10 Shocking Things About William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare is one of the ‘greats’ of English Literature. Indeed he is, arguably, the greatest playwright that ever lived. His works have guided, inspired and amused audiences for hundreds of years and not just in his native English. The works of Shakespeare have been translated into almost every language (it works particularly well and is very popular in Russian and Japanese) and even into Klingon.
Most children will study at least one of the works of Shakespeare in school. His works are timeless, as relevant now as they were in their own day – a fact proved by the number of ‘interpretations’ of the plays that set them in a variety of different locations, from modern India to feudal Japan! He also manages to convey the broad range and depth of human emotion more successfully than almost any other playwright. He did this in a range of stories that covered almost every potential topic with some of the most fascinating characters ever created.
But how well do you know ‘the bard’ the enigmatic character behind the plays? Here are 10 things you never knew, or even suspected about William Shakespeare!
10. William Shakespeare did not spell his name the way we write it today.
Spelling was not seen as important in Shakespeare’s time (a schoolchild’s heaven), even educated people would not necessarily spell words with any consistency. Samuel Johnson’s first dictionary of the English language was not published until 1755. This disregard for consistency continued into the spellings Elizabethans used for their own names.
William Shakespeare was as careless with the spelling of his name as many of his contemporaries. When he was a young man there were a range of different spellings that appeared to be in common usage, mostly phonetic variations of the now common Shakespeare. Common variations included Shakesspre, Shakysper, Shaxpeer, Shakper and so on; researchers have counted more than 80 versions.
As Shakespeare aged he started to favor variations on the spelling Shakespere, while this reduced the range of different variations there were still a number that were used, sometimes with two or more being used in the same document.
The spelling which is now associated with his name was not used by Shakespeare in his lifetime. Instead the spelling entered the mainstream when it was used by his good friend Ben Jonson in the printing of the first folio. The normal spelling fell out of favor in the 1700s but by 1840 editors had returned to using the now traditional Shakespeare.
9. One of Shakespeare’s relatives was arrested for plotting against the queen.
Shakespeare’s mother was related to a family called the Ardens. In an age when a person’s religious conviction could see them killed (Elizabeth I may not have wanted a window into men’s souls but she got rid of many Catholics who were said to be plotting against her) the Ardens were known Catholics, they hid a member of the clergy, disguising him as the family gardener and Edward Arden, a cousin of Shakespeare’s mother, was very vocal in his dislike of Dudley, one of the queen’s key advisors.
Arden was known to associate with militant Catholics and in 1580 was implicated in a Jesuit plot against the queen. A short while later Arden’s mentally unstable son in law, John Somerville threatened to kill the queen. Arden was sent to the Tower of London and subsequently hanged, drawn and quartered in December 1573.
William Shakespeare may have been a distant relation on his mother’s side but blood connections were important in the Elizabethan age. Guilt for a crime, particularly one as serious as treason, could often be attributed to entire families. His relative’s prosecution and subsequent execution would have worried Shakespeare a great deal and caused him to be very careful about the people he associated with and the plays that he wrote. William Shakespeare would be known to be a relative of a famous Catholic martyr – any further cause of suspicion could have been enough to condemn him
8. Shakespeare’s father was a petty criminal.
John Shakespeare, the father of William, appears to have been a fairly unremarkable man. Unlike his talented son he appears to have been unable to write (he used a drawing of a pair of compasses as his signature instead of writing his name).
He was a glover and leatherworker by trade and settled in Stratford upon Avon where he became quite successful, owning a number of properties and marring Mary Arden, a member of a very well to do family. He was elected to many municipal posts in Stratford not least the coveted position of official ale-taster as well as that of alderman and even mayor. His career seemed to be going from strength to strength and he had even applied to be considered a ‘gentleman’ when suddenly things fell apart. He stopped paying his taxes and had to mortgage his properties to meet his debts. When the money ran out he was unable to pay his creditors and was removed from his municipal posts.
John appears to have been very active in the wool trade and even dabbled in illegal deals, when these fell through he was prosecuted for his activities in, what was at the time, a government controlled trade. He also found himself uncomfortable with the new Protestant religion and was fined for refusing to attend Protestant Church services and was listed as an ‘obstinate papist’ by the authorities.
Towards the end of his life Shakespeare managed to arrange for his father to be somewhat rehabilitated into society, arranging for his father’s application to become a ‘gentleman’ and hold his own coat of arms, to be reconsidered and granted.
7. Shakespeare has written some of the most quotable lines in the English Language.
Shakespeare is possibly the most quoted author of all time. His words and phrases have entered our lexicon in a way that no other author has ever managed to achieve. Many of us quote Shakespeare on a daily basis and never even realize it. Common phrases such as ‘it’s all Greek to me’, being a ‘tower of strength’, ‘knitting your brows’ refusing to ‘budge an inch’ or wish somebody was as ‘dead as a door nail’ are all quotes from Shakespeare. Other common phrases that originate with the great bard include ‘foul play’, ‘foregone conclusions’, ‘cold comfort’, ‘salad days’ and to be ‘more sinned against than sinning’.
So popular have these phrases become that we think of them as verbal clichés, forgetting that they were coined by a master writer who know exactly how to turn a phrase. Because of this Shakespeare has been an inspiration to generations of writers in the centuries since his death. Many have even gone so far as to name their books after phrases coined, initially, by Shakespeare. Similarly Hamlet gave Auther Schnitzer the inspiration for The Undiscovered Country. His plays have also provided inspiration for a number of modern movies set in many different time periods. The Japanese masterpieces Ran and Throne of Blood were inspired by King Lear and Macbeth. West Side Story was an interpretation of Romeo and Juliet while Kiss me Kate and 10 Things I Hate About You were based on the Taming of the Shrew and My Own Private Idaho on Henry IV pt1.
6. Shakespeare used more words once and once only than the King James’ Bible.
Shakespeare was a powerful wordsmith. English is one of the richest and most complex languages in the world with a vocabulary that outstrips many others (just look at the relative sizes of the English and other language sections of any bilingual dictionary). The credit for a significant number of these diverse words is down to Shakespeare. He is responsible for inventing a staggering 1700 of the English words in use today. He formed these words by changing the original context and using verbs as adjectives and nouns as verbs or by the simple addition of a new prefix or suffix to suit the situation.
Shakespeare used a larger vocabulary than any other writer before or since, a total of 24,000 words. His plays were originally performed in an unusual way. To make them difficult to copy the actors were handed scrolls with only their own lines. They were given an ‘introduction’ of just three words from the previous speaker, when the actor heard that three word cue he knew it was his turn to speak. Shakespeare used so many different words in so many different combinations that in all his many plays no three line cue is ever repeated. Many theatres today strive to produce Shakespeare’s plays using these cue scripts and the acting directions which Shakespeare cleverly hid within the script itself in order to show plays in the way that Shakespeare’s audiences would have seen them.