Shakespeare and the historical record

So I’m reading Ruled Britannia by Harry Turtledove. In it he has oddball moments with Will Shakespeare that seem non-germane to the plot.

And it got me thinking. Turtledove’s got a doctorate in history. He’s done that sort of hardcore research that provides verisimulitude to his books. Maybe some of those incidents he puts in (being jeered by the audience, performing plays by Dekker, etc) are real events mentioned in the historical record somewhere.

So what’s the deal? Do we have any anecdotal evidence of Shakespeare and Burbage and Kemp other than administrative records such as birth and death and marriage and such? Any contemporary accounts of his life from those who’d seen his plays on stage?

Almost none IIRC. Just things like he was known to have been an actor, and some critical comments about his works.

Most of the contemporary evidence for Shakespeare as an actor is conveniently set out by the Shakespeare Authorship site. What they don’t include are the sizeable number of anecdotes that begin to get recorded several generations later, which most historians naturally recognise as having the same limitations as any oral traditions and which they weigh accordingly. The standard place to find all that material is Stanley Schoenbaum’s William Shakespeare: a documentary life (for most purposes, the compact edition is sufficient).

It should be said that what may seem like a dearth of contemporary anecdotes is pretty much what one would expect. Flattering or bitchy comments about other writers were common, actual gossip far less so. Recording anecdotes about English writers really only took off in a big way as a genre later in the seventeenth century, with writers such as John Aubrey and Thomas Fuller, and it was only from that that there then developed the modern idea of a literary biography.