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William Shakespeare turns 456 on 23rd of April 2020. His birthday is celebrated in thousands of places around the world every year. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, along with the other major English Shakespeare institutions like the Globe Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre will, of course, be celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday.
As we look back on the four and a half centuries since Shakespeare was born we cannot but be overwhelmed by the influence he had on the world – in so many ways. Philosophically, poetically, linguistically and even, yes, morally – when you consider the meanings of his stories – he was unparalleled.
But in 1564, the year the baby William was launched into the world, there were other giants already here. Queen Elizabeth 1 was about to mount the throne of England. And on the day Shakespeare was born her great mariner, Francis Drake, 22 years old, was on his first voyage to the Americas, sailing with his cousin, Sir John Hawkins, on one of the fleet of ships owned by the Hawkins family of Plymouth.
Martin Luth died during that year, after transforming the world, and John Calvin died almost exactly a month after Shakespeare was born. But it’s far more pleasant to think about another Englishman, Christopher Marlowe, and the Italian Galileo, both born in the same year as Shakespeare and who had a more positive effect on the world than the two religious reformers. Or the fact that Michelangelo himself overlapped briefly with Shakespeare, dying just a month after Shakespeare was born. (See our post on the famous people who share a birthday with Shakespeare.)
The world was growing fast when Shakespeare and his fellow little giants were being born. The voyages of discovery were pushing the borders of geography and thought and imagination further every day. In 1654 the French Huguenot explorer, Rene Goulaine de Laudonniere sailed from France to establish Fort Caroline, now Jacksonville, in America. Meanwhile, voyages around the Cape at the tip of Africa were becoming routine as a means of carrying out the spice trade with India.
And so, Shakespeare, happy birthday. For you’re a jolly good fellow, which nobody can deny.
Strange to think of the big birthday celebrations that we honour Shakespeare with, considering that birthdays weren’t celebrated during his time. In the Elizabethan era many people didn’t even know the date of their birth and, indeed, we don’t actually know Shakespeare’s birth date – only the date he was baptised.
Perhaps the aristocracy marked their birthdays back then, but there is very little of that recorded. I have unearthed one mention of an Elizabethan birthday party, however – that of thirteen-year-old Mall Sidney.
Mall grew up to become the famous writer, Lady Mary Wroth, Countess of Pembroke. She was the daughter of Robert Sidney, the brother of the illustrious poet and soldier, Sir Phillip Sidney. They were a very high ranking family. Lady Mary was the first English woman author to write a sustained work of prose fiction. Like Shakespeare, she also wrote a sonnet cycle. The American biographer, Margaret Hannay, produced a biography of Mall in 2010: Mary Sidney, Lady Wroth. She reports: ‘On 18 October 1600 Whyte came to Penshurst, no doubt along with other guests, to celebrate Mall’s thirteenth birthday.’ (p. 77) Unfortunately, Margaret Hannay doesn’t describe the party so we still don’t know how even those who did mark birthdays celebrated them.
There is no indication that even monarchs celebrated their birthdays. Everyone had a saint associated with their birth dates, though, and sometimes they would pay their respects to their saints on their birthday.
Perhaps the best confirmation of the lack of birthday celebrations is the fact that we don’t find much mention of them in Shakespeare’s works. There are references to a birthday only twice in his plays, although not in any way that indicates the kind of attitude that we have to birthdays today. For example, in Julius Caesar, a few moments before Cassius and Brutus engage in battle with Antony and Octavius Caesar, Cassius, feeling his imminent death upon him, says, ‘this is my birthday; as this very day was Cassius born.’ There is no more about it, just that wistful statement, that comes out of the blue.
In Antony and Cleopatra, though, we see Cleopatra grasping the opportunity for an unexpected celebration on her birthday. Antony has just had Caesar’s messenger whipped. He’s in a foul mood but somehow gets a new wind and calls for the servants to fill the bowls for some late-night drinking. Cleopatra who has been feeling lonely and rejected is delighted with this change in mood. She says: ‘It is my birthday. I had thought to have held it poor,’ meaning that she had not expected anything for her birthday. But now she has something – not her birthday, though – to celebrate: Antony’s change of mood. ‘Since my lord is Antony again,’ she says, I will be Cleopatra.’
It’s doubtful whether Shakespeare gave a second thought to his own birthday, even if he knew what date it was. But we can imagine, on that day, John and Mary Shakespeare gazing down on the new member of their family, eyes tight shut, sleeping peacefully in the cradle at the foot of their bed. How could they know that the tiny creature they had just produced was going to be one of the greatest writers who had ever lived and was not to be outdone for at least four hundred and fifty years? It’s a sublime thought, isn’t it?
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Three years after his marriage to Ann Hathaway William Shakespeare went to London. He went there specifically to get a job as a player in one of the theatres. The grammar school he had attended had a tradition of putting on plays on the last day of term, and he had also seen plays performed by touring players who had visited Stratford during his childhood. It’s evident that as he was growing up young William had substantial exposure to the theatre, and perhaps the desire to be a part of it had played on him and eventually become irresistible.
Once in London he was taken on by one of the foremost acting companies, The Chamberlain’s Men, and over the years he worked his way up from bit-part actor to main playwright and part owner of the company, making himself a very wealthy man.
Today he is known exclusively as a playwright. In spite of his various talents that’s how he is remembered, and always will be. Not only that, but perhaps as the greatest writer in the history of English letters.
We have had an idea of Shakespeare for a long time as the writer of the greatest plays in our culture, but as time has passed evidence has emerged that the Elizabethan and Jacobean writing scene was not quite as we have envisioned it: it was far more collaborative, with the writing of plays being corporate projects, much like the production of Hollywood movies, where a team of writers work together to produce a script.
In four centuries from now those who succeed us may look back on the 20th and 21st centuries as the golden age of films, just as we look on the 16th and 17th centuries as the golden age of theatre. They will see the names of the great script writers in the credits but be unaware of the rest of the team with whom he or she was working, unless we are able to read the fast-moving credits at the end of the film.
And so it was with the Elizabethans and Jacobeans: the top playwrights worked together, and modern scholarship, with the help of computer programs, has endorsed that.
We think, now, that Shakespeare, a bright-eyed, enthusiastic young man, obviously intelligent, and committed to the theatre, was the right young man at the right time. A playwright, in a tight corner, with a deadline looming, spotted him and roped him in to help him get a play out in time. Perhaps it was Marlowe. We know that Shakespeare knew him and some scholars think that he was the one who got Shakespeare into writing plays.
Young William Shakespeare was obviously a fast learner and soon he was going solo. Perhaps he worked with a few others before gaining enough confidence to attempt his own plays, but eventually he was working on big projects of his own – the plays we all know and love. We know now, though, that even then, other writers were involved in the production of those texts. And we also know that, even while he was writing his great plays he was working on the projects of his contemporaries. And, even after his retirement to Stratford, he still worked with younger up-and-coming dramatists on their plays. So any talk of The Tempest being his last play, and his farewell, and that Prospero is, in fact, a self portrait, is nonsense, as he continued to work on texts with other writers until his death.
If Shakespeare were to come back today, and find himself sitting on the couch of an interviewer on a cultural television programme, he would probably laugh at the idea that he was the greatest writer in history. He would tell you that he never came up with an original story, and everything was copied from history books and old tales and, indeed, other playwrights – everything to be done as quickly as possible to pull in the audiences. He would say that he invented new words with abandon, thoroughly disrespecting the English language. And he would tell you, moreover, that he passed his manuscripts around among his writing friends, and that they made comments and changes, and finally, among them all, they came up with something that would bring the crowds into the theatre. And he would tell you that he did the same for them. And he would probably add that he had laughed all the way to the bank.
Shakespeare was just nineteen years old when he first became a father: his daughter, Susanna, was born in 1583. His twins, Judith and Hamnet, arrived two years later in 1585. Shakespeare then left for London where, a few years later, he began writing plays for the theatre. He spent most of his time in London during the early years of his children’s growing up, but he went home often – sometimes for a few months at a time. Shakespeare’s wife Anne was left to raise the children on a day-to-day basis but William was nevertheless the husband, father and head of the family and the home.
We know nothing about Shakespeare’s relationship with his children but it is interesting that so many of his earliest plays have, at their heart, the relationship between fathers and their daughters. When Judith was thirteen he produced The Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both exploring the emotions and decisions of rebellious daughters, leaving fathers raising their hands in despair.
But when Judith Shakespeare was just fourteen her father wrote a play, Romeo and Juliet, in which a daughter, fourteen years old, just coming to marriageable age, defies an enraged father who swears at her, threatens her, and insists on her obedience. The question is: how did Shakespeare have such a deep insight into fourteen-year-old female passion? Could his Judith have been a model for that? We will never know, but any father with a fourteen-year-old daughter knows what a rough road it can be!
In all three plays the issue is who the daughters should marry. The fathers assume that they have the sole right to decide – to ‘give’ their daughters away, which in Shakespeare’s time usually meant sell rather than give. But Shakespeare is observing, imagining, creating – whatever his genius mind is doing – the modern young Western woman we recognise today: the woman who could not marry a man who repulsed her, or with whom she wasn’t in love. In the modern Western world a woman falls in love and wants to spend her time with him and make a life with him because of her feelings towards him. There are exceptions of course but this is the general pattern. In The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet all three women are modern in that sense and the fathers are rendered impotent by this powerful drive in their daughters.
In The Merchant of Venice the observant Jew, Shylock, locks his daughter up but she escapes through a window, climbs down a ladder and is whisked away in a gondola by her Christian lover.
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream the outraged father appeals to the Duke to try and get his daughter, in love with a young man without prospects, to marry the wealthy man he has promised her to. She also runs away.
But it is in Romeo and Juliet that Shakespeare really gets into this theme and we have close-ups of the father’s frustration and his distress as his dream of ennobling his grandchildren through the marriage he has procured comes tumbling around his ears.
Shakespeare never lost his keen interest in this theme and plays like Othello, with Brabantio’s anger at his daughter’s decision to marry a black man, explore it anew. King Lear is about a lot of things but it is basically a family play, about fathers and their children, but in Lear’s case, it is about an autocratic old man and his three daughters. The theme is thoroughly explored and we see that by this time Shakespeare has a mature and complex view of this fundamental human phenomenon. And we see the terrible consequences of a father’s unreasonable demands.
Judith’s first child was born in 1608, making Shakespeare a grandfather. It was a daughter. And is it a co-incidence that in the following year three plays – Pericles, A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest flowed from her grandfather’s pen that portray an old men stuck in a stale, corrupt world refreshed and redeemed by an innocent and fresh young girl? The girls are all very young, and untainted by the sophisticated world their fathers inhabited. In The Tempest Miranda has grown from a baby to a beautiful fifteen-year-old without ever having even seen a man, apart from her elderly father. In this case, now, although her father, Prospero, still controls her every movement, he steers her towards Ferdinand, with whom she falls in love. Throughout the process Prospero piles his blessings on to the couple, even though Ferdinand is the son of his enemy.
The themes in Shakespeare’s plays are multiple – all packed with wisdom and lessons for life. It’s impossible to relate all of that to the facts of his life as we know them but thinking about plays written in response to the most intense of life’s experience, the birth of children and raising them, is irresistible, and wasn’t the genius, William Shakespeare, human after all?
As perhaps the most famous English writer, but one who’s personal life is relativity little known about, it’s not surprising that a number of myths have arisen about Shakespeare. As time goes by we discover more and more about Shakespeare and so, although some of these myths persist, they are being busted one by one. So, here are the top Shakespeare myths, exposed and debunked:
Shakespeare Myth 1: We don’t really know what Shakespeare looked like
There are several portraits of Shakespeare that come with claims of authenticity. They’re very broadly similar – a high forehead and fairly long hair – and easily caricatured. But what Shakespeare really looked like is obvious: a few years after his death Anne Hathaway, his widow, commissioned a bust of Shakespeare to be placed above his tomb. She would have known what he looked like, as did the maker of the bust, who had known him. If we believe the sculptor Shakespeare was slightly chubby with a well-rounded face and a thick neck, a dark complexion, bald on top with fairly long, curled, hair at the sides, a goatee and a well manicured and twirled moustache.
Shakespeare Myth 2: Someone else wrote the Shakespeare plays
Perhaps the greatest myth about Shakespeare is that none of his works were written by him. There is an ongoing ‘authorship debate’ with some people thinking that a man with Shakespeare’s background could not have written the plays. However, there are a number of pointers…
only a man with a Warwickshire country background could have, because deep in the fabric of the language of the texts are the plants, insects, animals, customs and weather of Warwickshire. No high-born man, educated in the way gentlemen were educated, could have used the language of nature so effectively, with such detailed knowledge of the nature of a particular place. None of the candidates put forward as the author of the plays could possibly have written them. The people who deny Shakespeare cannot imagine that genius can come from such a background but in music and art, as well as writing, we see examples of just that if we look back in our culture. Very few Shakespeare scholars would now say that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays.
Shakespeare Myth 3: Shakespeare was gay
The thought that Shakespeare was gay tends to be based on the sonnets he wrote to a beautiful young man. These days straight men don’t address these sorts of poems to other men, but Elizabethan men had no such inhibitions: it was very common to refer to a man’s beauty, to praise his eyes and his skin etc. This was particularly so when the poet felt the need to flatter his patron, and it would not have been taken as sexual. And so it was with Shakespeare. Moreover, the strict line we draw between male and female is a relatively modern development in our culture. In ancient times and also Elizabethan times men were allowed to be attracted to other men without being thought of as deviant. A man could be completely heterosexual (an unknown concept to Elizabethans) but also allow himself to be attracted to a man. Shakespeare’s plays are full of such ambiguous sexuality, even among the most masculine of male characters.
Shakespeare Myth 4: We don’t know very much about Shakespeare, the man
In fact we know a great deal about Shakespeare. Scholars have been unable to to find any personal or business writing by him, and his dramatic writing has come to us in roundabout ways, but a great deal of work has been done – particularly in the last century – to find him, both in London and in Stratford, and it is surprising how much we do know. We know where he lived in both places, who he lived with and the things he did in both places. We know who his family members were and who his colleagues were. We have discovered several documents in which he is mentioned, including reports from people who knew him.
Shakespeare Myth 5: Shakespeare was uneducated
Shakespeare attended his local grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon. Not everyone went to school and he was able to attend because his father was an alderman of the town and therefore privileged. The curriculum was rigorous and boys were taught Latin and Greek – and not only the mechanics of the language, they also studied the writers of those cultures. They were taught mathematics, logic and music as well. The standard of education grammar school boys would have reached was no different from that of aristocratic boys. As an adult Shakespeare read widely and acquired a knowledge of Greek and mediaeval drama, philosophical ideas and so on. He knew the latest thinking on scientific matters, and what was known about geography. And, he was, of course, extremely well read in history.
Shakesoeare Myth 6: Shakespeare was unhappily married
Of course we don’t know how Shakespeare and Anne got on from day to day but they produced three children. Their son, Hamnet, died aged eleven but they raised their two daughters to adulthood together. Shakespeare worked in London and went home regularly, where he conducted some business matters and enjoyed a family life. He also retired to Stratford and lived quietly with Anne. When he died she continued to live in the family home until her death. The myth may have arisen because he left her his second best bed in his will, though this was actually a gesture of affection. The best bed was customarily reserved for guests – the second best bed was where a man and wife slept together throughout their life together, and where their children were born. In his will he made sure that that bed would become indisputably her possession.
Shakespeare Myth 7: Playwriting was Shakespeare’s profession
Unlike most other writers for the theatre Shakespeare was not a professional writer. He wrote part-time, very fast, to satisfy the needs of the theatre of which he was a director. It’s improbable that he was ever paid directly for a play. He was paid as an actor, and if anyone had asked his profession he would probably have said that he was an actor. He never became a famous actor like his friend Richard Burbage and it is assumed that he played only minor roles. Scholars think that he appeared in some of Ben Jonson’s plays and there is also evidence that he played the ghost in his own Hamlet. Shakespeare was multi-talented and seemed to have excelled at everything he did except, perhaps, in his profession of actor. He became rich in his position as one of the directors of the Globe Theatre. He also had business interests in Stratford.
Shakespeare Myth 8: Shakespeare knew Queen Elizabeth personally
Although Shakespeare’s acting company – The Kings Men – played before the queen on more than one occasion there is no evidence that there was a personal meeting between Shakespeare and Elizabeth. Even if he had wanted that she would probably have considered herself so high above him that it could never have happened. He was an actor and there was a common perception in the Elizabethan era that actors were the lowest forms of life.
Shakespeare Myth 9: Shakespeare was the most popular writer of his time
During Shakespeare’s time plays were disposable, discarded after a few performances at the most. Theatre was big business and there were hundreds of playwrights working in London during the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. The theatres were in fierce competition with each other, all desperate to bring audiences in, so they had to have new plays all the time. People went to the theatres regardless of who had written the play they were going to see. There were no ‘bad’ playwrights and if one looks at the surviving plays one sees a very high quality. They basically wrote to a formula, as did Shakespeare, and it is really only looking back that one sees how creatively Shakespeare worked within that formula, and how he subverted and stretched it. A theatregoer might like a particular writer’s plays although he would not necessarily know whether he was going to see one of them or not. Master Shakespeare was popular, as was Master Jonson and Master Kyd – and many others. Shakespeare did not become rich because he was a particularly good or popular writer but because he had shares in The Globe – one of London’s most popular theatres at the time.
Shakespeare Myth 10: Shakespeare worked alone
It has been known for centuries that Shakespeare collaborated widely, both in plays that are credited to him and in some credited to other playwrights. In recent years scholars have been able to use computers to analyse literary texts, and they have discovered a surprising amount of collaboration among the playwright community of London at that time.
Henry VIII was written with a large input from John Fletcher. The Two Noble Kinsmen was written mainly by Fletcher with a small input from Shakespeare. Studies have recently discovered that Philip Massinger was also involved in both of those plays. Fletcher worked with Shakespeare on the lost play, The History of Cardenio. There is evidence that Goerge Wilkins worked with Shakespeare onPericles and Timon of Athens.
Other writers who have been identified as collaborators with Shakespeare are Christopher Marlowe, George Peele (Henry VI Part 1 and Titus Andronicus), Thomas Middleton (Timon of Athensand Macbeth) and Robert Greene(Titus Andronicusand Henry VI, Parts 1 & 2, and also contributing toThe Comedy of Errors and The Two Gentlemen of Verona.)
There is also evidence that Shakespeare worked with many other playwrights on plays credited to those playwrights.
Shakespeare Myth 11: Shakespeare was an Elizabethan playwright
Shakespeare’s writing life straddled the reign of two monarchs, Elizabeth I and James I. His early plays were Elizabethan and are prime examples of Elizabethan literature and drama. Subsequently, during James’s reign new young writers were appearing, catering to the public taste for violence and intrigue. Shakespeare embraced those newcomers, befriended them and collaborated with them both on their plays and his. He learned from those Jacobean writers to develop his own writing for the theatre and included the elements demanded by the popular taste, and so became a Jacobean playwright. Iago in Othello, for example, is a typical Jacobean character, with his high intelligence, his manipulative way of dealing with people, his plotting and his cruelty, amounting to physical violence when necessary.
What do you think about these Shakespeare myths? Any we’ve missed out? Let us know in the comments below.
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