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.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Private Life of William Shakespeare

David McInnis Why did I love 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.

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…


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

David McInnis Why did I love 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.

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…


Book cover of Lord Strange's Men and Their Plays

David McInnis Why did I love 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.

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…


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

David McInnis Why did I love 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.

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…


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

David McInnis Why did I love 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.

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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The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

Book cover of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

New book alert!

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

What is my book about?

What were America's first prisons like? How did penal reformers, prison administrators, and politicians deal with the challenges of confining human beings in long-term captivity as punishment--what they saw as a humane intervention?

The Deviant Prison centers on one early prison: Eastern State Penitentiary. Built in Philadelphia, one of the leading cities for penal reform, Eastern ultimately defied national norms and was the subject of intense international criticism.

The Deviant Prison traces the rise and fall of Eastern's unique "Pennsylvania System" of solitary confinement and explores how and why Eastern's administrators kept the system going, despite great personal cost to themselves. Anyone interested in history, prisons, and criminal justice will find something to enjoy in this book.

The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

By Ashley Rubin,

What is this book about?

Early nineteenth-century American prisons followed one of two dominant models: the Auburn system, in which prisoners performed factory-style labor by day and were placed in solitary confinement at night, and the Pennsylvania system, where prisoners faced 24-hour solitary confinement for the duration of their sentences. By the close of the Civil War, the majority of prisons in the United States had adopted the Auburn system - the only exception was Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, making it the subject of much criticism and a fascinating outlier. Using the Eastern State Penitentiary as a case study, The Deviant Prison brings to light…


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