Nicholas Rowe, early Shakespeare biographer

Nicholas Rowe
1709 edition of Shakespeare’s works, edited by Nicholas Rowe. Folger PR2752 1709a copy 2 v.1 Sh.Col., frontispiece and title page

Nicholas Rowe is often referred to as William Shakespeare’s first biographer because his 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s works included an introduction with details about Shakespeare’s life. However, some of those details don’t appear to have much basis in the historical record, explains Brian Cummings, Anniversary Professor of English at the University of York.

Cummings separates fact from fiction in this excerpt from the Folger’s interview with him for the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Cummings delivered the 2014 Shakespeare’s Birthday Lecture on “Shakespeare, Biography, and Anti-Biography” at the Folger; the lecture also opened the Folger Institute’s NEH-funded collaborative research conference, Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography, which Cummings co-organized.

He was interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.


REBECCA SHEIR: Many people credit Nicholas Rowe as writing the first Shakespeare life. What was Rowe’s book?

BRIAN CUMMINGS: Well, Rowe was a man of the theater, quite an interesting guy, actually, a writer, a sort of entrepreneur of the theater, a director, as we might call them now. And he decided to put together an edition of Shakespeare’s works, and it’s a very important book, in that it’s the first separate edition of Shakespeare. So in the 17th century, the First Folio was produced after Shakespeare’s death and was reprinted in revised forms three times, so there are four full Folios of the 17th century.

And then Rowe, in 1709, brought out the first independent edition of Shakespeare in six volumes. But he begins with a kind of literary introduction, which includes what he calls “Some Account of the Life of William Shakespeare.” And to do that, he sent people off, as a sort of tourist kind of investigators, back to Stratford, and tried to pick up anything like a kind of train of anecdotal remembrance of anything that anybody could remember of Shakespeare.

Wasn’t Nicholas Rowe the one who came up with that fantastical story that Queen Elizabeth commissioned a play from Shakespeare and actually suggested to him what the topic should be?

Well, the first person that came up with the story may have been John Dennis, just a few years before, but it’s the same decade as Rowe, and Rowe certainly mentions it. Obviously, it was evident from the plays themselves that the character of Falstaff was grafted into a new form, in that he begins as a figure in history plays and then has a comedy all to himself. And so, Dennis and then Rowe come up with this story out of nowhere that Queen Elizabeth saw Falstaff on stage and said she would like to have him in love and so, The Merry Wives of Windsor is the play that they say was based on that.

But not true.

Well, there’s absolutely no record of Elizabeth doing any such thing. I mean, it is true that Shakespeare’s plays, among other plays of the time, were performed for the court, as well as the public performances in theaters. And there are records from three or four different years, mainly in the reign of James actually, rather than Elizabeth, but there are records of plays being put on before the monarch.

So, it’s not impossible that Elizabeth could have seen a performance of Henry IV, Part 1 or Henry IV, Part 2, but there’s absolutely no record of it, and that kind of version of Elizabeth turning up to the Globe and cheering things on that we get from Shakespeare In Love, that’s complete invention. We’ve got no record of the queen ever turning up to a public theater. In fact, it’s most unlikely that she did.

And Nicholas Rowe also put in stories about Shakespeare as an actor, too, didn’t he?

Well, this was one of the things that Rowe and other people really wanted to get at, and thought they had perhaps some prospect of getting at. So, there was a kind of tradition of acting that was in Rowe’s own time, where there’s a feeling of legacy from the theater of the past. The first theaters of the Restoration included actors who would say, “I learned my trade at the hands of such-and-such a person,” and would link themselves back to the theater of the pre-Civil War period.

So there was that kind of interest, but there was much less of a real record than you might think. And so, the main stories are stories that only appear around about 1700, the story of Shakespeare playing the part of the Ghost in Hamlet or playing the old servant in As You Like It. They all come from around about the same time and some of them actually are stories probably made up by the sexton at Shakespeare’s church, who was certainly old, and claimed he was so old that he knew Shakespeare from life. But actually, if you do the math, he’s making that up, too. But he was plausible, you know? He looked like a kind of plausible character.

During this time, we also get the now-famous story of the deer poaching incident. Tell us what that is and where that story came from.

Where it came from? We’d all like to know that, but it arose around about the same time as these other stories with Rowe, so Rowe certainly includes it in 1709. There’s an independent appearance in some scattered records by a vicar called Richard Davies in Shropshire, and they tell more or less the same story, so you might even think perhaps they have some origin in local storytelling.

And they go along the lines of, there’s a local gentry man called Sir Thomas Lucy, he had a park, and there’s a story that there’s some poaching going on, not only of deer but also of rabbits, and somehow or other, the story comes up that Shakespeare was involved in this, that he was some kind of Sir Jackanapes, and got into trouble, and Lucy dealt with him in a very kind of heavy-handed way, and Shakespeare kind of bore a grudge against him.

And at the same time, this is the key bit with Rowe, is that this gives him a kind of excuse for getting Shakespeare out of Stratford into London. I mean, that is the totally unexplained mystery of Shakespeare’s life. There’s a person called Shakespeare certainly living in Stratford. There’s a person called Shakespeare certainly working in the theater in London, but how you get from A to B, that’s the big story that any biography wants to tell, and so, this became for Rowe just a hook that he could throw something on. So, he could say, Shakespeare’s in trouble with the law, he has to leave in a hurry, and he ends up in London. Then the next question, how he gets to a theater, well, it’s basically, the next sentence starts, he’s in the theater.