Shakespeare and the Bridewell Archives (CILASS)

Inquiry-based learning, Linking teaching & Research, Renaissance literature, Shakespeare


The proposal will engage students studying Shakespeare with the Elizabethan archives of the Bridewell Hospital held at the Bethlem Royal Hospital Archives and Museum (Now Bethlem Museum of the Mind), Beckenham, Kent and available online. Students will encounter (online) a vast store of memorable historical cases and actively (in groups of four) make their own links with the plays. They will experience the fascination of ‘discovering’ primary source or archival material, develop skills in reading Elizabethan documents, and think across historical and literary genres in ways not set in advance by either tutor or critics. They will research Bridewell Hospital, early modern London topography, locations of theatres, early playgoers and social issues that made the city at this time such a vibrant, turbulent but fascinating place. They will visit the Bethlem Archives and Museum and Guildhall Library to see the Court Minute Books and related materials for themselves. Staff will pioneer a newly dynamic pedagogy led by guided student investigation and motivation. Staff and student reports and research seminar/conference presentations will disseminate the project internally and externally.


The sixteenth century Bridewell Hospital records consist of four folio volumes containing clerked hand-written entries detailing the prosecutions of countless individuals for low-level crime in London. They also contain records of the meetings, decisions and appointments made by the Court of Aldermen who ran both the Bridewell prison and the Bethlem hospital in this era. Shakespeare’s fellow-actor Christopher Beeston, was prosecuted there for rape in November 1602; Ben Jonson makes reference in his plays to two of its prisoners. The archives are very little studied but are available online, where images from the folio volumes can be viewed and enlarged, copied and saved.

Before exploring this archive, the students will have been given at least one lecture on reading early modern documents and handouts guiding them in how to read Elizabethan handwriting. They will each have online access. They will hear a lecture on the play studied for that week, presenting its context, current issues in debate and critical interpretation, highlighting social/historical issues it raises. In seminars, students will navigate to the Bethlem Archives website where images of the Bridewell Court Minute Books are available. Here they will begin to read and note down entries inscribed four centuries ago (the later entries being more legible to learners than earlier ones).

Staff will have prepared a number of handouts about Bridewell and early forms of writing to acclimatize them to Elizabethan English/secretary hand, and prepared a detailed lecture on the documents they will be reading. A summer vacation task will set up the first week. Relevant books have already been stocked by the library and IT facilities arranged. Liaison will occur with Education Officers at Bethlem Archives and Museum and the Guildhall Library for an arranged visit to see the original documents. The module booklet will be re-written along with numerous guides prepared and posted online at the ‘My Courses’. A change in assessment (from unseen timed exam to written essay and presentation) will be validated to better elicit the learning benefits of the project.

In addition to the internal and external reports and research/conference presentations already mentioned, a Day Conference or Symposium on ‘Teaching Shakespeare After the New Historicism’ would be planned at The University of Chichester for March 2010, to which some students would contribute. In addition, some of the outcomes of the project can enrich and support our ‘A Level Shakespeare Study Day’, run annually for local schools and colleges. The University of Chichester website would display key aspects of the project.

Resources and Support

The rationale for the project is to provide an innovative means — combining research and IT skills — by which students can link meanings in Shakespeare more immediately to their moment in time, contextualize their awareness of his art, and share in the fascination of working with primary documentary material. The project will be entirely “inquiry-based” since this immensely rich archive will enable students to see aspects of Shakespeare’s world and writing in a new and much more historically informed light. They will confront a closely-knit, diverse urban world where issues of abuse, child mortality and neglect, robbery, prostitution, adultery, indolent apprentices and resentment of foreigners were very much in the foreground, and see in such plays as The Taming of the Shrew, As You Like It, Othello, Twelfth Night, Measure For Measure, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale historical anxieties vitally at work.


Project leader

Dr. Duncan Salkeld
English, University of Chichester

Project partners