Widely regarded as the greatest writer of all time, William Shakespeare (or Shakspere) occupies a position unique in world literature. Other poets, such as Homer and Dante, and novelists, such as Leo Tolstoy and Charles Dickens, have transcended national barriers; but no writer's living reputation can compare with that of Shakespeare, whose plays, written in the late 16th and early 17th centuries for a small repertory theatre, are now performed and read more often and in more countries than ever before. The prophecy of his great contemporary, the poet and dramatist Ben Jonson, that Shakespeare "was not of an age, but for all time," has been fulfilled. It may be audacious even to attempt a definition of his greatness, but it is not so difficult to describe the gifts that enabled him to create imaginative visions of pathos and mirth that, whether read or witnessed in the theatre, fill the mind and linger there. He is a writer of great intellectual rapidity, perceptiveness, and poetic power. Other writers have had these qualities. But with Shakespeare the keenness of mind was applied not to abstruse or remote subjects but to human beings and their complete range of emotions and conflicts. Other writers have applied their keenness of mind in this way. But Shakespeare is astonishingly clever with words and images, so that his mental energy, when applied to intelligible human situations, finds full and memorable expression, convincing and imaginatively stimulating. As if this were not enough, the art form into which his creative energies went was not remote and bookish but involved the vivid stage impersonation of human beings, commanding sympathy and inviting vicarious participation. Thus Shakespeare's merits can survive translation into other languages and into cultures remote from that of Elizabethan England.
Shakespeare the man
Although the amount of factual knowledge available about Shakespeare is surprisingly large for one of his station in life, many find it a little disappointing, for it is mostly gleaned from documents of an official character. Dates of baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials; wills, conveyances, legal processes, and payments by the court--these are the dusty details. There is, however, a fair number of contemporary allusions to him as a writer, and these add a reasonable amount of flesh and blood to the biographical skeleton.
Early life in Stratford.
The parish register of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, shows that he was baptized there on April 26, 1564; his birthday is traditionally celebrated on April 23. His father, John Shakespeare, was a burgess of the borough, who in 1565 was chosen an alderman and in 1568 bailiff (the position corresponding to mayor, before the grant of a further charter to Stratford in 1664). He was engaged in various kinds of trade and appears to have suffered some fluctuations in prosperity. His wife, Mary Arden, of Wilmcote, Warwickshire, came from an ancient family and was the heiress to some land. (Given the somewhat rigid social distinctions of the 16th century, this marriage must have been a step up the social scale for John Shakespeare.)
Stratford enjoyed a grammar school of good quality, and the education there was free, the schoolmaster's salary being paid by the borough. No lists of the pupils who were at the school in the 16th century have survived, but it would be absurd to suppose the bailiff of the town did not send his son there. The boy's education would consist mostly of Latin studies--learning to read, write, and speak the language fairly well and studying some of the classical historians, moralists, and poets. Shakespeare did not go on to the university, and indeed it is unlikely that the tedious round of logic, rhetoric, and other studies then followed there would have interested him. Instead, at the age of 18 he married. Where and exactly when are not known, but the episcopal registry at Worcester preserves a bond dated November 28, 1582, and executed by two yeomen of Stratford, named Sandells and Richardson, as a security to the bishop for the issue of a license for the marriage of William Shakespeare and "Anne Hathaway of Stratford," upon the consent of her friends and upon once asking of the banns. (Anne died in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare. There is good evidence to associate her with a family of Hathaways who inhabited a beautiful farmhouse, now much visited, two miles from Stratford.) The next date of interest is found in the records of the Stratford church, where a daughter, named Susanna, born to William Shakespeare, was baptized on May 26, 1583. On February 2, 1585, twins were baptized, Hamnet and Judith. (The boy Hamnet, Shakespeare's only son, died 11 years later.)
How Shakespeare spent the next eight years or so, until his name begins to appear in London theatre records, is not known. There are stories--given currency long after his death--of stealing deer and getting into trouble with a local magnate, Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, near Stratford; of earning his living as a schoolmaster in the country; of going to London and gaining entry to the world of theatre by minding the horses of theatregoers; it has also been conjectured that Shakespeare spent some time as a member of a great household and that he was a soldier, perhaps in the Low Countries. In lieu of external evidence, such extrapolations about Shakespeare's life have often been made from the internal "evidence" of his writings. But this method is unsatisfactory: one cannot conclude, for example, from his allusions to the law that Shakespeare was a lawyer; for he was clearly a writer, who without difficulty could get whatever knowledge he needed for the composition of his plays.
Career in the theatre.
The first reference to Shakespeare in the literary world of London comes in 1592, when a fellow dramatist, Robert Greene, declared in a pamphlet written on his deathbed:
There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.
It is difficult to be certain what these words mean; but it is clear that they are insulting and that Shakespeare is the object of the sarcasms. When the book in which they appear (Greenes, groats-worth of witte, bought with a million of Repentance, 1592) was published after Greene's death, a mutual acquaintance wrote a preface offering an apology to Shakespeare and testifying to his worth. This preface also indicates that Shakespeare was by then making important friends. For, although the puritanical city of London was generally hostile to the theatre, many of the nobility were good patrons of the drama and friends of actors. Shakespeare seems to have attracted the attention of the young Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd earl of Southampton; and to this nobleman were dedicated his first published poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.
One striking piece of evidence that Shakespeare began to prosper early and tried to retrieve the family fortunes and establish its gentility is the fact that a coat of arms was granted to John Shakespeare in 1596. Rough drafts of this grant have been preserved in the College of Arms, London, though the final document, which must have been handed to the Shakespeares, has not survived. It can scarcely be doubted that it was William who took the initiative and paid the fees.
The coat of arms appears on Shakespeare's monument (constructed before 1623) in the Stratford church. Equally interesting as evidence of Shakespeare's worldly success was his purchase in 1597 of New Place, a large house in Stratford, which as a boy he must have passed every day in walking to school.
It is not clear how his career in the theatre began; but from about 1594 onward he was an important member of the Lord Chamberlain's Company of players (called the King's Men after the accession of James I in 1603). They had the best actor, Richard Burbage; they had the best theatre, the Globe; they had the best dramatist, Shakespeare. It is no wonder that the company prospered. Shakespeare became a full-time professional man of his own theatre, sharing in a cooperative enterprise and intimately concerned with the financial success of the plays he wrote.
Unfortunately, written records give little indication of the way in which Shakespeare's professional life molded his marvellous artistry. All that can be deduced is that for 20 years Shakespeare devoted himself assiduously to his art, writing more than a million words of poetic drama of the highest quality.
Shakespeare had little contact with officialdom, apart from walking--dressed in the royal livery as a member of the King's Men--at the coronation of King James I in 1604. He continued to look after his financial interests. He bought properties in London and in Stratford. In 1605 he purchased a share (about one-fifth) of the Stratford tithes--a fact that explains why he was eventually buried in the chancel of its parish church. For some time he lodged with a French Huguenot family called Mountjoy, who lived near St. Olave's Church, Cripplegate, London. The records of a lawsuit in May 1612, due to a Mountjoy family quarrel, show Shakespeare as giving evidence in a genial way (though unable to remember certain important facts that would have decided the case) and as interesting himself generally in the family's affairs.
No letters written by Shakespeare have survived, but a private letter to him happened to get caught up with some official transactions of the town of Stratford and so has been preserved in the borough archives. It was written by one Richard Quiney and addressed by him from the Bell Inn in Carter Lane, London, whither he had gone from Stratford upon business. On one side of the paper is inscribed: "To my loving good friend and countryman, Mr. Wm. Shakespeare, deliver these." Apparently Quiney thought his fellow Stratfordian a person to whom he could apply for the loan of 30--a large sum in Elizabethan money. Nothing further is known about the transaction, but, because so few opportunities of seeing into Shakespeare's private life present themselves, this begging letter becomes a touching document. It is of some interest, moreover, that 18 years later Quiney's son Thomas became the husband of Judith, Shakespeare's second daughter.
Shakespeare's will (made on March 25, 1616) is a long and detailed document. It entailed his quite ample property on the male heirs of his elder daughter, Susanna. (Both his daughters were then married, one to the aforementioned Thomas Quiney and the other to John Hall, a respected physician of Stratford.) As an afterthought, he bequeathed his "second-best bed" to his wife; but no one can be certain what this notorious legacy means. The testator's signatures to the will are apparently in a shaky hand. Perhaps Shakespeare was already ill. He died on April 23, 1616. No name was inscribed on his gravestone in the chancel of the parish church of Stratford-upon-Avon. Instead these lines, possibly his own, appeared:
Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
William Shakespeare - General Notes
1. How to Read Shakespeare
If you're going to get the greatest possible benefit from studying Shakespeare's plays, you need to keep constantly in mind that they were written to be performed--to be seen rather than just read. This does not, though, mean that you should rush off to the nearest Blockbuster's to rent the video rather than read the play. Reading gives us certain advantages--and it's often (in fact, almost always) better to have your own sense of the play before you see someone else's version. When you read a play, you can stop, turn back to earlier events, reread the lines, close your eyes and imagine several ways the scene could be played, consult other books, or even just pause for a cup of coffee. You control the pace, and to a great extent, you control the play as well.
To get the most from the plays, you have to produce them in your own mind, in effect. Imagine the scene, the costumes, even the actors; "see" what happens. But to do this with Shakespeare, you have to pay especially close attention to the words. Shakespeare provided few if any stage directions (after all, he was writing for his own company, so he could tell the actors what he expected them to do). If you pay close attention to the words, though, you can almost always figure out what should be going on on stage. In Act III, scene iii of Richard II, for example, King Richard appears on the balcony and address Northumberland, his enemy, who stands below:
We are amaz'd and thus long have we stood
To watch the fearful bending of thy knee,
Because we thought ourself thy lawful king
From Richard's speech, we know
(1) that some time passes without any speech ("thus long we have stood") and
(2) that Northumberland has not, as custom decrees, knelt down before his king.
Richard has waited for the "bending of [Northumberland's] knee" but Northumberland has not knelt. We see here Northumberland's attitude toward Richard--and if we are reading carefully, we see what Shakespeare had in mind for the on-stage action as well. Careful reading, in short, will greatly enhance your understanding of and appreciation for the plays.
As you read, too, try to think of the characters as real people. Shakespeare's great art is in his ability to produce characters who react as real people in the same situation would. (Obviously, that statement has to be taken with a grain of salt. When Bottom in Midsummer Night's Dream appears with the head of an ass, he doesn't react the way anyone I know would; still, in general, Shakespeare's characters are true to human nature.) You'll find you better understand and appreciate the characters if you ask yourself a few basic questions:
Once you've read the play carefully and have your own ideas about it, I certainly have no objection to your renting a video and seeing how someone else conceived of the play. Several of the plays are available at many video stores, and some (especially the BBC productions) are available in community or university libraries.
When you watch a production, though, keep in mind that directors and actors often take considerable liberties with the text. They have the legitimate option of shifting (or even deleting) scenes, shortening (or even reassigning) speeches, cutting minor characters, and so forth to make a production which fulfills their coherent vision of the play. But before they make such changes, they must understand the play exceptionally well. In other words, while a great many interpretations of the plays are certainly valid and worthwhile, few if any productions will really serve as an adequate substitute for actually reading the play since the text must serve as the basis of any interpretation--especially for purposes of this course. [For matters of text, though, be sure you read Chapter 3 of the Bedford Companion to Shakespeare, "What is Your Text?" The question of "authoritative" text is hotly debated among Shakespeareans, and at the very least you need to be aware that there are several versions of many of the plays, and often they are quite diverse.
2. Shakespeare's Theater
What we know of the Elizabethan theatre and performances of and attitudes toward Shakespeare's plays, we know from contemporary accounts. Some details we get from surviving letters or diary entries. Here's one, for example, from a letter by Thomas Platter, a Swiss who travelled to England in September and October of 1599 (it's obviously a translation and can be found on p. 1839 of the Riverside edition, where you'll also find some other contemporary statements):
On the 21st of September, after lunch, around two o'clock, I went with my companions over the
water, (and) in the strewed roof-house saw a tragedy of the first emperor Julius Caesar with nearly
fifteen characters very well acted; at the end of the comedy, in conformity with their custom, they
danced with all possible grace, two dressed in men's and two in women's clothes, marvellously
with one another.
Note what this little entry does for us: it specifies a date of performance (21 Sept. 1599) and thus a latest possible date of composition; it tells us how many actors there were ("nearly fifteen"), and it indicates that something very strange happened at the end of the play: dancing. Dancing is a typical way of ending comedies, not tragedies. Comedies tend to end with a dance or wedding march to get the actors off stage; tragedies tend to end with a death march. But it's hard to imagine Julius Caesar, clearly a tragedy, ending with a dance. Perhaps the dance Platter describes was a sort of "post-lude" during which the audience was expected to exit, or perhaps it was a brief play put on after the performance of Caesar.
Some of our information comes from account books listing properties and profits (or losses) of acting companies, government records (e.g., expenses by the Queen's Master of Revels). Additional information comes from entries in the Stationer's Register, the accounts of the Stationer's Office, a guild of printers which formed a sort of early copyright office. These records provide us with possible publication dates, but there is often but scant relationship between the written text of a play being registered with the Stationer's Office and the actual date of composition. At best they generally let us know the latest possible date. (Sometimes plays were registered with the Stationer a considerable time before they were performed, so we might have a date of approval, but clear evidence that the play was not performed for some weeks, or even months.)
Occasionally, too, we get an account in literary or social criticism which indicates something, either directly or by inference, about the theater, the plays, or the audience. There is, for example, Stephen Gosson's comments on the contemporary theatre. Gosson was a notorious puritan, an actor turned born-again preacher, and he tried to make his reputation by criticizing his former profession. His School of Abuse was published in 1579, a bit early for our purposes, but it represents attitudes which grew to major proportions during Shakespeare's day and eventually led to the closing of the theaters in the seventeenth century. Even the full title of his work gives us a good idea of what it's about: "The School of Abuse: Containing a pleasant invective against poets, pipers, players, justers, and such like Caterpillars of a commonwealth: Setting up the flag of defiance to their mischievous exercise, and overthrowing their bulwards, by prophane writers, natural reason, and common experience. A Discourse as pleasant for them that favor learning as profitable for all that will follow virtue." (Renaissance book titles were often amazingly long and descriptive; they served in effect as advertisements for the books as well as titles.)
Having himself been a player, Gosson feels especially well qualified to remark on the state of the theater and its patrons, and he leaves little doubt about the sort of persons one will encounter in these dens of inequity:
You are no sooner entered but liberty looseth the reins and gives you head, placing you with
poetrie in the lowest form, when his skill is shown to make his scholar as good as ever twanged: he
prefers you to piping, from piping to playing, from play to pleasure, from pleasure to sloth, from
sloth to sleep, from sleep to sin, from sin to death, from death to the Devil, if you take your
learning apace, and pass through every form without revolting.
While Shakespeare's works were performed in a variety of locations during his lifetime (including the royal court and the Inns of Court (the "law schools" of Shakespeare's day), he is most associated with three theaters: The Theatre, where Shakespeare and his troupe, The Lord Chamberlain's Men, played until it was closed in 1598; the Globe, which opened in 1599 and burned down in 1613; and, after 1609, Blackfriars, an indoor theater using candles and torches for lighting, where Shakespeare's last plays were produced.
The Theatre and the Globe were essentially the same configuration; in fact, much of the building material originally used in The Theatre was re-used to build the Globe. In 1576, John Burbage opened The Theatre on leased land in Shoreditch, a northern suburb of London. After Burbage's death, his son, Cuthbert, failed to negotiate a new lease with the landowner and, late one night in December of 1598, had the playhouse disassembled and carried it away board by board to Southwark, where he built a new theater, the Globe, on the south side of the Thames River, near the Swan theater and the bear-baiting arenas. (Bear-baiting was a popular "sport" in Shakespeare's London, and large numbers of people would pay to watch dogs fight with bears. In effect, like any good merchant, Burbage built his new theater in a high-traffic area.)
What we know about the appearance and structure of the Globe, we know from contemporary accounts of other theaters, especially a sketch of the Swan theater made in 1596 by Johannes deWitt, a Dutch visitor to London: From that sketch and the notes de Witt made, we have speculated that the Globe was a roughly circular three-storey building, approximately 85 feet in diameter; a small stage, about three feet off the ground, protuded into the open center of the building. At the rear of the stage was a small "tiring house" with two doors for entrances and exits, a curtained alcove for indoor scenes, and a balcony supported by two pillars. The actors changed costumes and made their entrances from the tiring house. There was also a trap door leading to a hidden area below the stage that could be used for special entrances or exits. (This area, called the "cellarage," is alluded to by Hamlet when the ghost of his father calls out from beneath the stage and Hamlet refers to "this fellow in the cellarage" [II.i.151].)
Presumably, the scenery was sparse and the audience called upon to make considerable use of its imagination. In Henry V, the Prologue reminds the audience of the need to engage their imagination. Imagine, he says, that
... within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high, upreared, and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' th' receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there, jumping o'er times,
Turning th' accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass....
On a good day, 2,000 or more spectators crammed into the very limited space of the Globe; some, of course, paid extra for seats in the covered boxes, but many stood in the open area near the stage. All indications are that the theaters were noisy, crowded, and dirty, filled with all sorts of people, some attentive, some not, many there to see the play, but perhaps as many to be seen. Some were there because they had heard the play was worth their time, some came for the social occasion to talk with their friends around them, and some, no doubt, chose the theater merely because the bear-baiting arena was already full.
Unfortunately, the Globe was burned down in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII. We even have a contemporary account of the fire:
. . . I will entertain you at the present with what hath happend this week at the banks side. The
Kings Players had a new Play, called All is true, representing some principall pieces of the raign of
Henry 8. which was set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of Pomp and Majesty, even
to the matting of the stage; the Knights of the Order, with their Georges and Garter, the Guards
with their embroidered Coats, and the like: sufficient in truth within a while to make greatness very
familiar, if not ridiculous. Now, King Henry making a Masque at the Cardinal Wolsey's house, and
certain Chambers being shot off at his entry, some of the paper, or other stuff wherewith one of
them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being thought at the first but an idle smoak, and
their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming
within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground.
This was the fatal period of that vertuous fabrique; wherein yet nothing did perish, but wood and
straw, and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps
have broyled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit put it out with bottle Ale.
(Sir Henry Wotton to Sir Edmund Bacon, 2 July 1613, pp. 1842-43 in the Riversideedition.)
3. The Company of Players
By 1594 Shakespeare had become a partner in a company known as The Chamberlain's Men, after their patron, Lord Hundson, the Lord Chamberlain. In 1603, King James took over patronage of the company, which then was known as The King's Men. The company consisted of 10-12 "shareholders"--actors who were also part owners of the company, along with several employees, including hired men--apprentices, musicians, ticket takers, and so forth.
Perhaps the most important member of the company was the Book Keeper. His responsibility was to keep care of the valuable approved copy of the play (approved by the Revels Office), but also to make a "fair copy" of the play (a corrected or ammended version of the play) from the author's "foul papers" (the uncorrected manuscript), and to make the various actors' copies. The Book-Keeper also served as stage manager and, probably, prompter as well. We can see Shakespeare's comic version of the Book Keeper in action in Midsummer Night's Dream, when Peter Quince directs his companions in their production of "Pyramus and Thisby." (You can also see a more modern view of the Book Keeper in the opening scenes of Lawrence Olivier's film version of Henry V.)
The company put on 40 or so plays a year, probably 20 of them new each year. They performed 49 weeks of the year, outdoors, indoors, touring, and at court. A good play was performed 6-8 times a year; a "long run" meant 20 or so performances in the life of a play. And a long run meant good money for the playwright, who collected the house revenues for every third performance. If a play flopped--played only once or twice--then the writer made nothing; this was a clear incentive to write plays that would attract a good audience.
Obviously, even the Lord Chamberlain's Men (and later The King's Men) performed plays by writers other than Shakespeare, and many of Shakespeare's ideas for his plays no doubt came from others' works that the company performed. (Some of them sound dreadful..e.g., a moral piece called "The Miseries of Enforced Marriage.") The point, of course, is that Shakespeare was performing work for hire, in effect, writing for a specific company, a specific theatre, even a specific (though broad-ranging) contemporary audience.
Studying his plays from a distance of nearly 400 years, and considering Shakespeare's reputation as perhaps the greatest writer who has ever lived, it's hard for us to keep in mind that he was a commercial writer. I like to imagine that if Shakespeare were alive today, he'd be writing sit-coms for television or action movies for Bruce Willis. After all, he wrote what his audience wanted and for specific actors. He wrote to entertain, and his entertainments were both commercial and artistic successes.
He wrote tragedies for Richard Burbage (who played Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and Romeo), and comedies for Will Kempe, then for Robert Armin. Because there were no women on the Renaissance stage, he had to write women's parts for young boys, who would be both relatively inexperienced actors and have softer voices--and thus got relatively minor roles. Mostly, though, he wrote for an audience which was generally noisy, boisterous, offensive, and inattentive. We don't know much about acting style--one era's "natural" is another's "stilted"--so we can't be sure, but we assume that at the very least actors would have to be loud and their actions broad enough to be heard, seen, and comprehended by everyone in a crowded, noisy, open-air theater.
4. Suspension of Disbelief
The productions of the plays were probably nothing like modern productions, even so-called "authentic" productions like the BBC series or other films. Shakespeare did not, of course, have the technology we have available to us. If he wanted to indicate a thunderstorm, first of all someone had to say that it was raining. Thunder could be imitated by rolling a cannonball across the floor backstage, but there were no wind machines, no lightening flashes, none of the technological wizardry that we have come to expect in film and on television. Rather, the audience was left to its imagination and its ability to suspend the impulse not to believe what happens on stage.
Writing in the 19th century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge noted that in order to appreciate the action in a play, upon entering the theater we must willingly "suspend our disbelief" in what occurs. We must imagine that the actors are the people they represent and that the actions they present are really occuring. Without such suspension of disbelief, we will be too distracted by the unreality of all that occurs to appreciate the play, but with it, we can be lost in the magic of the theater. For Shakespeare's audience, that meant taking into account that there was a minimal set, that costumes (which were often old clothes given to the acting company by members of the nobility) were anachronistic, and that certain conventions simply had to be accepted. For example, since there were no women on the stage in Shakespeare's day, the women's parts were played by young boys whose voices had not yet changed and whose beardless skin allowed them at least to present the allusion of being women. (In Midsummer Night's Dream, when Flute is assigned the role of Thisby, he protests "Nay, faith; let not me play a woman; I have a beard coming" I.ii.49. That is, he claims that he's starting to need to shave and thus is inappropriate for the role.)
It is also conventional that characters look the way they are said to look. Perhaps most striking are the "twin" conventions. If two characters are said to be twins, the audience is simply expected to believe that they look exactly alike. Thus when the twins Sebastian and Viola are on stage together in Twelfth Night and no one can tell them apart, we must just accept the convention that they are identical in appearance; no matter that one is a man, the other a woman. Similarly, when the Antipholus brothers and the Dromio brothers in Comedy of Errors are mistaken for each other, the issue is not whether the actors actually look alike--chances are that they didn't; the other characters can't tell them apart, and that's all that matters.
One of my favorite lines depending on this convention is spoken by Oberon in Midsummer Night's Dream. Oberon, King of the Fairies, comes upon the young humans in the wood, and approaches to listen to their conversation. "I am invisible," he says, "And I will overhear their conference" (II.i.186-87). The actor, of course, is not invisible; Shakespeare did not have the technologies available to us today to make a character seem to dissolve. It's simpler than that: he says he's invisible, so he is.
Finally, we need to keep in mind a major convention governing soliloquys. Lacking the convenient technology we have today to use voiceovers to reveal the characters' thoughts, Shakespeare and his contempory playwrights made use of the soliloquy, a speech made by a character, generally alone on stage, revealing his or her inner thoughts. Conventionally, in a soliloquy, the character speaks the truth as he or she understands it. There is no attempt to deceive, for we are supposed to be hearing the speaker's innermost, private thoughts. Iago may lie to everyone he meets, but when he says in a soliloquy that he suspects that "the lusty Moor / Hath leap'd into my seat...." (II.i.295-96) he is telling us his true thoughts: he genuinely believes that Othello has had an affair with his wife.
Finally, this same convention applies even to brief asides; anything spoken to the audience rather than to other characters represents the speaker's thoughts--and unless the speaker is consciously trying to deceive himself or herself, we must take it as the truth.
The Master of Revels was the government official charged with arranging court entertainments and, perhaps more importantly, issuing licenses for the performance or publication of plays; in this latter capacity, the Revels Office often also served as a censor. Any play performed or any book published had first to be approved by the Revels Office, which would assure that it had nothing seditious or blasphemous contained in it. Once it was approved, the copy was stamped with his Revels' seal of approval and returned to the acting company, author, or printer (whoever had taken it there). It had to be maintained and ready to be shown to anyone who challenged, so great care was taken of it. (See Companion, p. 55)
For other notes which may be of use to you, see my Home Page.