11 Surprising Things You Never Knew About William Shakespeare
11 Surprising Things You Never Knew About William Shakespeare

11 Surprising Things You Never Knew About William Shakespeare

Mike Wood - April 22, 2018

11 Surprising Things You Never Knew About William Shakespeare
Modern Hollywood superstar Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of the play. Variety.

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 Surprising Things You Never Knew About William Shakespeare
The Droeshout Engraving, made by Martin Droeshout shortly after Shakespeare’s death. Wikipedia.

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.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources

The Guardian – Shady Dealings of William Shakespeare’s Father ‘Helped to Fund Son’s Plays’

Executed Today – 1583: Edward Arden, Shakespearean Kin

Oxford University Press – New Discoveries About John Shakespeare: Financial Ruin and Government Corruption

The Guardian – William Shakespeare: Father’s Legal Skirmishes Shed Light on Bard’s Early Years

Shakespeare – Shakespeare’s Wedding and Marriage

Owlcation – Analysis of Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare

The Independent – William Shakespeare: Scholars Speculate Whether Playwright Was Gay

Biography – Was Shakespeare the Real Author of His Plays?

VOX – Why Some People Think Shakespeare Didn’t Write Shakespeare, Explained

BBC Teach – How Did People Really Speak in Shakespearean England?

No Sweat Shakespeare – WIlliam Shakespeare Images: What Did Shakespeare Look Like?

Wood, Michael. In Search of Shakespeare. London. BBC Books. 2003

Love, Harold. Attributing Authorship: An Introduction. Cambridge. 2002.

Ribner, Irving. The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare. London.2005.

Shapiro, James. 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare. Harper Perennial. 2010

Taylor, Gary. Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present. London. 1990