Was Shakespeare “not a company keeper”? William Beeston and MS Aubrey 8, fol. 45v

Abstract

Modern biographical studies of Shakespeare owe much to John Aubrey’s decision in 1681 to interview the retired theater manager William Beeston. Preserved in the notes that arose from their discussions is an anecdote that has proven especially tantalizing to scholars: on the verso side of MS Aubrey 8, fol. 45—a paper slip bound into one of the folios at the Bodleian Library containing Aubrey’s Brief Lives—are the words: “the more to be admired quia he was not a company keeper / lived in Shoreditch, would n[o]t be debauched, & if invited to / [gout?]: he was in paine.” The inscription’s proximity to Shakespeare’s name on the page has led many to regard it as one of the most revealing passages ever written about the playwright. But does it properly apply to him? This essay explores the alternative possibility, first proposed by Aubrey’s nineteenth-century editor Andrew Clark, that the passage in fact refers to the antiquary’s informant, Beeston. New evidence concerning the professional ruin into which Beeston fell at the end of his life appears to support Clark’s proposition. As this research aims to show, at stake in our interpretation of the manuscript are an array of biographical narratives that scholars have spun from Aubrey’s text, conceptualizing everything from Shakespeare’s writing habits and artistic preoccupations to his sex life and final days alive.