I recently finished Peter Ackroyd’s 592-page biography of William Shakespeare. I won’t lie to you–it was a bit of a slog. Ackroyd doesn’t leave anything out. Plus there’s plenty of speculation, because the world doesn’t have 592 pages worth of facts about ol’ Bill. Plus, all the quotations from the plays are in the original Early Modern English, which makes reading them a little trickier.
That said, I enjoyed the biography for the complete portrait it drew of our greatest English-language writer. As an exercise in, uh, active-reading, I made a list of interesting facts about The Bard, most of which I didn’t know.
Here they are for your perusal. My favourites are #2, #11 and #26.
- One of the schools which Shakespeare attended is still in operation.
- At the age of 18, Shakespeare may have worked in the office of Henry Rogers, the town clerk of Stratford. While working there, he would have become familiar with the case of a young woman who drowned in the Avon river, in a stretch known for its overhanging willow trees and coronet weeds. The case revolved around whether the woman had fallen into the river accidentally, or had committed suicide. Rogers completed an inquest, and found the former to be true. The young woman, named Katherine Hamlett, could therefore have a Christian burial.
- Shakespeare’s father was a glove maker, a land speculator (with mixed results) and probably a secret Catholic.
- Shakespeare was only 18 when he got married. His new wife was 26. All of the manipulative older women in his plays don’t reflect very well on Anne.
- Anne was four months pregnant when the couple got married. In truth, this wasn’t particularly unusual. Cohabitation was common before marriage in Elizabethan England, and 20% to 30% of babies were born within the first eight months of wedlock.
A Theatrical Life in London
- He may have been briefly imprisoned in 1589 while acting with Lord Strange’s Men. Several players from that theatre company were jailed for performing a banned farce which referenced some religious controversies of the day.
- This is the only extant image of the interior of an Elizabethan theatre. It’s known as ‘the De Witt sketch’, and shows the Swan Theatre in 1596. It’s actually a copy of the original sketch, which is lost.
- Shakespeare rose to prominence while writing plays for and acting at the Rose Theatre. The remains of the theatre were rediscovered in 1989, and are now preserved under an office building.
- An exacting replica of the Globe Theatre was opened a decade ago in London. It blew my mind when I visited it a few years back. Here are some nice photos of the interior.
- At the demand of the Earl of Essex, Shakespeare’s company performed Richard II on very short notice. The Earl hoped to use the play as a rallying point for his intended and ultimately failed insurrection against the English court. Shakespeare and his fellow players faced imprisonment or the gallows by association, but managed to get off with a mere reprimand.
- In his play Satiromastix, fellow playwright Thomas Dekker lampooned Shakespeare. Dekker created a lecherous playwright in Shakespeare’s image, named Sir Adam Prickshaft.
- Prices were doubled for the inaugural performance of new plays at the Globe Theatre.
- There’s a common assumption that Shakespeare’s audiences were filled with commoners and the lower classes of the period. This wasn’t, in fact, the case. As his plays were performed in the afternoon, many attendees were students, gentlemen, courtiers and merchants. Those, in short, who could afford the time away from work.
- Plays of the period were almost always followed by prayers to the ruling monarch, and then a jig, a “comic afterpiece accompanied by dancing, last for approximately twenty minutes”. They were often bawdy, and sometimes depicted the consummation of the wedding with which so many of Shakespeare’s comedies conclude.
- Ackroyd argues the Shakespeare was the first English dramatist to make songs an integral part of plays (except for the anonymous chants of medieval mystery plays).
- Costumes were essential to performance. More was spent on costumes at the Globe than on play texts and actors’ salaries.
- Shakespeare’s contemporary Ben Jonson fought a duel and killed a fellow player, Gabriel Spencer. Jonson avoided the gallows, but had his thumb branded with a ‘T’ (for Tyburn foo) so that he wouldn’t escape a second murder conviction.
- Shakespeare was one of England’s first recognized professional writers. Before his generation, plays were often created collaboratively, and playwrights were often anonymous. They certainly weren’t recognized for their authorship the way they were in subsequent eras.
- The term ‘ham’–for an actor who overplays to the audience–originated during Shakespeare’s lifetime. The acting style of the period was highly formalized and gestural. ‘Ham’ refers to the old-fashioned style of strutting across the stage, exposing the ham-string of the leg.
- After Queen Elizabeth I died and King James took the throne, Shakespeare’s work became even more frequent at the royal court. Before his reign, the Globe players performed at court an average of three times a year. In the first ten years after James’s rise to power, they averaged 14 visits, and James saw every play that Shakesepeare wrote after 1603.
About the Plays
- There are 38 plays officially in Shakespeare’s canon, he unquestionably wrote, collaborated on or contributed to others. One such play, Edmund Ironside, is particularly tantalizing because it exists as a manuscript in the British Library. Were it written by Shakespeare, it would be one of only a couple of examples we have of drama written in his own hand.
- On the other hand, other playwrights contributed to the canonical plays. For example, there’s a strong case to be made that George Peele wrote the first act of the early play Titus Andronicus.
- The famous line from Richard III “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!” became the “Where’s the beef?” of London at the end of the 16th century. It was emulated and satirized again and again by other playwrights, including “A boat! A boat! A full hundred marks for a boat!” and “A fool! A fool! My coxcomb for a fool!”.
- In the second edition of Hamlet–the official version is the third–Polonius had a different name, Corambis, and Hamlet was even younger.
- Hamlet was the only play performed at both Oxford and Cambridge during Shakespeare’s lifetime. At the time, academics frowned on English drama as common.
- In 1607–six years after it was first produced in London–a group of seamen performed Hamlet off the coast of Sierra Leone. That incident in itself would make a terrific play.
- The ‘Nothing’ in Much Ado About Nothing of course refers to the sundry misunderstandings on which the plot is based. It also had a more indelicate connotation for 16th century playgoers. ‘Nothing’ was a slang term for female genitalia.
- The Winter’s Tale famously includes the peculiar stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear.” This would have been less odd for Elizabethan audiences, as theatres were also used for bear-baiting and other animal blood sports.
- Old Bill wasn’t the most careful writer of his age. He forgets to ‘exit’ characters off stage. He introduces characters who never speak. In some plays, characters go by multiple names and have multiple, conflicting professions. In Measure for Measure a space of 19 years shrinks to 14 in later scenes. When Hamlet describes “the undiscovered country, from whose borne no traveller returns”, the Dane seems to have forgotten recently seeing the ghost of his father.
- As Shakespeare became more successful, he invested in more land back in Stratford. It was a very complicated exercise, apparently, because he had Hamlet complain about it while holding up his famous skull: “this fellowe might be in’s time a great buyer of Land, with his Statuts, his recognisances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoueries…”.
- John Dee was a late 16th century ‘magus and scientist’, and may have been the inspiration for Prospero in The Tempest.
- The Comedy of Errors is the shortest of the Bard’s plays, with Macbeth being the second shortest. The latter play is “remarkably free of oaths and profanities”, due to an act of Parliament passed in 1603 aimed at restraining the ‘abuse of players’.
- There are rarely mothers and daughters in Shakespeare’s plays. Conversely, the theme of reunited fathers and daughters is repeated again and again. This may or may not be reflective of Shakespeare’s own life (he had two daughters).
- Pericles isn’t a particularly popular Shakespeare play today, but it was hugely popular during his lifetime.
- Until about 1609, there were no act or scene breaks in plays. They were introduced and became the dominant fashion with the move to indoor theatres like Blackfriars, where lighting could be changed during musical interludes during breaks in the action. Shakespeare subsequently revised the structure of earlier plays like Midsummer Night’s Dream and King Lear to accommodate the trend.
- It’s unknown when Shakespeare wrote Timon of Athens. It’s considered unfinished, or possibly abandoned, as certain scenes are far more complete and polished than others. It may have been a collaboration with one or more other playwrights. In fact, it was not going to be included in the First Folio at all, but was added at the last minute due to problems with the publishing of Troilus and Cressida.
- Cardenio is another lost play, one of the last that Shakespeare worked on. He collaborated with John Fletcher on it in 1612, and it was one of his last works as a dramatist.
Other Bits of Miscellany
- We only have a few play fragments written in Shakespeare’s actual handwriting (though this is in some dispute), and none from the Folio plays. This was actually part of a collaboration on a play (not in the Folio) called Sir Thomas More.
- The poem Venus and Adonis was extremely popular when it was first published in 1593. It was far more popular than any of his plays, and had 11 subsequent editions over the next 25 years.
- The vast majority of plays written during Shakespeare’s lifetime have disappeared. There’s no telling how many other plays he may have written that we’ve lost.
- Shakespeare’s only son, Hamnet (no, that’s not a typo) died at the age of eleven.
- Shakespeare allegedly had an illegitimate son, William Davenant, by an innkeeper’s wife in Oxford.
- In his will, he gave his wife the furniture and “my second best bed”. This sounds more provocative than it actually was, as guests usually got the best bed in a 17th century house.
- Shakespeare probably wrote his own epitaph, and it includes this cautionary note about exhumation: “…AND CVRST BE HE YT MOVES MY BONES”.