Oxford Wells Shakespeare Lecture 3: Sorting Shakespeare's Archive

For almost two centuries, Shakespeare had no biography. Neither did he have the structure of a biography (a chronology), nor the materials for one (an archive). And his canon did not include the Sonnets (his only work written in the first person). In sum, the mainstays of modern Shakespeare criticism were simply not there. Does this mean that Shakespeare was not valued or understood until after 1800? Each of these four lectures will focus on one of those critical absences, not as an empty place holder for what eventually is to come, but as evidence that other viable priorities were once at work.

By the time scholars began to long for materials relating to Shakespeare, almost nothing had survived, at least not in his own hand: no autograph manuscripts, no personal papers, only a few signatures. But official written records did survive, and eighteenth-century scholars set about finding and scrutinizing them in various record books: of the parish, the Stationers company, the Master of Revels office, the College of Arms, the law courts. All these documents provided dates, points in time which when sequenced served as the basis for a continuous biographical narrative. Scholars also discovered two very different compilations with entries on Shakespeare, by John Aubrey and Gerard Langbaine. These two record books — one of lives, the other of plays — were full of dates, though scholars found them sadly unreliable. For those dates were not meant to be pressed into timelines. They worked to different purposes, more nodal than linear, more dispersive than exclusive.