10 Facts About William Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare, born from humble beginnings as a glove-maker's son in leafy Stratford Upon Avon, has become the world's best-known playwright. His work is performed in countries all around the world and most people will recognise him from his balding head, wispy pointed beard and lace ruff. 

Here are 10 facts that you might not know about The Bard... 

Image: The British Library, Public Domain. 

1. We don't actually know a lot about him
One of the reasons Shakespeare has so many legends and conspiracies attached to his name is that historians don't have a great deal of concrete information about him. Bill Bryson in his biography of the playwright estimates that there are only around a hundred documents that have survived from his lifetime that relate to him. Even his date of birth is a mystery: he's recorded as being baptised on 26th April 1564, which places his birth any time from the 23rd, seeing as newborns were usually baptised within three days. As St George's Day is on the 23rd April, we celebrate Shakespeare's birth then, but we don't really know for sure when his birthday was.

2. He (probably) did write his own plays
Some claim that Shakespeare didn't scrawl a word of Macbeth, Hamlet or A Midsummer Night's Dream and that his was a pen-name for someone who wanted their writing kept anonymous. Candidates range from Edward de Vere, Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I. Most Shakespeare academics though, tend to think that the Shakespeare from Stratford Upon Avon did actually write his plays. In the Tudor era everyone had their place in society - even what you wore and ate was defined by your status - and it was unbelievable to many that a modest young man of humble origins from Stratford could pen theatre the way he did and achieve such success. He was even called an 'upstart crow' by fellow writer Robert Greene, which hints at the jealousy that he attracted. 

3. He never spelled his name the way we do today
Bill Bryson writes that none of the playwright's signatures are spelled the way we write his name today: 'Shakespeare.' He spelled his name in a variety of different ways including  'Shaksp', 'Shakespe', 'Shakspe', 'Shakspere' and, the closest to the one we use today: 'Shakspeare'. 

4. We have 1,700 words to thank him for
There are some words and phrases we only have today because Shakespeare wrote them down. According to the Royal Shakespeare Company these include 'gloomy', 'wild goose chase' and 'heart of gold'. It's unlikely though that he would have just brainstormed brand new words, scribbling them down with his quill. He had a talent for observation, depicting people from all walks of society in his plays, which could only have come from watching and listening to the phrases used by washerwomen, cooks and merchants he passed in the street, much like comedians do today. It's the fact that Shakespeare preserved them in the historical record that's incredible, or these personalities and their words might have been lost forever. 

5. The complete works of his plays were published after his death
Sure enough, crowds flocked to see Richard II, Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet during Shakespeare's lifetime and pamphlets of some plays were even distributed, but the plays weren't printed and circulated as a collection until the First Folio rolled off the press in 1623. 

6. There's a theory that Shakespeare was murdered
It was a violent world back in 1616 and there was more than a little name-calling and professional rivalry in the theatre. Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death in 1593 in a tavern (supposedly after a brawl), and Ben Jonson killed a man in a duel in 1598. It's not too much of a stretch to consider that Shakespeare himself was murdered, which is exactly what Simon Andrew Stirling argues in his book Who Killed William Shakespeare?. The book discusses potential suspects, motives and methods, and presents evidence relating to Shakespeare's portraits and funeral bust, too. 

Photo by Jessica Pamp on Unsplash

7. He might have experimented with drugs, but then he maybe he didn't
In 2015 fragments of clay pipes were dug up in the garden of Shakespeare's home in Stratford Upon Avon. They were sent off for analysis, and when the results came back, there were almost certainly a few wide-eyes among experts, for the pipes contained particles of marijuana and cocaine. It's possible that Shakespeare used these drugs as a stimulant. Late Elizabethans were curious about tobacco, which was still new in England, and these substances wouldn't have had the illicit associations they do today. But then, after Shakespeare's death other people lived in the house until it was demolished in the early eighteenth century. Who knows if it was even Shakespeare himself, or a visitor at some point over the course of a couple of centuries that discarded their used pipe? So maybe it wasn't him at all. 

8. He wrote a lot
In the 23 years that Shakespeare was active, between 1590 and 1613, he wrote a whopping 37 full-length plays, 154 sonnets and around 10 poems. Most of the plays he wrote were comedies and he also wrote histories and tragedies too. 

9. There's a theory that Shakespeare left secret, hidden clues in his plays 
In a documentary called Cracking the Shakespeare Code, Robert Crumpton and Petter Amundsen investigate whether Shakespeare's plays contain hidden co-ordinates to lost, mythical objects, including the Arc of the Covenant. Having watched the documentary, I'm not entirely convinced but it'll get you thinking about shapes, codes and hidden meanings, which is pretty cool. 

10. He's everywhere in popular culture
Shakespeare's likeness has been used in a ton of modern films and TV shows. He appeared as a zombie in The Simpsons in 1992 and in an episode of Dr Who in 1997. He was in Blackadder Back and Forth (played by Colin Firth) in 1998 and The Lego Movie in 2014. There was also the series Upstart Crow and films including Shakespeare in Love and Bill. You can stream Richard III to your phone and watch it wearing a t-shirt, leggings and earrings with the Bard's face printed on and sip hot tea from a Shakespeare mug. You can buy quotes from his plays on necklaces and wall stickers and read hundreds - thousands? - of books which argue different points of view and analysis on his writing, his characters and the man himself. He might have been gone for over four hundred years, but it seems that even now, we can't get enough of William Shakespeare. 

Further Reading: 

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