William Shakespeare and the Silence of the Archive

William Shakespeare is both one of the best and least known people in history. Although something is known of his life as Tudor gentleman, tax payer, actor, investor in theatres and, most obviously, playwright, the written record leaves untouched the character and daily life of the one of the greatest of playwrights and poets. Even information about the basic facts of his existence are scarce: we do not know when he was born; and both portraits accepted as being genuine are posthumous. One response has been simply to speculate on the basis of the existing slight evidence. This approach has resulted in the ‘creation’ of multiple Shakespeares to suit the demands of the time and of the ‘creator’. Another approach has been to colour in the sketchy view we have of Shakespeare by forging evidence – portraits, furniture, plays and, above all, documents. From these, it is possible to construct a shadowy outline of an alternative life for Shakespeare, a life which is far more interesting than that given in the ‘valid’ records. Such paradoxes – the invention of evidence, writing of shadow biographies, raise important questions about the nature of the archive. In a postmodern world, there is a widening consensus that the archive is not an objective reflection of reality, but ‘production’ and creation. The case of Shakespeare tests these concepts in interesting ways. The forged documents are now part of the history of Shakespearean records: they are themselves part of that archive. But what is their relation to the ‘real’ records? And can one distinguish intellectually between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ archives and histories where all is ‘produced’? And how do archives and archival theory intersect with our apparent inability to accept silences and gaps in the archive?

David Thomas is a Visiting Professor at Northumbria University where his research interests are concerned with the sensitivity review of digital records and the problem of gaps or silences in archives.  He has published on the role and significance of forgery and fraud in historical archives and continues to explore this field.

As Interim Director of Research and Collections, and previously Head of Research at The National Archives, Dr Valerie Johnson is responsible for supporting and coordinating innovative research, conservation and cataloguing programmes that use our collections, and enhance access. She aims to further The National Archives’ engagement with the academic sector, and to collaborate with researchers across the cultural heritage, higher education and academic sectors. Prior to these roles, Valerie worked on a funded history project based at the University of Cambridge History Faculty. She holds an MA with Distinction in Archive Administration, and was awarded the Alexander R Myers Memorial Prize for Archive Administration. She won the Coleman Prize for her PhD thesis, British Multinationals, Culture and Empire in the Early Twentieth Century. She is a Registered Member of the Society of Archivists, a Trustee and member of the Executive Committee of the Business Archives Council, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.