William Shakespeare is a big deal. He’s the most famous writer of all time, in any language, and his plays are performed more than anyone else’s. It’s pretty good going, considering how little the vast majority of people know about the man himself, and how little was expected of him when he entered the world on April 23, 1564 – or around then at least, more on which later.
Shakespeare, in the context of his time, was up against it. He was born into a wealthy – though ever-diminishing in wealth, which we will again cover later – family, which meant that, unlike most people, he actually did go to school, but that was about the only advantage with which he was born. He was brought up in Stratford-upon-Avon in the English county of Warwickshire, a town then as now only famous for its association with the Bard, and thus a million miles away from the seat of English power and English culture, London. He was the third child of John Shakespeare, a local glove maker and town alderman. He was educated, but predominantly in Latin and Greek, and as such, had little expected of him in terms of life achievements. Most men of his age, his birth and his upbringing never left the towns in which they were born and never amounted to much at all.
Suffice to say, Shakespeare did and made himself one of the greatest men of all time. While his background was not fortunate, his times were: he lived at the cusp of two ages, between the death of old, Catholic, feudal England and the birth of a new, Protestant, mercantile nation that would become the Britain that ruled the waves and dominated Europe. Economically, socially, culturally and religiously, the England into which Shakespeare was born was changing at a rapid rate, a change that is reflected in the conflicts and storylines of his plays.
There is so much written about Shakespeare, but so little known about the man himself. How did he come to such prominence? What was he like as a person? Who did he know and who did he care about? All these and more we will seek to answer in this article: 11 Things You Never Knew About William Shakespeare.
1 – His family were recusant Catholics – and William might well have been too
“Now, God be praised, that to believing souls /Gives light in darkness, comfort in despair” Henry VI in Henry VI, part II
Before we deep dive into the life of Shakespeare, we should place ourselves in the England of his birth. The Bard was born in 1564, during the 6th year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. It was a tumultuous time: Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had broken with the Catholic Church and confiscated their vast wealth, causing untold social upheaval, and his successor had been disastrous. Elizabeth’s half-brother, Edward, took the throne at the age of just 9, but was sickly and died at 15, leaving her half-sister, Mary, to become Queen. Mary was a Catholic and sought to return England to Rome, embarking on a violent campaign against Protestants, burning 250 religious dissidents at the stake in her 5-year reign. When she died and Elizabeth ascended to the throne, the new Queen reversed the order again, and the new Church of England was again in power.
You might wonder what this had to do with a young baby in rural Warwickshire. Shakespeare’s birth came at a time in which the official state religion had been changed twice in a generation, with violent repercussions for those who did not conform (not to mention the two failed uprisings that were directly caused by the changes) and the destruction of the monasteries, which had been the main form of social welfare, as well as a physical representation of the church. Stratford-upon-Avon, where he was born, was a hotbed of Catholic recusancy and Shakespeare’s family were steeped in the old faith. His mother, Mary Arden, was from a known recusant family who harbored priests and her uncle, Edward Arden, was executed in 1583 for plotting against Elizabeth. William’s father, John, was publicly a conforming member of the Church of England, but many suspected that privately he still held to the old ways. According to a letter found in the rafters of the Shakespeare home, he remained a Catholic in secret throughout his life. He stopped going to Anglican services around 1592, though that might well have been as a method of avoiding debt – it was common at the time for failing borrowers to be confronted at Sunday service. When the time came to pay for the town militia, which was known to enforce measures against Catholics, John and several other prominent men in the Stratford community with known ties to the old religion refused to pay their share.
As the son of a known recusant mother and a suspect – later admitted – recusant father, the question of William’s religion has long lingered. In his plays, many have read the character of Falstaff in Henry IV as a cypher for John Oldcastle, who was considered a martyr by many Protestants and thus read the satire of Falstaff as a veiled attack on the Church of England. Across the body of his work, there are references to purgatory and characterization of Catholic characters in a positive light, with Protestants in a negative one. Certainly, at the time, any outward criticism of the established order would have resulted in severe consequences for Shakespeare, so we have to read deep into the texts to be able to find any inklings either way.
A third reading of Shakespeare’s work, which takes into account the litany of religious references and overtones in his plays, says that he was simply trying to make his drama as accessible to his audience as possible. Solid knowledge of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, as well as the order of services and the standard concepts of religion, was to be expected of the average citizen of Tudor London, and so to constantly draw back to religious themes was to speak a language that everyone understood. Educated men such as Shakespeare were taught a canon that weighed heavily on Greek and Roman myths, but not everyone would have had access to that sort of education: everyone understood the Bible, understood its characters and themes and thus, as a dramatist, making allusions to it was a quick and simple way of advancing the narrative of the play. Without, of course, raising the ires of the censors in the process.
“Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall.” Escalus in Measure for Measure
We have spoken a little about Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, in the previous section about his religion, but he is worthy of a deep dive all of his own. John Shakespeare lived a life that would befit any play that his famous son wrote, with a fall from grace that equals any Shakespearean tragedy.
John Shakespeare was a wealthy and powerful man at the time that William was born: he was an alderman on Stratford’s town government, a bailiff – then an important role – and the town’s magistrate, before becoming Mayor of Stratford in 1566, when his eldest son was just four years of age. John made his money as a glove maker, but he had plenty of fingers in other pies. He earned far more money than could be expected of a humble glover, largely earned through property dealings, farming, selling wood and grains and, most controversially, money-lending. Usury was a serious business at the time and twice John found himself in court on charges of charging more than the accepted level of interest on loans.
Nevertheless, when William was a child, his father was one of the richest men in the region. He had bought the two adjoining houses to the one in which William was born and knocked them through, making a large home for the family, and he held various important municipal offices. His wife, Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden, was from the local gentry and together, they were something of a power couple. William went to the best school in town and wanted for nothing.
By the time of his adolescence, however, it had all started to unravel. By 1580 – when William was 14 – his father was largely absent from the town council and was eventually stripped of his position as an alderman, while John had also stopped attending church in order to escape his creditors. The elder Shakespeare essentially withdrew from the life of the town, taking no further interest in town affairs and only avoiding persecution because old friends on the council stuck by him. When William’s sister died at the age of 7 in 1578, John paid for a funeral – ostensibly to keep up appearances – but in other financial obligations, he failed.
John Shakespeare’s financial problems are well documented to historians: if there is one thing guaranteed to survive throughout the ages, it is financial records and gravestones, for there is nothing as permanent as death and taxes. How exactly he came to be in such straits, however, is a mystery. Nobody really knows how this once prominent businessman and pillar of the community came to so spectacularly fall from grace, especially when his son was out in the world making such a large name for himself.
Some historians suspect that John, having long supplemented his income via loaning money at high rates of interest, was defaulted upon by those whom he had lent to and thus fell to borrowing himself, creating a downward spiral from which he never emerged. Others have suggested that his position as a suspected recusant Catholic had made his positions in the civic life of Stratford untenable and that many of his previous business partners severed ties with him when he was tainted by the stain of popery.
There is a somewhat happy ending to the story. At the height of his powers, when William was just a child of five years old, John had applied to the College of Arms to be given an official Coat of Arms for the Shakespeare family. Soon after, however, he was unable to maintain the application and it lay dormant for over 25 years, while John endured his hard times back in Stratford. In 1596, when William had made his fortune in London and was at the peak of his powers, he managed to re-apply for the Coat of Arms of the Shakespeare family, and they were granted, allowing John to finally have the heraldry that he always wanted, just a few years before he finally passed away in September of 1601.
3 – Half a decade of Shakespeare’s life is missing, and nobody has the slightest clue about where he was or what he was doing
All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. Jaques in As You Like It
The paucity of documents that survive from the time of William Shakespeare’s life has been mentioned previously, and that leads us on to our next mystery. While there are a plethora of sources that can inform us of what The Bard was getting on with once he’d already produced a few plays – which create playbills, records of performances, actor’s payslips and the like – there is very little that covers his life from leaving school until making it in the theatre. In fact, there’s a whole six-year period, smack bang in the middle of his early career, about which we know basically nothing at all.
We leave the recorded history of Shakespeare in 1586 when he is married to Anne Hathaway (no, not that one) and she has borne him three children, Susanna, with whom she was pregnant at the time of their wedding and about whom we will discuss in the next chapter, and a pair of twins, Hamnet and Judith. Hamnet died in 1586 – a formative moment for Shakespeare, many suggest – but again, about which we know almost nothing. There are no historical traces of William from 1586, when he is tangentially mentioned as part of a court case involving his mother’s estate, to 1592, when he is described as an “upstart crow” in a pamphlet written by a London thespian, Robert Greene. What he did in the meantime, how he came to be in London and how he managed to inveigle his way into the world of acting are all a mystery to historians.
The closest historical accounts to Shakespeare’s life claimed that he had left Stratford under a cloud, having been accused of poaching deer and writing a satirical song about the squire who had made the allegation. Later biographers placed him in Lancashire, well to the north of his native Warwickshire, with a documentary source from the time speaking of “William Shakeshaft, now dwelling with me”. This seems a good lead, but it must be factored in that Shakeshaft, which was a name which had been used by William’s grandfather, was a very common name at the time in Lancashire, and William was one of the most common given names as well.
It is thought that, as an educated man, he would have gone to university, were that path not forbidden to men already married. He would have needed to earn money to support his young family, and thus the obvious thing for an educated individual to have done would have been to become a teacher, as many suspect that he might have done. Various important Lancashire families – all of whom, incidentally, were also accused of being recusant Catholics – were linked to his mother’s Arden family and could well have provided him with work and lodging.
This could also explain how he came to London and the theatre. Many London theatre companies would travel the country, performing at the estates of wealthy families, and it is known that two of the Lancashire houses associated with the Ardens, the Heskeths and the Houghtons, hosted plays by companies which William was later associated. Some suggest that he might have fallen in with them and traveled with them on to London.
A second theory holds that Shakespeare remained in Stratford, only to have fame foist upon him when a touring theatre company came to town. The Queen Elizabeth’s Men, a company who regularly visited Stratford, were in town when one of their actors, William Knell, was stabbed to death in a pub fight in the town. Some historians have subsequently alleged that William, who was interested in drama and clearly had talent, stepped in for Knell and continued on to London with them. His father John was at the time the High Bailiff of the town, responsible for touring theatre companies, and had previously been the Stratford constable, responsible for keeping law and order, so perhaps it is not too far-fetched an idea.
Wherever he was, he reemerged in London in 1592, an already successful playwright. He had transitioned from actor to writer and was independently wealthy – but when he moved to London, he left his wife, children and the whole family in Stratford behind him.
4 – He married his wife when she was already pregnant, but that wasn’t really unusual at the time
“Men are April when they woo, December when they wed. Maids are May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are wives.” Rosalind in As You Like It
William Shakespeare’s personal life could be considered colorful at best. In the next three sections, we will discuss his wife, his kids and his rumored homosexuality, beginning first with Anne Hathaway. Shakespeare married Anne at Temple Grafton in November 1582. He was 18, she was 26 and pregnant. We can unpack several aspects of this to learn about the circumstances by which they came to marry and perhaps discover a little about the man himself and the wife that he would ultimately leave behind him when he sought fame and fortune in London.
That she was so much older than him at the time of their marriage implies that theirs might have been a love match: she was of much higher social standing, from a wealthier family – admittedly since John Shakespeare was in the process of being ruined – and, of course, older. Scholars have argued that William would have pursued Anne rather than the other way around and that, perhaps, the Hathaway family were less than pleased when the wedding was foisted upon them by her pregnancy. The alliance of the prosperous Hathaways with the failing Shakespeares certainly seems unlikely to have been made for the usual reasons behind family unions in Tudor England. That said, 26 was the average age for marriage among Tudor women, while 18 was below the usual age for men and William is likely to have had to seek permission from his father in order to wed.
The circumstances of the wedding itself also lead to the contention that it was not pre-planned. They were married in Temple Grafton, not Stratford, as might have been expected, and with good reason. The Church forbade marriages in Advent and in the immediate post-Christmas period, meaning that the couple had to marry in November to avoid Anne’s pregnancy being obvious by the time of their wedding. William and two witnesses had to go to the town of Worcester to procure a special marriage license that allowed them to marry in November, but, though both Anne and William were listed as being from Stratford, they chose to marry elsewhere.
Historians think that this might have been to avoid the shame of the marriage – which, as we know, was forced upon them – and because of the lack of standing that the Shakespeares now enjoyed in Stratford. There is also a theory that holds that, as the Reverend of the Church in Stratford was a staunch Protestant, holding the wedding elsewhere, particularly in Temple Grafton, where the vicar had once been a priest and was considered unreliably Protestant by authorities. Could he have agreed to marry the couple as Catholics?
The shame of Anne’s pregnancy was real, but it was far from unusual. According to historian Michael Wood, a third of Tudor women were pregnant at the time of their marriage, a fact that is backed up by the extensive church records that display just how much Elizabethan society, or at least, the religious establishment within in, was preoccupied with sex. The records of sermons from the time of Shakespeare’s wedding are filled with vitriol towards women for their sexual proclivities – though, very rarely against the men whom they must obviously have required to perform these depraved acts, of course – and it is clear from reading them that, in the perception of the authorities at least, premarital sex was a major issue.
Whether the marriage to Anne was happy or not has also vexed historians. There is little to back up the perception that has formed over the centuries that they did not get along, but it has persisted nonetheless. Shakespeare did live separately from his wife for the majority of their marriage, with Anne never leaving Stratford, though it is thought that William was a regular visitor back to his hometown and, when he gave up writing plays in his old age, it was to there that he retired. The famous quote from his will – that he left his wife his “second best bed” – is often quoted as showing his disdain for his wife, but in fact, Tudor social mores held that the best bed in the house was the one that was given up to visitors: in giving his wife his “second best bed”, he might well have been giving her the one that they actually shared.
5 – Shakespeare suffered great personal upheaval, which inspired some of his greatest tragedies and poetry
“Been not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Malvolio in Twelfth Night
The great hole in the life of Shakespeare, at the heart of the artistic analysis of much of his work, lies in the death of his son Hamnet. That Hamnet died was not particularly unusual: children not making it as far as adulthood was common, with an estimated third of all births dying before the age of 10, and indeed William himself had been preceded by two sisters that died in infancy. Neither was Hamnet’s death from any great unknown source, as he is thought to have contracted the bubonic plague and passed away in 1596 at the age of 11. The plague was a constant scourge, ravaging Europe from the middle of the 14th century until well into the 19th century, and it would periodically strike small towns like Stratford.
The emotional impact of Hamnet’s death on his father has been debated throughout the centuries. It is likely that Shakespeare was away when his son died and probably did not even heard about it until Hamnet had already been buried: he was away acting in Kent at the time that the death was recorded. The impact that it had on his work is palpable. From his arrival in London in the early 1590s, Shakespeare had proved himself a master of comedy – his earliest performed works were The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew – and history, but by 1597, his work takes a noticeably darker turn. It is at this period that we see the first of the great tragedies, Romeo and Juliet, and it is in the later periods of his career that the likes of Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear appear.
The extent to which the deep tragedy of his later work is linked to the real tragedy of Shakespeare’s life is not known, but it is obvious that the wider trend towards sadness is there in the writing. Before 1596, Shakespeare was young, up and coming, successful and had a young family back home; after the death of his only son, he was aging (by the standards of 1596, the 32-year-old Shakespeare would have been considered old) and lacking a male heir. He might well have wondered if it all had been worth it.
The themes are there to be picked out. Hamlet is often seen as the closest play to Shakespeare’s own son: the characters’ name is, of course, very similar, while the themes of father/son relations are also easy to bring together. The Twelfth Night revolves around the experiences of a girl whose twin brother dies – Hamnet, remember, was a twin to Judith – and there are scenes in King John, Julius Caesar and The Tempest that refer to the guilt of fathers over their dead sons.
It was about this time that Shakespeare’s sonnets seem to reveal problems in his personal life. The death of his son is heavily alluded to, while his fidelity to his wife is questioned by the appearance of the famed “Dark Lady” in his poetry, as well as the homoerotic themes that we will discuss in the next section. The identities of those to whom he addresses his sonnets are not known: many have suggested that the “Fair Youth”, the male subject of 126 of the sonnets, might well have been Henry Wriothesley, his patron and alleged lover, while the “Dark Lady” has provoked speculation almost since the publication of the poems in 1609. Some claim her to be Emilia Lanier, a woman of Italian descent who was the mistress of one of the actors with whom Shakespeare performed and a poet in her own right, while others have alleged that a black brothel owner named Black Luce or Aline Florio, the wife of an Italian translator, might have been the subject of Shakespeare’s affections.
This historical gossip is one thing, and we can discuss it further in the next section. For while the Dark Lady has captivated across the centuries, recent scholars of Shakespeare have questioned his personal life even further: with many thinking that The Bard might, in fact, have been bisexual.
6 – Shakespeare might well have been gay, or at the very least bisexual
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d; And every fair from fair sometime declines, By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d But thy eternal summer shall not fade,’ Sonnet 18, addressed to a man
Questions over the sexuality of William Shakespeare have been around since the 18th century at the very latest. From the beginning of scholarship on the issue, it has been downplayed, though many who did so – Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for example – were very likely to do so, as Shakespeare was already ensconced as England’s greatest ever writer, and it really wouldn’t have done for England’s literary hero to have been, as they saw it, a sodomite.
He certainly addressed many of his sonnets towards men – 126 in total. Whether this was because he loved them, or had had affairs with them, or simply held them in high regard, is up for debate. Certainly, the idea of loving yet platonic relationships between men was not completely out of the question, and indeed, it provided the bedrock of the lives of many an artist: wealthy patrons would provide ready cash and other benefits to struggling writers so that they might be able to remain writing, with there being something of an expectation that the writers might then glorify the person who was essentially buying their dinner and keeping them in good ruffs. Whether any of these relationships ever progressed further is one for the ages to discuss.
It is worth bearing in mind that sodomy was illegal in Tudor England, though almost nobody was ever punished for it. Scholars have questioned how enforced the law was, as it was seldom that anyone was actually charged under sodomy laws, and those that were charged were often charged as part of something else, in an attempt to besmirch their character. There are two theories on why so few sodomy charges were ever filed: nobody was ever caught committing sodomy, which seems unlikely, or just that it was simply something that nobody ever bothered to prosecute. This may be because it was difficult to prove, or too scandalous to mention or simply not worth the effort. It is noticeable that the first appearances of literary critics claiming that Shakespeare was gay came in the year after homosexuality was legalized in the United Kingdom, giving rise to a theory that many experts had long suggested it, but had not risked saying it aloud.
Within 40 years of Shakespeare’s death, a volume of his poems and sonnets was published with all the pronouns changed to female – some, of course, were about women anyway, but all the male ones were made female. The reason that many have put such a weight on the sonnets is that it was unlikely that Shakespeare intended to publish them, and thus they provide one of the best insights into what he was actually like as a person. There are plenty of reasons why he might not have thought to publish them, or indeed, wanted them to be seen at all: political censorship was ever present, for example, while we have spoken elsewhere about the potential threat of his Catholic tendencies being exposed.
Of course, there is no proof that he was gay or even bisexual, but the way in which he talks about men in his poetry, if taken by the same standards which he uses to talk about women, would point in that direction. While it is correct to point out that Coleridge and the other nay-sayers who initially denied charges of homosexuality were biased, then it would also be remiss not to point out that a large part of the modern theory on Shakespeare’s sexual orientation is also colored by the way that contemporary literary critics think. Much of the language that is used, for example, regarding love and affection might not have seemed at all sexual at the time, rather an expression of admiration and platonic friendship.
Even if he wasn’t gay, the personal life of William Shakespeare was certainly colorful, as we have heard: from his shotgun wedding, his myriad affairs and a level of personal tragedy that would have put Hamlet et al to shame.
7 – The idea that he didn’t write his plays was unheard of at the time, and probably says more about the rumour mongers than it does about Shakespeare
“Men’s evil manners live in brass; their virtues we write in water.” Henry VIII in Henry VIII
The quote above is emblematic – as it might well not actually have been written by Shakespeare. Certainly, Shakespeare was not above bringing in a little help to churn out dramas at the rate that was required for him to be profitable. It is ironic, given the controversy that has dogged Shakespeare regarding the authorship of his works, that he so openly stole from other writers for his plots. Few of his greatest works were truly original stories, or at least, did not draw heavily on scenarios which with his audience were already familiar. The histories, obviously, draw on history, while the likes of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and King Lear to name just three are all based on pre-existing plot lines.
Whether Shakespeare was the man who actually wrote them all is a fairly moot point. Most scholars have agreed that Shakespeare did write his plays and consider those who posit other ideas to be little more than conspiracy theorists, and in truth, it doesn’t really matter that much either way. It is telling that the great conspiracy required to create the illusion that Shakespeare did not write his own plays was never mentioned in his lifetime and indeed, did not surface at all until hundreds of years after his death, which would make it just about the most successful conspiracy ever. Nevertheless, figures of the heft of Walt Whitman, Charlie Chaplin, Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud have all signed up to the cause at one time or another.
The claims centre on some of the aspects of Shakespeare’s life that we have covered. Many find it hard to believe that a man from such humble origins, with such a lack of education – though we have mentioned his schooling, there is actually no evidence that he ever went to the school that most scholars think that he attended in Stratford – could have written such detailed and intricate works about royal affairs and court behaviour. The shaky spelling of Shakespeare’s name, which we will touch on later, has also coloured views of him, as has his poor handwriting and signature.
Of course, when claiming that Shakespeare did not write his plays, it is necessary to suggest who might have. In that field, there is no clear candidate. Contemporaries of Shakespeare such as Christopher Marlowe, a celebrated playwright in his own right, and Sir Francis Bacon, the philosopher and politician, were posited, among as many as 80 others. Most recently, Edward de Vere, a courtesan and amateur poet, has been considered a potential author.
The accusers might actually reveal more about themselves than they do about Shakespeare. When the majority of accusations occurred, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the level of social stratification in England was almost at its height. Thus, the idea that a man of humble origins could have written such startling works was anathema to those who were in the thrall of what was known as “Bardolatry”, the adulation of Shakespeare that began to grow around 1800. Nobody had considered Shakespeare to be the greatest writer ever in his lifetime, nor in the first two centuries that followed, and it was only afterwards that his fame grew to the level that it currently holds. Shakespeare’s background is questioned regularly, but those of his greatest two contemporaries – Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe – are largely similar and yet no questions are asked of their authorship.
There is also a theory that the biggest argument in favor of Shakespeare having written his own plays is exactly the same argument that is used to discredit him: his lack of education. For those who claim that Shakespeare lacked the knowledge and education to have accurately depicted many of the courtly behaviors that are in the plays, there are countless examples of him proving that to be correct in the plays themselves: notably, because Shakespeare’s ancient plays are filled with errors. Shakespeare’s school might have taught the basics of Greek and Latin, but having not been to university, his knowledge of the classics is poor: he has ancient characters quote figures who lived hundreds of years after the plays were set, for example, a mistake a true classicist would not have made.
Whether he wrote them or not, the effect of the plays on the English language has been massive. Shakespeare’s limited education meant that he did not know more words than other contemporary playwrights, but the esteem in which his work was held has left his words as those that remain to this day. In the next section, we will discuss just how influential Shakespeare has been in shaping the way that we speak today.
8 – He provided more phrases to the English language than any other writer
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet in Romeo and Juliet
As quotes go, the famous one from Romeo and Juliet that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet – “not if you call them stench blossoms”, says every Simpsons fan reading this – is an apt one with which to begin a discussion of Shakespeare. As befitting a man who did not come from the English establishment of the time, Shakespeare was never bound by the idea of one English language, one accepted canon of words to be used or even one way of spelling.
Incidentally, William Shakespeare is simply the name that we’ve decided that Shakespeare was called, as he himself regularly spelled it differently, often to the point of abstraction at which it is unclear whether Shakespeare even was a name that he always used. Shakespeare is simply the most common way of spelling it. That little aside might give a small insight into the raggedy state of the English language in Tudor times. There was no common spelling of anything, most people couldn’t read at all and books were a thing that only the very, very wealthy could afford. The effect of his plays on the English language was profound: it is estimated that over 2,000 words entered the English language via Shakespeare, plenty of which remain to this day. If you’ve ever been green with envy, embarked on a wild goose chase, found yourself in a pickle, waited with baited breath, indulged in gossip, made the world your oyster, had a heart of gold or been bedazzled or sanctimonious, then you’ve been quoting Shakespeare. He really was the be-all and end-all of English language first use, and yes, “the be-all and end-all” is also from Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was perfectly placed to have this happen to him. During the period in which he was writing, the sale of books exploded and his folios were always among the bestsellers, while he had the ideal way of construing meaning to words, as by the very nature of plays, they were always accompanied by context and actions. Even if the audience didn’t know the word – which given that Shakespeare stole from other languages, turned nouns into verbs and flat out made stuff up, they might be excused for not knowing them – then they could still derive the meaning of it from other factors. And once the word had a known meaning, then people would use it, further perpetuating the word itself.
It must be said that the 2,000 words of Shakespearean origin might be a little generous: his work is the first usage source of an estimated 2,000, however that isn’t to say that they were coined by Shakespeare, just that he was the earliest person to use them in print. Given the paucity of printed books that remain from the Tudor period, they may well have been known before and in fact, that 2,000 was once above 3,200, only for older sources to be found.
His influence on the English language might well be best attributed to his popularity with the average person. More of his plays were published than almost anyone else’s, and more people were familiar with his works, so when the first dictionaries were written, Shakespeare’s words were the most used as examples. If anything, the enduring effect of Shakespeare on the English language might have been decided some 200 years after his death, when Samuel Johnson sat down to write the first dictionary, rather than at any point in his own lifetime. That said, Shakespeare’s total literary output runs to over 17,000 individual words, significantly more than anyone else and well more than other widely read books such as the Bible and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, one of the longest contemporary poems.
His society was almost completely illiterate – when the English Civil War broke out, 20 years after Shakespeare’s death, only 30% of the wealthy, educated men who were in the English Parliament could sign their own names, so imagine what that says about everyone else – but it was about to explode. More people learned to read in English in the two hundred years after his death than had ever read before, and the most popular writer of the age was Shakespeare. The printing press, the Protestant Reformation (which encouraged people to read the Bible for themselves) and the growth of merchant trade encouraged people to learn to read like never before.
Reading is one thing, of course, but it cannot be overstated how much Shakespeare’s English was written to be performed and not read. Which makes it so strange, then, that the vast majority of Shakespeare that we see today is performed incorrectly…
9 – Almost every Shakespeare play has been performed in the wrong dialect
“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines.” Hamlet in Hamlet
Shakespeare was always meant to be performed live. That seems fairly obvious – he’s a playwright, after all, and not a novelist – but is often lost in the morass of stuffy school lessons sat trying to decipher Macbeth or Hamlet. Generations of children have been turned off the greatest writer to ever write in the English language because they have been forced to read his scripts in a language that they don’t understand rather than enjoy them as they were intended to be enjoyed. It would be like serving the greatest soup that has ever been made but asking it to be eaten exclusively with a fork. You might get a flavor of it, but you’re certainly going to struggle on the way.
Similarly, if you go to the theatre to watch a Shakespeare play, you’re also very unlikely to get an experience that bears any relation to that which Shakespeare intended. So much modern Shakespeare is performed as serious, ashen-faced literature, with reverential tones and classically-trained actors ploughing through the language while the vast majority of the audience has no idea what is going on. It’s a middle class, expensive pursuit, watching Shakespeare, which is the complete opposite of what going to the Globe Theatre in 1600 was like.
The dialect is a major problem in this. Shakespeare wrote almost everything in a meter, so it rhymed, whereas almost no Shakespeare is currently performed like this. Furthermore, it’s estimated that over half of the rhymes in the Sonnets don’t actually rhyme anymore, because of dialectical changes. As you might imagine from the section about the appearance of Shakespearean texts in the first dictionaries, our primary source on what Shakespearean England spoke like is, of course, Shakespeare. His rhymes, or lack thereof in modern English, provide the biggest insight into the way that words were pronounced in the 1600s in England. When we unpack the dialect, the language comes back to life and new puns are also discovered – Shakespeare is filled with Elizabethan dad jokes – as well as rhyming couplets that make the action easy to follow and understand, even if the words are more difficult to catch.
The dialect of Shakespeare is often claimed (predominantly by Americans) to sound more like modern American than modern Received Pronunciation English. Unless you’re from the small Virginian island of Tangier, where they still speak something approximating Elizabethan English, then that isn’t true. If you’re from the UK, you might identify it as being from the West Country in England – for those from outside the UK, think of what a stereotypical pirate sounds like. As the country changed over the intervening 500 years since Shakespeare was alive, so did the dialect, and perhaps the West Country is the biggest holdout of that form of English. The American colonial period was just beginning – the Mayflower arrived at Cape Cod three years after Shakespeare died – and thus perhaps there is some truth in the formation of American English being based on the English of this time. Similarly, it is often posited that the best way to understand the English of Charles Dickens with a modern ear is to listen to an Australian, as the period of British colonial expansion in New South Wales – and, given the poverty of Dickensian characters, the transportation of convicts – was occurring as he wrote his novels. As Australia English is a calcified mid-18th century English, perhaps American English is too a calcified 17th century version of the language. Or maybe it lies in Cornwall.
The transition from Middle English – that of say, Chaucer, which is very difficult for anyone who doesn’t also speak French and German to read – into Early Modern English – the language of Shakespeare, which is largely readable to a modern audience – was in full swing in Elizabethan England. As we know, there was no regulated spelling, but the pronunciations also varied wildly: the French that had come in with the Normans 500 years previously had been mashed with the Germanic languages of the Anglo-Saxons, producing a hybrid that often took French words and applied German pronunciation rules. The Great Vowel Shift, which is way too complicated to go into in this small piece, but is the reason why Germans say “schiesse” with a long “ayy” sound when we say “shit” with a short “i”, was a major factor, while the practice of saying every syllable – that means the k at the start of knight and the e at the end of words, Frenchies – was also still a thing. The Norse Ã¾ was still in use: that’s “th” as in there and then, and most importantly in thou, which was the informal version of “you” that was still very much in existence, similar to tu in French or du in German. German speakers will also note the “-st” and “-th” at the end of verbs – “Those friends thou hast,” or “the lady doth protest” as Hamlet would say – is maintained.
Without this sounding like a grammar lesson, it was vital to the way that most people enjoyed and experienced Shakespeare, and indeed, says a lot about how Shakespeare is now enjoyed (or isn’t). Crucially, Shakespearean plays were not meant to be alienating or revered, as it can often seem today, but were meant to be rollicking, bawdy, ribald fun. The story lines have a level of sex, violence, drugs, debauchery, swearing and intrigue that would put most TV soap operas to shame. And with good reason – in Shakespeare’s time, the theatre was the equivalent of television and Hollywood, all rolled into one.
10 – Shakespeare plays were the equivalent of Hollywood blockbusters at the time
“O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise.” Hamlet in Hamlet
The theatre in Tudor England was truly the most popular form of mass entertainment – well, unless you include public executions – and was the predominant form of popular culture in London at the time. The players were far from the stuffy, received pronunciation thesps that we associate with actors today, the facilities were often ramshackle and over-filled and the plays were meant for the widest possible consumption – if they weren’t audience-friendly, then they wouldn’t make any money and the playwright would soon find themselves out of a job. The theatre was far more akin to a soap opera or a Hollywood blockbuster than it was to any Shakespeare performed today. A large part of this revolved around the working life of the writer. If your play was rubbish and nobody went to see it, then it was very unlikely that you’d get a second crack at being a writer: you’d as soon end up back on the street, doing whatever it was that you did beforehand. If the play was successful, then writers would get a second play commissioned, or better still, have the same play go to a wider audience, or a repeat run, or even, if it was really, really successful, be printed as a folio that people could buy and read for themselves (if they had the cash, of course, and if they could read).
That we have heard of Shakespeare at all is a testament to just how successful he was as a playwright in his own lifetime. He was wealthy, his plays were regularly performed and his scripts made it into print, with the First Folio – published in 1623, within a decade of Shakespeare’s death, being the principal source of all of his plays that we know today. One of the major ways in which he became so successful was because his work was accessible and told stories that people had heard before. Yep, the current trend for reboots, franchises and sequels is not a new thing in the world and Shakespeare was just as guilty of cashing in as anyone else. He did King John, the Richard II, then Henry IV, Part 1, then Part 2, then Henry V, then Henry VI (parts 1, 2 and 3), then back to Richard III and then Edward III. They were the Marvel Cinematic Universe of their time.
The target of the plays was the Groundlings of the Hamlet quote above. They were the poorest section of the audience, who paid a penny to see the shows, and provided the bulk of the cash that came in for any performance. Thus, it behoved a writer to write for their tastes and their level of knowledge. When you factor in the level of state censorship at the time – which was very strict – then writing plays that were “historical” in a way that glorified the current Royal Family and demonised the bad guys (who were invariably Catholic or foreign or both). Thus, the Henry Plays showed the ruling Tudors in a good light, while also generally depicting the current times – post-Catholic, post-Mediaeval – as being far better than those that had preceded the Tudor accession to the throne around a century before.
Shakespeare also regularly recycled old plays with which his audience would have been familiar. Romeo and Juliet, for example, was a story as old as time – though most would have known it as Tristan and Isolde – and many of the tragedies referred back to Greek myths, which any educated person would have learned by rote in school and about which the audience would have known. In fact, a book published in early 2018 showed that Shakespeare regularly plagiarized texts, which software used to test college students work against others finding that aspects of Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear all appeared in an unpublished book called “A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels, by a diplomat named George North, which was initially written in 1576. Shakespeare used a translation of Plutarch’s Lives as a guideline for all of his plays set in Ancient Rome, a translation written by one Thomas North, a likely relative of George North’s.
11 – The image that we all know of Shakespeare might actually look nothing like him at all
“When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes, I all alone beweep my outcast state And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries And look upon myself and curse my fate” Sonnet 29
One might expect our historical knowledge of the most famous English language writer of all time to be quite complete, but there are some really crucial aspects of Shakespeare’s life that are debated heartily among scholars – though they all basically agree that, at the very least, he did write his own plays.
Let’s run through a few of the strange mysteries of his life. We all celebrate his birthday on April 23, St George’s Day, but there’s actually no proof for that at all: he was baptized on April 26 1564, but could well have been born before that, as it was not custom at the time to baptize babies immediately. As the first son to a mother and father who had previously had two daughters die in childbirth, it might have been reasonable for them to make sure that everything was completely good with the young William before putting him through the strain of a baptism. The general consensus is that April 23 was affixed as his birthday because, of course, as the greatest writer in English there was a certain draw to having him be born on the national saint’s day, but also because he definitely died on April 23, giving a nice symmetry to his life.
Next up, we have no idea if William Shakespeare was actually his name. As we have mentioned above, English spelling at the time of Shakespeare’s life was all over the place, with no real recognized way to spell anything: people just wrote whatever they thought would be understood. Shakespear – no E – that was most commonly used until the late 18th century and only Shakespeare afterwards. Shakespeare was also the spelling often used in print, but none of the surviving signatures that William himself made match it. Six signatures survive that we can confidently say were written in William’s own hand, which give his name as Willm Shakp, William Shaksper, Wm Shakspe, William Shakspere, Willm Shakspere and William Shakspeare respectively. On his grave, there is one spelling and on his wife’s, directly beside his, there is another.
Thirdly, we can move on to the image of Shakespeare that we all know. There are several portraits that show William in his finery, and they all seem to show basically the same man: bearded, balding, wearing a large collar and with a pierced ear. The trouble with these is that they were all made after his death, and there is no accepted image of Shakespeare that was made while he was still alive.
The first image, made by artist Martin Droeshout, is an engraving that featured on the First Folio, published in 1623. The Folio contains and introductory poem from fellow playwright Ben Jonson – who knew Shakespeare well – and attests to its accuracy, so we can be confident that it looks at least a little like him. The second close-to-contemporary image is from his grave, a bust that sits as a monument in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. This was carved by Gerard Johnson and was commissioned by his son-in-law, and surely must have been seen by his wife, Anne Hathaway, because she chose to be buried next to it.
After those two images, we can move on to the Chandos portrait – named after the Duke of Chandos, who had owned it – which purports to be from his lifetime, but cannot be proven. It looks a lot like the Droeshout engraving, though, so perhaps we can cut it some slack. There is the so-called Cobbe portrait, which claims to have been made in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and can be dated as such, but on which scholars are split regarding whether or not it is actually Shakespeare. It looks like the Droeshout engraving too, and there is, in fact, scholarly opinion that suggests that either of the Chandos or Cobbe portraits might have been used by Droeshout to create his image after Shakespeare had died. They both suffer from the claims that they feature Sir Thomas Overbury, himself a poet from Stratford-upon-Avon who was bearded and balding, and not Shakespeare himself.