William Shakespeare: a guide to the life of England’s greatest playwright

How did an ‘upstart crow’ become England’s greatest playwright? William Shakespeare lived through one of the most turbulent yet thrilling eras of English history – a period of plague, riots and political and religious tensions – and went on to become one of history's most famous playwrights. He has been portrayed numerous times on stage and on screen – but how much do you know about England's bard?

A portrait of William Shakespeare

In this comprehensive guide to the bard, Lottie Goldfinch considers Shakespeare’s rise, from ‘upstart crow’ to England’s greatest playwright. Elsewhere, Tracy Borman presents key dates in the life and times of William Shakespeare, and Zoe Bramley shares seven surprising facts…

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When was Shakespeare born?

For a man whose works have been translated into more than 80 languages, including Klingon and Esperanto, we know remarkably little about England’s most famous playwright. Even his birth, on or around 23 April 1564, is unconfirmed – a proposed date based on an entry in a parish register, which lists the baptism of “Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakespere” (William, son of John Shakespeare) on 26 April 1564.

Much of Shakespeare’s early life, too, is shrouded in mystery. We know that he was born in a two-storey, half-timbered house on Henley Street in the heart of Stratford-upon-Avon, and that he lived there until his mid-20s. The house, now open to the public, was purchased as a national monument in 1847 and is key to our understanding of Shakespeare as a boy. Millions of people continue to visit his birthplace in the hope it will reveal the innermost secrets of the great playwright – what he was like, how he wrote, what he thought and how he felt. John Shakespeare lived in the house from the early 1550s onwards, joined there around 1557 by his new wife Mary.

Your essential guide to William Shakespeare

Don’t miss our May 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine, which includes everything you wanted to know about the bard and his work. Find your issue here

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The first documentary evidence linking the family to the house is a fine issued to John Shakespeare in April 1552 for leaving a “sterquinium”, or muckheap, outside the Henley Street property. William was the couple’s first surviving child. Two daughters, Joan and Margaret, had both died before their first birthdays. Five more children followed William’s birth: Gilbert (1566), Joan (1569), Anne (1571), Richard (1574) and Edmund (1580).

Shakespeare's birthplace on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon
Shakespeare’s birthplace on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon. (Photo by: robertharding/Getty Images Plus)

Shakespeare’s schooldays

As a child, Shakespeare would have heard the types of fables, stories and legends that appear in some of his later works, and it is fair to assume he attended the local boys’ grammar school a short walk from the family home. Attendance for local boys was free, and it would have been here that the young Shakespeare learned Latin, Greek rhetoric and classical literature, and discovered how language could be used.

It’s probable that William, as the eldest son, would have been earmarked to take on his father’s glove-making business, learning the ropes as an apprentice. John Shakespeare ran his business from a workshop at the back of the house, selling his wares through a window onto the street. But in 1582, at the age of 18, Shakespeare’s path took a very different turn when he married a young woman named Anne Hathaway.

Eight years William’s senior, Anne lived with her family on a 90-acre farm in the village of Shottery, less than a mile and a half from the Shakespeare family home. Frustratingly little is known about their relationship, but what we do know is that, on their wedding day in November 1582, Anne was about three months’ pregnant. At 26, Anne was legally able to marry, but William was still classed as a minor. Nevertheless, parental permission was granted and a special licence to marry was granted by the Bishop’s Court in Worcester, which allowed the wedding to take place as soon as possible. To avoid a scandal, the marriage needed to occur before the bride’s condition became too apparent. The couple’s first child, Susanna, was born the following May.

One of the most enduring questions relating to Shakespeare is whether he really loved his wife or if he was simply obliged to marry her once she fell pregnant. Certainly, by marrying at such a young age, his fortunes would have changed dramatically. As a married man, he would no longer have been legally permitted to enter into an apprenticeship, so inheriting his father’s glove-making business was now an unlikely career path. He and Anne would have lived at the Shakespeare family home – possibly in a two-roomed cottage added to the western end. Surely, as a new father,  Shakespeare must have felt considerable pressure to provide for his growing family – twins Judith and Hamnet were born in 1585.

Shakespeare’s ‘lost years’

A seven-year gap in Shakespeare’s biography – between 1585 and 1592 – is another source of frustration to historians. At some point in this period, Shakespeare moved from Stratford-upon-Avon to London, where he emerges, in 1592, as a successful actor and playwright. These crucial seven years saw the making of William Shakespeare as we know him today, yet little-to-no evidence remains about what actually took place in that time.

As with most historical mysteries, people have been keen to fill what are commonly known as the ‘lost years’ with several theories. In 1681, author John Aubrey, writing about the life of Shakespeare, stated that the Bard had “understood Latine pretty well: for he had been in his younger yeares a schoolmaster in the countrey”.

One theory about the 'lost years' states he was caught poaching and fled to London

Local historians of Titchfield near Southampton support this theory, maintaining that Shakespeare worked as a schoolmaster at a school there between 1589 and 1592. Another account, this time from the 18th century, stated that Shakespeare had been caught poaching venison from the estate of Sir Thomas Lucy and was forced to flee Stratford for a new life in London.

Meanwhile, a more controversial theory has Shakespeare down as being a secret Catholic who left Stratford on a pilgrimage to Rome. Shakespeare’s religious beliefs are unconfirmed, but some scholars have speculated that he and his family may well have been Catholics, worshipping in secret to avoid persecution in Protestant England. In 2000, an English professor and Shakespeare scholar at the University of Mainz in Germany claimed she had found three Shakespeare signatures in a 16th-century leather-bound guest book belonging to the Venerable English College in Rome – a school of theology for English Catholic priests.

The first entry, dated 1585, is signed by Arthurus Stratfordus Wigomniensis – deciphered as “[King] Arthur’s [compatriot] from Stratford [in the diocese] of Worcester”. A second, in 1587, is by Shfordus Cestriensis, which could translate as “Shakespeare from Stratford [in the diocese] of Chester”, while a third entry from 1589 names the visitor as Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordiensis (“William the Clerk from Stratford”). Shakespeare does seem to have had some knowledge of Italy – around a third of his plays were at least partially based there – but the question of whether he ever visited Rome or Venice or Sicily or Verona is likely to remain unanswered.

Whatever Shakespeare may or may not have done before reaching London, the earliest printed mention of him appears in Greenes Groats-Worth of Witte, a book by the playwright Robert Greene supposedly written on his deathbed. Published in 1592, the book contains public criticism of some of his enemies, including William Shakespeare.“There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes fac totum is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey,” he writes.

The “upstart Crow” he refers to is William Shakespeare, whom Greene criticises for believing he can write as well as the best scholars, despite not attending university. Described as an “Johannes fac totum” (Jack of all trades) for being both actor and playwright, Shakespeare clearly inspired jealousy in Greene for his obvious talent and rapid advance. Indeed, by 1592, Shakespeare is already believed to have completed a number of works, including The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew and Henry VI.

Shakespeare and the plague

But in June 1592, after Shakespeare had been working for a period of probably four or five years as a writer and actor on the London stage, a devastating outbreak of plague forced the closure of the city’s theatres. Some actors chose to take their plays out of London and on tour, but Shakespeare turned his talents to writing poetry, for which he became equally well known. His first publication, Venus and Adonis, was published in 1593 and dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton – a move possibly acknowledging the patronage of the wealthy young earl. The following year, he published The Rape of Lucrece, a work also dedicated to Wriothesley.

By the summer of 1594, the plague had subsided and London’s playhouses reopened once more. Touring companies returned to the city and took to the stage. Elizabeth I, a lover of the theatre, had in 1559 decided that players should be licensed. By the 1590s, this new rule had seen the many informal troupes of actors replaced by official touring companies, each headed by a patron from among the Queen’s leading courtiers. Elizabeth herself had initially championed her own troup, the Queen’s Men. Following their break-up, two other troupes dominated the London scene: the Admiral’s Men, led by Charles Howard, 1st Earl of Nottingham, and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, headed by Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon. Shakespeare had made the most of his enforced time off-stage and emerged in 1594 as a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, one of the most prominent companies in the city.

Shakespeare reading to Queen Elizabeth I, by John James Chalon
Shakepeare performed at Elizabeth I’s court. (Photo: Fine Art Photographic Library/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

As a founding member, actor, playwright and shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s writing talents would have been more in demand than ever before. His role as the troupe’s regular dramatist meant that Shakespeare probably produced an average of two plays a year and, as a shareholder, benefited financially from the company’s income. The group performed at court on more than 170 occasions, often acting Shakespeare’s own plays, and had even invested in its own playhouse: the Globe.

Shakespeare amassed considerable wealth during his time with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, but historians continue to question how, in 1594, he could afford to purchase shares in the company, and buy one of the largest houses in Stratford, New Place, just three years later. At a time when the average wage of a schoolteacher was £20 a year, the house alone cost Shakespeare around £120. This was a huge sum of money.

Some historians have suggested that, instead of being the impoverished writer and actor he is often portrayed as, Shakespeare actually received financial aid from his family that helped him buyup shares in his company, as well as land and property around Stratford and London. Research suggests that John Shakespeare, as well as making gloves, was also dealing in wool – an expensive and highly regulated commodity in the 16th century. Licences to buy and sell wool were restricted to dedicated traders, and it was illegal to do business without one. Yet historian David Fallow has suggested that John Shakespeare was actually investing in wool on a national level, often on the black market, and making a great deal of money as a result.

This, he believes, could explain William Shakespeare’s move to London at some point between 1585 and 1592. With the majority of wool exports made through the capital, John would have needed a trusted London representative. Enter William Shakespeare.

Whatever reason Shakespeare had for moving to London, the city would have been a far cry from the gentle pace of life in Stratford-upon-Avon. Elizabethan London was a maze of narrow, dirty streets, bustling with traders, prostitutes, beggars, thieves and animals. All of human life was there, from the very rich to the very poor. Shakespeare himself lived in lodgings during his time in the city – he can be traced to Bishopsgate, Bankside and Cripplegate at various points during his stay. But he was most likely anything but the lonely genius he is often made out to be. Plays like Henry IV, Part 1, which is set almost entirely in a Eastcheap pub, indicate that Shakespeare enjoyed a vibrant social life and was clearly familiar with the capital’s alehouses. He may also have been no stranger to the seedier side of street life – Shakespeare scholar Duncan Salkeld believes the mysterious Dark Lady of his sonnets may have been a London prostitute known as “Lucy Negro” or “Black Luce”, who ran a notorious bawdy house in Clerkenwell.

Elizabethan London was a maze of dirty streets, bustling with traders, prostitutes, animals and thieves

While Shakespeare was forging ahead with a successful career in London, Anne and their children appear to have remained in Stratford, although it’s probable that Shakespeare returned to his hometown frequently. In 1597, he moved his family into New Place, one of the grandest houses in Stratford, just a 10-minute walk from where he was born. The house was a public declaration of its owner’s success and wealth, but the purchase would have been tinged with sadness – the previous year the couple’s only son, Hamnet, had died, aged just 11.

If Shakespeare wrote about his son’s death, it has since been lost to history, but in his play King John, thought to have been written in 1596, he describes the near-physical pain experienced by a mother after her son’s death: “Grief fills the room up of my absent child / Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me, / Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, / Remembers me of all his gracious parts, / Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.”

When did Shakespeare die?

In 1611, at the age of 47, Shakespeare retired from London life and returned to his family in Stratford. His eldest daughter, Susanna, had married physician John Hall in 1607 and Shakespeare now had a granddaughter, Elizabeth. From his comfortable home, he attended to his business affairs in Stratford and wrote what was to be one of his last plays, The Two Noble Kinsmen, in collaboration with John Fletcher, around 1613.

Five years after his return to Warwickshire, at the age of 52, Shakespeare breathed his last, and is thought to have died on 23 April 1616. Two days later, he was buried in the chancel of Stratford’s Church of the Holy Trinity. The cause of Shakespeare’s death is unknown – one theory cites that he contracted a fever after a drinking binge with fellow playwrights Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton. Another, more likely explanation is that Shakespeare was ill for several weeks before he finally died – on 25 March 1616 he dictated his will, which could indicate that he knew his days were numbered.

His grave carries no name – just a chilling curse: “Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear, / To dig the dust enclosed here. / Blessed be the man that spares these stones, / And cursed be he that moves my bones.

Lottie Goldfinch is a freelance journalist specialising in history.

This article was taken from the April 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine

Shakespeare’s collaborators: who else might have written his plays?

For centuries, scholars and historians have wondered whether Shakespeare alone was responsible for the wealth of written material attributed to him in his lifetime. With the concept of copyright not widely recognised, it was common for playwrights to copy and adapt each other’s works, as well as make major contributions to new plays by others.

Writing plays during the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods was a collaborative business, and there’s no reason to think Shakespeare was any different to his contemporaries. What’s more, with the huge appetite among London audiences for new plays, collaborating with another author was the quickest way to meet a deadline. Analysis of Henry VI, Part 1, for example, suggests that Shakespeare wrote less than 20 per cent of the text – in fact, the number of different writing styles within the play would suggest it was written by a team of people.

George Peele is believed to have worked with Shakespeare on Titus Andronicus; Thomas Middleton did work on Macbeth, All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure; while his reputed rival Christopher Marlowe is credited as co-author of the Henry VI trilogy. In fact, 17 of 44 plays attributed to William Shakespeare are now thought to have been written in tandem with other playwrights.

Shakespeare’s life and times: 29 key dates

1564 | The baptism of ‘Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere’ (William, son of John Shakespeare) in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, is recorded in the parish records on 26 April 1564. Though his birthday is traditionally celebrated on 23 April (Saint George’s Day), there’s no concrete evidence that he was born on that date. William was one of eight children, the eldest son of John, a glover; his mother Mary (neé Arden) hailed from a rich farming family.

1567 | Mary, Queen of Scots is forced to abdicate the throne. The following year, she flees to England and throws herself on the mercy of her cousin (and great rival) Elizabeth I who, rather than offering protection, imprisons her. In 1569, a group of Catholic nobles in the north of England attempt to overthrow Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne.

1570 | Pope Pius V excommunicates Elizabeth from the Catholic Church and releases her subjects from any allegiance to her, strengthening the cause of her Catholic enemies. The following year, the Duke of Norfolk plots to murder Elizabeth and marry her rival, Mary, after installing her on the throne. He is arrested and executed in 1572.

1571 | Shakespeare secures a place at the King’s New School, a magnificent grammar school in Stratford named for the Royal Charter granted to the town by Edward VI. The curriculum includes a great deal of Latin literature and history, and Shakespeare probably encounters a range of sources that he later uses for his plays, such as Livy, Cicero and, above all, Ovid – his favourite poet.

1571 | The Royal Exchange is built between Cornhill and Threadneedle Street by the merchant Thomas Gresham to act as a centre of commerce for the City of London. Officially opened by Queen Elizabeth on 23 January, it is the first specialist commercial building in Britain.

1577 | Francis Drake sets out on the first English circumnavigation of the globe. The voyage, which will take three years, is probably planned as a raid on Spanish ships and ports. By October 1578, just one of his five ships is left: The Pelican, which Drake renames the Golden Hind.

1582 | Shakespeare’s life takes an unexpected turn when a local woman, Anne Hathaway, discovers she is pregnant with their child. Aged 26 or 27, she is nearly ten years his senior. The couple are hastily married in November and their first child, Susanna, is born the following May. Twins Hamnet and Judith follow in 1585. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 145 puns on his wife’s maiden name: “‘I hate’ from hate away she threw.”

1585 | Elizabeth signs the Treaty of Nonsuch on 10 August, promising military aid to the United Provinces of the Netherlands in their struggle against Spanish rule. Her support is self-interested: the Netherlands provides an excellent base from which Philip II could launch an invasion of England. The treaty is considered by Philip to be a declaration of war by England.

1586 | The Babington Plot – another conspiracy to place Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne – is discovered. This time, there is evidence of Mary’s involvement, and she is convicted of treason. Under intense pressure from her council, Elizabeth signs her cousin’s death warrant on 1 February 1587; Mary is executed at Fotheringay a week later.

1588 | Philip II launches a Spanish armada to invade England and avenge Mary’s death. This is arguably the greatest threat that Elizabeth has faced since her accession 30 years earlier, and that England had confronted since the Norman invasion of 1066. Thanks to her skillful sailors – and the English weather – Elizabeth triumphs. But the Spanish threat never goes away, and Philip launches two further invasion attempts during the following decade.

1592 | The first reference to Shakespeare as a playwright is made by writer Robert Greene, who publishes a bitter denunciation of “an upstart crow… with his tiger’s heart wrapped in a player’s hide”. By now, Shakespeare has moved to London and is also working as an actor. Henry VI, Part I – probably his first play – is performed this year at the Rose Theatre.

1593 | Shakespeare’s fellow playwright Christopher Marlowe is murdered in a tavern brawl on 30 May. His influence on Shakespeare’s writing has long been debated, with some arguing that Marlowe was the true author of the works attributed to Shakespeare. The latter may have alluded to his rival’s death in As You Like It: “It strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.”

1594 | From this year, Shakespeare’s plays are performed exclusively by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a company formed by a group of players including Shakespeare and Richard Burbage. It soon becomes the foremost company in London, based at The Theatre in Shoreditch. This is one of Shakespeare’s most prolific periods of writing, during which he pens A Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labours Lost, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

1595 | On 28 August, Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins embark from Plymouth on a piratical raid against Spanish lands. The voyage will end in disaster. The two commanders bicker from the start, and Hawkins, who is in poor health, dies on 11 November. Two months later, a deadly fever sweeps through the fleet; Drake succumbs on 27 January. The remaining sailors return, their voyage an unmitigated failure.

1596 | Shakespeare’s son Hamnet dies at the age of 11. Viola’s passionate mourning at the apparent death of her twin brother in Twelfth Night could have been inspired by this tragic event, which may also have sown the seeds for the playwright’s most famous hero, Hamlet, whose name was remarkably similar to that of his dead son.

1597 | In an indication of his flourishing career, Shakespeare buys a substantial property, New Place, reputed to be the second-largest private house in Stratford-upon-Avon, for the sum of £120. In the same year, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men give a private performance of Love’s Labours Lost for Queen Elizabeth.

1597 | The Act for the Relief of the Poor is passed, providing the first complete code of poor relief in England. Overseers of the Poor are designated to distribute money, food and clothing to the needy. The Act is amended by the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601, which forms the basis of poor relief for the next two centuries.

1599 |  This year marks a major turning point for Shakespeare and his company when, in May, they open the Globe theatre in Southwark, built using materials salvaged from their demolished Shoreditch Theatre to make the most impressive playhouse London has ever seen. Henry V and Julius Caesar are among the first plays to be performed on the company’s new stage. It’s probably during this year that Shakespeare begins work on what will be arguably his greatest achievement: Hamlet.

1601 | Elizabeth’s great favourite, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, leads a rebellion against her regime after being ousted from court following his disastrous campaign in Ireland. His supporters arrange for Shakespeare’s play Richard II (which features the deposition of the king) to be performed at the Globe. The rebellion is easily defeated by the royal forces, and Essex and his fellow conspirators are executed.

1603 | Elizabeth I dies childless and is succeeded by James VI of Scotland, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, who assumes the title of James I of England. The three separate kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland are now united for the first time under a single monarch. The death of Elizabeth I – for whom the Lord Chamberlain’s Men performed regularly – throws Shakespeare’s future into doubt. But he and his company soon find favour with the new king, James VI and I, who renames their company the King’s Men. Shakespeare writes several plays, notably Measure for Measure (1604) and Macbeth (1606), that complement the king’s interests in justice, religion and witchcraft.

1604 | One of James’s first acts of foreign policy is to end the long war with Spain. The Treaty of London, signed in August, puts an end to Spanish hopes of bringing England under their control. The two countries will remain at peace for the next 20 years.

1605 | In 1604 a group of English Catholics, angered by James I’s lack of religious tolerance, hatches a plot to blow up the king and parliament by igniting gunpowder barrels concealed in a vault beneath the House of Lords. The plot is discovered just in the nick of time in November 1605. Conspirators including Guy Fawkes are condemned to traitors’ executions.

1606 | King Lear premieres at the royal court in Whitehall on 26 December. This bleak tragedy about a monarch who divides his kingdom and loses his mind is among several plays that Shakespeare writes around this time, reflecting the tense atmosphere at court following the shock discovery of the Gunpowder Plot in November 1605.

1607 | The impoverished state of the royal coffers inspires James to seek gold and riches from the New World. He supports the activities of merchants and adventurers, notably the Virginia Company. In 1607, the company founds Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America.

1609 | The King’s Men adoptthe Blackfriars Theatre, a well-appointed indoor playhouse across the Thames from the Globe, as the company’s winter home. This intimate space inspires Shakespeare to write a final run of plays: Pericles (c1609), Cymbeline (c1610), The Winter’s Tale (c1611) and The Tempest (c1611). Also in 1609, Shakespeare’s sonnets are published for the first time.

1611 | James commissions the first ‘Authorised Version’ of the Bible (also known as the King James Bible). In the years before James came to the throne – the religious turmoil of the Tudor period, with its bewildering succession of reforms – there had been several different English bibles in circulation.

1613 | On 29 June, the Globe burns to the ground after a prop cannon sets fire to the thatch during a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. His company quickly rebuilds the theatre, but the event seems to hasten Shakespeare’s retirement. His contribution to English literature, drama and language has been phenomenal, with at least 37 plays and 154 sonnets to his credit.

1613 | In February, James I’s daughter – 16-year-old Princess Elizabeth, widely admired for her beauty, spirit and charm – marries Frederick V, Elector Palatine of the Rhine. The King’s Men perform some 20 plays to mark the occasion. A century later, Elizabeth’s descendants in the House of Hanover will ascend to the English throne.

1616 | In January, Shakespeare and his lawyers begin to draw up his will. He famously bequeaths his 61-year-old wife his “second-best bed”. One later anecdote attributes his death on 23 April 1616 to a “merry meeting” with Ben Johnson, during which the two playwrights “drank too hard”. Shakespeare is buried in the same church in which he was baptised.

This article first appeared in BBC History Magazine’s ‘The World of Shakespeare’ bookazine. Tracy Borman is a historian and author.


7 surprising facts about William Shakespeare

Author Zoe Bramley reveals seven things you probably didn’t know about the famous bard…

1

‘William Shakespeare’ was ‘a weakish speller’

One of the most curious facts about William Shakespeare is that his name can be reshuffled to create the sentence ‘I am a weakish speller’. We might wish for a more heroic anagram for one of our nation’s greatest playwrights, but unfortunately ‘I am a weakish speller’ does in fact ring true when applied to Shakespeare.

It was a man named Donald L Holmes who first discovered the anagram, possibly while musing about the frivolity of early modern orthography (the art of writing words with the proper letters). Shakespeare was writing in the era before Samuel Johnson’s dictionary – which started the process of standardising English spelling – so he was rather relaxed about words. Indeed, he could not even decide how to spell his own name. Consider the following variants on his signature when he was finalising legal documents such as the mortgage deeds on property in Blackfriars, and his will: Shaksper, Shakespe, Shakespere, and Shakspeare.

See also the spelling in the 1599 edition of Romeo and Juliet:

Two households, both alike in dignitie,

(In faire Verona where we lay our Scene),

From auncient grudge, break to new mutinie,

Where civill bloud makes civill hands uncleane.

2

Had it not been for a fatal brawl in 1587 we may never have heard of William Shakespeare

Nobody really knows how young Shakespeare made his way from his childhood home of Stratford-upon-Avon to the bustle of Elizabethan London and playhouse glory. There are several theories about what he did when he first arrived in the capital, including the famous story that he was employed as a kind of valet – looking after playgoers’ horses while they enjoyed the show. Whether or not this is true – and there is no reason why it should not be – we still don’t know how Shakespeare was first introduced into theatrical society, or the circumstances in which he left Stratford.

The best theory I have heard involves two angry men and a sharp sword. It was the year 1587. The Queen’s Men [a major acting company whose patron was Queen Elizabeth] were on a summer tour, bringing the latest hit plays to the provinces. Life on the road for a troupe of players cannot have been easy and tempers were beginning to fray. On the night of 13 June, the actor William Knell attacked his colleague John Towne with a sword. Towne fled but was cornered and struck back, inflicting a fatal stab wound on Knell.

The Queen’s Men were now officially short-staffed. A few days later they arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon where fate may have united them with William Shakespeare. Nobody knows exactly how they first met, but Shakespeare would have seen the Queen’s Men perform in Stratford.

3

The character Emilia in Othello may have been based on a real-life lover

Generations of Shakespeare biographers have portrayed Shakespeare’s love life as being a rather colourful one. His purported lovers include figures such as Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton; a brothel keeper called Lucy Morgan, and the courtier Emilia Lanier.

Emilia is one of the candidates for Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’, that shadowy figure who inspired some of his most passionate sonnets. Lanier was a poet in her own right, producing some of the earliest feminist work in the English language. With titles including Eve’s Apologie in Defence of Women, she exposes double standards, asking mutinously: “Why are poore women blam’d, or by more faultie men defam’d?”

Some scholars believe that Shakespeare had Lanier in mind when he wrote the character Emilia in Othello. Indeed, Emilia has some of the most feminist lines in the whole of Shakespeare:

Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour
As husbands have.

Emilia Lanier’s father was also a Venetian, so it may not be a coincidence that Othello is partially set in Venice.

4

Shakespeare has been translated into 80 languages, including Klingon and Esperanto

If Shakespeare knew how far his work has travelled in the 400 years since his death, he would be amazed. His original audiences included people from all walks of life, from kings and queens to prostitutes and fish mongers, but they all had one thing in common: the English language. Shakespeare was writing in the Elizabethan ‘golden age’ of exploration, but his world was essentially limited to the confines of our island.

Like the English language itself, Shakespeare’s work has since broken free of its restraints to travel across the globe – and even beyond. In 2000, Star Trek fans produced a translation of Hamlet in Klingon, in an effort to restore Shakespeare to its ‘original’ language. The Prince of Denmark begins his most famous speech not with “to be or not to be”, but with “taH pagh taHbe”. Unsurprisingly, most people prefer the earthling version and the Klingon Hamlet is rarely, if ever, performed.

Shakespeare has also been translated into Esperanto, the artificial language based on the structure of major European tongues. Translations include Reĝo Lear, Rikardo Tria and La Komedio de Eraroj.

It should also be remembered that Shakespeare himself enjoyed languages and wrote a whole scene in French for the play Henry V.

5

William was not the only Shakespeare working in the playhouses of London

At some point, William’s younger brother Edmund followed him down to London. Edmund is one of those intriguing characters in history whose name appears in one or two documents and then disappears from view. We have therefore only the barest details of his short life, but with a bit of imagination it is just about possible to sketch an idea of who he was.

Born in 1580, Edmund lived in the Cripplegate area of London, just outside the city walls. It was a short stroll away from William’s lodgings on Silver Street, so the two brothers would have found it easy to maintain contact with each other. Yet despite the proximity of their lodgings and Edmund’s profession as an actor, there is no record that the pair ever worked together. While William was forging a dazzling career at the Globe on Bankside, it is likely that Edmund worked with Edward Alleyn at the Fortune near Shoreditch.

The year 1607 was bitter-sweet for the Shakespeare clan. Edmund fathered an illegitimate son, baptised Edward, but sadly the infant died and Edmund followed him to the grave months later aged 27. We do not know how he died but William ensured he was buried with dignity at the church of St Saviour’s (now Southwark Cathedral).

 

6

The longest word in Shakespeare is ‘honorificabilitudinitatibus’

Although he showed off his French skills in Henry V, Shakespeare was sparing when it came to the use of Latin. With such diverse audiences, he needed to ensure that everyone could understand what was going on in his plays. His friend and rival Ben Jonson scattered Latin liberally throughout his own plays and sneered that Shakespeare had “small Latin and little Greek”. Jonson’s slur was not entirely correct, however. Witness Shakespeare’s use of the word honorificabilitudinitatibus in the play Love’s Labour’s Lost. The Collins English Dictionary definition of the word is “invincible glorious honorableness. It is the ablative plural of the Latin contrived honorificabilitudinitas…”

The word is spoken by the clown Costard in a scene that contains plenty of jokes about unnecessary wordiness: “I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word; for thou art not so long by the head as honorificabilitundinitatibus: thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon.”

It was a comic scene and precedes one in which several characters try out their Latin on each other and make fun of Armado for his over-blown speech patterns. It is tempting to imagine the Latin-mad Ben Jonson seeing his reflection in Armado.

 

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He caused an ecological disaster in New York

Shakespeare may be wildly popular all over the world but there was a time when the people of New York may have cursed his name. In 1890 a German-American named Eugene Scheiffelin took the extraordinary step of importing 60 starlings from England to New York (and a further 40 the following year). As an avid Shakespeare fan and zoologist it was Scheiffelin’s dream for America to be the home of each bird species featured in the works of the bard. As well as the romance of bringing a little bit of England to New York, Scheiffelin wanted to see if non-native species could thrive there, so duly released the starlings into Central Park.

Unfortunately for the American eco-system the starlings thrived a little too well and bred rapidly, out-competing the local fauna for food and habitat. It is currently one of only three birds in the US not afforded any state protection (the other two being the house sparrow and the pigeon) and is treated as a pest. Ironically, the starling only appears in one line in the whole of Shakespeare. In the play Henry IV, Part I, Hotspur fantasises about using one of them to plague his enemy: “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer’, and give it him to keep his anger still in motion.”

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Zoe Bramley is the author of William Shakespeare in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing, 2016).

This article was first published by HistoryExtra in April 2016