Episodes

  • Underneath a housing redevelopment in Whitechapel, England, archaeologists have unearthed what is believed to be the remains of The Red Lion theater. The Red Lion predates Shakespeare’s Globe and is thought to be the earliest purpose built theater known to have been built in the city since Roman-times. Built by John Brayne in 1567, the Red Lion was a predecessor to Brayne’s next construction on The Theatre in Shoreditch which was owned by James Burbage and completed almost a decade later, in 1576.

    The Red Lion represents the start of a new movement in London which would give foundation to the budding career of a young William Shakespeare, in that this was the first time in modern history anyone was trying to provide a permanent home for the popular Tudor playing companies who up to this point were housed at various houses, inns, and other venues as a strictly travelling troupe. To create purpose built theaters was a unique change in the early modern theater industry that invited patrons to come to the theater instead of the other way around.

    Other than brief mentions in two lawsuits from the time period, there has not been much information to inform our understanding of this groundbreaking theater, until now. In January of 2019, a team of archaeologists with Archaeology South-East, part of University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, began excavations that revealed 144 timbers thought to make up the scaffolding of the Red Lion’s stage..

    The director of the project, Stephen White, is here today to tell us about the dig, what they have found, and what we now know about the Red Lion based on their history discovery.

  • In the 16th century as Shakespeare was writing plays like Alls Well That Ends Well, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar, Shakespeare turned to classical philosophers like Cicero and Isocrates to find tales exploring not only what constituted decent, or proper behavior, but what happened to people when those invisible rules of decorum were altered or violated. We’ve long lauded Shakespeare for including the works of famous Latin and Greek poets in his stories, but as our guest this week, Scott Newstok, is here to share, Shakespeare was doing more than simply building on the stories he found from the past. The ideas of Cicero and Isocrates concerning what it meant to “fit” a word to the action or an action to the word was built into the fabric of who the early modern playwrights were as artists, as well as an accepted cultural perspective from the 16th century that believed people, ideas, words, and even their clothing ought to fit together properly. Intriguingly, many of these playwrights came came from craftsmen background with Shakespeare being born to a glover and Marlowe being born to a shoemaker, playwrights like Shakespeare and his contemporaries were applying to their craft what they knew to be true about art--that the details needed to fit the scene where they were being used. This approach was not only standard industry practice in the Renaissance theater, but the culture of the audience themselves would have considered taking care to make proper connections between character, actor, and outfit in performances to be what Scott Newstok calls “fitting” to the times.

    Scott Newstok is the author of How to Think Like Shakespeare, and he joins us this week to explore his chapter of that book called “Of Fit” where he explores the historical and culture context of Shakespeare’s plays, including the idea that for Shakespeare, precision with words, actions, and even costumes, was as much a well established professional standard as it was creative genius.

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  • One of the best ways many Shakespeare scholars use to explore the real historical counterparts to the historical figures that show up in Shakespeare’s plays is to examine what they looked like. Centuries before the advent of photography, when you wanted to capture someone’s likeness and preserve it, history used paintings. People like Henry VIII, Anne of Cleves, Jane Seymour, Edward VI and many others were all given this kind of immortality when they were painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, who is arguably the best portrait artist in history.

    Hans Holbein the Younger showed promise from a very young age as a portraitist and was encouraged by his father, Hans Holbein the Elder who was also an artist, to pursue his unique talents. While firmly a citizen of Switzerland, Holbein would routinely undertake the long commute from Basil, Switzerland to England as well as France to paint some of the world’s most famous figures, many of whom would find new life in the performances of plays by William Shakespeare. He could not have known in the early 16th century that just a few decades after his death a young playwright would give the world a whole new reason to study his paintings, but nonetheless, Hans Holbein has a place in the study of the life of William Shakespeare, and indeed the life of England herself, so for this week, our guest, Susan Abernethy is here to introduce us to Hans Holbein and how a young boy working in his father’s shop would grow up to be friends with, and the official portraitist for, some of the most notorious figures in history as well as from Shakespeare’s plays.

    Susan Abernethy has a degree in history and is a member of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association. Her blog, The Freelance History Writer has been continuously publishing historical articles since 2012, with an emphasis on European, Tudor, medieval, Renaissance, Early Modern and Women’s history. She is currently working on a biography of a prominent Stuart royal.

  • One of the most notorious castles in all of English history is Pontefract Castle. Just one step down in the levels of punishment a criminal could receive short of being sent to the Tower of London was to find themselves imprisoned in one of the town castles, and none was more notorious in it’s reputation for death and imprisonment than Pontefract Castle.


    Known as Pomfret in Shakespeare’s plays, the bard paints a compelling story about the death of Richard II at Pontefract Castle, but what is the real history behind this iconic location? We have invited our guest this week, Neil Redfern, to visit with us and share the real history behind Pontefract Castle, as well as what’s being done today to try and save it.

  • Like so many of Shakespeare’s words, even a single line can have an elaborate history. When it comes to the word “orange” there is just such a history to be found if you know where to look.

    For the 16th century, oranges were a staple item for seasonal eating on tables from the average person all the way to the nobility. While the real “rage” in history for it being fashionable to have orange houses called orangeries in England would not hit in full force until after Shakespeare’s lifetime, the orange, the lemon, and sour oranges were in existence in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and they show up in his plays.

    Interestingly, William Shakespeare may not have had the same kind of oranges we use today for our morning orange juice or to buy at a local grocery store, but not only did he have them, there were several varieties. Here to help us explore where oranges came from, how they arrived in England, and what Shakespeare is talking about when he mentions an “orange wife” as well as going “to the orange” is our guest, Dorian Fuller.

  • For the entirety of Shakespeare’s life, the Tabard Inn was a well established public inn on the mainstreet of Southwark, leading to London Bridge, and it was famous because Chaucer had set the opening scene of The Canterbury Tales there, but according to a 27 page hand written document once owned by famous antiquary David Laing, the Tabard Inn served as a frequent meeting place for William Shakespeare, who gathered there with famous friends like Richard Burbage, Ben Jonson, and other “roystering associates” of the 16th century, all of whom carved their names into the wooden panels of this iconic public house in an act of graffiti that turns out to be a key piece of history.

    This paper record was left unnoticed for decades inside the Edinburgh University Library until a reference to it was rediscovered by Martha Carlin in 2013. Martha is Professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and she joins us today to share with us her fantastic discovery, the history of the Tabard Inn, why Shakespeare and his friends were writing on the walls there in the late 16th century.

  • In 1572, when William Shakespeare was 8 years old, a large supernova streaked across the sky making a lifelong mark in the memory of not just a young William Shakespeare, but across the consciousness of all of England who saw it that night. At the height of Renaissance thought, and during the time Galileo was presenting his ideas in Italy, William Shakespeare was writing Hamlet, King Lear, and other plays which not only allude to the work of famous physicists and astronomers of the 16th century, but in some cases, including the stars they studied, and even some family relatives of these astronomers, by name.

    We do not often connect William Shakespeare and his work in theater with Euclidean Geometry, or the Copernican theory of the universe, but when we study the life of the bard, we discover that he was not only well educated in both, but contemporaries to the bard like Thomas Digges, and Tycho Brahe, were publishing works right alongside the plays of Shakespeare that captured the attention of England, and Europe, during the 16th century. Our guest this week, Dr. Michael Rowan Robinson has published extensively on the topics of mathematics, astronomy, and Shakespeare, and he is here today to explain the mathematical history of the bard, including the influence of Copernicus and Kepler on plays like Hamlet and King Lear.

  • We sit down to a properly set table and expect to see at minimum a fork, knife, and a spoon. More elaborate settings may have more utensils, but for William Shakespeare, his lifetime was the first moment in England’s history when dining habits were caught somewhere between the age of eating with one’s hands, and the advent of proper utensils at the dining table. While the invention of the fork happened centuries prior to Shakespeare, the fashion of using them to eat with at a table for meals did not arrive in Europe until the youth of Shakespeare’s parents, when in 1533 Catherine de Medici of France travelled from Italy to France to marry Henry II. Across Europe the couple held festivals to demonstrate their power, including the showcase of Catherine’s unique eating methods, namely--the use of a fork. As the custom of eating with a fork made its’ way across Europe, the fork was met with a mixed reception, and even morphed into a political symbol. By the time William Shakespeare was taking the world by storm, the fork was a novel eating instrument in England, fascinating some, and infuriating others.

    Here to help us explore what the experience of eating at a table, and using a fork, would have been like for William Shakespeare is our guest, now three time a visitor here at That Shakespeare Life, Tudor enthusiasts, expert culinary historian, and my friend, Brigitte Webster.

  • Do you know the origin of the word “whiskey”? Turns out we have Scotland to thank for not only the drink we know as whiskey today, but the word we use to describe it as well. The earliest record of whiskey on paper happens in 1494 with a reference to aqua vitae in the Exchequer Rolls, but there was a great interest--and a good deal of illicit smuggling of Scotch whiskey-- happening not just in Shakespeare's lifetime, but under the title "aqua vitae" (which is used no less than 6 times in Shakespeare's plays), the beverage was also hugely popular for centuries prior to Shakespeare’s life in the Catholic Church as a kind of holy water. After the Dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, the monks with skills in distillery went underground to create whiskey, and in so doing formed one of the largest illegal operations in Europe. You may have thought all of the parodies of drunken friars like Friar Tuck from the Robin Hood tales, and in similar way, even Shakespeare’s own Falstaff, may have been merely jokes for a story, but as our guest this week, Rosie Wilmot of the Scotch Whisky Association in Edinburgh Scotland is here to share with you today, these stories and aqua vitae, in particular, have a real historical basis directly from the life of William Shakespeare.

  • The Paston Letters are a collection of over 1,000 pieces of correspondence between 1422 and 1509 which, while never intended to last into the modern era, have been preserved throughout the centuries for the unique light they shed on the everyday events in 15th century England. John Paston was a lawyer in England, and while the letters sometimes represent the communication of John Paston to members of the aristocracy most of the letters are written by his wife Margaret, who is writing to her husband at work in London. Replete with illustrations as well as words, the letters detail mundane items like shopping lists and recipes, provide examples of medieval colloquial expressions, and perhaps the most powerful content found in the Paston Letters is their timeline of how the War of the Roses unfolded. During the late 15th century, England was effectively lawless whilst the King was paralyzed due to his surrounding nobles stifling the enforcement of law. The Paston Letters show that the government of England was hugely disorganized, with even the succession to the crown coming under contestation. This overarching discontent led to the rising of Jack Cade, and outlines the rise of the War of the Roses. Since Shakespeare’s history plays, also detail the rise of the War of the Roses, including characters like Jack Cade, and the character of Falstaff whom some scholars believe was based on a relative to the Pastons, a John Fastolf, there is often the suggestion that Shakespeare used the Paston Letters as a source for his plays. Is this true? Our guest, Rob Knee, from the Paston Heritage Society, is here this week to separate legend from fact as we explore the Paston Letters and their role in the life of William Shakespeare.

  • With court records of Mary Queen of Scots playing cards, as well as James I of England preferring the game Maw when entertaining royal dignitaries, we know that playing cards was not just popular for royals but a pastime at all levels of society during Shakespeare’s lifetime, and it was a relatively new arrival to England overall. Playing cards did not reach Europe until 1360, and the first mention we have of playing cards in England comes in 1463 when King Edward IV banned the import of playing cards to England in an effort to bolster the English economy by focusing production of cards at home. With the influx of French and Spanish playing cards during Shakespeare’s lifetime, along with laws trying to have cards made in England exclusively, what did the average playing card look like? There is a representation of a six of diamonds on the wall of a small Suffolk church in Hessett, near Bury St Edmunds, which dates from the 15th century and that provides one example of design, but the pack of cards which has historically come to be associated with England specifically is a pack from Rouen, France, designed by Pierre Marechal. As playing cards grew in popularity, so did their design and the invention of various games--some of which like Noddy and Maw show up by name several of Shakespeare’s plays. The suits, size of card, as well as material used to make playing cards was also widely varied in the 16th century, so how do we determine what counts as historically accurate for William Shakespeare? To find out this week, we turn to Kathryn James, Curator of Early Modern Books and Manuscripts at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. She joins us today to share about the collection of 16th century playing cards in house at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library with some key insights on the economics, design, and appearance of playing cards from the life of William Shakespeare.

    Kathryn James is the Curator of Early Modern Books and Manuscripts at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. She is a Lecturer in the Yale History Department and the co-founder of the Yale Program in the History of the Book. Her new book, English Paleography and Manuscript Culture, 1500-1800 (2020) is available through Yale University Press.

  • The first historical written reference to a separate undergarment for women is found in the wardrobe accounts of Mary Tudor. There, the records indicate Mary had

    “Item for making of one peire of bodies of crymsen satin| Item for making two pairs of bodies for petticoats of crymsen satin | Item for making a pair of bodies for a Verthingall of crymsen Grosgrain”

    The fashion of using a “pair of bodies”, which clothing historians explain is another phrase for corsets, was a staple item for women in Elizabethan England. Not all women were able to afford the bright red undergarments apparently favored by Mary Tudor, nor the silk and satin she uses in this wardrobe account either. Considering these items were part of a woman’s underclothes, they were intentionally not on public display and that means, with the exception of 1-2 portraits which were rather scandalous for their time, along with only 2 surviving corsets from the time period, it takes a great deal of research to piece together the history of women’s undergarments from Shakespeare’s lifetime.

    Our guest this week, Cass Morris, is and she has done extensive research into the history of corsets. Cass joins us today to set straight some myths about what women wore in the 16th century, as well as to share what she’s learned about how Shakespeare’s playing company portrayed female characters on stage, and whether items like a corset could have been used (or varied) to distinguish between the classes of women in Shakespeare’s stories.

  • During the life of William Shakespeare, plain water was often unclean and filtration, while available, was rudimentary at best. It was not safe to drink the water of the Thames river, and in order to compensate for a general lack of fresh drinking water, the most popular beverage in Elizabethan England even for regular meal times, was beer or ale. Drunkenness was a common occurrence, as was the consistent consumption of large amounts of alcohol. There are court records showing the monarchs of England often celebrated festivals, parties, and visiting dignitaries with the serving of excessive amounts of alcohol, at times amounting to hundreds of barrels of wine, beer, or ale. One of Shakespeare’s most enduring characters is a drunken knight, and even Shakespeare’s own death is shrouded in a mystery involving excess drink. With all of this drinking going on in the life of William Shakespeare, what was the opinion and response to drunkenness?

    Our guest this week, Rebecca Lemon, included an entire chapter on beer and addiction to alcohol in her latest publication titled Addiction and Devotion in Early Modern England. Dr. Lemon joins us today to explain some of the most common alcoholic beverages, the state of alcoholism in the 16th century, and what understanding these facts about the cultural relationship to alcohol can tell us about Shakespeare’s characters whose personalities were specifically inclusive of drunken behavior like Falstaff and Prince Hal.

  • Throughout Shakespeare’s lifetime one of the most widely circulated and reported on current events was the state of the Holy Roman Empire. Ruled for much of Shakespeare’s lifetime by an eccentric named Rudolf II, who secluded himself in Bohemia to the neglect of his Empire. Rudolf II and his weird choice to isolate himself in Bohemia would have been enough to make Shakespeare’s references to Bohemia in his plays make sense, but on top of Rudolf II there was also Don John of Austria, the half brother to King Philip II of Spain and a threat to the English throne, with many in England concerned he might take over England should the Spanish Armada have succeeded in 1588. For historians, we can look back and see that the Spanish Armada was defeated, but for 28 year old William Shakespeare, that outcome was far from a certainty. Later when William Shakespeare was 49 years old, the eldest daughter of James I, named Elizabeth, married the Frederick V, a senior prince of the Holy Roman Empire, who would go on to become the King of Bohemia--and the irony of that situation could hardly have been lost of William for whom the entirety of his life had been spanned by upheaval in the Holy Roman Empire and an odd relationship to Bohemia. We see glimpses into the contemporary mindset of England and the politics abroad with the Holy Roman Empire as Shakespeare as well as his contemporaries comment on the threat of Don John, the war between the Spanish and Dutch, and even the oddities of the strange, isolated, King of Bohemia, Rudolf II, in plays like King John, which was written the same year Rudolf II died, and Jonsons’ The Alchemist which specifically calls out, and insults, the Hapsburg family with his multiple references to Austrian princes. Here to help us unpack this veritable mountain of history packed into just a few lines of text, and introduce us to the life of Rudolf II, the Hapsburg family, and this part of 16th century current affairs is our guest, Peter Wilson.

  • Famously, William Shakespeare’s Globe burned down from canon fire in 1599 and several of Shakespeare’s plays mention guns, gunpowder, and bullets. While we think of Shakespeare’s era as one of romantic sword battles, duels with a rapier in the streets, and even the massive naval battles with the Spanish Armada, for the life of William Shakespeare everything was under constant strain and a theme of developing the new. The development of new weapons technology was no exception as the late 16th century saw England replace the serpentine, culverine, and demi-canon, with smaller more portable hand canons, pistols, and muskets. While the average person on the street would not have carried these weapons regularly, we know from the burning of The Globe theater that canons, at least, has a place in 16th century theater, so does that mean guns and gunpowder did as well? Here to help us explore the advent of the hand gun and portable firearms that took place in England during the life of William Shakespeare is our guest, Grace Tiffany.

  • After a long, and tense back and forth of letters, threats, offers of sisterhood, and ultimately betrayal, Elizabeth I ordered Mary Queen of Scots to be executed in 1587, when William Shakespeare was 24 years old, right in the middle of what is called Shakespeare’s Lost Years, because historical records leave a gap here in the timeline of the bard about exactly what he was doing in these years of his life, but looking at broader history, it turns out much of England was confused about what, precisely, was happening for anyone.

    Mary’s death was polarizing for England as it was a culmination of tensions between Catholics vs Protestants, and a strong statement about the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Mary Queen of Scots had a strong claim to the throne of England, and she exerted her might forcefully to try and achieve that role. Famously known for her swift and decisive action against any action, or person, who hinted at treason or a threat to her throne, Elizabeth I was not only surprisingly tolerant of Mary, inviting her to England on terms of peace, but Elizabeth would go on to appoint James I as her successor after Elizabeth died. As the son of Mary Queen of Scots, James I took the throne in 1603, was it ultimately a victory for Mary? Our guest David Schajer is the author of a series of books on the intersection between Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, and James I, the lives of which contained so much real life drama that their impact spilled over onto the stage of William Shakespeare, where many moments in his plays like Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, and Merchant of Venice which seem to belie the the thoughts of the moment, like time capsules offering a glimpse into what it was like to live through this pivotal moment in history.

  • As William Shakespeare sat down to write Coriolanus, the Corn Famine of 1608 was in full swing. While the King, James I, took actions to combat the shortage of corn in England, theater seems to have played a role in communicating the citizens unrest and unhappiness over the famine. Not only was Shakespeare writing Coriolanus, where Roman citizens face a similar fate to the Londoners viewing the story at The Globe, but Church pastors all over England were writing, and in some cases performing, dramatic sermons imploring the people to share their corn, and admonishing those who hoarded grain as being evil, or possibly risking their souls. From the pulpits to the stage, theatrical presentations took aim at the poor conditions, loudly protesting the leadership of King James, and in many cases coming dangerously close to treason.

    Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is famous today for being a great Roman play. The battles, and as well as the pride, bravery, yet ultimate downfall of the glorious warrior Coriolanus, captivate audiences throughout the centuries. Yet, as our guest this week is here to share, the play was likely not purely a Roman tale for William Shakespeare, as it appears he wrote it intentionally as a direct response to an event which occured in real life.

    Lauren Shook is here this week to help us explore this part of Shakespeare’s history, and explain how the corn famine started, what James did specifically to try and combat it, how the Bible played a role in combating the famine, and why Shakespeare wasn’t tried for treason for writing such a direct political commentary in 1608.

  • When you study Hamlet, especially in school or when you read or watch a commentary on the play, it is not surprising to have someone point out to you that the flowers Ophelia carries in her bouquet as she sings her sad song after the loss of her Father, Polonius, hold powerful 16th century historical significance. It’s so important that I even included a nod to the flowers specifically in my 3 Minute Animated version of Hamlet that just published on Amazon Prime but even when I included them, that part of the play implores the viewer to “get thee to a library!” to learn more about the history. This lack of explanation presents a problem since not many commentaries or even animated versions of the play, will go beyond saying the flowers are important, to really take you behind the curtain and into the 16th century history of herbals, flowers, and Ophelia’s song specifically. To solve this problem, we invited our guest Dr. Richard Miller to sit down with us today. Richard has quite extensively put together Ophelia’s Bouquet, an article that illuminates the history of William Shakespeare that is found in Ophelia’s Flowers. Richard is here today to share the history of 16th century plants with you, and finally explain why these flowers are so important, and what you need to understand about the life of William Shakespeare when you discover Ophelia’s bouquet in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

  • The term "hand-and-a-half sword" is often used in reference to long-swords but is not considered a historical description of the weapon. There is no evidence of the term “hand-and-a-half” having been used during the Middle Ages when the sword saw its heyday in popularity and there’s no reference to hand and a half sword either in English or other languages before the 16th century. But the term does show up during the life of William Shakespeare. Why is that term appearing at this moment to describe a weapon that never went by that name when the weapon was popular? It seems that fencing language, and indeed the English language’s description of weapons overall, was influenced heavily by a man whose greatness is often eclipsed by that of Shakespeare and Jonson--that man is John Florio.

    Words like “hand and a half sword” are just one example of the power Florio’s contributions are to both the English language, and it seems, to early modern plays themselves. Credited in print by Jonson personally, as well as praised and sponsored by by people like Salviolo, Henry Wriothesley, Philip Sydney, and other prominent figures from the 16th century, John Florio operated at the highest levels of English society.


    Here this week to share with us the unique and often overlooked life of John Florio, how he came to be in England, and the unlikely friendship he seems to have had with Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare, is our guest Marianna Iannaconne.

  • During the 16th century, William Shakespeare had his own way of pronouncing words as well, and exploring how to define what that pronunciation was, and how it impacts our understanding of the plays, is a special field of historical linguistics called Original Pronunciation. Our guest this week, Dr. David Crystal is the leading expert in the field of Original Pronunciation and he joins us this week to talk about how an experiment he lead at The Globe theater in London taught everyone involved how important understanding the spoken language is to understanding Shakespeare’s plays.