The Life of William Shakespeare - A CriticalBiography
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TheLife of William Shakespeare is a fascinating and wide-ranging exploration of Shakespeare's life and works focusing on oftern neglected literary and historical contexts: what Shakespeare read, who he worked with as an author and an actor, and how these various collaborations may have affected his writing.
  • Written by an eminent Shakespearean scholar and experienced theatre reviewer
  • Pays particular attention to Shakespeare's theatrical contemporaries and the ways in which they influenced his writing
  • Offers an intriguing account of the life and work of the great poet-dramatist structured around the idea of memory
  • Explores often neglected literary and historical contexts that illuminate Shakespeare's life and works


Lois Potter recently retired as Ned B. Allen Chair at the University of Delaware. She has also taught at the Universities of Aberdeen, Leicester, and Paris III-Sorbonne Nouvelle, and at Tsuda College, Tokyo. Her publications include Twelfth Night: Text and Performance (1986), the Arden edition of The Two Noble Kinsmen (1997, 2001), and Shakespeare in Performance: Othello (2002). She is also the editor of two volumes in the Revels History of Drama in English series (1981 and 1984), and has been a frequent reviewer of plays for the Times Literary Supplement, Shakespeare Quarterly, and Shakespeare Bulletin.


List of Illustrations vi

Preface and Acknowledgments vii

List of Abbreviations x

The Shakespeare Family Tree xii

1 “Born into the World”: 1564–1571 1

2 “Nemo SibiNascitur”: 1571–1578 21

3 “Hic et Ubique”: 1578–1588 40

4 “This Man’s Art and That Man’s Scope”: 1588–1592 64

5 “Tigers’ Hearts”: 1592–1593 86

6 “The Dangerous Year”: 1593–1594 106

7 “Our Usual Manager of Mirth”: 1594–1595 134

8 “The Strong’st and Surest Way to Get”: Histories, 1595–1596 162

9 “When Love Speaks”: Tragedy and Comedy, 1595–1596 181

10 “You Had a Father; Let Your Son Say So”: 1596–1598 201

11 “Unworthy Scaffold”: 1598–1599 231

12 “These Words Are Not Mine”: 1599–1601 258

13 “Looking Before and After”: 1600–1603 277

14 “This Most Balmy Time”: 1603–1605 300

15 “Past the Size of Dreaming”: 1606–1609 330

16 “Like an Old Tale”: 1609–1611 360

17 “The Second Burden”: 1612–1616 384

18 “In the Mouths of Men”: 1616 and After 414

Bibliography 443

Index 475


“Two of the Mighty dead have been brought back to life in exemplary fashion: Shakespeare in Lois Potter’s The Life of William Shakespeare: A Critical Biography, which very cleverly uses expert theatre-knowledge as a way of making her enigmatic subject seem plausibly substantial; and Keats in Nicholas Roe’s John Keats: A New Life, which puts the poet properly in his place.”  (The Guardian, 24 November 2012)

“This study will have wide appeal to readers who wish to expand their appreciation of the works of William Shakespeare.  Summing Up: Highly recommended.  Upper-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers.”  (Choice, 1 November 2012)

“A richly suggestive, undogmatic book in which Lois Potter ranges across the entire canon and the period that helped produce it.”  (Around the Globe, 1 October 2012)

“Lois Potter’s Life of William Shakespeare, ranks with the most distinguished examples of its kind … Her achievement lies in her catholicity, her simultaneous commitment to matters personal, historical, theatrical, literary, cultural.  She exhibits an absolute command of the available facts, a lifetime’s acquaintance with the works gained in teaching and playgoing, an unparalleled familiarity with theatrical history from 1567 to the present, and a talent for connecting the fictional and the actual.”  (Times Literary Supplement, 10 August 2012)

“Lois Potter’s book provides a delightful guide through Shakespeare’s world. A splendid introduction for those new to the facts about Shakespeare’s life, it is also a revelation for anyone all too familiar with them. The Life of William Shakespeare revitalizes old truths by asking questions where none seemed necessary, by filling in new detail, and most of all, by approaching the material from the perspective of a would-be, then practicing and collaborating, player-playwright. Lois Potter’s unique emphasis, on Shakespeare’s imaginative life and the words that fed it, works brilliantly to produce what I would have thought impossible: a really new biography that never thins into mere speculation. Learned, modest, witty and above all smart, the book will be a must-read for anyone who cares about early modern theater.”
Meredith Skura, Rice University

“By keeping her eye on the enduring power of Shakespeare’s writing, Lois Potter manages to gather all the interesting and puzzling questions we have asked about his life into a focused and authentically critical biography. She is adventurous in taking on speculation and counter-speculation but never allows us to confuse conjecture with fact. Richly informative and engagingly written, this book should appeal to general readers as well as to professional Shakespeareans.”
Edward Pechter, Concordia University

“Lois Potter has produced an astonishing, revelatory, fully literary biography. The Life of William Shakespeare is a product of deep reservoirs of historical knowledge, theatrical experience, and critical acumen, all deployed with an extraordinarily sympathetic imagination. Potter adjudicates standing quarrels about the life story with intelligence and dispassion, offers up scintillating new readings of the works, and produces interesting and original observations on every page.”
Lena Cowen Orlin, Executive Director, Shakespeare Association of America, and Professor of English, Georgetown University

“This is not just (just!) a biography of Shakespeare: it is a theatrical biography. It uses Potter’s immense, unrivalled knowledge of things theatrical to draw very logical and frequently original inferences.”
Laurie Maguire, Oxford University

“This is a lively, fresh new introduction to the life of Shakespeare, no mere regurgitating of earlier lives. It reads well. It is judicious, intelligent, coherent, and well documented.”
David Bevington, University of Chicago