7 things you (probably) didn’t know about William Shakespeare

He lived through one of the most turbulent yet thrilling eras of English history – a period of plague, riots and political and religious tensions – and went on to become one of history’s most famous playwrights. Now, a new book by Zoe Bramley explores 100 lesser-known stories about Shakespeare’s life

Shakespeare foli,o 1623. (Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Here, writing for History Extra, Bramley brings you seven things you probably didn’t know about the bard…

 

1) ‘William Shakespeare’ was ‘a weakish speller’

One of the most curious facts about William Shakespeare is that his name can be reshuffled to create the sentence ‘I am a weakish speller’. We might wish for a more heroic anagram for one of our nation’s greatest playwrights, but unfortunately ‘I am a weakish speller’ does in fact ring true when applied to Shakespeare.

It was a man named Donald L Holmes who first discovered the anagram, possibly while musing about the frivolity of early modern orthography (the art of writing words with the proper letters). Shakespeare was writing in the era before Samuel Johnson’s dictionary – which started the process of standardising English spelling – so he was rather relaxed about words. Indeed, he could not even decide how to spell his own name. Consider the following variants on his signature when he was finalising legal documents such as the mortgage deeds on property in Blackfriars, and his will: Shaksper, Shakespe, Shakespere, and Shakspeare.

See also the spelling in the 1599 edition of Romeo and Juliet

Two households, both alike in dignitie,
(In faire Verona where we lay our Scene),
From auncient grudge, break to new mutinie,
Where civill bloud makes civill hands uncleane.


Title page of 'Romeo and Juliet’, 1599 edition. (© Mary Evans Picture Library/Alamy Stock Photo)

 

2) Had it not been for a fatal brawl in 1587 we may never have heard of William Shakespeare

Nobody really knows how young Shakespeare made his way from his childhood home of Stratford-upon-Avon to the bustle of Elizabethan London and playhouse glory. There are several theories about what he did when he first arrived in the capital, including the famous story that he was employed as a kind of valet – looking after playgoers’ horses while they enjoyed the show. Whether or not this is true – and there is no reason why it should not be – we still don’t know how Shakespeare was first introduced into theatrical society, or the circumstances in which he left Stratford.

The best theory I have heard involves two angry men and a sharp sword. It was the year 1587. The Queen’s Men [a major acting company whose patron was Queen Elizabeth] were on a summer tour, bringing the latest hit plays to the provinces. Life on the road for a troupe of players cannot have been easy and tempers were beginning to fray. On the night of 13 June, the actor William Knell attacked his colleague John Towne with a sword. Towne fled but was cornered and struck back, inflicting a fatal stab wound on Knell.

The Queen’s Men were now officially short-staffed. A few days later they arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon where fate may have united them with William Shakespeare. Nobody knows exactly how they first met, but Shakespeare would have seen the Queen’s Men perform in Stratford.

 

3) The character Emilia in Othello may have been based on a real-life lover

Generations of Shakespeare biographers have portrayed Shakespeare’s love life as being a rather colourful one. His purported lovers include figures such as Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton; a brothel keeper called Lucy Morgan, and the courtier Emilia Lanier.

Emilia is one of the candidates for Shakespeare’s ‘dark lady’, that shadowy figure who inspired some of his most passionate sonnets. Lanier was a poet in her own right, producing some of the earliest feminist work in the English language. With titles including Eve’s Apologie in Defence of Women, she exposes double standards, asking mutinously: “Why are poore women blam’d, or by more faultie men defam’d?”

Some scholars believe that Shakespeare had Lanier in mind when he wrote the character Emilia in Othello. Indeed, Emilia has some of the most feminist lines in the whole of Shakespeare:

Let husbands know
Their wives have sense like them: they see and smell
And have their palates both for sweet and sour
As husbands have.

Emilia Lanier’s father was also a Venetian, so it may not be a coincidence that Othello is partially set in Venice.


An engraving from William Shakespeare's play ‘Othello’ depicting the character Iago embracing his wife, Emilia. (© Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library/Alamy Stock Photo)

 

4) Shakespeare has been translated into 80 languages, including Klingon and Esperanto

If Shakespeare knew how far his work has travelled in the 400 years since his death, he would be amazed. His original audiences included people from all walks of life, from kings and queens to prostitutes and fish mongers, but they all had one thing in common: the English language. Shakespeare was writing in the Elizabethan ‘golden age’ of exploration, but his world was essentially limited to the confines of our island.

Like the English language itself, Shakespeare’s work has since broken free of its restraints to travel across the globe – and even beyond. In 2000, Star Trek fans produced a translation of Hamlet in Klingon, in an effort to restore Shakespeare to its ‘original’ language. The Prince of Denmark begins his most famous speech not with “to be or not to be”, but with “taH pagh taHbe”. Unsurprisingly, most people prefer the earthling version and the Klingon Hamlet is rarely, if ever, performed.

Shakespeare has also been translated into Esperanto, the artificial language based on the structure of major European tongues. Translations include Reĝo Lear, Rikardo Tria and La Komedio de Eraroj.

It should also be remembered that Shakespeare himself enjoyed languages and wrote a whole scene in French for the play Henry V.

 

5) William was not the only Shakespeare working in the playhouses of London

At some point, William’s younger brother Edmund followed him down to London. Edmund is one of those intriguing characters in history whose name appears in one or two documents and then disappears from view. We have therefore only the barest details of his short life, but with a bit of imagination it is just about possible to sketch an idea of who he was.

Born in 1580, Edmund lived in the Cripplegate area of London, just outside the city walls. It was a short stroll away from William’s lodgings on Silver Street, so the two brothers would have found it easy to maintain contact with each other. Yet despite the proximity of their lodgings and Edmund’s profession as an actor, there is no record that the pair ever worked together. While William was forging a dazzling career at the Globe on Bankside, it is likely that Edmund worked with Edward Alleyn at the Fortune near Shoreditch.


Edward Alleyn, an English actor and a major figure of the Elizabethan theatre, c1615. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)

The year 1607 was bitter-sweet for the Shakespeare clan. Edmund fathered an illegitimate son, baptised Edward, but sadly the infant died and Edmund followed him to the grave months later aged 27. We do not know how he died but William ensured he was buried with dignity at the church of St Saviour’s (now Southwark Cathedral).

 

6) The longest word in Shakespeare is honorificabilitudinitatibus

Although he showed off his French skills in Henry V, Shakespeare was sparing when it came to the use of Latin. With such diverse audiences, he needed to ensure that everyone could understand what was going on in his plays. His friend and rival Ben Jonson scattered Latin liberally throughout his own plays and sneered that Shakespeare had “small Latin and little Greek”. Jonson’s slur was not entirely correct, however. Witness Shakespeare’s use of the word honorificabilitudinitatibus in the play Love’s Labour’s Lost. The Collins English Dictionary definition of the word is “invincible glorious honorableness. It is the ablative plural of the Latin contrived honorificabilitudinitas…”

The word is spoken by the clown Costard in a scene that contains plenty of jokes about unnecessary wordiness: “I marvel thy master hath not eaten thee for a word; for thou art not so long by the head as honorificabilitundinitatibus: thou art easier swallowed than a flap-dragon.”

It was a comic scene and precedes one in which several characters try out their Latin on each other and make fun of Armado for his over-blown speech patterns. It is tempting to imagine the Latin-mad Ben Jonson seeing his reflection in Armado.

 

7) He caused an ecological disaster in New York

Shakespeare may be wildly popular all over the world but there was a time when the people of New York may have cursed his name. In 1890 a German-American named Eugene Scheiffelin took the extraordinary step of importing 60 starlings from England to New York (and a further 40 the following year). As an avid Shakespeare fan and zoologist it was Scheiffelin’s dream for America to be the home of each bird species featured in the works of the bard. As well as the romance of bringing a little bit of England to New York, Scheiffelin wanted to see if non-native species could thrive there, so duly released the starlings into Central Park.

Unfortunately for the American eco-system the starlings thrived a little too well and bred rapidly, out-competing the local fauna for food and habitat. It is currently one of only three birds in the US not afforded any state protection (the other two being the house sparrow and the pigeon) and is treated as a pest. Ironically, the starling only appears in one line in the whole of Shakespeare. In the play Henry IV, Part I, Hotspur fantasises about using one of them to plague his enemy: “Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but ‘Mortimer’, and give it him to keep his anger still in motion.”

Zoe Bramley is the author of William Shakespeare in 100 Facts (Amberley Publishing, 2016).

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