Surveillance and Shakespeare – the plot
Citizens of the 21st century are well
used to mass surveillance of the cyber variety, but a new
book exposes just how prevalent spies and informers were in
Shakespeare’s life and lines.
Shakespeare scholar Dr Bill Angus explores the role of spies
and informers in the scripts and society of the Bard and his
His research reveals how playwriting in
14th and 15th century England could be a risky business –
with the threat of mutilation or death – in a society
riddled with the Crown’s informers and spies.
catalyst for Metadrama and the Informer in Shakespeare
and Jonson (Edinburgh University Press, 2017) was
reading plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries.
“Something was going on in their society to suggest that
people on stage should be watching what other people on
stage are doing or overhearing.
“Whether it be someone
standing behind a hedge and passing information on, or
watching from behind a curtain like Hamlet’s
Polonius, most plays of the era have some recognition of
this narrative device and structure,“ says Dr Angus, a
senior lecturer in the School of English and Media Studies
based at the Manawatū campus.
He wondered if there was
something more historical to explain why this was a such a
recurring feature of theatre at the time, and it occurred to
him that Elizabethan society of Shakespeare and his peers
was, in fact, full of informers.
“Everybody was looking
over everybody else’s shoulder. A lot of the literature of
the time is about how awful informers were and how you might
not be able to talk in public without somebody overhearing
“There is a heightened consciousness at this time
of the dangers of even casual conversation,” Dr Angus
Gathering information by spying or eavesdropping
was a lucrative line of work,…