January 29, 2016, by Guest blogger

Shakespeare Documented

Dr Peter Kirwan of the School of English introduces his work on the largest free online Shakespeare exhibition ever curated.

In January, the Folger Shakespeare library released Shakespeare Documented, the largest collection of Shakespeare documents ever assembled. Working with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, the British Library, the National Archives and the Bodleian Libraries, this exhibition curates nearly 500 early print and manuscript references to Shakespeare, building the fullest picture yet of Shakespeare’s presence in early modern England.

For the Shakespeare fetishists, this is a treasure trove. You can find his application for a coat of arms; his name on inventories of grain stores; even wills. The libraries contribute high-quality images of the original documents, so you can see Shakespeare’s own signatures as well as the textures of the documents that concerned him. But the exhibition also includes all of the early references to him in print, the small nuggets of description and allusion on which our modern idea of Shakespeare is built.

But there are several ‘alternative’ Shakespeare stories that this exhibition also tells. My own contribution to Shakespeare Documented, based on my research on the so-called ‘Shakespeare Apocrypha’, is to the section ‘Collaboration and (mis)attributions’. In my book, Shakespeare and the Idea of Apocrypha (Cambridge, 2015), I set out the rich history of plays with an early attribution to Shakespeare that, for one reason or another, are no longer included in the canon. This research forms the core of ‘Collaboration and (mis)attributions’, which allows the general public to see Shakespeare’s name attached to plays whose titles are now known only to specialists.

Take The London Prodigal (Folger Shakespeare Library STC 22333). This play was published in 1605, well within Shakespeare’s lifetime. The title page of the play gives Shakespeare’s name in full, and also confirms that the play was performed by the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s company. On the basis of the surviving evidence, The London Prodigal has a better claim in Shakespeare’s lifetime to be by Shakespeare than plays such as The Tempest, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra or As You Like It, all of which were first published posthumously.

As with the other disputed plays, The London Prodigal was not included in the First Folio (1623). But the title page suggests that The London Prodigal was sold and read as Shakespeare’s during his lifetime. Although the play is little-known today, it is an entertaining and dark comedy, in which a young woman is cast away by her profligate husband when her dowry fails to materialise, and then disowned by her family and friends when she sticks by her husband. It’s a powerful indictment of a self-absorbed (and money-obsessed) patriarchal society and its effects on a woman’s free choice, and a 1999 student production suggested it still has much to say.

One of the great things about Shakespeare Documented is the chance it offers Shakespeare enthusiasts, in the 400th anniversary year, to begin researching Shakespeare’s early modern existence for themselves. With the documents all on display, readers can learn for themselves just how embedded Shakespeare was in his society, and discover the lesser-told stories that make up his history.

Posted in Shakespeare 400