Shakespeare/Opinions of Shakespeare
QUESTION: I was wondering if you could help me find out what the public opinion was of Shakespeare during his lifetime? Of course he is famous and well thought of today, but I'd like to know where to look how to search for sources that show what other playwrights, critics, nobility, commoners, etc. thought of Shakespeare during his time?
ANSWER: Hello, Alli,
This is a very difficult question to answer, mostly because the comments and opinions of Shakespeare's contemporaries are scattered through so many documents of the period that it takes professionals to sift through everything and tell us what the general consensus seems to be. I could give you my understanding of the answer to this question, but this would not take you to the sources that you're asking for, so instead I'll list some places that you may find useful for research.
There is a book by Louis Marder-- His Exits and His Entrances: The Story of Shakespeare's Reputation
. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1963-- that is likely helpful. One of the problems you may have, though, is sorting through a lot of extraneous material about the "authorship question" (which debates WHO wrote the plays rather than what his contemporaries thought of them).
Basically, the best places for you to look for this information are going to be at something like The Folger Shakespeare Library Online (http://www.folger.edu
) or at The Shakespeare Resource Center (http://www.bardweb.net/
). A good search term would be "Shakespeare's reputation" or "Shakespeare's contemporary professional reputation."
There is an article by Sir Sidney Lee on this subject at <http://www.shakespeare-online.com/biography/shakespearefame.html
> that is detailed and useful, I think. Bear in mind that this article was written in 1899, and it bears some of the marks of early criticism, such as too much praise without careful weighing of negative comments.
Ben Jonson, one of Shakespeare's contemporaries, kept volumes and volumes of diaries, and he made a few comments about Shakespeare along the way. A search for "Jonson's comments on Shakespeare" will yield some good information. Also, there is the fact that in the late 1600s, the Bodleian Library (Oxford) was putting together the first scholarly library in Britain, and they actually debated heatedly whether or not Shakespeare's works should be included, since during his time he was regarded as "popular" theatre. Searching for "Shakespeare's works in Bodleian Library" might yield some good sources for this topic.
Another avenue is to search some of his best biographers, such as Samuel Schoenbaum's Shakespeare's Lives
, Stanley Wells's For All Time
, or Park Honan's Shakespeare: A Life
. However, I do not know for certain that these authors address the question directly.
I hope this information is helpful. Good luck!
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Thank you for all the sources and suggestions. I've started sifting through some of them already, such as the Sidney Lee biography and I found a list on bardweb.net a list of Shakespeare's fellow playwrights (including Jonson) of which I'm going to try and find anything on what they might have said or written regarding Shakespeare.
I was wondering, also though if you knew some names of the contemporary theatre critics during that time that could have said anything about Shakespeare or where to find any reviews on his plays they could have written. Also, any nobility who were some how connected to Shakespeare that I could try and search and see what they thought of Shakespeare.
Thank you again!
I don't know how this follow-up escaped my notice. Please forgive!
However, I would have answered then the same that I answer now: alas, there are no theatre critics in Shakespeare's day, no reviews of his plays.
There is a short chapter in Shakespeare's Lives
by Samuel Schoenbaum -- Chapter 7, "Reputation"-- that offers the few commentaries that we have by his contemporaries.
That's all that there is, though.
Again, I am sorry I missed the email that was to alert me to your follow-up question. I was here at the site to answer a different question and saw yours here. I hope you can forgive me, and I hope this small bit of information proves useful.