The Libraries of William Shakespeare

Even a natural genius like William Shakespeare would have to source his material from somewhere.  As brilliant as he was, it did not just come straight out of his head.

The Shakespeare family were commoners and did not own books.  The printing press for books invented by William Caxton had only been around for 150 years or so and books were an expensive luxury commoners could not afford.

William Shakespeare would be fortunate in having access to books at the Kings Grammar School in Stratford which he attended and also a modest library kept by Hugh Clopton at Clopton Manor.  If you are following my Blogs, you will know that the association of William Shakespeare and Hugh Clopton is entirely fictitious.

Perhaps the grandest library in Shakespeare’s time was kept by William Cecil, the Queens right hand man for over forty years, at Burghley House on the Strand.  The library would be off limits to Shakespeare but was readily available to Francis Bacon while he was a Ward of Court and living there.  Francis Bacon, I suggest, was the managing source for the Plays written in Shakespeare’s name.

There is, however, one unofficial library or bookshop which William Shakespeare would have been a regular visitor to.  It was kept by fellow Stratfordian Richard Field at his printing and publishing works in London.  Richard Field had the good fortune to marry the widow of his Boss, Jacqueline Vautrollier, and with it a wealth of new publications either original in their content or translated from latin greek or French for the first time into English.

Among those publications was the Holinshead Chronicles published by Raphael Holinshead in the 1570s as  a chronicled record of English history.  The Chronicles would serve as an invaluable source for all writers of the Elizabethan era and not just William Shakespeare.

There is no evidence that William Shakespeare ever knew Francis Bacon personally but given the dramatic connections between them, it is unlikely, I suggest, that they did not know each other and that they were not in regular contact.  Bacon, though not always a man of financial means, had a great network of literary sources which he fully exploited in his lifetime.

William Shakespeare was very much a man on the fringe of things.  He did not need to own a book or keep a library in order to write and produce a Play.  He wrote the Plays.  He acted in them.  He staged managed them.  He sold the Plays for money.  The Plays were written down by others in quarto format for sale.  Shakespeare himself earned no commissions or royalties.  The Plays were sold to the highest bidder.

Actually the library of William Shakespeare was in his head and he did not see a need for a compilation of his works during his lifetime, unlike Ben Jonson who published his own compilation a few months after Shakespeare’s death in 1616 and lent a hand in the publication of the First Folio in 1623.

There is no library or true compilation of the Shakespeare Plays because there never was in the first place.  The Plays were written and rewritten, revised according to performance in royal Court or at public Theatre and making allowances for new laws and censorship by the Master of Revels.  This all happened by different hands yet the name of William Shakespeare held credit for the works.


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