false. Why do you think that was happening? What do you sense they were going for?

ORLIN: You know, Malone’s an interesting case because he’s one who knew what Oldys had said about Sonnet 93, and he knew that that sonnet was directed to a young man. But he said, “Nonetheless, Oldys may have known something that I don’t know because he was a little bit closer to Shakespeare in time. After all, jealousy is a theme of so many Shakespeare tragedies. Doesn’t that prove that he felt that emotion?”

He was just determined to believe. He was also the one, by the way, who said that Shakespeare cut his wife off with an old shilling in his will. He was just determined to believe that it was an unhappy marriage. I don’t know enough about Malone’s personal life to know what motivated him, but certainly misogyny runs through everything that he wrote about Shakespeare. As was true of a number of others. By the time in 1832, it had been concluded in print, that the one thing we knew about Shakespeare, was that he hated his wife.

BOGAEV: Reading some of these earlier accounts, do you see very clearly, or through a glass darkly, their biases and their prejudices?

ORLIN: Well, Germaine Greer is somebody who’s written about how common it is to establish a kind of myth of a great man, especially great literary men, through unhappy marriages. In other words, their wives did not support them, their wives had no piece of their genius. In fact, they had to kind of rise above the marriage in order to reach or achieve their genius. It’s just a kind of notion that we seem still to believe.

BOGAEV: Blame the harridan.  

ORLIN: But also, that it’s his solitary genius. He achieved his—and by the way, the fact that he left his family in Stratford and went to London, kind of contributes to the idea that he was going off and doing this all on his own.

But another piece of it is that he was a natural genius. He was over and over again called a “natural wit.” So, there’s an old distinction that’s been made between Ben Jonson, the man of great education, and Shakespeare, the man who was just a natural genius.

I’m not sure myself, what the investment in the idea of the natural is, but it’s certainly something that’s prevailed across the course of Shakespeare biography.

BOGAEV: Well, picking up what you were saying about Malone, that, you know, if you look at Shakespeare’s plays, there’s a lot about jealousy, and he kind of grasped on to that. You go forward and you build a theory around that.

There are a lot of Shakespeare biographers, even today, who believe that looking at the plays or the sonnets, like Oldys or Malone, they’ll tell you about the writer. But then again, of course, many others say this is just utter hogwash, that it doesn’t work that way. Why do you think this happened then, and just continues to happen; that we try and read the artist through the art?

ORLIN: Right. Well you know, the first biography, the first proper biography of Shakespeare was written in 1709, by a man named Nicholas Rowe, who added a preface to his edition of Shakespeare’s plays. In it, he says that the reason he was adding this preface was because some knowledge of the life of a man could conduce to a better understanding of his works. That’s about the last time I think we’ve come across a phrase like that. Ever since then, things have been working in the opposite direction.

I do find that there’s a lot of specious, I believe, connections between the life and the works. I personally don’t think that I myself can ever know when it was that Shakespeare was writing autobiographically. In fact, I don’t really think he wrote autobiographically at all. I think he created characters and that we should read through that lens when we’re looking at his work.

So, when Malone said that four or five of the great tragedies are about jealousy and “Doesn’t that prove that he was experiencing jealousy himself?” I think, “Well, you know, jealousy is a pretty good engine of conflict in drama.

The challenge that I set myself when I was writing this book: I decided, I wanted to see if I could write something biographical about Shakespeare without ever mentioning a play or a poem. I didn’t quite succeed. I did wind up mentioning a few plays, but only by title. It’s not a literary biography in any sense.

BOGAEV: You did that because you didn’t want to make these kind of tenuous suppositions?

ORLIN: Yeah, that’s right. I mean, I think anybody who has approached Shakespeare would say, “Why would we be interested in a biography of this man, if not for the works?” So to leave out the works may be kind of a questionable thing to do. But I kind of assumed that we had enough interest in him, that maybe I could take that for granted and just try to see what I could find out independent of the works; as I said, going back to the archives.

BOGAEV: Yeah. Going back to your sleuthing, throughout the book, you often include bits of information that you found about a contemporary of Shakespeare. What light do these comparisons, with Shakespeare and the people around him, what light do they shed on him?

ORLIN: I do have a few stories of other people who lived in Stratford at the time. I refer to these people as cognates that help us see Shakespeare's life more clearly by contrast.

The first of the cognates that I talk about is actually his father. It seems kind of an odd way to approach it, but the question I was asking myself was, “Why did Shakespeare not just follow in his father’s footsteps?” His father was a man who’d grown up on a farm. He made a break, succeeded in moving to a town, had an apprenticeship, got trained as a leather worker and glovemaker, was quite prosperous, became a civic leader.

The children of those kinds of men had an automatic leg-up in Elizabethan society, in the sense that they didn’t have to work on the farm either. That they also had an opportunity to have a business, to make money.

The idea that Shakespeare would not follow that path is to me, I think, quite remarkable. How did he decide to turn away? The first cognate that I looked at was his father in terms of why his life wasn’t parallel to his father’s.

Another cognate I looked at was another man in town who I think was an interesting example of the kind of life Shakespeare might have lived had he followed his father’s path, had he become a businessman along his father’s lines.

Then I also talked a good deal about another family in town, for whom there happened to survive a great number of records, both in the public documents of the town and also in some of their private papers. The woman in that family, a woman named Elizabeth Quiney, seems to me to be a cognate, a parallel life, to that of Anne Shakespeare. It’s through understanding that woman’s career that I could begin to see the way in which Anne Shakespeare could also be understood as a businesswoman, as someone who is contributing to the livelihood of the family.

BOGAEV: Hmm. I want to follow up on Shakespeare’s father, because it’s fascinating what you turned up. You mentioned that his name appears on what seemed to be, in effect, terror watchlists. They were lists of suspected Spanish sympathizers who might act as spies. Tell me more about that, and how it helps fill in the blanks of Will Shakespeare’s story.

ORLIN: Right. So, there is a document that lists Shakespeare’s father as someone who lives in Stratford, and who has not been going to church. Church attendance was mandated in the period. People have taken this to mean that he was a recusant: That is, specifically, that he was Catholic.

One of the things that I tried to do in this study was that, when I looked at some of these key documents that we’ve always known about, or seem to have known about, for an awfully long time, was to read the whole thing, and to read other examples of similar kinds of documents.

What I understood from reading this document was that it was not a list of people who didn’t go to church. Its primary purpose was not to punish people who were not going to church, or to even to name people who weren’t going to church. It was, as I’ve called it and as you just said, a “terror watchlist.” Figures in the central government were concerned about the possible invasion from Spain. They were trying to come up with a list of people that they should worry about. But when they came up with this list, they broke the names that they collected into categories.

There was one category of people that they considered very much worth worrying about. And that was people who were known to have traveled on the continent and consorted with Catholic priests. They may have taken seminary priests into the country; they may have hidden them in their homes.

But John Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s father, was way down the list. Basically, in the category of people we don’t need to worry about. Because there’s good reason for them not to go to church. John Shakespeare was in the particular category of somebody who didn’t go to church because he was a debtor.

This was the downside. This is, I think, the breaking point, why Shakespeare didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps. Because after all the success that John Shakespeare had achieved in the late 1570s, he ran into business trouble and he grew to be seriously in debt. The reason he was avoiding church is because he was avoiding arrest.

The sheriff’s officers at the time were supposed to be on the watch for debtors in order to take them into prison. But they weren’t allowed just to knock on somebody’s door and arrest him. The place that was kind of fair game for them to arrest people was church.

BOGAEV: Okay, so this in the end, it helps to confirm or adds more proof to the fact that John Shakespeare was in financial trouble. You write that we know that William Shakespeare was in Stratford twice, after he left for London. Is it true that one of these visits had something to do with the failure of his father’s business?

ORLIN: Yes, it’s true. One of the brilliant things that John Shakespeare had done, in addition to getting himself from farm to town, was that he married a woman who was an heiress. She inherited from her father a piece of property that’s called familiarly, Asbies.

When he got into financial difficulties, one of the things that they did was basically mortgage the property to one of her relatives. It’s clear that what they were trying to do was buy themselves some time. Essentially to take out a loan from the relative to get back on their feet.

But they failed, and this arrangement with their relative extended over decades. It was finally in the 1590s that it, kind of, came to a head. The relative refused to cooperate any longer; he wasn’t going to loan the Shakespeares more money—which by that point they were asking for.

There was a meeting in Stratford that included not only the relative, but also Shakespeare’s father, Shakespeare’s mother, and himself. Shakespeare was named on the document having to do with this property because it was his inheritance, so he needed to be there in order to represent his own interests.

It’s in that meeting, I think, that he knew well and good that the property was lost. That he was going to have to make his own way, without the house. And he did. He may have lost Asbies, but he came back and bought a number of properties in the area and he succeeded on his own terms, where his father had failed.

BOGAEV: Well, this is great. Let’s stay on the money trail, because you speculate that William Shakespeare got married originally so that he could basically get out of dodge. I mean, make the case for that. What evidence is there? And explain this national law that was designed to keep young men of the provinces in the provinces?

ORLIN: The year before Shakespeare was born the government created a law called the Statute of Artificers, which had to do with regulating work, especially among young people. One of the things it said was that if you were born to a farm worker, you had to stay on the farm. If you were the child of a tradesman, then you were to be an apprenticed.

The idea was that by the time he was 17, a man should apprentice in a trade, and he was to serve in that apprenticeship for seven years. His indenture would not be up until he was about the age of 24.

Shakespeare, looking at the fact that this system had failed his father, was just about that age when he knew that he was going to have to spend the next seven, eight, nine years establishing himself, in Stratford. There’s apocryphal evidence that he would’ve been set up in business as a butcher. That he would’ve trained as a butcher.

BOGAEV: Wait, wait, hold the phone here. Shakespeare would’ve been a butcher?

ORLIN: Yeah, as I said, it’s apocryphal evidence. There’re stories from the late 17th century that his master was a butcher. And it actually makes perfect sense, because his father was a glove maker, and he would have gotten his leather goods from butchers.

I think that Shakespeare may have figured out that he didn’t really want to be a butcher, or, if the apocryphal evidence is false, any of the other things that he could’ve done in town through an apprenticeship. For him, those would’ve been long, wasted years towards training in a profession that he did not want.

Instead, what happened was that he got married at the age of 18. Extremely unusual. People normally did not get married until after they had completed their apprenticeships, and that’s true for both men and women. If you read the terms of indentures that were written setting up the apprenticeships for young people in this period, one of the things they say over and over again is, “Fornication he shall not commit. Matrimony he may not contract.” In other words, you violated the terms of your apprenticeship indenture if you married.

BOGAEV: So, by marrying, you speculate that that was his ticket out of Stratford because he couldn’t now be an apprentice because you weren’t allowed to be married when you’re an apprentice?

ORLIN: Exactly. There are all kinds of stories of young people breaking unhappy apprenticeships, but I think that this was a very… you know, give Shakespeare credit for knowing what he wanted and for thinking creatively. This was a kind of creative way for him to have launched an adult life that he was ready to undertake.

BOGAEV: Hmm. Okay, jumping ahead to your work on the monument at Shakespeare’s grave. What did you find? What is the significance of it?

ORLIN: I tried to approach the monument the same way I did the documents, in terms of looking at similar examples, alternatives, and so on. At the time that Shakespeare was buried, there were basically, if you were going to have figural representations on your monument, there were three types.

One’s the type we think of as medieval, with important people laid out on a chest tomb. You know, they’re full sculptural figures there. Another was figures of people kneeling prayer.

But then there was this very interesting type that was less focused on the kind of religious meanings of death, and more focused on the life that the person being commemorated had lived. It was a very unusual kind of monument, probably only employed for about 40 years, and it would show a portrait of the person from head to waist. Shakespeare had one of these unusual monuments.

As I traveled around England looking at other examples, I also realized that there was one further eccentricity about Shakespeare’s funerary monument, which was that there was a cushion at his waist. That is an unusual form that had been exampled essentially only in Oxford, in commemorating great scholars and great church leaders who lectured, who delivered sermons, and who wrote and published at Oxford University. What was interesting to me about this were a couple of things.

First of all, one of the apocryphal reports about Shakespeare’s life indicated that he went back and forth between London and Stratford annually. I would think at least annually. And he would break his stay at Oxford. I think that fact that his monument essentially replicates some of the monuments that he would have seen in the college chapels of Oxford, means that he was going to the chapels, he was hearing lectures, he was engaging in university culture.

Going back to the old myth of Ben Jonson, the learned Shakespeare, the natural genius, there’s been this long sense—Ben Johnson himself complained about it—this long sense that Shakespeare wasn’t university educated, and for that reason, how could he even have known some of the things he knew or wrote some of the things he wrote.

Well, I think he may have picked up a good deal of university life that we haven’t know about. And that his monument is a witness to that.

BOGAEV: That actually jives with some of the things one of our recent guests had to say about where Shakespeare might have picked up ideas about science and math that we see in the plays. Natalie Elliot told us about that. That’s really interesting. So, okay, in the end…

ORLIN: Could I say one more thing about the monument, by the way?

BOGAEV: Yeah, yeah, sure.

ORLIN: Okay, the other thing that it led me to believe is that Shakespeare probably commissioned his monument himself. In other words, he saw a design he liked, and he saw to it that it was replicated. It probably was completed before he died.

And so, it also extends my understanding of Shakespeare as self-determining. This goes back to the decision, I think, he made to get married when he was young, and to take himself away from Stratford. And to get himself to London.

I also see self-determination, in the terms of the way he was shaping how he would be remembered. To me, the commission of the monument is part of that way of understanding him. As someone who had thought out his private life, and what he wanted from it.

BOGAEV: And very aware of his legacy? Or creating his legacy.

ORLIN: Indeed. As I said, these monuments were about people’s lives. They were commemorations of important lives.

The men who were commemorated in Oxford for example, many of them were married, the monuments don’t mention their wives. Same thing for Shakespeare. It wasn’t about family. It wasn’t about producing heirs. It wasn’t about how religious they were. It wasn’t about how charitable they were. It was about the fact that they had lived important and worthy lives.

BOGAEV: Before I go on a rant about that, and male ego [LAUGHTER] Okay, here’s the big question. In the end, what most surprised you from your deep dive into the archives?

ORLIN: I think that the monument was the most surprising section I worked on. Because I didn’t expect—I mean, when I set out to write the book, I thought I would write a little kind of coda, and it turned into a big project. Partly because I was traveling around and looking at other monuments. So, that was a happy discovery, was that I thought I had something to say about the monument.

I wasn’t particularly surprised, I have to say, as much as I enjoyed the things that I wound up writing about. I wasn’t particularly surprised by anything I found because I already had a strong sense of how much good stuff there still is to be discovered in old archives. It was just a reinforcement of the idea that there’s lots of ground for people still to cover. Lots of records for them to turn over, lots of documents for them to think about in maybe more creative ways, and that there’re always different ways to kind of put all this evidence together.

BOGAEV: You know you’d make a really good homicide detective or PI. Have you thought about that?


ORLIN: In what way?

BOGAEV: I mean just meticulous treatment of evidence.

PRIVATE LIFE - 10-25-21 [00:28:59]
ORLIN: Well, like I said, it’s fun to me. Maybe there is a kind of detective
instinct and maybe I do feel that it’s satisfied there. But it’s an endless source of fascination to me, how people lived their lives in that time, and how they thought about their lives. I just feel like there’s always more to know and always more to discover. And it’s just fun to do it.

BOGAEV: This is kind of out of left field, but do you think there’s a tipping point for greatness with artists that leads to people’s just endless thirst for personal information? The kind of thirst that you see with Shakespeare.

ORLIN: It’s true, isn’t it? I mean, it seems that there’s a new biography of Shakespeare every, I don’t know, three months, every six months, something like that. It is a tribute to a figure of enormous importance in world culture.

I’ve been lucky over the years to have known Shakespeare’s scholars from around the world. It’s always astonished me, how much interest there still is in these plays and these poems. I think part of it is that they’re so rich. You can be interested in character, you can be interested in story, you can be interested in language, and there’s something for you in Shakespeare.

Part of it is that it’s drama, which I think is a form that’s so much more collaborative, than say, a novel is. Every time we see a Shakespeare play put on stage, we find something new about those plays. I hear a line said in a way that I’ve never heard it before. We can shape the plays to things we’re interested in. We can go to them for our current political interests. We can always find things in Shakespeare that help us understand ourselves and our interests and the human condition.

I have a good friend who wrote a really brilliant biography of Shakespeare, Lois Potter. One of the things that she said recently, which I thought was really interesting, had to do with how often Shakespeare’s plays are still staged. What she said is she thinks we see them so often because the actors want to perform Shakespeare. I thought that was a really interesting place to locate the fascination with Shakespeare, in the actors who want to meet Shakespeare, want to engage with Shakespeare that way.

I think there’s something similar in a way for literary critics who are doing biographical work. It’s a different way of engaging with the work, an interesting way, a creative way. There’s just so much—Shakespeare has left us so much room in terms of way to approach him. I think that biography is one way; it’s not the only way, but maybe it’s as inexhaustible as the plays and the poems seem to be.

BOGAEV: Well, I’m so glad we got to hear about your investigation and to get to talk to you today. Thank you.

ORLIN: Oh, thank you. It was a great pleasure.


Lena Cowen Orlin is an Emerita Professor of English at Georgetown University. From 1982 to 1996, Dr. Orlin coordinated postdoctoral seminars and conferences as Executive Director of the Folger Institute. Her new book, The Private Life of William Shakespeare, was published by Oxford University Press in November of 2021. Dr. Orlin was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast, “I See a Man’s Life,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer, with help from Leonor Fernandez.

We had technical help from Andrew Feliciano and Evan Marquart at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Lauren Schild and John Rigatuso at Clean Cuts studios in Washington, DC.

If you’re enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited, please consider leaving a review on Apple Podcasts. That really is the best way for people who don’t know about the podcast to learn about it. We would really appreciate it. Thank you.

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, folger.edu. Thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.