June 20, 2021

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One of the most fascinating things I ever read about Shakespeare revolves, rather perversely, around how little we actually know of him. Putting the plays and the sonnets to one side, everything we know about Shakespeare the man is “contained within a few scanty facts,” according to Bill Bryson. In his book, Shakespeare: The World as a Stage, Bryson marvels that Shakespeare exists within the historical record in a mere hundred or so documents. Despite almost a million words of text in his drama and poetry, “we have just 14 words in his own hand – his name signed six times and the words ‘by me’ on his will.”

Facts, as Bryson argues, “are surprisingly delible things.” So delible, as it happens, that much of our knowledge of the physical realities of Shakespearean theatre – our knowledge of what Shakespeare’s working environment would have looked like and how it might have operated – is based on a single sketch by a Dutch tourist visiting the Swan Theatre in London in 1596. The original sketch has not survived, of course – why make anything easy? – but a friend made a copy in a notebook that was rediscovered, in 1888, in the library of the University of Utrecht. Voila: “The only known visual depiction of the interior of an Elizabethan playhouse in London. Without it we would know essentially nothing about the working layout of theatre of this time.”

When I think of history, I do not often think of what we do not know, and how much of what we do not know there must be out there. It messes with the head. Shakespeare’s one hundred or so documents, according to Bryson, actually make him one of the more historically visible people from the late 1500s. Even so, much of his world, of its details and quirks and busy contradictions, has faded in the 400 years since his death.

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