16 Things You Might Not Know About William Shakespeare

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Despite his many contributions to English literature, surprisingly little is known about William Shakespeare’s life. For the past four centuries, historians have had the difficult task of piecing together the Bard's biography with only a handful of old legal documents. Here's what we do know about the celebrated actor, poet, and playwright.

1. HIS WRITING WAS LIKELY INFLUENCED BY HIS FATHER'S LEGAL TROUBLES.

When Shakespeare was about 5 years old, his father, John—a glovemaker—was accused of illegal money-lending and wool-dealing by Crown informers. The ordeal plunged the elder Shakespeare into legal troubles that would plague him for the next decade. "William grew to adulthood in a household where his father had fallen in social and economic rank," historian Glyn Parry told The Guardian. Parry argues that the experience likely shaped Shakespeare's attitudes toward power, class, and the monarchy—major themes in his future works.

2. HE GOT MARRIED BECAUSE OF AN UNEXPECTED PREGNANCY.

Shakespeare was 18 when he learned that Anne Hathaway, 26, was pregnant with his first child. The couple quickly decided to marry in November 1582 and greeted daughter Susanna in May 1583. Two years later, they had twins Judith and Hamnet. Unfortunately, Shakespeare has no living direct descendants: Hamnet died at age 11, probably a victim of some disease; Judith outlived her three children; and Susanna had one daughter, Elizabeth, who was childless.

3. NOBODY KNOWS WHAT HE DID BETWEEN 1585 AND 1592.

After the birth of his twins, Shakespeare fell off the map for seven years. One unsubstantiated theory—and there are many—suggests that he supported his family by working as a lawyer or legal clerk. Indeed, Shakespeare's plays show an impressive grasp of legal knowledge. "No dramatist of the time … used legal phrases with Shakespeare's readiness and exactness," wrote 19th-century literary critic Richard Grant White. (High praise considering that Shakespeare once wrote, "Let's kill all the lawyers.")

4. HE WAS, FIRST AND FOREMOST, AN ACTOR.

An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
An engraving of Shakespeare by E Scriven, after Humphrey's drawing known as the 'Chandos portrait,' circa 1590.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Shakespeare became an actor at a time when the job was considered downright unsavory. "[A]ctors were already marked as undesirables by England's vagrancy laws, which mandated that traveling troupes had to find aristocratic patronage," John Paul Rollert wrote in The Atlantic. "Rogue players ran the risk of being flogged, branded, and finally hanged." Little is known of Shakespeare's acting chops, but it's believed Shakespeare favored playing "kingly parts," including the ghost in his own Hamlet.

5. HE MAY HAVE PARTICIPATED IN ORGANIZED CRIME.

In the 1590s, many of London's theaters operated as shady fronts for organized crime. (The Lord Mayor of London decried the theater—and specifically plans for the new Swan Theatre, where Shakespeare may have briefly worked—as a meeting spot for "thieves, horse-stealers, whoremongers, cozeners, conny-catching persons, practisers of treason, and such other like.") In 1596, Swan Theater owner Francis Langley accused William Gardiner and his stepson William Wayte of making death threats. Soon after, Wayte retaliated with the same accusations against Langley and—for some reason—William Shakespeare. This has led historian Mike Dash to suggest that Shakespeare may have been involved in some unspoken criminal activity.

6. HE WAS A MATCHMAKER (AND MARITAL PEACE-MAKER).

It may be no surprise that the author of Romeo and Juliet had a penchant for bringing lovers together: He once helped arrange the marriage of his landlord's daughter. The only reason we know this, however, is because the marriage had a rocky start. When a dispute over the dowry boiled over, Shakespeare had to go to court to act as a character witness for his landlord, whom he called a "very honest fellow." The transcript is the only record of Shakespeare speaking.

7. THE FIRST PRINTED REFERENCE TO SHAKESPEARE AS A PLAYWRIGHT IS AN INSULT.

The first mention of William Shakespeare as a playwright appeared in 1592, when the dramatist Robert Greene (or possibly Henry Chettle) called him an "upstart Crow [who] … supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you." (In other words: A jack-of-all-trades, and a master of none.) Future reviewers would offer kinder words; in 1598, the critic Francis Meres called him "mellifluous and honey-tongued."

8. HE LIKELY HELPED STEAL A THEATER, PIECE BY PIECE.

In 1596, the Theatre in Shoreditch—where Shakespeare cut his teeth as an actor—went dark. The lease for the property on which it was built had expired, and Shakespeare's acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, were forced to take their show elsewhere. Two years later, the former owners hatched a crazy plan to take their playhouse back. One winter night in 1598, a group armed themselves with swords and axes, snuck into the theater, and began dismantling the playhouse piece by piece—although it would take more than one night to demolish it. While there's no evidence that Shakespeare joined the crew, he certainly knew about the raid. Eventually, parts of the playhouse would go into the construction of a new theater just south of the River Thames. Its new name? The Globe.

9. ONLY ONE HANDWRITTEN SCRIPT OF SHAKESPEARE'S EXISTS.

Five examples of the autograph of English playwright William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Five examples of the autograph of William Shakespeare, circa 1610.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Anyone interested in studying the Bard's cramped handwriting has only one reliable place to look—the original draft of the Book of Sir Thomas More, a politically-charged play that targeted, in-part, xenophobia in England. Written mainly by dramatist Anthony Munday, the play was completed with the help of four fellow playwrights. One of them, presumed to be Shakespeare, helped write a stirring monologue in which the lead character asks an anti-immigrant mob to imagine themselves as refugees.

Say now the king …
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour?

The play, by the way, would not be performed. Censors believed it could start a riot.

10. HE MIGHT HAVE KNOWN A GUY.

Shakespeare might have had some, well, experience with drugs. According to analyses by South African scientists, a handful of 400-year-old clay tobacco pipes excavated from the playwright's Stratford garden contained potential evidence of cannabis (although the study authors noted that "Unequivocal evidence for Cannabis has not been obtained"). Other pipes nearby contained remnants of cocaine and hallucinogens. (There's no evidence that any of these pipes belonged to Shakespeare, but it does indicate that "narcotics were accessible" at the time, the Telegraph reports.)

11. HE DODGED THE TAXMAN.

In the late 16th century, English residents had to pay a tax on personal wealth called a lay subsidy. In 1597, Shakespeare was supposed to pay a tax of five shillings. The following year, he was supposed to pay a larger tax of 13 shillings and 4 pence. Documents show that the Bard never paid the piper. (His reasons are a matter of speculation, but it could have been a clerical error because he'd already moved away from the parish.)

12. HE WAS A GRAIN HOARDER.

According to the UK Parliament, between 1604 and 1914 over 5200 enclosure bills were enacted, which restricted the use of vital, publicly-used farmland. Ensuing riots in 1607, called the Midland Revolts, coincided with a period of devastating food shortages. It appears that Shakespeare responded to the situation by hoarding grain. According to the Los Angeles Times, he "purchased and stored grain, malt and barley for resale at inflated prices to his neighbors and local tradesmen."

13. THE GLOBE BURNED DOWN DURING ONE OF HIS PLAYS.

An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe theatre.
An 1647 engraving by Hollar of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

On June 29, 1613, a prop cannon caused a fire at the Globe Theatre during a performance of Henry VIII. Sparks landed on the thatched roof and flames quickly spread. "It kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground," a witness Sir Henry Wotton claimed. According to The Telegraph, "the only reported injury was a man whose flaming breeches were eventually put out using a handy bottle of ale."

14. HE LAID A CURSE UPON HIS OWN GRAVE.

When Shakespeare died in 1616, grave-robbing was extremely common. To ensure he'd rest through eternity peacefully, the Bard is believed to have penned this curse, which appears on his gravestone.

Good frend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To digg the dust Encloased heare:
Bleste be [the] man [that] spares these stones,
And curst be he [that] moves my bones.

Unfortunately, somebody apparently ignored the dead man's foreboding words. In 2016, researchers scanned the grave with ground-penetrating radar and discovered that grave robbers might have stolen Shakespeare's skull.

15. HIS LEGACY HAS KILLED A LOT A TREES.

And we're not just talking about the millions of copies of books that have been printed with Shakespeare's name on them. In 1762, an anonymous magazine writer claimed that a drunken Shakespeare, after an evening out on the town, once spent the night sleeping under a crabtree in Bidford-upon-Avon. The story is probably a legend, but that never stopped souvenir-hungry Shakespeare lovers from flocking to the famed crabtree and picking it to pieces. By 1824, the tree was nothing but a stump and had to be uprooted.

16. HIS LEGACY LIVED ON THANKS TO TWO FELLOW ACTORS.

The cover of a 1623 collection of Shakespeare's works.
Rischgitz, Getty Images

Shortly after Shakespeare died, two of his longtime friends and colleagues—John Heminge and Henry Condell—edited Shakespeare's plays and collected them in a 1623 book titled Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. That same book, now called the First Folio, helped preserve Shakespeare's work for the coming generations and is widely considered one of the most significant books printed in English.

Virginia Woolf Calls D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce 'Overrated' in Newly Unearthed 1923 Survey

James Joyce
James Joyce
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Don’t feel too bad if you’ve ever struggled to get through James Joyce’s Ulysses or one of D.H. Lawrence’s long-winded books. Virginia Woolf and several other well-respected writers of the 20th century had a few choice words for Joyce and Lawrence, labeling them the "most overrated" English writers in a recently rediscovered 1923 survey.

As Smithsonian reports, these thoughts were recorded in a journal that was passed around British literary circles that included Woolf and nine other writers in the early 20th century. Within the “literary burn book,” as Vox dubbed it, writers recorded their answers to a 39-question survey about their thoughts on popular writers of the time, both living and dead. For example, they were asked to choose the greatest literary genius of all time, as well as the author most likely to be read in 25 years’ time. (In response to the latter question, author and poet Hilaire Belloc simply answered, “Me.”)

Titled Really and Truly: A Book of Literary Confessions, the book eventually ended up in novelist Margaret Kennedy’s possession. It was recently rediscovered by her grandson, William Mackesy, who, along with his cousin, is one of the literary executors of Kennedy's estate.

“Within were pages of printed questions with 10 sets of handwritten answers dated between 1923 and 1927,” Mackesy explained in The Independent. “Then the names came into focus and our eyes popped. Here were Rose Macaulay, Rebecca West, Hilaire Belloc, Stella Benson—and Virginia Woolf. And our granny.” It's unclear who originally wrote the survey.

In addition to taking jabs at Lawrence and Joyce, one unnamed respondent called T.S. Eliot the worst living English poet as well as the worst living literary critic. In response to a prompt to name the dead author whose character they most disliked, the participants name-dropped Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, George Meredith, Marcel Proust, and Lord Byron. Woolf, for her part, answered, “I like all dead men of letters.” (If the respondents had known about the misdeeds of Charles Dickens, he may have ended up on the list, as well.)

“It is interesting how perceptions change, especially how little mention there is of now-most-celebrated writers from that era,” Mackesy notes. This little activity wasn’t entirely petty, though. Shakespeare, unsurprisingly, won the most votes for greatest literary genius. Homer, author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, received one vote.

[h/t Smithsonian]

Connecticut's Traveler Restaurant Gives Diners Free Books With Their Meal

Bobbie Johnson, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Bobbie Johnson, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Well-traveled bibliophiles know that books can sometimes be found in unusual places, like barges, abandoned sheds, and decommissioned postal trains. In northeastern Connecticut, you can find free books in a place where you'd normally just expect to find a hot meal. The Traveler restaurant lets customers take home up to three free books to read after finishing their meal, the Hartford Courant reports.

Traveler Food and Books, an unassuming diner off I-84 in Union, Connecticut, gives away roughly 100,000 free books to diners each year. The restaurant's original owner, Marty Doyle, started adding books to the "menu" in the mid-1980s, when his personal library became too big to fit in his home. He kept his collection under control by bringing excess books to the Traveler and offering them to any guests looking for new reading material.

The restaurant has been owned by Karen and Art Murdock since 1993, and today books are donated by libraries and community groups in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Visitors get to pick out up to three free books from the restaurant's collection, either while waiting for their meal or on their way out the door. And if that isn't enough for them, there's a used bookstore downstairs called The Book Cellar, where they can browse and purchase additional titles.

Small-town restaurants aren't the only establishments giving out books with meals. Earlier this year, McDonald's in New Zealand replaced Happy Meal toys with excerpts from Roald Dahl novels.

[h/t Hartford Courant]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER