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Welcome to Episode 248 of That Shakespeare Life

There are many examples of letter writing from Shakespeare’s plays, including correspondence getting lost in transit and even examples of forgery! While many of the examples from Shakespeare’s plays about letters are amplified to be more entertaining on stage, they represent real history about how communication was written and delivered for the life of William Shakespeare. Here today to help us explore the tools used to write a letter, and special tricks like letter-locking and sealing a parchment, is our guest and co-curator of the Letterwriting in Renaissance England exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Alan Stewart.  

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Letters expert Alan Stewart

Alan Stewart is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, specializing in early modern literature, history, and culture.  His books include biographies of Francis Bacon, Philip Sidney, and King James VI and I, and studies of Shakespeare’s letters and early modern life-writing.   

I’ll be asking Alan Stewart about:

  • What tools were used to write letters written during Shakespeare’s lifetime?  
  • I was under the impression that literacy was low during Shakespeare’s lifetime. How did people who were largely illiterate send letters that required a person to be able to both read and write?
  • Who were the most famous secretaries? Were secretaries hired to be on retainer or brought in on a case-by-case basis?
  • …and more!

Books and Resources Alan Stewart recommends: