Imagination is needed if we are to bring the information we have about another human being to life. When the subject is Shakespeare, although we may continually lament that the facts we most desire do not exist, we may decide to broaden the scope of how to use what is available the better to imagine what his life was like.
Biographers of Shakespeare normally and understandably drive a direct trajectory from his birth to his death, writing about persons he knew mainly in relation to specific occasions when his life intersected with theirs. Relatives, friends, theatre practitioners, fellow writers, publishers and printers, patrons, business associates – people such as these all played significant roles in the dramatist's life. In this volume we have invited our contributors, instead of taking Shakespeare as the centre, to consider members of his circle – or rather of the intersecting circles of persons he encountered at various periods of his life – in their own right, as well as in relation to the ways in which their lives impinged on his and his on theirs. We hope that these explorations within the Shakespeare circle will both add to our knowledge of the society of his time and, more specifically, will cast reflected light back on Shakespeare himself, enriching our understanding of him by offering a fuller than usual picture of his personal and professional relationships, the people we know he was closest to.
The twin centres of Shakespeare's life are of course Stratford-upon-Avon and London. In his day Stratford, set on the River Avon in Warwickshire, was a thriving market town with around 2,000 inhabitants. It had a fine church and a well-established grammar school with Oxford-educated masters where all the boys of the town could receive a free, classics-based education with no expense to their parents. Many townsmen both spoke and wrote Latin. Girls, however, could be educated only at an elementary level. Daily life in the town is exceptionally well recorded because of the high survival rate of many of the corporation and other records, though some key documents are lost. The school's records, for example, are only preserved from the nineteenth century onwards. The town's affairs were regulated by its councillors and aldermen, presided over by the Bailiff, or mayor, an office held in 1568 by Shakespeare's father, John (Chapter 2).