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The Lost Letters of William Shakespeare: The Undiscovered Diary of his Strange Eventful Life and Loves will soon be available as an audio book, e-book, and printed edition, edited and adapted after more than two decades of painstaking research by Terry Tamminen.

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Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York

“The Lost Letters bring Shakespeare’s world to life. It shows how experiences in his life influenced and brought colour to his works. Dotted with references to Shakespeare’s plays, it is like reading about an old and familiar friend: you recognise people, phrases and events which, in turn, inspired characters, speeches and scenes or even, in the case of his visit to Denmark, a whole play.
When Mr. Perkin advises young Shakespeare on the art of acting he starts with the words “All the WORLD…is a stage…William. Every man…a player” – words which must have burned themselves into Shakespeare’s brain as he was to adapt them years later into Jacques’ speech in As You Like It. Words which are still in common use today.
Terry Tamminen explores his own journey to Shakespeare in the introduction he writes to each letter as well as providing a quick explanation of the context of each letter.
Fact or fiction, it is a good read and most entertaining. I am eagerly anticipating the next book.”

The Right Honorable Lord Barker of Battle PC

“Terry Tamminen has unearthed an extraordinary resource that will challenge scholars and fascinate lovers of the works of William Shakespeare in equal measure.”

Ned Record, Creative Director, Hollywood Shakespeare

“Far from leaving Shakespeare on that pedestal that many keep him on (away from the common man, and towards the gods), Lost Letters shows us the story of a young artist who is trying to make a life for himself. That he is a mortal man who experiences sadness, triumph, and the occasional stomach pain. We are able to see the man who would become humanities greatest writer as he figures this out for himself.
Moreover, by making comparisons of his own life to Shakespeare’s, author Terry Tamminen gives us (the reader) permission to do the same. By drawing these parallels, we are given the chance to strive to our own greatness, just as Shakespeare did.
This book not only has the power to change history, but also one’s destiny.”

Ed Begley Jr.

“Are Shakespeare’s Lost Letters historical fact or historical fiction? I care not, as Terry Tamminen has written with a passion and a dedication that o’erleaps itself and served up a delicious feast for all those that love the Bard of Avon. A great work by a great writer!”

Robb Rice, Founder, Malibu Summerstage Theatre

“I was a bit intimidated by all the old English text, but when I started reading it, I really got into following the Bard on his “Elizabethan Road Trip.” The prologue is a brilliant start and really draws the reader in. The annotation is critical in quickly understanding the meaning of old English terminology. I can’t wait to read more about how he ascends in recognition.”

John Cronin, English teacher

“Historically accurate, funny, gritty, bawdy, and engaging; I will be very surprised if there’s an English lit course in the world that won’t use it as a text–and millions will read it for fun. Shakespeare has never been this approachable.”

A Reader’s Guide to The Lost Letters

By Terry Tamminen

It takes a lot of hubris to ‘edit’ Shakespeare, but this Reader’s Guide will give you a sense of how I went about the task, including the changes I made to the actual text to make it more accessible and enjoyable for the modern reader. The pages I was given were not in chronological order; many times pages from one letter were mixed in with another one; and some pages were apparently missing entirely, so my approach at the time was to simply transcribe what was in front of me and sort it all out later – – thus, two decades of hard work to make sense of it all, in addition to the challenges as described below.

A Reader’s Guide to The Lost Letters

By Terry Tamminen

It takes a lot of hubris to ‘edit’ Shakespeare, but this Reader’s Guide will give you a sense of how I went about the task, including the changes I made to the actual text to make it more accessible and enjoyable for the modern reader. The pages I was given were not in chronological order; many times pages from one letter were mixed in with another one; and some pages were apparently missing entirely, so my approach at the time was to simply transcribe what was in front of me and sort it all out later – – thus, two decades of hard work to make sense of it all, in addition to the challenges as described below.

The Challenge of Deciphering Elizabethan Handwriting & Spelling

The Challenge of Deciphering Elizabethan Handwriting & Spelling

Here is the last page of Shakespeare’s will:


Although he signed it, there is no evidence he wrote the will itself, but this will give you an example of the way he and his contemporaries wrote letters and legal documents. Very little punctuation or paragraph formatting; words and names spelled various ways within the same document (and often not the way we spell them today); lots of abbreviations that meant something to the intended reader, but mystify the modern one.

Yes, the text in that example is in English! See if you can match the final lines to this transcribed text, which does not correct irregular spelling, but does adjust the letters in words that would completely confuse the modern reader (more of that explained below):

I give, devise, and bequeath to my sonne in lawe, John Hall gent., and my daughter Susanna, his wief, whom I ordaine and make executours of this my last will and testament. And I doe intreat and appoint the saied Thomas Russell esquier and Frauncis Collins gent. to be overseers hereof, and doe revoke all former wills, and publishe this to be my last will and testament. In witness whereof I have hereunto put my [seale] hand, the date and yeare first above written.

My Editing Approach

Now that you have seen an actual example of Elizabethan writing, what follows is how I approached the task of formatting Shakespeare’s letters for the modern reader:[1]

  • Colloquial Elizabethan English is at times quite familiar, but at times thoroughly perplexing, for example the use of “you” for addressing someone of higher age or station, while using “thou” for familiars (like so much of Elizabethan grammar and usage, this is not applied consistently).
  • Some letters in words were written differently than we see today. For example, ‘s’ was written like ‘f’ except when capitalized, in which case it appeared as ‘S’. ‘V’ was usually written as ‘u’. Needless to say, I modernized such instances. The letters “i” and “j”; “s” and “f”; and “u” and “v” were interchangeable, sometimes depending on where the letter appeared in a word. “y” sometimes replaced “th”, so the word “the” could be written as “ye”, or abbreviated as “t’” or “th’”. Numbers were often expressed as lower case Roman numerals, with the last “i” written as “j”, for example, “8” would appear as “viii” or “viij”.
  • I left some irregularities where they seemed to matter to Shakespeare, such as capitalizing certain words like ‘Fortune’.
  • Some abbreviations and contractions are similar to modern English (can’t, couldn’t) but others are not common today (o’er for over; ne’er for never; in’s for in his; ‘prentice for apprentice; enow for enough). I left many of those as Shakespeare wrote them, because they are all generally easy to understand in context and were common for Elizabethan letter writing.
  • Shakespeare used little punctuation, except the use of a period after a number (which is confusing for modern readers, because a period usually means the end of a sentence). Therefore, spelling and punctuation have been regularized and modernized and things like possessive apostrophes have been added where needed. When I just wasn’t sure or thought the original should speak for itself, exactly as is, I insert footnotes or Editor’s Notes for explanation to the best of my ability.
  • Shakespeare did use a form of quotation marks at times and wrote some recounted dialogue with indentations to suggest it was a certain speaker, but otherwise followed no standard method of describing speech. I have therefore standardized the dialogue he recounts using modern quotation marks and attributions of the speaker for clarity.
  • Shakespeare sometimes uses ‘Master’ when referring to the senior members of the company, but in later letters uses ‘Mr’ or ‘M.’ when he seemed to be in a hurry. For consistency, I use ‘Mr.’ except when used in other contexts where the full spelling is more appropriate.
  • In many cases I have added words that were likely in the original, but have been obscured by blots, smudges and holes in the paper (as you can see was also the case in the excerpt from Shakespeare’s will). Other times, I added words for clarity and, in my first draft, I put brackets around those added words. But upon re-reading I found that distracting, so since it doesn’t happen very often, those have become footnotes. Shakespeare often added notes in the margins too, which I incorporated into the text where relevant. For example, in the beginning of Letter One, Shakespeare referred to the “Trinity tor”. I assumed he meant the Holy Trinity Church, the most visible landmark of Stratford from a distance. In my first draft of this book, I used “spire” instead of “tor” (which meant door or hill in Elizabethan English, either of which would have been obscure to the modern reader). Realizing that the spire was not added to the church until the 1700s however, I later changed this to “tower”, in an attempt to remain faithful to the text Shakespeare wrote, but to be somewhat clearer for the modern reader about what he likely meant.
  • When a word that is not commonly used in modern English appears for the first time in the letters, I made a footnote with the definition, then summarized all such words in the Glossary.
  • The letters were mostly written on two sides of the page but designed to be folded shut with a seal and John Combe’s name on one blank section. The dates were placed beneath Shakespeare’s signature, but I have put them at the top of each new letter to aid the reader in following the chronology. Speaking of dates, England in Shakespeare’s time used the old Julian calendar (Europe had already converted to the more accurate Gregorian calendar, but England waited until 1752 to follow suit), so dates cited in his letters may be as much as ten days off of our modern dating system.
  • Finally, my research, led me to corroborating sources for many of the facts and stories that Shakespeare reports directly or from others. In some cases, I have adapted these sources to complete missing sections. For example, in Letter 14, Shakespeare repeats what he was told by his neighbor Van Meteren, who had given oral and written summaries of the fate of the Spanish Armada to other contemporaries. There is at least one page missing from that letter, so I augmented Shakespeare’s report with those additional sources to complete the otherwise consistent description. In another example, in Letter 9, I found another source of Miles Phillips’ account of his travels in the Americas and used it to better understand and augment Shakespeare’s version to add clarity and color.

An Edited Example

Here then is an excerpt from the letters and the result of my editing approach:

  1. Brbg [hole in paper] our tasks b’ding th’animls an couryng our goods from pryng eys whyle taking from th’wagons onlie those few personals th’ wuld prove for us through th’night. Mastr J was alredy retired to a special room at th’top floore whyle M Perkin conuersed with th’host of th’inn and some fewe added dignitaries as I took them to be from the town itself. I heard talk of meate an drink aplentie, most wellcome to my acheing joynts and heated stomack. In the yard w’us were other trauelers, mostlie carryers of goods. One carryer gaue us pause speaking to his fellow but loud enow that all might heare: look you master Robin this house is turned vpside downe since th’t old Ostler dyed. meat here you dare not eat and th’Pease and Beans are as danke as a dogs [illegible]. Poor ol’ostler poor fellow quoth Robin th’othr carryer a crookd old man with narie a toothe ins mouth nor haire ons head as he pulled a ticke from’s horse’s neth’rs. He neuer joy’d since the price of oats rose: twas the death of him.”

In the book, that passage became…

Mr. Burbage directed us in our tasks of bedding the animals and covering our goods from prying eyes, while taking from the wagons only those few personals that would provide for us through the night. Mr. Johnson was already retired to a special room at the top floor while Mr. Perkin conversed with the host of the inn and some few added dignitaries, as I took them to be, from the town itself. I heard talk of meat and drink aplenty, most welcome to my aching joints and heated stomach. In the yard with us were other travelers, mostly carriers of goods. One carrier gave us pause, speaking to his fellow, but loud enough that all might hear:

            “Look you, Master Robin. This house is turned upside down since old Ostler died. Meat here you dare not eat and the peas and beans are as dank as a dog’s [illegible].”

            “Poor old Ostler, poor fellow,” quoth Robin, the other carrier, a crooked old man with nary a tooth in’s mouth nor a hair on his head, as he pulled a tick from his horse’s nether regions. “He never joyed since the price of oats rose; it was the death of him.”


A Few Mysteries Solved

Now you have an idea of what Shakespeare’s letters to John Combe looked like and why it took me a quarter century to decipher and put them in context. I was only able to work on the project in my spare time (and set the whole thing aside for several years when I took on an all-consuming ‘day job’ in the cabinet of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger). But it was the Internet that ultimately accelerated my learning curve and ability to complete the first book.

For example, Shakespeare writes of meeting Miles Phillips and hearing his amazing story of sixteen years as a captive in the Spanish territories of North America. I was able to find few other references to Miles and his story until the web allowed me to search far more references at once than any library could offer. The result was discovering that he had also told his story to a contemporary historian, who included it in a book of similar tales from the New World. As mentioned above, that allowed me to validate what Shakespeare wrote about, but also to add key details to Miles’ account that Shakespeare passed over or were largely illegible. In such instances, I footnote the sources.

If you are familiar with Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, you will recognize some of the people, places, and language that later found their way into his work. He often seemed to be absorbing dialogue and situations, which later made his writing so real and compelling. I wondered, for example, how so much of his observations and the things he heard in Denmark (Letter 5) could have been recalled so clearly when he wrote Hamlet fifteen years later. I found the answer in Letter 50 (which will appear in Book Two) when he expresses gratitude to John Combe’s brother for opening a chest where the letters were stored (while John was apparently away from Stratford, but Shakespeare was home writing Love’s Labours Lost in 1593).

As you will see, the letters are quite long, but that was not unusual for Elizabethan correspondence (they were prolific letter-writers and savers). One of my research references was a book on the life of Shakespeare’s patron, the third Earl of Southampton, which is over 500 pages, mostly his correspondence and some commentary on it.[2]

Letters were often the only means of sharing news before newspapers became common and much of 16th century England was small towns and rural villages, where news traveled mainly by word of mouth or by letter. Reports from New World voyages, rumors of war, conspiracies, beheadings and the Plague – all front page news today – would have been reported in letters. All of that said, I suspect Shakespeare’s letters were long because he meant them as a record for his son in case he was unable to return from his voyages. Whatever the reasons, fortunately for posterity, 16th Century paper was fairly sturdy (made largely of cloth fibers, not wood pulp), although, like anything that old, some pages became more brittle than others over time.


[1] It is my intention to use some proceeds from the publication of this book to complete and publish an academic version of these letters that will approximate the exact versions shown to me, so scholars can conduct their own research and draw their own conclusions, including a detailed chronology and citations to the countless sources that illuminated them for me.

[2] The Life of Henry, Third Earl of Southampton: Shakespeare’s Patron. Charlotte Carmichael Stopes. . University Press, Cambridge, 1922.