10 fascinating facts about William Shakespeare


2015-06-26 13:41:35

10 fascinating facts about William Shakespeare

This week marks 400 years since Shakespeare's death.

Yet while the world celebrates his unrivalled contribution to English literature, we forget what an enigma the Bard of Avon really was and how little we actually know about the man behind some of the greatest words ever written.

Let's uncover the truth about William Shakespeare in 10 fascinating facts.

His greatest collectors were a real-life Romeo and Juliet

A relief from Romeo and Juliet carved into the specially designed Folger Library

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DCis home to the world's greatest collection of Shakespeare works, housing 82 copies of the 1623 First Folio (of which only 40 complete examples are known) and many of his earlier plays.

The collection, which also includes a huge selection of early English books, was the lifelong love of Henry Clay Folger (1857-1930), president of Standard Oil of New York, and his wife, Emily Jordan Folger (1885-1936).

The pair were instantly besotted with each other on meeting and chose to dedicate their lives to collecting Shakespeare rather than have children, living in rented houses despite Henry's wealth.

They enjoyed a wonderful marriage, Henry enjoying success in the Gilded Age, while Emily looked after the collection. Thankfully, their two houses weren't at war and there was no poison for these "star-crossed lovers".

His gravestone is cursed

Shakespeare grave curseA more friendly poem accompanies the curse

It appears Shakespeare left some parting words on his death, in the form of a curse on his gravestone in Stratford-upon-Avon.

We say curse, but Shakespeare's rhyme seems more of a terse warning to opportunistic grave diggers: "Good friend for Jesus sake forebeare/To dig the dust encloased heare;/Bleste be the man that spares thes stones,/And curst be he that moves my bones."

His job title was "actor"

One critic described Shakespeare as an 'upstart crow' after seeing his performance

We know that Shakespeare wrote many plays, so it's easy to forget that, through much of his life, he was listed as an actor. Visit the Globe theatre in London in the early 1600s, and you were likely to see the Bard in action, hamming it up with the best of them.

He is known to have played the ghost in Hamlet, as well as Adam in As You Like It. A favourite of the royals, he also performed in front of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I.

Writing, directing and acting in his own plays, he was the Elizabethan equivalent to Woody Allen.

Shakespeare was a family man

While little survives to tell us of Shakespeare's personal life, we do have a good record of his family, easily traced back through the records of Elizabethan England.

William Shakespeare was one of seven siblings born to John and Mary Shakespeare, with Joan, Margaret, Gilbert, Joan II, Anne, Richard and Edmund his brothers and sisters.

He also got busy making a family for himself, marrying Anne Hathaway. His eldest daughter Susannah was born in 1583, and twins Hamnet and Judith arrived in 1585.

The twins were named after two of his closest friends, the local butcher Hamnet Sadler and his wife, Judith.


For collectors, the third time's the charm

Shakespeare second folioThe frontispiece of the Second Folio

A complete copy of the First Folio may be the apple of the Shakespeare collector's eye, but they'd certainly prefer a copy of the later Third Folio than the Second.

A reprint of the Second Folio, containing extra plays (only one of which can be attributed to Shakespeare), the Third Folio is actually much rarer than its predecessor.

Published in 1664, it hadn't been released for long when the Great Fire of London ravaged the city in 1666, destroying many of the unsold copies. With books costing a small fortune in Shakespeare's day, the Third Folio hadn't exactly flown off the shelves, despite being one of the most popular books in the country.

He couldn't spell his own name

Shakespeare autographOf the six examples known, this is one of the finest of Shakespeare's signatures

That's right, the man who contributed more to the English language than any other couldn't even get his own name right.

Well, to be fair, that's judging by the modern spelling. In the six known examples of Shakespeare's signature, he never pens his own name in quite the same way: Willm Shakp, William Shakspr, WM Shaskp, William Shakspere, Willm Shakespere and "By me William Shakspeare".

Despite the poet's indecisive penmanship, if you can get your hands on an example of his autograph, you're retirement fund can rest easy. Should one appear at auction, it would easily become the most valuable autograph ever sold.

Shakespeare killed Abraham Lincoln

Like Shakespeare's characters, Lincoln had a prophetic dream of his own death the night before it happened

It was the great president's love of Shakespeare that ultimately led to his downfall.

Abraham Lincoln was known to be an avid fan of Shakespeare, frequently reciting his plays at dinner to entertain guests. It was this love of theatre that led him to a performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre, where he was gunned down by Shakespearian actor, John Wilkes Booth.

Like many of Shakespeare's characters, Lincoln is said to have had a prophetic dream the night before, in which he saw mourners.

"'Who is dead in the White House?' I demanded of one of the soldiers, 'The President,' was his answer; 'he was killed by an assassin'", Lincoln told his biographer, Ward Hill Lamon.

He is featured in the King James Bible

King James BibleKing James I was a renowned bookworm and likely had Shakespeare's name placed in his Bible as a mark of respect

Shakespeare is well revered today, and it looks like he was equally worshipped by literature lovers in his own day.

In the King James Bible, printed in the year of Shakespeare's 46th birthday, the 46th word of Psalm 46 is "shake", while the 46th word from the end of that psalm is "spear".

Some believe it was a tribute to the Bard from the publishers, or even the king himself,with Shakespeare counting many of England's most powerful people among his friends.

We've lost over 20 of his works

Collectors are said to be preservers of history, looking after rare works until they are passed on to the next generation.

If only there had been more collectors around in Shakespeare's day: around 20 plays are thought to have been lost since his death in 1616.

We know that a play called Cardenio was written and performed during Shakespeare's lifetime in collaboration with John Fletcher, but have no record of its plot or characters. However,it is now said to have been unearthed, and a film is being made with actor James Franco in the lead.

Likewise, a play called Love's Labour's Won is listed by a bookseller among Shakespeare's recent works, but nothing exists to inform us of its story. It could be that both plays are simply alternative titles to works we have been enjoying for years.

Odd jobs run in the family

Was Shakespeare's dad really an ale-taster? Or did he just hang around public houses long enough to earn the title?

Shakespeare didn't always work in theatre, despite being obsessed from an early age. One of his first jobs was holding horses outside the theatre while rich attendees enjoyed the performance.

He later worked as glove maker with his father, who alsohad his fair share of odd appointments, such as working as Stratford's official "ale-taster" - though we're not sure if this is a euphemism for his drinking habits.

After marrying a rich girl, William's mother Mary, John Shakespeare became a well known moneylender, but died in poverty as he fell into debt. Presumably, he couldn't quite give up his former ale-tasting profession!

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