“Lois Potter's book provides a delightful guide through Shakespeare's world. A splendid introduction for those new to the facts about Shakespeare's life, it is also a revelation for anyone all too familiar with them. The Life of William Shakespeare revitalizes old truths by asking questions where none seemed necessary, by filling in new detail, and, most of all, by approaching the material from the perspective of a would-be, then practicing and collaborating, player-playwright. Potter's unique emphasis on Shakespeare's imaginative life and the words that fed it works brilliantly to produce what I would have thought impossible: a really new biography that never thins into mere speculation. Learned, modest, witty, and above all smart, the book will be a must-read for anyone who cares about early modern theater.”

Meredith Skura, Professor of English,
Rice University

“By keeping her eye on the enduring power of Shakespeare's writing, Lois Potter manages to gather all the interesting and puzzling questions we have asked about his life into a focused and authentically critical biography. She is adventurous in taking on speculation and counter-speculation but never allows us to confuse conjecture with fact. Richly informative and engagingly written, this book should appeal to general readers as well as to professional Shakespeareans.”

Edward Pechter, Distinguished Professor Emeritus,
Concordia University

“Lois Potter has produced an astonishing, revelatory, fully literary biography. The Life of William Shakespeare is a product of deep reservoirs of historical knowledge, theatrical experience, and critical acumen, all deployed with an extraordinarily sympathetic imagination. Potter adjudicates standing quarrels about the life story with intelligence and dispassion, offers up scintillating new readings of the works, and produces interesting and original observations on every page.”

Lena Cowen Orlin, Executive Director,
Shakespeare Association of America, and
Professor of English, Georgetown University

“This is not just (just!) a biography of Shakespeare: it is a theatrical biography. It uses Lois Potter's immense, unrivalled knowledge of things theatrical to draw very logical and frequently original inferences.”

Laurie E. Maguire, Professor of English,
University of Oxford

“This is a lively, fresh new introduction to the life of Shakespeare, no mere regurgitating of earlier lives. It reads well. It is judicious, intelligent, coherent, and well documented.”

David Bevington, Distinguished Professor Emeritus,
University of Chicago

Blackwell Critical Biographies

General Editor: Claude Rawson

This acclaimed series offers informative and durable biographies of important authors, British, European, and North American, which will include substantial critical discussion of their works. An underlying objective is to re-establish the notion that books are written by people who lived in particular times and places. This objective is pursued not by programmatic assertions or strenuous point-making, but through the practical persuasion of volumes which offer intelligent criticism within a well-researched biographical context.

Also in this series

The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer
Derek Pearsall

The Life of Samuel Johnson
Robert DeMaria, Jr

The Life of Robert Browning
Clyde De L. Ryals

The Life of William Faulkner
Richard Gray

The Life of Walter Scott
John Sutherland

The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Rosemary Ashton

The Life of Thomas Hardy
Paul Turner

The Life of Celine
Nicholas Hewitt

The Life of Henry Fielding
Ronald Paulson

The Life of W. B. Yeats
Terence Brown

The Life of Evelyn Waugh
Douglas Lane Patey

The Life of Goethe
John R. Williams

The Life of John Milton
Barbara Lewalski

The Life of Daniel Defoe
John Richetti

The Life of William Shakespeare
Lois Potter

The Life of George Eliot
Nancy Henry

Title Page

List of Illustrations

Elizabethan-Jacobean Stratford-upon-Avon

New Place, the Guild Chapel, and the grammar school in Stratford

Elizabethan-Jacobean London: locations associated with Shakespeare and his contemporaries

Portrait of the Earl of Southampton

Portrait of Richard Burbage

The Shakespeare coat of arms

Title page of The Spanish Tragedy

Portrait of Ben Jonson

Will Kemp as depicted in his pamphlet The Nine Days' Wonder

Title page of Robert Armin's The Two Maids of Moreclacke

Title page of the appendix to Robert Chester's Love's Martyr

Page from the manuscript of Sir Thomas More

Portrait of George Chapman

Portrait of John Lowin

Title page of the 1608 Quarto of King Lear

Portrait of Thomas Middleton

Title page of George Wilkins' The Painful Adventures of Pericles

Portrait of John Fletcher

The frontispiece to the First Folio (1623)

Portrait of Sir John Suckling

Images of Shakespeare and his characters, c.1820

A nineteenth-century composite of Shakespeare portraits

The Chandos portrait

The Cobbe portrait

Preface and Acknowledgments

What differentiates one Shakespeare biography from another is the kind of context (and therefore speculation) within which it locates the available facts. This biography does not have a great deal of local color, and there isn't much sex either. Other people can and will write better on these subjects; the only Shakespeare I can imagine is one whose imaginative life was fed essentially by words. Though the chapters follow a chronological sequence, with occasional overlapping, each one begins with the discussion of the words in its epigraph, which are not necessarily part of the chronology. These mini-critiques are meant to remind both me and the reader that my subject is a writer whose words, more than most people's, have taken on a life of their own. As “Seeds spring from seeds, and beauty breedeth beauty” (Venus and Adonis 167) words, I believe, spring from the memory of other words. Memory is crucial: actors cannot function without it, and the Greeks made Mnemosyne the mother of the Muses. This book, then, will focus mainly on Shakespeare's literary and theatrical world. Its most unusual feature may be its stress on his relation to his fellow-dramatists and actors, particularly as collaborator and reviser. These activities have been the focus of a great deal of ongoing research, and some of my suggestions may be proved wrong by the time the book is out, but no biography of Shakespeare can remain cutting-edge for long. Though the final chapters in this Critical Biographies series normally give an exhaustive account of the subject's afterlife, in the case of Shakespeare this is simply not possible, and I am well aware that I have been selective and impressionistic.

If this book shows any of the theatrical awareness that I consider essential to an understanding of Shakespeare, this is due to many years of attending plays in rehearsal as well as in performance, particularly at the University of Leicester and the University of Delaware's Professional Theatre Training Program. I have also learned from the biennial Blackfriars Conference in Staunton, Virginia, which focuses on performance in the early modern theater, from the different versions of “original practices” in productions there and at “Shakespeare's Globe” in London, and from many foreign-language productions. Though I always wanted to be a good teacher, I suspect that whatever success I had came not from anything I said, but from the play readings that I held throughout my teaching career. By the end, I had come to feel that simply reading a play aloud was more valuable than any amount of talking about it. Some of my speculations are the result of this experience.

I have always believed that writers are entitled to any delusions, however self-aggrandizing or silly, that enable them to continue writing; I have even speculated about which of these Shakespeare might have indulged in. Having the encouragement of others, however, is even better. The University of Delaware provided a pleasant environment, a good library, good students, and several sabbaticals that helped in the writing of this book, though I had to retire in order to complete it. At various stages I spent happy months at both the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Henry E. Huntington Library – which, I am sure with a full sense of the irony involved, gave me a Francis Bacon Fellowship in 2002. Throughout the final stages of this project I benefited most from the excellent electronic databases that the University of Delaware Library had the foresight to acquire, especially the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, a wonderful resource. Though I've never worked at the Chapin Library of Rare Books at Williams College, I am very grateful to Assistant Chapin Librarian Wayne G. Hammond for taking the trouble, at the last minute, to scan a Middleton portrait for me.

In its semi-final state, the manuscript was read by David Bevington, Lena Orlin, and Laurie Maguire. I cannot say how grateful I am for their comments at a time when I seemed to be writing from and into a black hole. Still later, Alan H. Nelson generously made criticisms and suggestions that saved me from many errors of detail. None of them should be blamed if this book is not as good as the one they could have written. It is difficult to know where other acknowledgments should begin and end, since it is the nature of Shakespeare's writing to seem relevant to everything else and for everything else to seem relevant to it. I have worried both about putting too much into the bibliography and about leaving out major influences that I have absorbed so completely that they are now forgotten. I probably owe something to anyone who has ever talked with me about Shakespeare, whether or not in connection with this project. The following names are the tip of an iceberg: Debby Andrews (who got me to discuss The Birthplace with her class), Jim Dean, Pavel Drábek, Lindsay Duguid, Richard Dutton, Reg Foakes (who suggested I should think about the magus), Martin Hilský, John Jowett, David Kathman, Lawrence Normand, Jay L. Halio, Angela Ingram, Roslyn Knutson, Lena Orlin, Kristen Poole, Richard Proudfoot, Angela Smallwood, Zdenimgk and Majka Stimgíbrný, Ann Thompson, Lyn Tribble, Roger Warren, Michele and Raymond Willems, Julian Yates, and Georgianna Ziegler. I should also mention all of my former research assistants at the University of Delaware: Pamela Vasile, Mark Netzloff, Rebecca Jaroff, Barbara Silverstein, Paige Harrison, Bradley Ryner, Michael Clody, Kelly Nutter, Darlene Farabee, Michael Edson, Kevin Burke, Matthew Sauter, and Hannah Eagleson. Some were more involved in the biography than others – I didn't start on it until this century – but all of us talked about Shakespeare.

Much earlier versions of parts of this book came out of the conference on “Early Modern Lives” organized by Sarah Hutton (Middlesex University, London, 2002); several “Setting the Scene” talks at the Globe Theatre; the conference on “Shakespeare and His Collaborators over the Centuries” organized by Pavel Drábek (Masaryk University, Brno, 2006); the Folger seminar on “The English Grammar School”, taught by Lynn Enterline in 2007; and presentations at the Huntington Library, the University of Delaware, Temple University, the Columbia Renaissance seminar, King's College London, and the Modern Language Association. A research seminar at the University of London in 2008, chaired by Brian Vickers and featuring a presentation by Marina Tarlinskaya, got me interested in the possible role of Kyd in this story. I have relied a great deal, as will be obvious from my notes, on valuable work done by other biographer-critics – J. Leeds Barroll, E. K. Chambers, Mark Eccles, Park Honan, Dennis Kay, Alan H. Nelson, Charles Nicholl, Samuel Schoenbaum, James Shapiro, René Weis, and of course Stanley Wells. Katherine Duncan-Jones's studies of Shakespeare in relation to his contemporaries have been a great help to me, as has the Gary Taylor – John Lavagnino edition of Middleton's Complete Works. I am grateful to my editors at Wiley-Blackwell, particularly Emma Bennett, for helpful advice and, still more, for encouragement. Claude Rawson has been a sympathetic and supportive general editor. Ben Thatcher shepherded the book through production, with lots of good suggestions. I cannot imagine a better copy editor than Janet Moth. Linda English compiled the index. The oldest hath borne most: my mother, who reached her 101st birthday as this book went into production, has been wonderfully patient about the time it took away from her.

Shakespeare quotations, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the Complete Works by David Bevington (New York: Longman Pearson, 5th edition, 2004). I have modernized quotations from other early modern literary works, even when using old-spelling editions. Occasionally, however, I have left documentary material in the original spelling, when modernization would conceal its ambiguity.

List of Abbreviations

Works are cited in the notes by author name followed by a short title; full details are given in the bibliography. The following abbreviations have also been used:

Bullough Geoffrey Bullough, ed., Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. 8 vols. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul,1957–75.
Chambers, ES E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage. 4 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1923.
Chambers, WS E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930
Companion Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, with John Jowett and William Montgomery, William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion. Revised edn. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997
Cox and Kastan John D. Cox and David Scott Kastan, eds., A New History of Early English Drama. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997
Honan Park Honan, Shakespeare: A Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998
Herford and Simpson Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy and Evelyn Simpson. 11 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925–52
Minutes Minutes and Accounts of the Corporation of Stratford-upon-Avon and other records 1553–1620. Transcribed by Richard Savage. Introduction and notes by Edgar I. Fripp. Vol. 1 (1553–1566), Oxford: Dugdale Society, 1921. Vol. 2 (1566–1577), London: Dugdale Society, 1924. Vol. 3 (1577–1586), London: Dugdale Society, 1926. Vol. 4 (1586–1592), London: Dugdale Society, 1929. Vol. 5 (1593–1598), ed. Levi Fox. Hertford: Dugdale Society, 1990
N&Q Notes & Queries
ODNB Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Online edition
RES The Review of English Studies
Schoenbaum Samuel Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977
SQ Shakespeare Quarterly
SS Shakespeare Survey
TLS Times Literary Supplement
Wickham Glynne Wickham, ed., English Professional Theatre 1530–1660. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000