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
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.
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.
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,
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
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).
Burned Down the Globe
The 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
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.
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
Had a Scandalous Marriage In 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
Was Not a Family Man
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
Shakespeare’s Sexuality is a Mystery
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
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
fair-haired, was a known homosexual or at the very least, was known to enjoy
trysts with men.
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,”
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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'
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
References: 15) Shakespeare Wasn’t Very Educated
official Colleges at the University of Oxford website
Peter Ackroyd’s “Shakespeare: A Biography.”
13) Shakespeare Had a Scandalous Marriage
Shakespeare: A Biography
12) Shakespeare Invented Words
Charles Boyce’s “Dictionary of Shakespeare.”
11) The True Texts of Hamlet and King Lear Are Unknown
Park Honan’s “Shakespeare, a Life.”
9) Shakespeare’s Manuscripts Are All Copies
Robert Sawyer’s “Victorian Appropriations of Shakespeare,”