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.
5. The King James’ Bible contains an homage to William Shakespeare.
The Jacobean era was a time in which people were truly starting to understand the power of words. One of the ways in which this was most evident was in the publication of the King James Bible in 1611. It was not the first translation of the Bible into the English vernacular (that honor goes to the Great Bible of Henry VIII) but it is the best known and most enduringly successful of all Bible translations, listed for many years as the authorized Bible of the Anglican Church it was, at the start of the 19th Century, the most printed book in history. It is still referenced today and even for non-Christians is seen as one of the most beautiful examples of the use of language to convey deep meaning.
Because of the sublime beauty of the language of the Bible and because it was written during Shakespeare’s lifetime many people believe that he was one of the translators. Those who believe that this is the case point to the translation of the 46th Psalm. Shakespeare was 46 years old when the Bible was sent to be published. The 46th word of the Psalm is Shake while the 46th word from the end is Spear which appears to be too much of a coincidence. It must, people say, be a subtle signature from Shakespeare, a way for him to say that he was involved in the work.
This theory falls down in a number of areas, however. Firstly the people involved in the King James Bible project are well known and Shakespeare is not named on any of the panels. His actions over the period 1604-1611 when the Bible was being translated are also well known and at no stage was there any indication that he was involved in the project. Similarly the words Shake and Spear appear in almost all versions of the translation of the Psalm simply because they are there in the original language. It may be that the translators placed the words in a particular order as an homage to Shakespeare by some talented translators who respected and enjoyed his work.
4. Shakespeare did not publish any of his own plays.
Plays in Elizabethan England were rarely published. Instead a playwright would sell his work to groups of actors or ‘players’ for them to be performed in public (in Shakespeare’s case to his company ‘the King’s Men’). Theatres did not show long runs of any one production, instead they had a full program showing a different play every day. In order to prevent actors from taking the play and selling it to another theatre in another town and passing it off as their own work they were rarely given a copy of the whole play. Instead an actor would receive only his own lines together with short cues so they knew when they were to come in and start speaking.
There were several unreliable ‘quarto’ copies of Shakespeare’s works available during his lifetime but these were likely to have been pirated from a single cue paper with the other parts added from memory. None of the works published during Shakespeare’s lifetime were ever authorized by him. The first publication of collected works came in 1623, seven years after he had died, when two of his friends published the famous ‘First Folio’ of 36 plays, 18 of these had never appeared in print in any form other than the original text from which the actors’ scripts were taken.
3. There may still be ‘lost’ plays waiting to be discovered.
Aficionados of Shakespeare are able to enjoy 37 plays along with numerous sonnets and some longer poems that we know were written by the bard himself. In addition to these plays, however, are a number of so called apocrypha that may or may not have been written by Shakespeare, either alone or in collaboration with another writer.
Rumors abound of two plays which were formerly know of and performed but have since been lost to time. These are Love’s Labor’s Won and Cardenio. Love’s Labor’s Won is often referred to in contemporary texts and appears to have been a sequel to Love’s Labor’s Lost which ends in the middle of the story. Cardenio was known to have been performed by Shakespeare’s theatre troupe ‘The King’s Men’; in 1727 an author published what he claimed to be a lost play of Shakespeare’s under the name Double Falsehood. It is believed that this play is, in fact, Cardenio.
With regards to the apocrypha, there is fierce debate about which plays deserve to be considered as part of the collection. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s book of Apocrypha includes 47 plays to which it claimed Shakespeare made contributions, others state that for many of the plays the connection with Shakespeare is extremely dubious and place the number of apocrypha at about 11. Studies in recent years have shown that it is likely that Shakespeare wrote large parts of Two Noble Kinsmen and possibly all of Sir Thomas More and Edward III.
2. Shakespeare laid a curse on his own grave.
It was surprisingly common, during Shakespeare’s lifetime, for corpses to be exhumed some years after burial. This practice was undertaken for a number of reasons, as relic hunters might want a piece of a famous person and churchyards often needed the space for new burials and the dead were unceremoniously dumped wherever they could be, rarely in consecrated ground.
A study of Shakespeare’s work shows that he was dreadfully worried that this would happen to him. Why we do not know but 16 of his 37 plays contain references to exhumation in a negative light, Hamlet is probably the most famous and well known of these. In order to ensure that his bones would rest in peace for eternity Shakespeare instructed that his tombstone be inscribed with a curse to ward off any prospective exhumation teams. The curse is typically Shakespearean verse and reads: ‘Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare,/ To dig the dust encloased heare;/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,/ And curst be he that moves my bones.’
We have no idea how effective the curse would be in practice but we do know that nobody has been willing to take any chances. Shakespeare’s bones lie, undisturbed. So seriously has the curse been taken that when the church in which he was buried was renovated, the workers did everything they possibly could to avoid touching the grave.
1. There were rumors that Shakespeare was bisexual.
Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway when he was fairly young and had three children by her. The marriage appears not to have been overly friendly towards the end of his life, he lived alone in London and in his will he left her only his ‘second best bed’ giving the majority of his property to his daughter. He seems to have had some affairs with women and addressed love poetry to his ‘dark lady’ but there is evidence that he was also interested in men.
Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets are love poems addressed to another man, a ‘fair youth’, accepting that his lover needs to procreate but asking him to retain affection for the writer. Most of these sonnets are dedicated to ‘Mr. WH’ who may have been the fair youth himself. Mr. WH was probably the wealthy Earl of Southampton Henry Wriothesley to whom Shakespeare openly dedicated two of his longer poems and who was known to be gay. Shakespeare’s family crest contained, alongside a spear, a silver falcon which would seem to have no reference to Shakespeare or his family. It was inspired by the silver falcons that appear in the Southampton crest.
Many of the plays, Twelfth Night being a good example, rely on complex scenarios of gender confusion to drive the plot. Other plays discuss homosexuality – Achilles in Troilus and Cressida has a male lover and modern interpretations of Antonio in Merchant of Venice explain his actions, including risking his life for his friend, as being due to his love for Bassanio. The fact that homosexuality is discussed in the plays shows that it is an experience which Shakespeare was, at a minimum, open to.
It is easy (and occasionally fashionable amongst school children) to dismiss the works of Shakespeare as irrelevant; difficult to understand with strange outmoded English that is hard to read. What people who say these things fail to understand is that Shakespeare lives in us every day. The chances are that as you go about your daily business the great bard will impact on your life in one way or another. You probably use normal everyday words such as advertising or downstairs without even realizing that they were invented by Shakespeare. His words and phrases permeate our everyday conversation.
It seems so strange that we know so little about the thoughts and emotions of this man who has enriched our culture and language more than any other single individual. This man who left his wife nothing more than his ‘second best bed’, appears, from his plays, to have been a hugely sexual and sensual being who wrote love poetry to both men and women. He was scared of being exhumed after his death but the enduring appeal of his work means that his plays are dissected in school classrooms around the world on a daily basis.
Strangely enough the man who once wrote ‘listen to many, speak to a few’ ended up speaking to everyone.