I've recently been on a tear, reading up on the little bit we do know - and the vast sum of information we don't know - about Shakespeare. Thought I'd summarize some of the more interesting info here.
(By the way, if you enjoy this post, you may enjoy another one of my posts, Shakespeare's Contributions to the English Language.)
- Nobody knows Shakespeare’s true birthday. There is a record of his baptism on April 26, 1564. By tradition and guesswork, William is assumed to have been born three days earlier, on April 23. He died in 1616 at the age of 52 - possibly on the same day he was born.
- Shakespeare never attended college. He left grammar school at age 14-15 to become an apprentice to his father.
- Though primarily known as a glove maker, John Shakespeare (William’s father) also dabbled in the following jobs: wool-dealer, moneylender, constable, chamberlain, alderman, bailiff, and justice of the peace.
- There are several references to Shakespeare's father's trade in his works. In Merry Wives of Windsor, Mistress Quickly refers to a character having a beard "like a glover's paring knife" and in Romeo & Juliet, Mercutio speaks of a "wit of chevril", chevril being a soft skin that fine gloves were made of.
- There were two Shakespeare families living in Stratford when William was born; the other family did not become famous.
- Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway, was twice his age when they married. (He was 18, she was 26.)
- They had eight children, 4 of whom survived infancy: daughter Susanna, twins Hamnet & Judith, and Edmund.
- Susanna received most of the Bard's fortune when he died.
- Hamnet died at age 11, Judith at 77. Susanna died in 1649, age 66.
- Today there are no living heirs of Shakespeare
- After the birth of the twins in 1583, Shakespeare left few historical traces until he is mentioned as part of the London theatre scene in 1592. Scholars refer to the years between 1585 and 1592 as Shakespeare's "lost years".
- During these "lost years," Shakespeare may have been employed by an influential family, the Hoghtons, and may have got his firstintroduction to the theatre through the Hoghtons' rich and powerful friends, the Earls of Derby. (There exists a tantalizing record of one "William Shakeshafte" who worked as a tutor for the Hoghton family.)
- Will dabbled in property development. At age 18, he bought the second most prestigious house in all of Stratford, The New Place and later he doubled his investment on some land he bought near Stratford.
- We have (relatively) plentiful evidence that Shakespeare was a popular actor. Many cast lists include his name and people write of having seen him perform.
- From 1594, Shakespeare's plays were performed by only the Lord Chamberlain's Men, a company owned by a group of players, including Shakespeare, that soon became the leading playing company in London. After the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, the company was awarded a royal patent by the new king, James I, and changed its name to the King's Men.
- William lived through the Black Death. The epidemic killed over 33,000 in London alone in 1603 when Will was 39, and later returned in 1608.
- Unlike most famous artists of his time, Shakespeare did not die in poverty. His will disposes of several large holdings of land.
- The epitaph to Shakespeare’s grave in the Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, places a curse on anyone who moves his bones, a customary practice in graveyards of the time.
- There are only two authentic portraits of William today; the widely used engraving of William Shakespeare by Martin Droeshout first published on the title page of the 1623 First Folio, and the monument of the great playwright in Stratford's Holy Trinity Church in Stratford. However, there is an unauthenticated painting, c.1610, that some claim to be an authentic image of William Shakespeare made during his lifetime. (This is the portrait I've posted at the top of this blog entry.)
- Before he began his career as a playwright, Shakespeare wrote two narrative poems that were widely published and regarded: The Rape of Lucrece, and Venus and Adonis. These were dedicated the Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. Some scholars believe Southampton is the "fair youth" in Shakespeare's subsequent sonnets
- Shakespeare's sonnets chronicle a complex entanglement, almost a menage a trois, among two men and a woman.
- None of Shakespeare's original manuscripts have survived, due partly perhaps to the fact that they were written, many of them hastily, strictly for stage performance.
- Fortunately, two of his fellow actors, John Heminge and Henry Condell, gathered 36 of Shakespeare's plays and published them in 1623 in a collection that has come to be known as The First Folio. This collection is the source from which all published Shakespearean plays are derived.
- A folio is a book made by folding larger pieces of paper in half. Cheaper "quartos" were books made by folding these large sheets of paper into quarters.
- Many of Shakespeare's plays circulated as quartos, but these were often taken from stage scripts and contain many inconsistencies/inaccuracies
- Most academics agree that William wrote his first play, Henry VI, Part One around 1589 to 1590 when he would have been roughly 25 years old.
- Henry VIII, Henry VI, part 1 and Timon of Athens that are believed to be collaborative, according to modern stylistic analysis
- Shakespeare wrote more comedies than any other type of play
- The following plays were not initially attributed to Shakespeare, but have since been accepted by most scholars as having been at least partly authored by Shakespeare:
- Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Its uneven writing suggests that the first two acts are by another playwright. However, critics have accepted that the last three-fifths are mostly Shakespeare's.
- The Two Noble Kinsmen. Originally published in quarto in 1634 as a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, the playwright who took over Shakespeare's job as chief playwright of the King's Men. Mainstream scholarship agrees with this attribution, and the play is widely accepted as a worthy member of the Shakespeare canon, despite its collaborative origins.
- The following plays have been, at one time or another, erroneously (or so we currenetly believe) attributed to Shakespeare. Most of them were plays included in folios with other Shakespeare works.
- Sir Thomas More. Now attributed to Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle, with later revisions and additions by Thomas Dekker, Shakespeare and Thomas Heywood. A few pages are written by an author ("Hand D") whom many believe to be Shakespeare, as the handwriting and spellings, as well as the style, seem a good match. The attribution is not accepted by everyone, however, especially since there are so few authenticated samples of Shakespeare's handwriting.
- Birth of Merlin. Demonstrably written 6 years after Shakespeare's death
- The Life of Sir John Oldcastle. The diary of Philip Henslowe records that it was written by Anthony Munday, Michael Drayton, Richard Hathwaye, and Robert Wilson.
- A Yorkshire Tragedy. The weight of stylistic evidence supports Thomas Middleton as the actual author of the play
- The Life and Death of The Lord Cromwell. Except for a few scholars, "hardly anyone has thought that Shakespeare was even in the slightest way involved in the production of these plays."
- King Edward the Third. A consensus is emerging that the play was written by a team of dramatists including Shakespeare early in his career – but exactly who wrote what is still open to debate.
- The Puritaine. This play is now generally believed to have been authored by Middleton or Smith
- The London Prodigal. As it is a King's Men play, Shakespeare may have had a minor role in its creation, but according to Tucker Brooke, "Shakespeare's catholicity and psychological insight are conspicuously absent". Fleay hypothesized that Shakespeare wrote a rough outline or plot and left another playwright to the actual writing.
- The Merry Devill of Edmonton. As it is a King's Men play, Shakespeare may have had a minor role in its creation, but the play's style bears no resemblance to Shakespeare.
- Faire Em, The Miller's Daughter of Manchester. In Charles II's library, this play appears in a quarto labelled "Shakespeare." However, another candidate for its authorship is Robert Wilson.
- A Most Pleasant Comedy of Mucedorus. As it was a King's Men play, Shakespeare may have had a minor role in its creation or revision, but its true author remains a mystery: Robert Green is sometimes suggested.
- The Second Maiden's Tragedy. Three crossed-out attributions in 17th century attribute the play to Thomas Goffe, Shakespeare, and George Chapman. However, stylistic analysis indicates that the true author was probably Middleton.
- Arden of Faversham. Stylistic analysis has revealed that Shakespeare likely had a hand in at least scene VIII (the play is not divided into acts). Thomas Kyd is often considered to be the author of much of Faversham, but still other writers have been proposed.
- The following plays attributed to Shakespeare have been "lost":
- Love's Labour's Won. A late sixteenth-century writer, Francis Meres, and a scrap of paper (apparently from a bookseller), both list this title among Shakespeare's then-recent works, but no play of this title has survived. It may have become lost, or it may represent an alternative title of an existing play, such as Much Ado About Nothing, All's Well That Ends Well, or The Taming of the Shrew.
- Cardenio. This late play by Shakespeare and Fletcher, referred to in several documents, has not survived. It was probably an adaptation of a tale in Cervantes' Don Quixote.
- In 1727, Lewis Theobald produced a play he called Double Falshood, which he claimed to have adapted from three manuscripts of a lost play by Shakespeare that he did not name.
- Counter to that, a professional handwriting expert, Charles Hamilton, has claimed in a recent book that The Second Maiden's Tragedy play is actually Shakespeare's manuscript of the lost play Cardenio. On the rare occasions when The Second Maiden's Tragedy has been revived on the stage, it is sometimes performed under the title Cardenio,
- The lost play called the Ur-Hamlet is believed by a few scholars to be an early work by Shakespeare himself. The theory was first postulated by the academic Peter Alexander and is supported by Harold Bloom and Peter Ackroyd, although mainstream Shakespearean scholarship believes it to have been authored by Thomas Kyd.
- Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play, clocking in at 4,042 lines. His shortest is The Comedy of Errors, with 1,787 lines. The shortest of his tragedies (with 1993 lines) is Macbeth.
- After 1606–1607, Shakespeare wrote fewer plays, and none are attributed to him after 1613. His last three plays were collaborations, probably with John Fletcher, who succeeded him as the house playwright for the King’s Men.
- Many critics believe that The Tempest, one of Shakespeare's last plays, is also the Bard's most autobiographical work. At the end of the play, the character Prospero, a bookish sorcerer, "retires" - setting aside his books and rejoining the real world.
- A ticket to the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare's time would have cost a penny, or $1.66 in today's money. At a posh indoor theater like Blackfriars, tickets started at sixpence (about $10). Sitting on the stage cost two shillings ($40); a box could be reserved for half-a-crown ($50).
- The average number of actors required for a Shakespearean comedy is 18. For the tragedies, it's 27. Histories require 35.
- In Shakespeare’s peak writing time (1500s and early 1600s), about 900 plays were in the theatre repertory, with 850 of those written by about 44 authors.
- Early modern theatre entrepreneurs were either owners or managers like James Burbage and Phillip Hensloweor, or shareholders in repertory companies like John Heminge and Henry Condell. The most successful, WilliamShakespeare and Richard and Cuthbert Burbage, were both.
- "Bardolatry" is the excessive worship of Shakespeare. It can be dated back to the 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee heldat Stratford-upon-Avon, which is often seen as the point when Shakespeare stopped being thought of as a popular dramatist and became a literary icon and commodity.
The Scholarship/The Controversy
- None of Shakespeare’s plays printed during his lifetime still survive in even a fragment of his own handwriting; the only literary manuscript plausibly ascribed to him is a section of Sir Thomas More, a play not printed until the nineteenth century.
- "Shakespeare" is spelled 80 different ways in documents dating from the Bard's time, including "Shaxpere" and "Shaxberd."
- Shakespeare's early plays were mainly comedies and histories. He then wrote mainly tragedies until about 1608, including Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth. In his last phase, he wrote tragicomedies, also known as romances, and collaborated with other playwrights
- He wrote on average 1.5 plays a year since he first started in 1589. His last play The Two Noble Kinsmen is reckoned to have been written in 1613 when he was 49 years old.
- In 1896, Frederick S. Boas coined the term "problem plays" to describe four plays: All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida and Hamlet. "Dramas as singular in theme and temper cannot be strictly called comedies or tragedies", he wrote. "We may therefore borrow a convenient phrase from the theatre of today and class them together as Shakespeare's problem plays." The term, much debated and sometimes applied to other plays, remains in use, though Hamlet is now definitively classed as a tragedy.
- It is unclear where or when Shakespeare picked up the French he so adeptly used in Henry V or how he came to read the Italian source that provided inspiration for Othello. It is not known whether Shakespeare ever traveled outside England.
- Eleven of Shakespeare’s play titles directly involve the word King - and if you include Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, Pericles, Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale, 20 out of 37 deal with monarchy.
- Suicide occurs an unlucky thirteen times in Shakespeare’s plays. It occurs in Romeo and Juliet where both Romeo and Juliet commit suicide; in Julius Caesar where both Cassius and Brutus die by consensual stabbing, as well as Brutus’ wife Portia; in Othello where Othello stabs himself; in Hamlet where Ophelia is said to have "drowned" in suspicious circumstances; in Macbeth when Lady Macbeth dies; and finally in Antony and Cleopatra, where suicide occurs an astounding five times (Mark Antony, Cleopatra, Charmian, Iras and Eros).
- Was Shakespeare famous in his own day? He was included in some contemporary lists of leading poets, but he was rarely singled out as "above" or more gifted than other contemporaries (such as Edmund Spencer)
- Only a small minority of academics believe there is reason to question whether another author wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare
- Some prominent public figures, including Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, have found the arguments against Shakespeare’s authorship persuasive
- The most frequently mentioned "alternative" authors include Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher "Kit" Marlowe, William Stanley, the 6th Earl of Derby, and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
- "Baconians" believe that Francis Bacon not only wrote the plays, but left coded messages in his writings that will either (1) prove his authorship of the Shakespeare plays, (2) lead people to the spot where he has buried documents that will prove his authorship, or (3) both of the above. (See The Baconian Cipher)