The relatively few facts we know about the world’s greatest poet and dramatist, William Shakespeare, have made him an enigmatic figure. Some imaginative people have even concluded that he wasn’t who he was after all (and why shouldn’t he be Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford and Queen Elizabeth I’s by-blow all at once? Wake up sheeple.)
But what we do know about the man and his works is intriguing enough. Snap up these unconsidered trifles:
1. Shakespeare wasn’t the only Shakespeare in the theatre.
His brother Edmund, sixteen years his junior, became an actor in London too, though without making much of a mark. His death at the age of twenty-seven was followed by a funeral in St Saviour’s Church, Southwark, which was an expensive one – indicating a local relative with money. Which brings us to…
2. Shakespeare was a fat cat.
From his career in the theatre, which included acting, play-writing, and being a “sharer” in the profits of his company, Shakespeare amassed a comfortable fortune. By the age of 33 he was able to buy New Place, the second largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon. Later he bought property in London as well as Stratford. In his will he was able to bequeath to his second daughter Judith – not even his main beneficiary – the sum of three hundred pounds. Converting Elizabethan money is notoriously tricky, but £50,000 would about do it today. By contrast, his fellow playwright Thomas Dekker was in and out of debtors’ prison his whole life. At his death in 1632 his widow renounced administration of his estate – meaning there was nothing to administer.
3. Shakespeare was a co-writer.
It was common for playwrights of Shakespeare’s time to collaborate. Sometimes three or four writers would have a hand in a single play. While Shakespeare seems to have liked working alone, there are passages aplenty in the plays that were written by someone else. He worked with Thomas Middleton on Timon of Athens, and with John Fletcher on Henry VIII. As for some of the most famous parts of Macbeth – the witchy bits – it’s likely they were Middleton’s work too, bolted on to the play at a later date.
4. You speak Shakespeare.
In spite of his reputation among literature-averse students for flowery language, Shakespeare directly created a great deal of the English we use today. Not only is he recorded as the first user of more words than any other writer, he also made words up: we owe him eyeball, bloodstained, radiance, assassination and lackluster, to name but a few. And his phrases are so embedded in the language, chances are you’ve used some of them in the last week or so: if for example you’ve been in a pickle, seen better days, or caught a cold, or been a laughing stock, or had to break the ice, or said good riddance…
5. Shakespeare’s sonnets are not autobiographical.
OK, we don’t know that for sure. But what we do know is that the writing of sonnet sequences was very fashionable in his day. Spenser, Sidney and many others turned them out. Sonnets were a stylised way of demonstrating your technical skill. You didn’t have to be actually panting with unrequited love to write them. The beautiful young man and the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets may have originals, at some remove. More likely is that when Shakespeare wrote sonnets the essential dramatist in him kicked in, creating characters and drama.
6. Shakespeare’s daughter was illiterate.
Of William and Anne Shakespeare’s three children, two daughters survived: Susannah and Judith. While Susannah seems to have been able to sign her name, Judith could only make her mark. But in this period, literacy was a skill, useful in certain trades and professions, mainly male. Shakespeare was a man of his time, and his time didn’t value literacy in women.
7. Shakespeare didn’t care about posterity.
At least, as far as his plays went. He took care to supervise the printing of his two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, because these were prestige projects for influential patrons. But it was not until seven years after his death that his theatrical associates put together the First Folio edition of his plays. In his lifetime, Shakespeare doesn’t seem to have cared whether his plays survived or not. Partly this may reflect the low esteem in which plays were held as literature. When Ben Jonson printed his plays and called them his Works, people laughed: how could you call mere plays Works?
8. Shakespeare has no descendants.
His only son, Hamnet, died at the age of 11. His daughter Susanna had no children and all his daughter Judith’s children died young. None of his three brothers married. The Shakespeare line effectively ran out within twenty-five years of the poet’s death.
9. For two hundred years, the theatre made a dog’s breakfast of Shakespeare.
Once the theatres reopened after the Commonwealth, they began a great tradition of doing whatever the hell they liked with Shakespeare’s plays. They chopped them up and adapted them into musicals and pantomimes. Most notoriously, they got rid of the whole ‘tragic’ thing in the tragedies by giving them happy endings. (In 1681 Nahum Tate turned King Lear into a feelgood fest complete with a wedding for Cordelia and Edgar.) Reverence for ‘The Bard’ had to wait until the nineteenth century.
10. Shakespeare has had some heavyweight haters.
Not everyone has concurred in Shakespeare’s greatness as a writer. Voltaire thought Hamlet the work of a ‘drunken savage’: George III confided: ‘Was there ever such stuff as great part of Shakespeare? Only one must not say so!’ And George Bernard Shaw, in a review of Cymbeline, got quite carried away in his detestation of the poet: ‘It would positively be a relief to me to dig him up and throw stones at him.’ That was in a newspaper. Imagine if Shakespeare had been on Twitter.