Primary Shakespearean Documents
Most of what scholars know about Early Modern English theatre, specifically Shakespearean theatre, can be traced to the documents below. Each item has a hyperlink to where it has been made available for online consumption.
Dramatic Records of Henry Herbert
Henry Herbert served as Master of the Revels from 1623-42. He retained the title, but had little influence after playing houses were reopened in 1660. For two decades, this was the man who filtered what could and couldn’t be on stage. As such, he had a tremendous influence on playwrights and public alike. His dramatic records allow us to get a firsthand glimpse into organizing playhouse and court performances, gives us names of plays now lost, and help scholars date specifically when plays happened.
The First Folio
A few years ago, Oxford’s premiere library, the Bodleian, made a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio available on their website thanks to the hard work of Emma Smith’s team and the Sprint for Shakespeare foundation. Although the Folio was printed 7 years after Shakespeare passed and remembered/recreated by actors long after performance, it is the basis for most Shakespeare that we read and perform today.
The Henslowe Diary
Philip Henslowe’s Diary, which contains the most thorough records of Elizabethan and Jacobean playing companies is available to read online here,, This volume has been an invaluable resource for scholars of Early Modern dramatic performance. It records payments, loans, box office takings, as well as many stage props and costumes. It runs with varying degrees of information from 1592 to 1609.
Becoming King’s Men
Within ten days of arriving in London, King James I & VI took the Lord Chamberlain’s Men under his patronage, making an already popular company, a premiere one. Here’s the letter that made it all happen.
Only one letter of Shakespeare’s survives today, and that is a 1598 letter from Richard Quiney of Stratford-upon-Avon asking for a loan from Shakespeare. We don’t know if he ever received it. We also have letters written by Shakespeare himself.
The topic of Shakespeare’s Quartos, popularly known as “the bad quartos”, is too complex a topic for us to delve into here. In short, they were unauthorized, questionably sourced publications of Shakespeare’s work. We recommend you check out this book for an in depth analysis of their significance or lack thereof in Shakespearean scholarship.
Sir Thomas More
Script of Sir Thomas More contains our only remaining records of Shakespeare’s writing a script. We have 147 lines in a draft of a collaborative play about the life of Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor and author of Utopia. This is the page (“Hand D”) that is attributed to Shakespeare.
The Stationer’s Register was an optional record of publications allowed by the Stationer’s Company that ran from 1557-1911. Printers needed the permission of the Stationer’s Company to print a publication, and though that permission was sometimes granted verbally my members of the company, many printers chose to record the permissions granted them. “The Register thus records the right to publish (not the publication itself) of many, but not all, works published in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime.” Many plays by Shakespeare, Middleton, Fletcher, and more of the Early Modern gang are recorded there.
[As you may have noticed, many of these documents were made available by the website Shakespeare Documented. If you are looking to construct papers based on cultural materialism or new historicism, we highly recommend you take a look through the Early Modern documents they have now made easy to access!]