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Material Environments

Richardson, Catherine and Hamling, Tara (2023) Material Environments. In: The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Authorship. Oxford University Press. (Submitted) (The full text of this publication is not currently available from this repository. You may be able to access a copy if URLs are provided) (KAR id:103333)

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This chapter is concerned with the material environment that informed and supported authorship in early modern England. The question of where Shakespeare read or wrote is a topic about which we know very little, either in his particular case, or in the general terms of the practices of individuals of a similar status and profession. This has not, however, prevented artists and authors over the centuries from visualising Shakespeare in the act of writing. There are two broad trends in these imaginings: one pictures Shakespeare in a lavishly appointed interior reminiscent of a castle or manor house, the other situates him in a plain space furnished only with desk, books and writing equipment. In both scenarios Shakespeare is alone, secluded in a room that is sometimes labelled as a study. These imagined authorial Shakespeares carry implications of status and detachment; such spaces suggest either aristocratic or humble lifestyles but indicate that, in the act of creating his works, Shakespeare transcends his environment, absorbed in imagination and indifferent to the physical world.

In what follows we reach back beyond such Romantic conceptions of the author to something more authentically early modern. In so doing we aim to prompt further thought about authors as socially and materially positioned individuals, whose work is shaped in more or less tangible ways by their environment. Traditional historiographies have separated creative writing from visual and material methods of thought, partly because the Protestant culture established around the time that Shakespeare was born has been associated with the de-coupling of physical things from the inner workings of mind and soul. And yet in Shakespeare’s lifetime the imagination was understood as embodied and embedded in the material environment – Protestant authors in fact placed much emphasis on material stimulae to contemplation. But how were such processes considered to work, what forms did they take, and how might establishing the patterns early modern imagination was encouraged to take help us to think differently about what constitutes source material (the stuff of which literature is constructed)?

In what follows, we ask how Shakespeare’s situation and status would have affected the environment within which he wrote; we locate the urban spaces with which he was familiar as well as his particular place within the ‘middling sorts’ of early modern England. This is important because status shaped the spaces available to early modern individuals, and thereby determined the nature of a writer’s concentration and the prompts to their imagination. We now recognise that elite and non-elite reading practices were overlapping; Anna Bayman, in the Oxford History of Popular Print, for instance, states that ‘there was no sharp division between popular and elite culture during this period’ but rather, ‘there was substantial overlap between the reading of the elites and that of ordinary people.’ The material circumstances of literacy, however, are likely to have been very different for ‘elite and popular’ not least because of substantial variations in wealth, possessions and patterns of behaviour. We need to place the literate, professional upper-middling sort, like playwrights, in their material situations if we are to comprehend the potential impact of those settings on the reading and writing which took place within them.

The following chapter is structured as a journey, starting with an analysis of how early modern writers saw the relationship between environment and imagination, then moving inwards to think about key sites and spaces within the urban environment, and the house and then the rooms where writing might have taken place. There is, of course, no direct record of where Shakespeare did his work and no inventories are known to survive for the properties in which he lived at the time when he was in residence. There is a great deal of indirect evidence, however. We are able to reconstruct the features of urban and domestic environments that were designed to speak to the imagination, as well as contemporary attitudes towards them. In material terms, extant buildings, public and domestic, give evidence of form and decoration; inventories that were made of an individual’s goods at their death help us to understand contemporary rooms and furnishing that indicates how writing spaces were changing in this period. Such documents exist for the middling sorts as well as for the elite, allowing us to explore both qualitatively and quantitatively where early modern men and women kept their books, their documents (such as leases and deeds, account books and letters) and their writing equipment. Such items are what we expect to find in writing spaces, but we highlight the fact that literate practice was not necessarily confined to a space of its own and, in its intersection with other places and practices, was supported and informed by a surprisingly wide range of visual and material objects.

Item Type: Book section
Subjects: N Visual Arts
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN1600 Drama
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Arts and Humanities > School of English
Funders: Arts and Humanities Research Council (
Depositing User: Catherine Richardson
Date Deposited: 18 Oct 2023 11:55 UTC
Last Modified: 19 Oct 2023 16:23 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

Richardson, Catherine.

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