10 Things You Didn't Know about Shakespeare: On the 400th Anniversary of the Bard's Death, Some Fascinating Facts about One of History's Greatest Writers

By Morgan, Jude | New York Times Upfront, April 4, 2016 | Go to article overview

10 Things You Didn't Know about Shakespeare: On the 400th Anniversary of the Bard's Death, Some Fascinating Facts about One of History's Greatest Writers


Morgan, Jude, New York Times Upfront


Four hundred years ago this month, a playwright, poet, actor, husband, and father named William Shakespeare (1564-1616) died at his home in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. Shakespeare's plays are still performed, read, admired, and discussed everywhere. His contribution to Western culture--from Ideas about youth, love, and human personality to the very language we speak--is enormous. The characters he created-Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Lady Macbeth, Shylock, Othello, and many more--are as real to us as If they had actually existed.

But the Bard (a name often synonymous with Shakespeare that literally means poet) was a human being himself, and the story of his life, work, and turbulent times is as "rich and strange" (to borrow a phrase from The Tempest) as any of his plays. Here we touch on just a few of the remarkable facts about William Shakespeare and his world. By the way, his tombstone in Stratford bears the words, "Cursed be he that moves my bones"--but it's only with great respect that we unearth these 10 things you didn't know about Shakespeare.

1. We're lucky to have Shakespeare at all.

Today, the birth of a child is usually a hopeful occasion, but in Shakespeare's day, childbirth was a dangerous time for both mother and child. Estimates of infant mortality vary, but it seems likely that in Hidor England (1485-1603), only one in three children lived to age 5. The main culprits were epidemic diseases like typhoid and bubonic plague, and lack of knowledge about good hygiene, nutrition, and medicine. John and Mary Shakespeare had already lost two children to unknown diseases before their son William was born. Tradition has his birthday as April 23, but no one is sure of the exact date. What we do know is that his baptism--a much more important event--was on April 26. Baptism was the moment when a person's life as a Christian really began. And it ensured the safety of their soul through the childhood hazards ahead.

2. Shakespeare never made it to college.

The man generally considered history's greatest author had only a so-so education. It's likely William attended Stratford Grammar School (for free because his father was a town official). There he would have studied 10 hours a day, six days a week, mostly Latin by rote. That was the international language of the professions, and vital to master if you wanted to climb up in the world. But young Will was probably taken out of school around age 14--perhaps because his once-prosperous father had developed serious money problems and needed him to work. (Shakespeare likely pitched in to help with the family glove-making business.) There was no chance of Will attending Oxford or Cambridge because his family didn't have the money to pay the tuition or the connections to get him in. Later, some of his critics would mock him for his lack of formal education. Now, many think it was his street smarts that helped create the Shakespeare we've come to know--an energetic and free creator who didn't worry about classical models.

3. Going into the theater wasn't a respectable choice.

Today, actors and playwrights are celebrities. Not so in Shakespeare's time. Shortly after his marriage at age 18 to Anne Hathaway and the birth of their three children over the next three years, Will made the solitary move from Stratford to London, where he tried his hand at acting and later, playwriting. But at the time, many people, not just Puritans, disapproved of the London theaters, which were a new phenomenon. To them, acting was a form of lying, and the theater was a waste of time that distracted people--especially young people, like apprentices--from work. Theaters were located alongside bear-baiting * pits, and for many people they were equally disgusting. As for the "profession" of playwriting, that too was nothing to shout about. When Ben Jonson, Will's friend and rival, published his own plays and called them his "works," people laughed. …

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