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Welcome to Episode #71 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

William Shakespeare was living, and writing at the start of the Golden Age of Libraries. In a world where the written word was considered a luxury item, and private libraries were amassed in castles, mansions, or other private residencies of the wealthy as a sign of their status and intelligence, The Bodleian Library changed the culture of education, and access to knowledge, when they opened their doors in 1602 as the first public library in the world. In 1602, William Shakespeare was 38 years old and writing plays like Troilus and Cressida and even Hamlet, which was registered for publication in the summer of that year. One of the founders of the original library, Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester, who was the younger brother of Henry V, is a major character in two of Shakespeare’s plays, and a minor character in two more. Appearing across four of Shakespeare’s plays is unique enough, but to also portray him positively throughout, leaves us wondering what was William Shakespeare’s opinion of libraries, and would he have gone to the Bodleian? 

Here today to share with us the Shakespearean history of the Bodleian Library, is our guest Dr. Emma Smith

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Dr Emma Smith‘s research combines a range of approaches to Shakespeare and early modern drama. She is currently working on the First Folio (1623), a project combining aspects of the history of the book, histories of reading, and the interpretation of Shakespeare on the page. Her next project will be on the construction of character in printed drama. With Tamara Atkin at QMUL, she is working on the way cast lists in printed drama through the sixteenth and seventeenth century can inform our understanding of the experience of seeing, as well as reading, plays. She is part of a team of scholars revising the Riverside Shakespeare under the general editorship of Douglas Bruster. She is also interested in drama in performance, in the methodology of writing about theatre, in reviewing and its rhetoric, and in developing analogies between cinema, film theory, and early modern performance. She is working with Charlotte Brewer on a pilot project on the Oxford English Dictionary and Shakespeare, which they hope will develop into a website and associated publications on the issue of Shakespeare’s linguistic creativity and how it has been recorded.

Her most recent book is This Is Shakespeare (US publication Pantheon Books April 2020), and you can hear free lectures on Shakespeare and other early modern dramatists at Apple Podcasts or via

The Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App

Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App gives you the correct pronunciation of words found in the text of Shakespeare's plays, with audio accesibility at the click of a button. This app lets you keep a professional voice coach right in your back pocket. 
 Download the app here.

This app is an official sponsor of That Shakespeare Life.


In this episode, I’ll be asking Emma about :

  • If Humfrey donated his collection of books back in the mid to late 15th century to form the basis of the library, why is the entire library today named after Thomas Bodley?
  • I have read the Bodleian originally chained books to the desks inside the library to keep them from being stolen. I am also under the impression that scholars are, today, not allowed to actually leave the library with the texts they study. That does not sound like how most public libraries operate with a library card, and a 3-day loan on books you take home or to your office. How is the Bodleian different than other libraries, and how many of their standards and policies date back to how the original library operated? Would Shakespeare have had a library card?

  • In 1212 a religious council in Paris decreed that loaning books was an act of mercy. Was that the general reputation of books for Shakespeare’s lifetime? Was there an association between loaning books and serving God?

  • … and more!

Knowing I loved my books, he furnish'd me 
From mine own library with volumes that 
I prize above my dukedom.


The Tempest I.2

Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (15th century drawing). Public Domain. Source

Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester

Duke Humfrey of Lancaster, the first Duke of Gloucester, is featured as the character Duke Humphrey in several of Shakespeare's plays. The Duke of Gloucester and the conflict with Cardinal Beaufort features in Henry VI Part 1, and the disgrace of Gloucester after his wife is accused of being a witch is a major plot line in Henry VI Part 2.

Shakespeare has the Duke of Gloucester appear throughout his version of the War of the Roses, interestingly portraying Humfrey's death as a muder ordered by the Duke of Suffolk and Queen Margaret of Anjou. The Duke of Gloucester also shows up in a minor role in Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V.

The actual Duke Humfrey was really of Lancaster and the first Duke of Gloucester. He was Lord Protector of England when his nephew was not yet old enough to be King. History characterizes him in general as a reckless, unprincipled, and divisive person who was also highly intelligent, and a patron of the arts.

His widely read and scholarly approach to life saw him amass a large library. His well rounded character saw him a huge supporter of Eton College as well as a promoter of the University of Oxford. 

For his work in politics, advocacy in foreign affairs, as well as his generous support of popular literary figures he earned the nickname “Good Duke Humfrey.”

At his death in 1447, he donated his large library to the University of Oxford. At that time, the library only had 20 books to its' name and the 281 book collection Humfrey gave to them launched the small library into an establishment of recognizable merit. 

By 1556, the room known today as Duke Humfrey's room, the only remaining original section of the first Bodleian, was removed of its' books and furtniture. By 1598, Thomas Bodley had everything refitted into the room, returning books there and by 1610, Bodley added a wing on to the original space.

Duke Humphrey apatronised the Abbey of St Albans and had his own walk at Old St. Paul's Cathedral. For a long time people thought Humfrey's tomb was there at Old St. Paul's, but that turned out to be someone else. Popular as it was with beggars, theives, and passersby, the walk so named after Duke Humfrey inspired the idiom “to dine with Duke Humphrey” which meant that poor people were hanging out at this particular section of Old St. Paul's, without money for a meal. 

Here's an episode from my youtube channel you might enjoy. On Did Shakespeare we take a look at whether Shakespeare would have studied at a library. It was a two part investigation and you can watch Part 1 here, as well as find the rest of the history here.

Ten o'clock: within these three hours 'twill be 
time enough to go home.


Alls Well That Ends Well, IV.1

The interior of Duke Humphrey's Library, the oldest reading room of the Bodleian Library in the University of Oxford.
Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0 Source

Thomas Bodley Kept His Eye on Expansion

Thomas Bodley amassed a collection of 2500 books to re-establish and essentially rescue the old library at Oxford and refurbish it into a brand new library that opened their doors on November 8, 1602. 

He didn't stop at simply reopening the library, however. He was hard at work making sure it was well established, continued in longevity, and even had an eye on making sure the collections had the opportunity to grow. In 1610, Bodley established an agreement with the Stationer's Register to make sure that all of the books (of his choosing) which were registered with the Stationer had the opportunity to be stored and collected by the Bodleian. 

This agreement resulted in a stead stream of incoming collections, which meant they needed more space to house these books. In 1612, Bodley himself designed, and had installed, the first ever extension to the library which is today known as Arts End. 

The Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App

Audio Shakespeare Pronunciation App gives you the correct pronunciation of words found in the text of Shakespeare's plays, with audio accesibility at the click of a button. This app lets you keep a professional voice coach right in your back pocket. 
 Download the app here.

This app is an official sponsor of That Shakespeare Life.


Thomas Bodley, the founder of Bodleian Library of Oxford. Unknown Artist. Unknown Date. Source

Thomas Bodley

Thomas Bodley was born on March 2, 1545, during the reign of Henry VIII.

In 1587 , he married Ann Carew, the widow of a wealthy man, and was thus well established financially with both the means and time afforded to him that he might pursue a library.

The Bodleian Library website quotes Thomas Bodley as having said in his formal retirement:

‘set up my staff at the library door in Oxon; being thoroughly persuaded, that in my solitude, and surcease from the Commonwealth affairs, I could not busy myself to better purpose, than by reducing that place (which then in every part lay ruined and waste) to the public use of students’. Source

It seems Bodley took his retirement work very seriously, going on to establish many new sections for the expanding library and even donating money in his will for the establishment of what would become the first ever public museum and picture gallery on the third floor of the library.

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Engraving of Arts End, Duke Humfrey's Library. 1675. David Loggan. Source

Public Library, But Did Not Lend Out Books

The Bodleian Library was a public library, but it wasn't open to just anyone who happened to a member of the public at large.

In order to become a reader at the library, you had to be approved by the library and accepted in an official capacity. In addition, you were not allowed to check books out, and certainly never allowed to leave the premises with any item from the collection.

Instead, readers would read the books, and presumably take notes about what they learned (which their notes they could take with them), but some of the books inside the library itself were even protected by chains, such that anyone reading that book would be tied to the desk where it was housed.

As Emma points out for us in this week's episode, even King Charles himself was told “no” by the library when he requested that books from the library be brought to him at the palace.

Books and Resources Emma Recommends:

These are affiliate links for the books you will hear Emma talk about inside this week's episode. If you click these links, it will direct you to an Amazon page for that book. If you purchase the book there, we make a commission. 


Start your week with Shakespeare, with new updates every Monday.  I'll send you this diagram of The Globe Theater to welcome you.

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