It’s a long weekend in Australia, so that means three posts.
23 April 2016, marks the 400th anniversary of, Shakespeare’s death. All over the United Kingdom, there are celebrations commemorating this great man, whose contribution appears never-ending.
Here are some interesting “facts” about the man himself. I put the word “facts” in quotation marks because there is so much we do not know about him. In fact, what we know about his personal life can be found in only a handful of documents, the rest is speculation.
FACT NO. 1
We don’t know when Shakespeare was born.
We know he was christened on 26 April 1564. Given it was the practice that babies were christened a few days after their birth, it is likely he was born on 23 April, being the same day that he died. It is difficult to tell. We know at the time of his birth that England was ravaged by the plague. Many babies died. Baby William survived. His christening may have been delayed as everyone stayed indoors during the frequent outbreaks of the plague.
Shakespeare was 52 when he died. This was a relatively advanced age for his time.
FACT NO. 2
We don’t know how to spell his name.
There are many different spellings of his name in the records. Shakespeare himself rarely signed his name the same way twice.
It was printed using a wide range of variations including “Shapere” and ”Shaxberd”. This explains why we know little about his personal life.
It is estimated there is about 80 variations to the spelling of his name.
No wonder that William Shakespeare is an anagram for “I am a weakish speller”.
FACT NO. 3
We know nothing about him during the so called “missing years” of 1585 to 1592.
Some speculate that he studied and practiced law during this period. This may explain the many legal references in his work. Some say he travelled around continental Europe. This would explain the exotic settings of some of his plays such as Denmark and Verone and Venice.
FACT NO. 4
At age 18, Shakespeare married Anne Hathaway. She was 8 years his senior and 3 months pregnant.
The banns of marriage were rushed and the proposed wedding was only advertised for one weekend rather than the obligatory three.
Anne gave birth to Susanna 6 months after the wedding and later had twins Hamnet and Judith in 1585. Hamnet died of an illness at age 11.
It is difficult to gauge how Shakespeare reacted to the death of his son and heir. We have no evidence of Shakespeare having written any elegies or eulogies for his son. But we shouldn’t assume he was devoid of feeling on this issue. After all if any writer captured humanity and what it is to be human, it was Shakespeare.
In King John written at the time of Hamnet’s death he introduces a cameo role of a mother who grieves the death of her son. Perhaps her words reflect Shakespeare’s grief at the time.
“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;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well! Had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head
(Woman pulls at her hair)
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord, my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows’ cure!”
FACT NO. 5
Shakespeare left no heir.
His daughter Susanna did have a daughter Elizabeth in 1608. Elizabeth married twice but had no children from either marriage.
FACT NO. 6
Shakespeare was responsible for reshaping the English language with the introduction of many new words and expressions that have survived to this day. Terms introduced by him include “heart of gold”, “wild goose chase”, “faint-hearted”, “break the ice”, “in a pickle”, “forgone conclusion”, and words such as “eyeball”, “lacklustre”, “sanctimonious” and “fashionable”.
He is credited with introducing a staggering 3,000 words into the English language. His vocabulary was an amazing 17,000 to 29,000 words which is about double the number of words used by the average conversationalist.
FACT NO. 7
Shakespeare, or at least his family were probably recusants.
A recusant was a Catholic who refused to surrender his or her faith during this strict Protestant period in English history. Recusants were subject to fines, imprisonment and sometimes death. Hence recusants led very dangerous lives.
Shakespeare’s father was fined for missing too many Protestant services. After Shakespeare’s father died, some forbidden Catholic texts were discovered hidden in the roof of the family home.
William Arden, a relative on his mother’s side was arrested for plotting against the Queen.
FACT NO. 8
Two of Shakespeare’s plays, “Hamlet” and “Much Ado about Nothing” have been translated into Klingon.
“taH pagh taHbe” in Klingon is “To be or not to be”
FACT NO. 9
Suicides occur an unlucky 13 times in Shakespeare’s plays.
FACT NO. 10
Shakespeare never published any of his plays. We have them today because of the efforts of two fellow actors John Hemmings and Henry Condell who recorded and published 36 plays in the First Folio many years after Shakespeare’s death.
It is difficult to say what would have happened to these works if Hemmings and Condell didn’t go to the trouble of collecting and recording them for posterity.
FACT NO. 11
The Royal Shakespeare Company sells more than half a million tickets a year to Shakespeare productions at their theatres in Stratford-on-Avon, London and Newcastle. An estimated 50,000 people see their first live Shakespearean play in these theatres each year.
FACT NO. 12
It is said that Shakespeare was a homosexual or bisexual.
Of his famous sonnets, 126 of the love poems were addressed to a young man called “Fair Lord” or “Fair Youth”.
Yes he was married and had three children but his marriage was odd indeed. I have already explained that he married Anne Hathaway in unusual circumstances.
He spent most of his adult life living away from her in London. When he died he bequeathed her his “second best bed”.
FACT NO. 13
Shakespeare wrote the epitaph on his grave which reads:
“Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbeare
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.”
Charles William Wallace is a famed, but often misunderstood Shakespearean researcher from Missouri USA.
From 1907 to 1916, he and his wife moved to London and spent every waking hour at the Public Record Office of London poring over all available records for the period of Shakespeare’s life.
Their task was daunting. There was a large volume of written material generated by the English public service. Most of it was written on vellum (calfskin). Because such writing material was in short supply, the relevant recorders used every square inch of the page on which to write, sometimes in very small print.
To give you an indication of the task facing the Wallaces. A modern conservator familiar with a particular piece of vellum and its contents, will still take a full 5 minutes to locate a particular reference on that vellum, even though they know where it is!
Another issue was the variable spelling of Shakespeare’s name.
Because of the intensity of their efforts, the Wallaces found a few references to Shakespeare in all this material over all these years. Their findings have proved valuable.
They discovered samples of Shakespeare’s signature, an address at which he lived in London, information about his financial interests and the Belmott v Mountjoy case at which Shakespeare was a witness.
Wallace’s extraordinary efforts and revelations were not well received in England. He was viewed as a foreign interloper intruding in the life of an English icon. Wallace’s paranoia did not assist matters.
He stopped his work abruptly and returned to the US. He entered upon oil exploration and in his very first venture “followed a hunch” to strike it rich. He died a disappointed and dismayed billionaire.
Facts courtesy of nosweatshakespeare.com, independent.uk.co and myself.