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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
5. Shakespeare's sonnets are not
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
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
6. Shakespeare's daughter was
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
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. I
n 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.
Reverence for 'The Bard' had to wait until the
10. Shakespeare has had some heavyweight
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