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
Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s and one of those cited as a potential author of his plays. Electric Literature.

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.

11 Surprising Things You Never Knew About William Shakespeare
The front cover of Hamlet, with an impression of Shakespeare’s signature. Provenance Online Project.

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…

11 Surprising Things You Never Knew About William Shakespeare
The modern recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where the majority of his work was performed. Columbia College.

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 þ 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.

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

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