Renaissance records of Shakespeare’s plays in performance are exceedingly scarce. However, those few contemporary accounts that have survived provide brief yet invaluable information about a handful of Shakespeare’s dramas. They give us a sense of what the play-going experience was like while Shakespeare was alive and involved in his own productions, and, in some cases, they help us determine the composition dates of the plays. Of all the records of performance handed down to us, none is more significant than the exhaustive diary of a doctor named Simon Forman, from which we obtain lengthy descriptions of early productions of four of Shakespeare’s plays: Macbeth, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and Richard II.
Dr. Simon Forman
Simon Forman was born on December 30, 1552, in the town of Quidhampton, near Salisbury. He attended the Salisbury grammar school, and his experiences would have been very similar to those of young William Shakespeare who attended school in nearby Stratford. The following is an autobiographical account of Simon’s school years:
When Simon was almost eight years of age, in those days before the soldiers came from Newhaven, which was about the year of our Lord 1563 that the plague began in Salisbury, there was a certain minister named William Rydot alias Rydar, that by his trade and occupation was a cobbler. But after Queen Mary’s days when the law did turn, he was made a minister and so withal became a schoolmaster and teacher of children. He was a man of some fifty years, mean of stature, and a blackgrom Sir [a poor parson]. He could read English well, but he could [know] no more Latin than the single accidence, and that he learned of his two sons that went daily to a free school.
This parson, when the plague began, fled from Salisbury for fear thereof, and came to dwell at the priory of St. Giles, near unto the father of this Simon: to whom this Simon was put to school at Michaelmas. Where he learned his letters. When he came to learn ‘In the name of the Father’ etc., because his capacity could not understand the mystery of spelling, he prayed his master he might not go to school no more, because he should never learn it. But his said master beat him for it, which made him the more diligent to his book. After some days, when he had pondered thereon well and had the reason thereof, he learned it. After that his master never beat him for his book again. He profited so well that in one year or little more he had learned his single accidence and his rules clean out…After this he was put to the free school in the Close of Salisbury with one Doctor Bowles, which was a very furious man, with whom he went to school some two years.
On New Year’s Eve of 1563, Simon’s father died suddenly. His pitiless mother, who, by Simon’s own account beat him repeatedly, forced him to leave school and take a job with Matthew Commin, a local merchant of cloth, rosin, salt, and herbal medicine. From Commin Simon learned “the knowledge of all wares and drugs, and how to buy and sell; and grew so apt and had such good fortune that in short time his master committed all to his charge”.
After ten years of working with Matthew Commin, Simon left for Oxford to live with his cousins and resume his education. But Simon was unhappy at Oxford and quickly returned to Salisbury to accept a teaching position. For over six years Simon taught school in and around Salisbury, and, while his occupation paid his bills, it left him deeply unfulfilled. However, in 1579, Simon found his true vocation. He writes, “this year I did prophesy the truth of many things which afterwards came to pass…the very spirits were subject unto me”. Thus Simon devoted himself to the study and practice of “physic and magic”. Unable to find the resources needed to facilitate his new occupation in the little towns around Salisbury, Simon moved to London. “Forman’s move to London was the decisive step in his career: he could not have become the well-known figure he did if he had remained in Salisbury. In spite of the hardships he endured in the first years and the disadvantage of having no connections, the opportunities that opened out were immensely greater. And on both fronts, in magic as well as physic and surgery. The opportunities of practising the former were restricted in a provincial town; in Elizabethan London they were unlimited” (Rowse 39).
Now a fully competent doctor by the standards of the day, Simon, unlike most of the other doctors in the capital, decided to stay in London during the plagues of 1592 and 1594 to help the devastated masses. He saved many lives and acquired a reputation as a courageous man and excellent physician. His experiences treating plague victims led to his publication, Discourses on the Plague, in 1595. Simon’s success, however, caught the attention of the Royal College of Physicians in London. They were outraged at Simon’s alternative healing practices (as he used his “magical potions” to help patients) and his lack of proper medical training. Upon a rigorous examination, the College found Simon’s knowledge of anatomy and medicine sorely inadequate. His answers prompted “great mirth and sport among the auditors”. Simon was fined and was banned from practicing medicine in London. When Simon disobeyed the College nine months later by prescribing a potion to a man that died soon after, Simon was committed to prison. His disputes with the College of Physicians dragged on for almost seven years, until he was finally granted a proper license by Cambridge University in 1603.
On July 22, 1599, Simon wed seventeen year-old Jane Baker, a girl renting a room in Simon’s house. Simon had never been content with just one woman, and, sadly, marriage “did not make much difference to Forman’s way of life, except that he had an inexperienced girl now as mistress of the house; he continued to be master” (Rowse 93).
Although Simon continued to write scores of books and papers on the subjects of medicine and astrology until his death, after 1601 we have very few detailed records of his personal activities. We know that he continued to see patients until the very end, treating them with his unique combination of “physic and magic”. The events surrounding Simon’s death are very well documented by another astrologer, William Lilly. Lilly’s report tells us that, one warm Sunday afternoon in September of 1611, Simon, with what would be his last prophesy, told his wife that he would die the following Thursday night. And, sure enough, “[M]onday came, all was well. Tuesday came, he was not sick. Wednesday came, and still he was well: with which his impertinent wife did much twit him in the teeth. Thursday came, and dinner was ended, he very well. He went down to the waterside, and took a pair of oars to go to some buildings he was in hand with in Puddle-dock. Being in the middle of the Thames, he presently fell down, only saying, ‘Am impost, an impost’, and so died.”
While Simon Forman’s life is intriguing, it is his diary entries that are of ultimate importance to Shakespearean scholars because they contain information on theatrical performances at the Globe in 1610 and 1611.
Dr. Forman’s Account of Four Shakespeare Productions
Simon Forman attended productions of four of Shakespeare’s plays and his thorough accounts of the performances aid scholars in dating the dramas and uncovering discrepancies in the published texts. The minor details of Simon Forman’s narratives are sometimes erroneous, but they nonetheless give modern readers an impression of what it would be like to be an audience member in Shakespearean England. Reprinted below are the relevant excerpts from Simon’s record-books. Please note that I have modernized the spelling.
Macbeth at the Globe, 20 April 1610
In Macbeth at the Globe, 1610, the 20 of April, Saturday, there was to be observed, first, how Macbeth and Banquo, two noble men of Scotland, riding through a wood, there stood before them three women fairies or nymphs, and saluted Macbeth, saying three times unto him, “Hail, Macbeth, King of Codon; for thou shall be a King, but shall beget no kings,” etc. Then said Banquo, “what all to Macbeth, and nothing to me?” “Yes”, said the nymphs, “hail to thee, Banquo, thou shall beget kings, yet be no king”; and so they departed and came to the country of Scotland to Duncan, King of Scots and it was in the days of Edward the Confessor. And Duncan had them both kindly welcome, and made Macbeth forthwith Prince of Northumberland, and sent him home to his own castle, and appointed Macbeth to provide for him, for he would sup with him the next day at night, and did so.
And Macbeth contrived to kill Duncan and through the persuasion of his wife did that night murder the King in his own castle, being his guest; and there were many prodigies seen that night and the day before. And when Macbeth had murdered the king, the blood on his hands could not be washed off by any means, nor from his wives hands, which handed the bloody daggers in hiding them, which by means they became both much amazed and affronted. The murder being known, Duncan’s two sons fled, the one to England, the other to Wales, to save themselves. They being fled, they were supposed guilty of the murder of their father, which was nothing so.
Then was Macbeth crowned kings; and then he, for fear of Banquo, his old companion, that he should beget kings but be no king himself, he contrived the death of Banquo, and caused him to be murdered on his way as he rode. The next night, being at supper with his noble men whom he had to bid to a feast, to the which also Banquo should have come, he began to speak of noble Banquo, and to wish that he were there. And as he did thus, standing up to drink a carouse to him, the ghost of Banquo came and sat down in his chair behind him. And he, turning about to sit down again, saw the ghost of Banquo, which fronted him so, that he fell into a great passion of fear and fury, uttering many words about his murder, by which, when they hard that Banquo was murdered, they suspected Macbeth. Then MackDove fled to England to the kinges sonn, and soon they raised an army and cam to Scotland, and at Dunstonanse overthrue Macbeth. In the meantime, while MacDove was in England, Macbeth slew MackDove’s wife and children, and after in the battle MackDove slewe Macbeth. Observe also how Macbeth’s queen did rise in the night in her sleep, and walked and talked and confessed all, and the doctor noted her words.
The Winter’s Tale at the Globe, 15 May 1611
Observe there how Leontes, the king of Sicilia, was overcome with jealousy of his wife with the king of Bohemia, his friend, that came to see him. How he contrived his death, and would have had his cupbearer to have poisoned him: who have the king of Bohemia waning thereof and fled with him to Bohemia.
Remember also how he sent to the oracle of Apollo, and the answer of Apollo — that she was guiltless and that the King was jealous, etc.; and how, except the child was found again that was lost, the King should die without issue. For the child was carried into Bohemia and there laid in a forest and brought up by a shepherd. The King of Bohemia’s son married that wench. And how they fled into Sicilia to Leontes. The shepherd, having shown the letter of the nobleman by whom Leontes sent away that child and the jewels found about her, she was known to be Leontes’ daughter, and was then sixteen years old.
Remember also the rogue that came in all tattered like Coll Pixie; how he feigned him sick and to have been robbed of all that he had. How he cozened the poor man of all his money. And, after, came to the sheep-shearing with a pedlar’s pack and there cozened them again of all their money. How he changed apparel with the King of Bohemia’s son, and then how he turned courtier, etc. Beware of trusting feigned beggars or fawning fellows.
Cymbeline at the Globe, 1611 (unspecified date)
Remember also the story of Cymbeline, king of England, in Lucius’ time. How Lucius came from Octavius Caesar for tribute; and, being denied, sent Lucius with a great army of soldiers, who landed at Milford Haven, and after were vanquished by Cymbeline, and Lucius taken prosioner. All by means of three outlaws: of which two of them were the sons of Cymbeline, stolen from him when they were but two years old by an old man whom Cymbeline banished. He kept them as his own sons twenty years with him in a cave.
And how one of them slewe Cloten, the Queen’s son, going to Milford Haven to seek the love of Imogen, the King’s daughter, whom he had banished also for loving his daughter. How the Italian that came, from her love [from love of her], conveyed himself into a chest; and said it was a chest of plate sent, from her love and others, to be presented to the King. In the deepest of the night, she being asleep, he opened the chest and came forth of it. And viewed her in bed and the marks on her body; took away her bracelet, and after accused her of adultery to her love.
In the end, how he came with the Romans into England and was taken prisoner. And after revealed to Imogen, who had turned herself into man’s apparel and fled to meet her love at Milford Haven and chanced to fall on the cave in the woods where her two brother were. How by eating a sleeping dram they thought she had been dead, and laid her in the woods, the body of Cloten by her, in her love’s apparel that he left behind him. And how she was found by Lucius, etc.
Richard II at the Globe, 20 April 1611
Remember therein how Jack Straw by his overmuch boldness, not being politic nor suspecting anything, was suddenly at Smithfield Bars stabbed by Walworth, the mayor of London. So he and his whole army was overthrown. Therefore, in such a case or the like, never admit any party without a bar between; for a man cannot be too wise, nor keep himself too safe.
Also remember how the duke of Gloucester, the earl of Arundel, Oxford and others, crossing the King in his humour about the duke of Ireland and Bushy, were glad to fly and raise an host of men. Being in his castle, how the duke of Ireland came by night to betray him with three hundred men; but having privy warning thereof kept his gates fast and would not suffer the enemy to enter. Which went back again with a flea in his ear, and after was slain by the earl of Arundel in the batle.
Remember also, when the duke (Gloucester) and Arundel came to London with their army, King Richard came forth to them, met them and gave them fair words; and promised them pardon and that all should be well if they would discharge their army. Upon whose promises and fair speeches they did it. And, after, the King bid them all to a banquet and so betrayed them and cut off their heads, etc., because they had not his pardon under his hand and seal before, but his word.
Remember therein also, how the duke of Lancaster privily contrived all villainy to set them together by the ears; and to make the nobility to envy the King, and mislike of him and his government. By which means he made his own son king, which was Henry Bolingbroke.
Remember also how the duke of Lancaster asked a wise man whether himself should ever be king; and he told him No, but his son shuold be a king. When he had told him, he hanged him up for his labour, because he should not bruit it abroad or speak thereof to others.
This was a policy in the commonwealth’s opinion, but I say it was a villain’s part and a Judas kiss to hang the man for telling him the truth. Beware by this example of noblemen of their fair words, and say little to them, lest they do the like by thee for thy goodwill.
Brooke, Tucker. Shakespeare of Stratford. New Haven, Yale UP, 1947.
Holzknecht, Karl J. The Backgrounds of Shakespeare’s Plays. New York: American Book Company, 1950.
Lee, Sir Sidney. A Life of William Shakespeare. New York: Dover Publications, 1968.
Rowse, A. L. Simon Forman. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974.