The best books to understand the history of Shakespeare's theatre

Who am I?

I’m a Shakespeare scholar with a particular interest in theatre history and the repertories of the London commercial playing companies of the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries. I’m particularly fascinated by the hundreds of plays written during this period that have not survived, whether as the result of fire, vandalism, censorship, or more mundane causes like a lack of interest in or opportunity for publication. The surviving plays from the period are the distinct minority; yet the plays lost to us were known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, who often wrote in response to what else was being performed across London.


I wrote...

Shakespeare and Lost Plays

By David McInnis,

Book cover of Shakespeare and Lost Plays

What is my book about?

My book returns Shakespeare’s dramatic work to its most immediate and (arguably) pivotal context; by situating it alongside the hundreds of plays known to Shakespeare’s original audiences, but lost to us. It reassesses the value of lost plays in relation to both the companies that originally performed them, and to contemporary scholars of early modern drama. I revisit key moments in Shakespeare’s career and, by prioritising the immense volume of information we now possess about lost plays, provide a richer, more accurate picture of dramatic activity than has hitherto been possible.

The books I picked & why

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The Private Life of William Shakespeare

By Lena Cowen Orlin,

Book cover of The Private Life of William Shakespeare

Why this book?

Biographies of Shakespeare are common, but Orlin’s biographical study of key moments in Shakespeare’s life is really wonderful in terms of how she rereads the well-known documents in a fresh light and approaches the many gaps in archival records by tracing ‘evidence clusters’ pertaining to ‘cognate lives’ of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Her reappraisal of the Shakespeares’ marriage and their finances, and of William’s connections to Stratford and (most surprisingly) to Oxford, paints an exciting new picture of the writer’s life.

The Private Life of William Shakespeare

By Lena Cowen Orlin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Private Life of William Shakespeare as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A new biography of William Shakespeare that explores his private life in Stratford-upon-Avon, his personal aspirations, his self-determination, and his relations with the members of his family and his neighbours.

The Private Life of William Shakespeare tells the story of Shakespeare in Stratford as a family man. The book offers close readings of key documents associated with Shakespeare and develops a contextual understanding of the genres from which these documents emerge. It reconsiders clusters of evidence that have been held to prove some persistent biographical fables. It also shows how the histories of some of Shakespeare's neighbours illuminate aspects of…


The Repertory of Shakespeare's Company, 1594-1613

By Roslyn Lander Knutson,

Book cover of The Repertory of Shakespeare's Company, 1594-1613

Why this book?

This is the book that inaugurated a whole field of Shakespeare studies—repertory studies—that focuses on the commercial concerns of the London playing companies, treating plays as commodities used by companies to make money, and examining the strategies used by companies to remain competitive in the theatrical marketplace. Knutson’s work de-emphasises the significance of playwrights and focuses instead on playing companies.

The Repertory of Shakespeare's Company, 1594-1613

By Roslyn Lander Knutson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Repertory of Shakespeare's Company, 1594-1613 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Most modern scholars regard William Shakespeare and his repertory company as the pre-eminent theatre group of its day; Roslyn Lander Knutson contends that they were also practical entrepreneurs who both shaped and responded to current theatrical tastes and whose playhouse practices closely paralleled those of their competitors. In ""The Repertory of Shakespeare's Company"" Knutson demystifies Shakespeare and his company by providing a clear vision of the dynamics of play production and play-going in Shakespeare's England, taking Shakespeare and his company down from their lofty pedestal where Victorian scholars placed them. She argues that Shakespeare and his company should not be…


Lord Strange's Men and Their Plays

By Lawrence Manley, Sally-Beth MacLean,

Book cover of Lord Strange's Men and Their Plays

Why this book?

In the wake of Knutson’s work, a number of seminal studies of individual playing companies from Shakespeare’s London have appeared, but I particularly value Manley and MacLean’s for the prominence they give to the role of lost plays in the repertory of Lord Strange’s Men. This book normalised the understanding that if one is to study a companyits patron, its players, its performance venues (including touring), and its stylethen one cannot do so without attending to the plays once performed by the company but which have since been lost.

Lord Strange's Men and Their Plays

By Lawrence Manley, Sally-Beth MacLean,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lord Strange's Men and Their Plays as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

For a brief period in the late Elizabethan Era an innovative company of players dominated the London stage. A fellowship of dedicated thespians, Lord Strange's Men established their reputation by concentrating on "modern matter" performed in a spectacular style, exploring new modes of impersonation, and deliberately courting controversy. Supported by their equally controversial patron, theater connoisseur and potential claimant to the English throne Ferdinando Stanley, the company included Edward Alleyn, considered the greatest actor of the age, as well as George Bryan, Thomas Pope, Augustine Phillips, William Kemp, and John Hemings, who later joined William Shakespeare and Richard Burbage in…


Digital Humanities and the Lost Drama of Early Modern England: Ten Case Studies

By Matthew Steggle,

Book cover of Digital Humanities and the Lost Drama of Early Modern England: Ten Case Studies

Why this book?

Not all archival work entails Indian Jones-style quests for hidden treasures; Steggle’s book—written at a crucial point when digital databases such as Early English Books Online and Google Books were accessible but rarely utilised to their maximum capabilities—proved how much crucial knowledge is hiding in plain sight. Steggle used a variety of search strategies to solve cruxes and mysteries that have plagued theatre historians for centuries, recovering the subject matter of lost plays that scholars routinely ignored on account of their opaque titles and scant evidence.

Digital Humanities and the Lost Drama of Early Modern England: Ten Case Studies

By Matthew Steggle,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Digital Humanities and the Lost Drama of Early Modern England as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book establishes new information about the likely content of ten lost plays from the period 1580-1642. These plays' authors include Nashe, Heywood, and Dekker; and the plays themselves connect in direct ways to some of the most canonical dramas of English literature, including Hamlet, King Lear, The Changeling, and The Duchess of Malfi. The lost plays in question are: Terminus & Non Terminus (1586-8); Richard the Confessor (1593); Cutlack (1594); Bellendon (1594); Truth's Supplication to Candlelight (1600); Albere Galles (1602); Henry the Una (c. 1619); The Angel King (1624); The Duchess of Fernandina (c. 1630-42); and The Cardinal's Conspiracy…


What Is a Playhouse? England at Play, 1520-1620

By Callan Davies,

Book cover of What Is a Playhouse? England at Play, 1520-1620

Why this book?

Some of the most exciting discoveries in theatre history in recent years have been archaeological, not archival: the excavation of the Curtain theatre’s foundations in Shoreditch, for example, and the revelation that it was rectangular and much larger than previously thought. Davies’ new book capitalises on a series of such findings and complements them with his own rigorous archival work, putting pressure on the very concept of a ‘playhouse’ and what it can beor rather, what it meant to Shakespeare’s audiences.

What Is a Playhouse? England at Play, 1520-1620

By Callan Davies,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked What Is a Playhouse? England at Play, 1520-1620 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This book offers an accessible introduction to England's sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century playing industry and a fresh account of the architecture, multiple uses, communities, crowds, and proprietors of playhouses.

It builds on recent scholarship and new documentary and archaeological discoveries to answer the questions: what did playhouses do, what did they look like, and how did they function? The book will accordingly introduce readers to a rich and exciting spectrum of "play" and playhouses, not only in London but also around England. The detailed but wide-ranging case studies examined here go beyond staged drama to explore early modern sport, gambling,…


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