Curious about the life of the man from Stratford-upon-Avon? You can now turn to a new website, Shakespeare Documented, which launched January 20. Featuring documents from more than 30 institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom, it is the largest and most authoritative resource for learning about primary sources that document the life and career of William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare Documented includes images, descriptions, and transcriptions of all known references and allusions to Shakespeare and his works during his lifetime and shortly after his death in 1616. When complete, this will amount to nearly 500 references, found in roughly 400 print and manuscript documents. (The website launched with 200 completed descriptions; descriptions will continue to be added, updated, and expanded throughout 2016.)
The majority of the documents came from the Folger and our partners across the Atlantic: the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, the British Library, The National Archives, and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
“Never before have all of these resources been so easily accessible and searchable in a single place, for the use of the general public, teachers, and scholars alike,” wrote Shakespeare Documented curator Heather Wolfe in a blog post for The Collation. Wolfe is the curator of manuscripts and archivist at the Folger.
The website organizes Shakespeare’s life into thematic sections: his work as a playwright, actor, and shareholder; his poetry; family, legal, and property records; and seventeenth-century legacies after his death.
The project began with relatively modest ambitions—only the roughly 100 known direct manuscript references to Shakespeare—but gradually expanded to provide a more comprehensive look at Shakespeare, his reputation, and his family’s social status. In the process of re-examining documents that Shakespeare scholars have relied on for centuries, some new discoveries were made, including, as Wolfe noted in a blog post for The Collation, “inconsistencies and errors in old transcriptions.”
The Folger’s Shakespeare, Life of an Icon exhibition, also curated by Wolfe and on display through March 27, represents the tip of the Shakespeare Documented iceberg and a chance to see in person some of the items that appear online. The exhibition highlights 50 of the documents included on Shakespeare Documented: deeds recording Shakespeare’s real estate purchases, drafts of the heraldic grant of arms that he helped his father to obtain, diary entries about seeing his plays and buying his works, and more.
Of course, what’s comprehensive by seventeenth-century standards might not strike us as comprehensive by twenty-first-century standards. After all, Shakespeare left no rough drafts of his plays, no agenda book, no Instagram account.
Wolfe addresses this disparity in an exhibition panel for Shakespeare, Life of an Icon: “Like most people who died 400 years ago, Shakespeare has gaps in his biographical record. This is not at all surprising: Only the personal papers of aristocratic families tend to survive, mainly because their houses have stayed in the same families for generations. Only a handful of play manuscripts remain from the period, mostly for plays that never appeared in print.”
In other words, it’s not a problem unique to Shakespeare.
But the documentary evidence we do have tells a good story about Shakespeare’s family and friends, his career and his business dealings, his critics and his fans. See for yourself.