One of the ways we fund the podcast is through affiliate links. If you purchase these items through our links, we make a commission that goes towards podcast operations. This post, and all the posts here on our website, may contain such affiliate links. Find the full video version of our show (packed with visual elements we aren’t able to share in the audio podcast)

In 1588, one man named Timothy Bright introduced an innovative new method for quickly writing down what you hear during a live performance, publishing a manual he called “Charactery.” A term of Bright’s own invention, Charactery is the first English version of an ancient method of shorthand dating back to the time of Cicero, that allowed anyone to pirate versions of live performance, provided they had enough patience to learn the complicated system. Bright’s innovative technology applied a complicated array of symbols and characters that while intimidating to review today, was a huge hit in Elizabethan England, with several additional shorthand methods being published in England within just a few years of Bright’s work. Walking the line between illegal behavior and artistic prowess, masters of shorthand in the late 16th century are responsible for many of the surviving copies of the sermons from Shakespeare’s lifetime, and our guest this week argues in his publication, Shakespeare, Playfere, and the Pirates, that shorthand may be behind the many errors we find in Shakespeare’s Bad Quartos. The obvious question when you realize audience members at The Globe theater were writing down the play as they heard it is to wonder, how did they accomplish that feat in the age of quill pens and in wells? And did they get arrested for pirating the works of the greatest playwrights of the age? Here this week to explain the mechanics of stealing words from the air as they are spoken, what kind of impact charactery had on the theater culture of the 16th century, as well as the mechanics of Timothy Bright’s 16th century disruptive innovation, is our guest Bryan Crockett.

Itunes | Stitcher | TuneIn | GooglePlay 

In this episode, I’ll be asking Bryan Crockett about: 

  • In Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare uses the word charactery to describe a fairy language. In Act V, Scene 5, Hostess Quickly says “Fairies use flowers for their charactery.” Bryan, using flowers for charactery sounds a lot like pictures instead of words. Was charactery a system based on pictures, similar perhaps to hieroglyphics? 
  • Was copying down sermons, or theater performances, through shorthand and then selling copies of it considered illegal behavior during Shakespeare’s lifetime or was the use of this new technology considered a valuable skill? 
  • Bryan, when we think of Shakespeare writing anything, most of us have a mental picture of him holding a quill pen. When pirates of spoken performance wanted to take down a story in a venue like The Globe which would have been predominantly standing room only outside of the upper class gallery seats, practically what did it look like to stand and copy down the words? Were they using quill and ink or something else? 

Bryan Crockett, Ph.D., an emeritus English professor at Loyola University Maryland, has written numerous books and articles, many of them about Shakespeare and his surroundings. In addition to a career’s worth of teaching courses in English Renaissance literature, Crockett has developed sub-specialties in the religious discourse of Shakespeare’s day as well as the newly developed technology of shorthand transcription of live performances. Crockett has delivered lectures in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., including one at London’s Globe Theatre. He is also an ex-actor, dramaturg, and novelist. His 2015 novel about John Donne, Love’s Alchemy, was a finalist for the Historical Novel Society’s annual achievement award as well as for the Tuscany Prize. Married and with three grown children—and a grandchild on the way—he lives in Baltimore with his wife, the artist Pamela Crockett. 

Read Bryan’s article on Playfere and Shorthand (including the reference to Romeo and Juliet quarto done via shorthand) here:

Watch the Video Version of our Show on YouTube!

Get access to the entire library of video episodes, documentaries, animated plays, and virtual tours
inside the digital streaming app for That Shakespeare Life.

Here’s what’s available for this episode:

  • Image of an English Binding, demonstrating 17th century shorthand
Sign up now for just $5/mo (or login here) and all the bonus content will immediately expand right on this page. (You will also get access to all our other patrons-only content, too!)

Resources Bryan Crockett Recommends:


Comment and Share

Please consider rating the podcast with 5 stars and leaving a one- or two-sentence review in iTunes or on your preferred platform.  Rating the podcast helps tremendously with bringing the podcast to the attention of others.

And, by all means, if you know someone you think would love to learn about the life of William Shakespeare, please spread the word by using the share buttons on this page.

And remember: In order to really know William Shakespeare, you have to go behind the curtain, and into That Shakespeare Life.