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Welcome to Episode #92 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

Theater began in England as a way for the church to share messages about the Bible with the public. Written in Latin, the Bible was not accessible to parishioners outside of mass and Catholic England relayed the tales of heroism and miracles found in the Bible through dramatic productions. This tradition came with some particular approaches to storytelling, theater, and stagecraft. As with much of what the Church did in the Middle Ages, they had rules about what was acceptable to perform which was the gold standard for public performances for centuries. After the dissolution of the monasteries and the establishment of the Church of England, the nation as a whole redefined much of its’ culture, including its’ approach to theater. For William Shakespeare, he was born as the nation was still trying to figure out where it was going to stand in terms of defining good theater and rules about performance, and in many ways, the stage was set during his infancy for the bard to take the world by storm through theater. We can see influences of the biblical mystery plays in Shakespeare’s works, and the bard was known to heavily consult poets from the medieval period like Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower in writing plays like The Two Noble Kinsmen, and Pericles. But do these influences mean Shakespeare’s plays are products of the humanist movement in which he was living, or does his work build on the medieval foundations that preceded him? Our guest this week, Dr. Helen Cooper, argues that Shakespeare’s London really ought to be called “Medieval London in the age of Shakespeare” and we are delighted to have her here to share with us how she came to this conclusion. 

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Dr. Helen Cooper is Professor Emerita of Medieval and Renaissance English at the University of Cambridge.  She holds Emeritus and Honorary Fellowships at University College, Oxford, and a Life Fellowship at Magdalene College, Cambridge.  She has particular interests in the cultural continuations across the medieval and early modern periods. Her books include Pastoral: Mediaeval into Renaissance; Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales; The English Romance in Time; and Shakespeare and the Medieval World.

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. 
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In this episode, I’ll be asking Helen Cooper about :

  • What can we see in these 17th engravings that lead you to distinguish between what is called “Shakespeare’s London” and what you described as “ ‘Medieval London in the age of Shakespeare’?
  • One of the aspects of medieval living which holds over into Shakespeare’s life is the concept of a Biblical Mystery play. Helen, was the regular performance of mystery plays a part of Shakespeare’s childhood?

  • There is one mystery play in particular called the Coventry cycle that is thought to have been performed in Coventry when William Shakespeare was 14 years old, but Helen, as the Coventry Cycle is lost now, with no surviving copies, how do we know what was in it? 

  • … and more!
I hope to see London once ere I die.

Henry IV Part II (V.3)

Visscher’s view of London, 1616, the year William Shakespeare died. Restored Version. Library of Congress. Source

London Skyline

Street plan was the same for Shakespeare as it was for Chaucer. The skyline was the same for Shakespeare as Chaucer, and the Great Cathedral was the same (minus a spire)

Everyone would have been able to find their way around the city as the locations, routes, and landmarks were all well known. Shakespeare literally walked the same footsteps as Geoffrey Chaucer. 

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You
would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would
pluck out the heart of my mystery;


Hamlet (III.2)

Engraving depicting a representation of the Mystery Play of Saint Clement of Metz in Metz during the medieval time.French name: Représentation du Mystère de saint Clément, donné sur la place de Change et le grand escalier devant la Cathédrale. (Eng trad: Representation of the Mystery of Saint Clement, given on the Chamber Square and the Great Stair on the forecourt of the Cathedral.) Auguste Migette (1802-1884) Original publication: 20 April 1850 in Metz | Immediate source | Source

Biblical Mystery Plays

Biblical Mystery plays were not a regular occurence in Stratford Upon Avon. These plays came in cycles, (not counting passion plays). It would be a series of individual pageants and thold the story of creation to the last judgement. From the north of england. Coventry, close to Stratford, had its own cycle and scholars do not hyet have evidence to show that anyone saw the famous Coventry plays (At least not that was referenced by title in surviving documentation) much less that Shakespeare saw it either, but according to Helen Cooper, she believes there’s enough evidence to support this the liklihood that Shakespeare did.

Biblical Mystery plays were surpressed in 1579, when Shakespeare was 15. There’s circumstantial evidence that coorellates Shakespeare’s work and his contemporaries to what happened in the biblical mystery plays. These plays are one place it is believed Shakespeare received the information he later repurposed in his works.

Religious plays weren’t completely outlawed in 1558, and many continued on the fringes well into the 17th century under James I. Dr. Cooper relates that as late as 1644, one man claimed the most he knew about Jesus was from a myustery play he had seen in the early 17th century. Records like these indicate the mystery plays were current, and stayed in people’s memory, even after they had stopped being performed regularly in public. They were dramatizations of biblical dramas which helped the illiterate more familiar with the Bible. 

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.


Where’s my knave? my fool? Go you and call my fool hither.

King Lear (I.4)

A watercolor of King Lear and the Fool from Act III, Scene ii of King Lear by Ary Scheffer 1834 Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection| Source


King Lear’s Fool

Is it a modern theory about theater that kings and clowns should never share a stage or when Shakespeare has King Lear enter the most philosophical of conversations with his court jester together on stage, Shakespeare is applying traditions from the biblical mystery plays.

Helen Cooper explains that the idea of a clown not sharing a stage with a King is from Aristotle, a Greek theater tradition. That tradition wasn’t particularly known in England, and no reason for Shakespeare to follow those rules. Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists were doing something much bigger, and they were specifically about humandkind. And in the nativity, you have shepherds and Kings sharing a stable and all of humankind coming to judgement and that was the general principle for Elizabethan drama.

Use our collection of activity kits to can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare with recipes, games, and crafts straight from Shakespeare's lifetime (and mentioned in his plays!) It's the most fun way to explore history.

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players

As You Like It (II.7)

At the proposal of Tsubouchi Shoyo, the building was designed as a model of the Fortune Theater, a theater in 16th century England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. A protrusion at the front of the roof forms the stage and the museum itself exists as one theater material. Even today, the museum hosts a large number of performances including Shakespearean theater. The front of the stage is inscribed with the Latin phrase “Totus Mundus Agit Histrionem”, which they translate as “the world is a playhouse” but which also is often translated to mean “All the World is a Stage”. Marjorie Garber translates this phrase in her work [Marjorie B. Garber (2008). Profiling Shakespeare. Routledge. p. 292.] as “All the world plays an actor” Joseph Quincy Adams points out that Richard Edwards gives Pythagoras credit for writing the phrase “Richard Edwards’ play Damon and Pythias, written in the year Shakespeare was born, contains the lines, “Pythagoras said that this world was like a stage / Whereon many play their parts; the lookers-on, the sage” [Joseph Quincy Adams, Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas: A Selection of Plays Illustrating the History of the English Drama from Its Origin down to Shakespeare, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston; New York, 1924, p. 579.] This phrase is written on the sign at the entrance of London’s Globe Theater. Source of the image | Source of the translations and books

All the World is a Stage?

Helen writes that the now famous phrase attributed to Shakespeare, and that actually hung over the original Globe theater, “Totus mundus agit histrionem” most often translated to “All the world’s a stage” may have come from the traditions of cycle plays. 

Dr. Cooper explains that the phrase did not originate with Shakespeare, and there’s some question about whether he was the one who put it on the Globe theater. The idea that all the world was a performance space was familiar in classical times.

This particular motto-format came fromthe 12th century John of Salbury,  who widely read in 16th century (likely by Shakespeare) and Ben Jonson owned a copy of Salbury’s work. It was mystery plays that used this motto first, it was highly popular, suitable for a theater, and really anyone in the company could have (and might have) suggested it belong on the entrance of the theater. 

Books & Resources Helen Cooper recommends:

Inside this week’s episode, Dr. Cooper graciously provides a list of resources she believes will help you explore this topic further. Here in the resources section of the show notes, I have added books that are written by Dr. Cooper because I believe they will help in your study of the overlap between Shakespeare and Medieval Europe. Dr. Cooper has written a large body of work on Shakespeare and history, these are just a few of her books you might enjoy.


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