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The Bogus Bard: 5 Stories About Shakespeare We Wish Were True

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Shakespeare’s life is as full of fiction as his plays are. In fact, historians have taken decades to separate the legends and bawdy stories from fact. Some of the juiciest tales are now debunked, while others are new theories to fill in the holes in his biography. Here are five “to-be-or-not” stories of the bard.

1. Shakespeare stole a powerful man’s deer

The story goes that while still home in Stratford, the newly married Shakespeare was caught stealing deer belonging to Stratford bigwig Sir Thomas Lucy. Questioned and whipped by Lucy himself, Shakespeare felt so much shame he fled to London and became an actor. This scandalous tale was an accepted fact for centuries. Who wouldn’t want to believe Western literature’s greatest name started as a disgraced thief?

But while the Lucys did keep deer, scholars now find no evidence of this escapade, though four different biographers have repeated it. Most likely, it began as a rumor in the 17th century to explain why Shakespeare would leave predictable, comfortable, stuck-in-a-rut Stratford for the excitement of London.

2. Shakespeare stole his best actor’s girl

Richard Burbage was Shakespeare’s most celebrated actor, playing most of their company’s leading roles. Along with his father, Burbage provided his company with two theaters—the Theater and the more famous Globe—but that apparently didn’t stop Shakespeare from stealing his woman.

According to historical rumor, after a performance of Richard III—with Burbage in the title role—a young fan invited the actor to visit her secretly and to announce at her door, “Richard the third has come.” Shakespeare overheard the plan and raced to the lady’s room. When Burbage arrived and announced himself as told, Shakespeare sent word down that “William the Conqueror came before Richard the third.”

Shakespeare may well have scooped up women from Burbage, but nothing supports this story being more than legend.

3. Shakespeare was godfather to his own illegitimate son

Long after Shakespeare’s death, Restoration-era playwright William Davenant was one of four men commissioned in the 1660s with interpreting and adapting his works. To Davenant, born 1606, this was preordained: Publicly, Shakespeare was his godfather, but Davenant claimed just as publicly that they were actually father and son.

Shakespeare was close to the Davenants. William said he learned how close in a roundabout way at school. The Davenants lived in Oxford, where Shakespeare sojourned when on his way to visit his family in Stratford. Young William was summoned once from school to meet him. Questioned on the way by a teacher, William said he hurried to see his godfather. The teacher quipped that William should know better than to use God’s name in vain. William claimed to have been named after Shakespeare and maintained he wrote with his supposed father’s “very spirit.”

The most vocal supporter of this genealogy was—guess who—William Davenant. There was no real proof that he was Shakespeare's son. How claiming that he was helped his career can only be guessed, but were you ever forced to read William Davenant in school?

4. Shakespeare was God’s own spy

Shakespeare’s plays are full of conspiracies, even the comedies. The idea that he didn’t just write conspiracies but lived one as well is an enticing theory of his early life. Was young Shakespeare a reluctant Catholic spy? Shakespeare historian Stephen Greenblatt imagines so.

Queen Elizabeth I made a show of persecuting Catholics early in her reign. Will’s father John, as a Stratford official, was responsible for the destruction of the altar of Stratford’s Catholic chapel. But John was also a secret Catholic. During renovations to the Shakespeare family home in the 18th century, a book was found in the rafters: a “spiritual declaration” of the Catholic faith signed by John, with space for other names, and prepared by Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, executed for treason in 1581.

Greenblatt suggests this and other passing affiliations with Campion pushed the young Shakespeare into carrying messages between Catholic priests hidden near Stratford. These jaunts brought William close to 26-year-old Anne Hathaway.

Both parents deceased, Anne was very available. Did she provide Shakespeare with a release from the intrigue forced on him?

They married quickly in 1582. William was 18. Anne was pregnant, so there’s also that. She was left in Stratford while Shakespeare played around in London, suggesting the whole affair was born out of youthful rebellion. But until the sonnet “I was a teenage anarchist” shows up—which would definitively prove Shakespeare’s role in an actual latent rebellion—this lies squarely in conjecture.

5. Shakespeare ruled all of England

Did Shakespeare, a glove-maker’s son from Stratford, really shake up the Elizabethan theater scene? Many historians question whether Shakespeare was a pseudonym or even a complete invention overall. A dozen names have been put forth as the real Shakespeare—most strangely, the martyred Edmund Campion. Let’s go with the best: Shakespeare was really Queen Elizabeth I herself. I know, right?

In his book Players: the Mysterious Identity of William Shakespeare, writer and entertainment lawyer Bertram Fields admits the Queen is an outside bet. Her breeding gives her the education needed to plot those histories and tragedies, and certain sonnets could contain clues she meant to leave. Then again, would she have written scenes she publicly found abhorrent and, as Fields points out, suppressed or deplored them?

Other (flimsy) evidence lies in Shakespeare’s portrait included in the first publication of his plays, called the First Folio. Under computer imaging, Shakespeare without his beard is supposedly a dead ringer for the Virgin Queenif that portrait really is Shakespeare; it was done seven years after his death. Still doesn’t bode well for Anne Hathaway. But it would make a hell of a story for William Davenant.

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13 Fantastic Museums You Can Visit for Free on Saturday
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On Saturday, September 23, museums and cultural institutions across the United States will open their doors to the public for free, as part of Smithsonian magazine’s annual Museum Day Live! event. Hundreds of museums are set to participate, ranging from world-famous institutions in major cities to tiny, local museums in small towns. While the full list of museums can be viewed, and tickets can be reserved, on the Smithsonian website, we’ve collected a small selection of the fantastic museums you can visit for free this Saturday.

1. NEWSEUM // WASHINGTON, D.C.

The Newseum in Washington, D.C. is an entire museum dedicated to the First Amendment. Celebrating freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition, the museum features exhibits on civil rights, the Berlin Wall, and the history of news media in America. Their latest special exhibitions take a look back at the event of September 11, 2001 and go inside the FBI's crime-fighting tactics.

2. INTREPID SEA, AIR & SPACE MUSEUM // NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK

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New York's Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum doesn’t just showcase America’s military and maritime history—it is a piece of that history. The museum itself is one of the Essex-class aircraft carriers built by the United States Navy during World War II. Visitors can explore its massive deck and interior, and view historic airplanes, a real World War II submarine, and a range of interactive exhibits. Normally, a ticket will set you back a whopping $33 (or $19 for New York City residents), but on Saturday, general admission is free with a Museum Day Live! ticket.

3. AUTRY MUSEUM OF THE AMERICAN WEST // LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA

Perfect for art lovers, history buffs, and cinephiles alike, the Autry Museum of the American West (named for legendary singing cowboy Gene Autry) offers up an eclectic mix of art, historical artifacts from the real American West, and Western film memorabilia and props.

4. MUSEUM OF ARTS AND SCIENCES // DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA

A massive art, science, and history museum located on a 90-acre nature preserve, the Museum of Arts and Sciences features the largest collection of Florida art anywhere in the world, as well as the largest collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia in all of Florida. Its diverse exhibits are alternately awe-inspiring, informative, and quirky, ranging from an exploration of 2000 years of sculpture art to an exhibition of 19th and 20th century advertising posters.

5. INTERNATIONAL MUSEUM OF THE HORSE AT THE KENTUCKY HORSE PARK // LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY

The International Museum of the Horse explores the history of—you guessed it!—the horse. That might sound like a narrow scope, but the museum doesn’t just display horse racing artifacts or teach you about modern horse breeds. Instead, it endeavors to tackle the 50-million-year evolution of the horse and its relationship with humans from ancient times to modern times.

6. THE PEGGY NOTEBAERT NATURE MUSEUM // CHICAGO, ILLINOIS

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The 160-year-old Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum is pulling out all the stops for this year’s Museum Day Live! In addition to their vast exhibits of animal specimens and cultural artifacts, the museum will be hosting a live animal feeding and a butterfly release throughout the day.

7. OGDEN MUSEUM OF SOUTHERN ART // NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art aims to teach visitors about the rich culture and diverse visual arts of the American South. Right now, visitors can view a collection of William Eggleston's photographs and check out the museum's 10th annual invitational exhibition of ceramic teacups and teapots.

8. BALTIMORE MUSEUM OF INDUSTRY // BALTIMORE, MARYLAND

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Located in a 19th century oyster cannery on the Baltimore waterfront, the Baltimore Museum of Industry tells the story of American manufacturing from garment making to video game design. Visitors this weekend can meet video game designers and create custom games at the museum’s interactive “Video Game Wizards” exhibit.

9. SYLVAN HEIGHTS BIRD PARK // SCOTLAND NECK, NORTH CAROLINA

You can meet 2000 birds from around the world this weekend at the 18-acre Sylvan Heights Bird Park. Visitors to the massive garden can walk through aviaries displaying birds from every continent except Antarctica, including ducks, geese, swans, and exotic birds from all over the world.

10. DELTA BLUES MUSEUM // CLARKSDALE, MISSISSIPPI

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Visitors to the Delta Blues Museum can learn about the unique American musical art form in “the land where blues began,” with audiovisual exhibits centered on blues and rock legend Don Nix, as well as Paramount Records illustrator Anthony Mostrom.

11. NATIONAL MUSEUM OF NUCLEAR SCIENCE & HISTORY // ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO

America’s only congressionally chartered museum dedicated to the story of the Atomic Age, the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History features exhibits on everything from nuclear medicine to representations of atomic power in pop culture. Adult visitors to the museum will delight in its impressively nuanced take on nuclear technology, while kids will love the museum’s outdoor airplane exhibit and hands-on science activities at Little Albert’s Lab.

12. MUSEUM OF THE MOUNTAIN MAN // PINEDALE, WYOMING

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Dedicated to the mountain men who explored and settled Wyoming in the 19th century, the Museum of the Mountain Man brings American folklore and legends to life. The museum features exhibits on the Rocky Mountain fur trade and tells the story of American folk legend and famed mountain man Hugh Glass (the man Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar playing in 2015's The Revenant).

13. BESH BA GOWAH ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK AND MUSEUM // GLOBE, ARIZONA

Arizona’s Besh Ba Gowah Archaeological Park and Museum lets visitors connect with history firsthand. The museum is home to the ruins and artifacts of the Salado Indians who inhabited Arizona from the 13th century through the 15th century, and even lets visitors wander through an 800-year-old Salado pueblo.

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‘American Gothic’ Became Famous Because Many People Saw It as a Joke
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In 1930, Iowan artist Grant Wood painted a simple portrait of a farmer and his wife (really his dentist and sister) standing solemnly in front of an all-American farmhouse. American Gothic has since inspired endless parodies and is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic works of art. But when it first came out, few people would have guessed it would become the classic it is today. Vox explains the painting’s unexpected path to fame in the latest installment of the new video series Overrated.

According to host Phil Edwards, American Gothic made a muted splash when it first hit the art scene. The work was awarded a third-place bronze medal in a contest at the Chicago Art Institute. When Wood sold the painting to the museum later on, he received just $300 for it. But the piece’s momentum didn’t stop there. It turned out that American Gothic’s debut at a time when urban and rural ideals were clashing helped it become the defining image of the era. The painting had something for everyone: Metropolitans like Gertrude Stein saw it as a satire of simple farm life in Middle America. Actual farmers and their families, on the other hand, welcomed it as celebration of their lifestyle and work ethic at a time when the Great Depression made it hard to take pride in anything.

Wood didn’t do much to clear up the work’s true meaning. He stated, "There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life."

Rather than suffering from its ambiguity, American Gothic has been immortalized by it. The country has changed a lot in the past century, but the painting’s dual roles as a straight masterpiece and a format for skewering American culture still endure today.

Get the full story from Vox below.

[h/t Vox]

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