Politics, Plague, and Shakespeare’s Theater

So Lent is officially over; if you celebrate it I hope it went well. I participated in a family easter egg hunt over zoom and learned that I used to force my parents to read my picture books silently to themselves while I flipped through pages and presumably understood none of the words, so really nothing has changed.

A lot of this blog is going to be, in essence, a book report: a read-along-with-Ryan, if you will. I’m nothing like an expert, but I am good at reading books. So I figured, if you’re someone who wants to know more about Shakespeare and doesn’t know where to start, why not take advice from someone who started in entirely the wrong place and has been learning things with absolutely no pattern or plan ever since?

So I’m gonna read some books and cast totally subjective judgments on them in the hopes that I can prejudice you to my way of thinking, because isn’t that what all reviewers do?

Let the prejudicing commence.

In my last post I briefly mentioned a book called Politics, Plague, and Shakespeare’s Theater: The Stuart Years by J. Leeds Barroll. At the time, I only read the chapters dealing with the “plague” part of the title, but since my archive.org loan (I love not paying for books) was about to expire, I figured I might as well read the whole thing. And to be honest, I kind of hated it. But I took like a bazillion notes, so that’s something, I guess.

I’ve got to hand it to Barroll; he comes out of the gate swinging. Not even three pages in and he straight up murders every biographer before him. That takes balls.

Barroll’s big point is that the traditional view of Shakespeare’s career as one unbroken arc, with a promising beginning, successful middle, and neat ending is a pretty fiction that we’ve all been repeating without any real factual basis for centuries. In Barroll’s view, Shakespeare’s career is more “a series of responses to the various circumstances of his time”.

This isn’t something I’d really given much thought to, but now that I have, it makes perfect sense. No life plays out like a novel, and while biographers can trace what seems like a trajectory after the fact, in the moment life is just a bunch of things that happen one after another and you just have to deal with them. In retrospect we can say that Shakespeare’s life unfolded in a narratively satisfying way, but Shakespeare himself couldn’t have known or even thought it likely that it would.

On the whole, I agree with a lot of what Barroll says. Unfortunately, the part of his book I’m most on board with is the introduction; he spends the rest of the book harping on about how records of court performances tell us nothing and how people who use topical allusions and stylistic analysis to date Shakespeare’s plays are stupid ad nauseam. I know it’s fashionable in academic writing to make the same point over and over, but this could have been a much shorter book and still said what it wanted to say.

I did appreciate Barroll’s occasional mentions of the fact that Shakespeare made the choice to abandon the respectable career as poet that had made him famous and returned to the theatre, fraught and uncertain as it was. He probably didn’t mean for that to sound romantic, but that’s how I took it. It’s a nice thought.

In the end, my main takeaway is a vindicating one: that Shakespeare wrote plays when he had somewhere to put them on, and when he didn’t, he did other things (suck it, Atlantic). That’s really all I wanted out of the book going in, so I suppose in that sense it did its job.

Is it worth reading?

Barroll promised in the introduction to “deal with unpleasant possibilities and [foreground] calamities”, and it sure as heck does. He scoffs at the idea that Shakespeare’s company had any special relationship with the king and court and asserts that he spent most of the first decade of King James’ reign out of work. Politics, Plague, and Shakespeare’s Theater casts Shakespeare as a man who only cared about writing when it was profitable and coasted by on his ability to write well quickly. It’s kind of a bitter pill to swallow.

Taken on its own, Politics, Plague, and Shakespeare’s Theater makes Shakespeare seem like a man without any formative experiences at all. It’s as callous in its treatment of him as it claims he himself was in his treatment of his art. I don’t like that view any more than Barroll likes the rose-tinted, fanciful idea of Shakespeare as a man who knew from the beginning that his life had a purpose and spent his whole career in pursuit of that.


  • It has a lot of useful appendices, but generally only stuff I’d use as a reference when talking about something else
  • It definitely made me a more cautious reader, which is a good thing because I’m very gullible and tend to agree with whoever I talked to last
  • There’s a pretty accepted timeline for the Tudor period of Shakespeare’s life, but it’s nice to get a proposed one for the rest of it
  • The line “the purchase of the New Place […] could have been the least important thing, emotionally, ever to have happened to Shakespeare” is hilarious


  • It’s just kind of a depressing read and I can’t say I enjoyed it
  • He’s really supercilious and weirdly antagonistic when he doesn’t have to be and it’s pretty off-putting
  • He comes across as kind of whiny whenever he talks about traditional dating methods, even if he makes good points
  • The footnotes are irritatingly long and honestly could have gone at the back of the book

When should you read this book?

I would say this is actually a book you can read fairly early on in your study of Shakespeare, if you’ve read at least a few traditional biographies first. The message of “don’t buy into the myth of Shakespearean exceptionalism” is a good one, but I think reading it too soon could poison your view of every subsequent book you read. Learn the orthodox version first, then challenge it.

It is pretty data-heavy and I skimmed a lot of the specific dates and records. Barroll also takes for granted that the reader already knows all the things he disagrees with, so he doesn’t make any effort to explain them. I think you can still get something out of it without that background knowledge, though, and it’s sometimes fun to read books you don’t understand so that you can have light bulb moments later on.

Books you should read before this one

  • Ungentle Shakespeare by Katherine Duncan-Jones (Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt would be okay too, but Greenblatt tends to get kind of misty-eyed over Shakespeare’s genius)
  • William Shakespeare: a Compact Documentary Life by S. Schoenbaum – Barroll calls him out by name but he’s still the best in the game
  • The Shakespeare Company by Andrew Gurr
  • The Profession of Player in Shakespeare’s Time by G. E. Bentley
  • 1606: The Year of Lear by James Shapiro (yeah, I know I was kind of harsh in my last post, but if you want to get an idea of what was else was going on at the time, Shapiro is a good storyteller and if you remember not to trust a thing he says you’ll be okay)

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