Society - People
By: - at October 14, 2013

15 Interesting Facts About Shakespeare

One of the most fascinating, brilliant, and complex men in all of human history happens to be one of the most secretive. His life was shrouded in mystery and occluded by a lack of factual accounts. William Shakespeare, who is considered universally to be the greatest playwright of the English language, developed detractors as well as enthusiasts during his life and even for centuries after his death. Although Shakespearean plays remain a source of satirical conflict and confusion, there is no doubt that his work betokens a life of intrigue and complexity.

William Shakespeare

However, as well-known as Shakespearean plays are, there is very little factual information pertaining to his life that has survived the course of history. Much of what is known about William Shakespeare has been lost or embellished, and simple sources like documented vital records have been lost over time. Many interesting facts about Shakespeare’s life have survived, and will help shed some light on who William Shakespeare really was as a playwright, as well as who he was as a man.


15)  Shakespeare Wasn’t Very Educated
In today's world there is so much emphasis put on higher education, making it very hard to believe that someone could produce literary masterpieces without completing some type of formal education. Most people believe that the only way to achieve success in the field of writing could only come from academia. During Shakespeare’s life, only a select few attended higher education institutions, and they were mostly decedents of the socially elite aristocracy. It wasn't that there were no universities during Shakespeare's time, it was just that only people of extreme privilege had the opportunity to peruse higher learning. In England, the collegiate system had been around for hundreds of years. For example, Oxford University had been operational dating all the way back to the 1200s.

Birthplace of William Shakespeare - Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England
Birthplace of William Shakespeare - Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England

Shakespeare did not attend college of any kind. While attending university would have been a common practice for many upper-class people, most of England's population during Shakespeare's time were poor laborers that would never have the opportunity. Shakespeare did attend some school as a child, and the mere fact that he could read and write backs this up. Shakespeare's father was an affluent craftsman who made gloves, and his father would later hold the office as the town's bailiff (the highest office that an unelected official could hold).


14)  Shakespeare Burned Down the Globe
shakespeareThe Globe Theatre is a primary attraction for any theatre enthusiast's trip to London. This unusual building, so often copied in other theatres in countries around the world due to its circular seating arrangement, is one of the iconic features in Southwark, London.

There is a misconception that all of Shakespeare’s plays were performed at this location out of some sort of loyalty, but this is simply untrue. The Globe was an extremely noteworthy place and one of the only places where Kings and Dukes would sit among peasants, with everyone enjoying the many plays of the day. The theatre was constructed during Shakespeare’s career, meaning that many of his plays were produced before the Globe was even erected. Also, there was the minor factor that one of Shakespeare’s plays, Henry VIII Part 3, had devastating consequences on the Globe.

Exterior of the Globe Theatre
Exterior of the Globe Theatre

In 1613, just three years before Shakespeare’s death, Henry VIII was being performed at the famous Globe Theatre. During one scene, a live cannon was fired as a prop to simulate the ravages of war. Unfortunately, the thatched straw roof of the theatre caught fire along with the many bales of hay that made up the front row seats. During Shakespeare's time, the seats closest to the stage were the cheapest, and patrons often were required to either stand or sit on bales of hay. The entire theatre burned to the ground.

Interior of the Globe Theatre
Interior of the Globe Theatre
By Maschinenjunge via Wikimedia Commons

It was later reconstructed upon the same spot, where it remains open to this day. Not only are plays routinely performed at this famous venue, but it is also open to schools, societies, and individuals who wish to take tours of one of London's most famous historical landmarks.


13)  Shakespeare Had a Scandalous Marriage
william shakespeareIn the modern era of celebrity worship, many people tend to think that scandals are a relatively new phenomenon. Along with that is the idea that in Elizabethan times and even lasting until the 1950s, that a scandal could very well of developed just from two people looking at each other too long or perhaps not passing the teapot with the correct hand.

Shakespeare’s marriage, on the other hand, was plagued with scandal worthy of even today's standards. When he was just 18 years old and still living in his father’s house in Stratford (not yet known as Stratford-Upon-Avon), he got married. Even for the traditional standards of the age, he was still considered to be too young to get married. Most people who wed quite young were landowners whose main objective was to have children, ensuring the prosperity of their crops by bringing little laborers into the world with their new bride. Another taboo aspect of his premature wedding was that he married a woman who was almost a decade older than himself. During Shakespeare's age it is customary for men to marry much younger woman as a means of guaranteeing offspring. Her name was Anne Hathaway (no, not the famous actress), and there was one more scandalous thing that happened when these two apparent lovebirds tied the knot: they had a baby. They had a baby just six months after they were married.

Drawing of Anne Hathaway
Drawing of Anne Hathaway
By JschneiderWiki via Wikimedia Commons

A child conceived out of wedlock, an older bride, and a very young husband combine to make a marriage that would be the talk of the town in today’s crowd, let alone the 1500s.


12)  Shakespeare Invented Words
Shakespeare is known as a “wordsmith.” To many, that connotes someone who uses words in a brilliant way, combining them to create new, innovative meanings. The term "wordsmith" also refers to someone who is an excellent writer. The original meaning of the word does include the word “smith,” which in old English is terminology for a person who creates or makes something.

Drawing of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare invented over two thousand words throughout his writing career. These words include many that we use in everyday life. Common phrases like “assassination,” “bump,” “frugal,” “critical,” “excellent,” and “countless” are all words born out of Shakespeare's creative literary mind. Shakespearean plays were written at a time when the English language was much different than it is today, commonly termed Old English (Canterbury Tales by Chaucer was originally written in this form). A quick excerpt from Chaucer's work in old English, "A yong man called Melibeus, myghty and riche, bigat upon his wyf, that called was Prudence, a doghter which that called was Sophie".

Ellesmere Manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - Early 15th Century
Ellesmere Manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - Early 15th Century

Shakespeare came up with several new words over the course of his career not just because he had a desire for evolving the English language, but most likely because he needed to come up with words to fit his iambic pentameter writing style.


11)  The True Texts of Hamlet and King Lear Are Unknown
Every theatre patron and most high school graduates, know the story of Hamlet. In the play, Hamlet’s father is a ghost and tells Hamlet to avenge his death by murdering his uncle, and Hamlet dithers about the task for hours until eventually everyone dies.

Painting of Shakespeare's Hamlet
Painting of Shakespeare's Hamlet

However, the version that many of us have come to know is not the authentic version of Hamlet that was performed in theatres during Shakespeare's life.

King Lear Mourns Cordelia
King Lear Mourns Cordelia

Two of Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet and King Lear have been heavily revised. These plays have surviving versions that are extremely different from the readily available books on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. In the newer versions, key characters perform monologues that are completely missing from the original versions, changing the motivation of several important characters along with how two of Shakespeare's most famous works are understood by contemporary culture. 


10)  Shakespeare Was Not a Family Man
william shakespeareShakespeare's did in fact have a family, and had three children. The fact that he had three children by today’s standards, makes it sound as though Shakespeare had a loving and close-knit family. In all actuality this wasn't the case, and Shakespeare did not demonstrate a close family connection with his wife or his kids. Once his son Hamnet (yes, HamNET) died, William spent very little time with his family. He moved to London where he had previously lived, and had little contact with what remained of his family. No letters or other forms of correspondence survive between Shakespeare and his wife from this point forward. Not to say that absolutely no contact existed ever again between his wife and himself, but there is a complete lack of any hard evidence of correspondence.

Another thing that makes many scholars (such as Peter Ackroyd) believe that Shakespeare was not close to his family, stems from the last will and testament Shakespeare left behind. For one thing, Shakespeare’s will was rewritten right before his death. When he did pass away and his will was executed, it was revealed that all he had left to his wife of several decades was his “second-best bed.” It was the only mention of his wife in the entirety of the will.





9)  Shakespeare’s Manuscripts Are All Copies
If you ever hear anyone getting angry about a Shakespeare play being cut or revised for the screen or stage, then consider this. There is no real consensus on a “real” version of any Shakespeare play, and no play survived entirely how Shakespeare hoped. He never wrote them with those intentions. What he would do instead is write out each scene and only hand it to the actors performing in that particular play. Bear in mind that this was before photocopiers existed, which means that each scene he or a scribe had to copy out by hand. This took hours and hours of careful penmanship in order to make sure the actor would be able to read it.

Handwritten mid 17th Century Manuscript Containing Shakespeare's Second Sonnet
Handwritten mid 17th Century Manuscript Containing Shakespeare's Second Sonnet

The other factor contributing to a lack of complete copies is very simple: Shakespeare did it on purpose. The biggest reason that Shakespeare never made an entire copy of any of his plays is that he didn’t want any of his rival theatre companies getting a hold of them. Plagiarism was rampant in the 1500s, and by making sure no complete copies of his work existed,  playwrights were able to keep any rival playwrights from stealing their original work. This means that all “complete” manuscripts come from a bunch of the actors getting together afterwards, comparing their copies, and having someone write out every word.


8)  Shakespeare Has No Surviving Descendants
Given that Shakespeare had several children, you may want to know if there are any living decedents of Shakespeare living in England today. They might be great poets, writers, or actors…if there were any to speak of. Unfortunately, the dream of discovering a long-lost descendent of the great man himself is nothing more than a pipe dream. Shakespeare and his wife had three children, Susanna, Judith, and Hamnet. Hamnet died when he was 11 years old, obviously leaving behind no descendants. Susanna married and had a daughter, named Elizabeth. Unfortunately, Elizabeth married twice, but never had any children of her own.

Artist's Depiction of Shakespeare's Family Life
Artist Depiction of Shakespeare's Family Life

Judith, Shakespeare’s youngest surviving child, married and had three children. All three of these children died before Judith did, and none of them had any children of their own, marking the end of Shakespeare’s direct bloodline. 

However, there is a possibility that as a popular actor and writer living far from his home in London, Shakespeare may well have sired a few illegitimate children. However, this is mentioned in no texts or correspondence from the time, and is merely an extrapolation by some scholars based on portions of Shakespearean sonnets.


7)  Shakespeare’s Sexuality is a Mystery

3rd Early of Southampton:
3rd Early of Southampton

There are almost as many debates about Shakespeare’s sexuality as there are about whether he existed or not, or whether he wrote his plays completely on his own. The most compelling and often-cited example of the assertion that Shakespeare was not entirely heterosexual comes from many of his sonnets. Shakespeare’s sonnets are mostly poetry that express love and the first several sonnets are written unquestionably to a man, rather than to a woman. In Shakespearean scholarship, this mysterious unnamed young man is known as “The Fair Youth.” Over and over in these poems, Shakespeare urges the young man to have children so that his beauty will live on, even when the young man had died. Many scholars, as evidenced in Charles Casey’s “Sonnet 20 and the Politics of Pedagogy,” postulate that Shakespeare may have been sexually involved with this young man. Others believe that Shakespeare may have been in love with the Fair Youth, but never acted upon that love.

The youth’s identity is unknown. Some scholars, such as Casey, believe that the Fair Youth was the Earl of Southampton. This is based on the proven knowledge that Shakespeare had dedicated work to this young man. The Earl of Southampton was fair-haired, was a known homosexual or at the very least, was known to enjoy trysts with men.


6)  Shakespeare Was a Terrible Speller
When you think of Shakespeare, you probably think that he had a grand command and understanding of the the English language. However, Shakespeare’s spelling was frequently what would today be known as atrocious. For example, as shown in one of his First Folio works, at times he spelled the word “silence” as “scilens.” In fact, from the pages of his original transcription, he spelled that specific word no fewer than five ways. He also misspelled a shocking word: his own name, which was spelled variably “Shappere,” “Shaxberd,” “Shakspere,” and “Shakespere.”

Painting of William Shakespeare

While it may seem strange today that a man who learned to use the English language in innovative ways would mess it up so badly, consider the fact that there was not such a consistent way of spelling things during the 1500s. The easiest way most people learn spelling is by looking up mistakes in a dictionary, and the printed word was only starting to take off. If there were standardized spellings, most people did not have access to them and were more likely to spell things freely.


5)  Shakespeare Had a Massive Vocabulary
Earlier in the list it was mentioned that Shakespeare is famous for creating many of the words that English speaking people use today. However, what is slightly less well-understood is that Shakespeare’s vocabulary in general was substantially large, far larger than most people’s vocabulary even in modern times. While in modern times people have access to dictionaries, thesauruses, and other tools for learning words on the Internet, Shakespeare did not. Even with that in mind, Shakespeare’s estimated word usage is over 30,000, an absolutely astounding amount.

Statue of William Shakespeare
Statue of William Shakespeare

The average American, by contrast, is estimated to know between 10,000 and 20,000 words. However, few people actually use that many words in conversation. In fact, some research estimates that most Americans only use around 400 words on a daily basis, both in conversation and in any type of correspondence.


4)  Shakespeare’s Tomb is Untouched
There are many tombs in Europe that date back hundreds and even thousands of years. In London alone, there are tombs that date back easily to the 1000s that are interred in London’s Westminster Abbey. However, most of these tombs have been moved, restored, or in some way altered during this immense amount of time. 

William Shakespeare's Grave
William Shakespeare's Grave
By David Jones via Wikimedia Commons

William Shakespeare’s remains, however, have never been disturbed. His remains are interred at Trinity Cathedral in Stratford-upon-Avon, a church that has been renovated many times. The grave of Shakespeare’s wife lies next to his own plot. Upon Shakespeare’s tombstone is a poem he wrote presumably to deter grave robbers and vandalism. The poem expresses his wish for rest, but ends with a curse on anyone who moves his bones. Whether his remains have never been disturbed for this reason or out of the respect of his life and literary works, no curse has passed on to the living. 


3)  Shakespeare Was Subversive
When you hear that Shakespeare mainly wrote for the Queen of England and later the King of England, the first instinct is to believe that his plays were politically accurate as a means to appease the monarchs who were in power. His plays contained several references to off-color humor, and it would make sense in the spirit of self preservation, to keep his plays in line with the current political environment. However, that was not the case.

Shylock and Jessica from the 'Merchant of Venice'
Shylock and Jessica from the 'Merchant of Venice'

While Shakespeare may have written to entertain the high and mighty, he was still an actor, and spent most of his time with those considerably lower in status than the nobility. Many of his plays are full of propaganda, regarding the lives of famous kings and their surrounding attendants. Otherwise, many of his characters are not at all in line with current political trends. For example, Shylock, the famous Jewish character from The Merchant of Venice, is portrayed as a villain, which is very much in the style of the time. However, Shakespeare gives Shylock a monologue, the famous, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” monologue, which clearly shows some compassion for and understanding of the character rarely present in the treatment of Jewish characters of the time. Recall that in 1280, anti-Semitism in England was at an all time high when the country was declared Judenfrei. The character’s forced conversion in the play is also reminiscent of contemporary political troubles, as the country of England was switching rapidly to and from Protestantism and Catholicism. Shakespeare himself was born a Baptist, but converted to Roman Catholicism during his lifetime to go with the current trends. It is possible, as some scholars such as Ackroyd note, that by humanizing a commonly dehumanized character of the time such as a Jew, Shakespeare showed sympathy.


2)  Shakespeare Wrote Fanfiction
If you are unfamiliar with fanfiction, it is the process of writing stories about already-existing characters. It is very popular online, with fans of shows such as Star Trek being famous for writing these stories and publishing them in fan magazines as far back as the 1960s. Shakespeare, however, is widely considered to be the original fanfiction writer. 

Act IV Scene V Romeo and Juliet
Act IV Scene V Romeo and Juliet

Especially in Shakespeare’s early work, originality is scarce. Every play he wrote for decades was not exactly plagiarized, but he did borrow heavily from current events, other stories, other plays, and the lives of real people. While there were many original things in his plays, the majority of Shakespeare’s work was taken from other source material. Romeo & Juliet, for example, was an Italian story that Shakespeare may have learned in his travels during his Lost Years. All of his history plays, of course, are taken from the lives of famous people in the past.


1)  Shakespeare Was the Michael Bay of His Day
It is very easy to think of Shakespeare as being part of the most high-brow literature in history. After all, he wrote plays that only those with money and those with education can attend and understand. He is considered to be incomprehensible to many, and only understood by the elite who can follow along with his ideas.

At the time, this could not have been further from the truth. Shakespeare’s work, in fact, was widely considered to be so popular that every new release was essentially a blockbuster. Throngs of the poor and wealthy alike flocked to the playhouse, vendors sold concessions, and everyone was fascinated by the special effects, which, as previously discussed, occasionally included pyrotechnics. He even worked with a small stable of actors (who played both the male and female roles), and gave them preferential treatment over the rest of people he had available for casting at a given time. Shakespeare was not only considered widely accessible to the masses, but one of the most popular for the uneducated, as his verse scheme and creative word usage spoke more in tune with the common people than it did with nobility. It is only today that the fact that Shakespeare’s plays are so ancient keeps the masses from flocking to each new performance of the movies based on his shows.

william shakespeare

While Shakespeare may have been one of the most fascinating and intelligent writers of all time, he was also one of the cagiest when it came to documenting his actual life and works. Some of this is understandable in the effort to protect his work from plagiarism, while some of it just seems as if he wanted scholars to be debating his merits for generations to come. He could be mysterious, frequently made small errors that read like the clues to a treasure map, and left behind little in the way of documentation.


Conclusion
Regardless of Shakespeare’s intentions, the one thing that every scholar can agree on is that the body of work commonly attributed to William Shakespeare is one that will endure in some form for as long as humanity continues to tell stories. The man may be a mystery, but the work remains some of the best, most constant, most beautiful prose ever to exist before or since in the English Language.



 

 

 

 

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