10 Things High Schools Don’t Teach About Shakespeare’s Life
There are only a few tidbits of evidence about Shakespeare’s life, but people certainly look through everything they can to find them. Scholars are so desperate for a glimpse into his life that they have even gone through his cesspit just to find out what he ate for dinner.
What we do have paints a portrait of a man who did a lot more than just write a few plays. We’ve been able to piece together some parts of Shakespeare’s life pretty clearly, and the real Shakespeare might not be the man you expect.
10He Stole A Theater
Shakespeare’s landlord got fed up with cleaning up after actors and decided it was time to shut down his theater and start renting to decent, reasonable people. It’s the sort of situation that still happens today—a group of creative bohemians losing their platform for a more productive and profitable future. Most deal with it by spreading leaflets, writing to their member of parliament, or moving on to a new space.
Shakespeare gathered up an armed gang and stormed the place.
He and his men, not ready to be defeated, broke into the theater with swords and axes. Then, in the words of court documents, they “in a very riotous and outrageous manner did attempt to pull down and carry away the said theatre.”
That “carried away” is literal—Shakespeare ripped the theater piece by piece out of the ground and carried it off. Shakespeare set up the new theater somewhere else and gave it a name you might have heard before: The Globe.
That’s right. Shakespeare’s famous “Globe Theatre” was ripped out of the ground by armed hoodlums and dragged halfway across town.
9Elizabethans Kidnapped Children For Erotic Plays
You’ve probably heard that young boys, in Shakespeare’s time, would play the roles of girls. What you might not know is how the theaters got them.
According to research by Oxford University, Elizabethan theater bosses would regularly kidnap children, beat them, and force them to perform on stage. Usually, these performances were done in dimly lit clubs full of men, and the boys performed sexually explicit plays.
This wasn’t just a group of rogue pedophiles snatching up kids—this was a royally approved act. With Queen Elizabeth’s sanction, theater bosses boasted the right to steal the son of any nobleman without consequence.
Shakespeare himself didn’t use these boys and specifically works a scene into Hamlet criticizing the practice. His contemporaries, however, did. Another writer from his time, Thomas Middleton, described a children’s troupe as “a nest of boys able to ravish a man,” and Henry VIII wrote letters to have a boy he was “desirous to have” sent to him. And even Christopher Marlowe—the man some people believe secretly wrote Shakespeare’s plays—wrote plays about sex for groups of kidnapped young boys, meant to be performed in a dark room full of men.
8He Couldn’t Spell His Own Name
Shakespeare famously coined 3,000 words. He had a vocabulary that extended far beyond the grasp of almost any man and a way with words that was completely unmatched. He was, it seems, a complete master of the English language.
Except for spelling his own name.
There are six known copies of Shakespeare’s signature, and no two of them are spelled the same way. Although all of his plays and ads have his name the way we write it today, he could never quite pull it off when he wrote it on his own.
Sometimes he would spell it “Wm Shakspea,” as though he almost made it to the end but couldn’t be bothered to get the last word down. Other times, he would write “Shakspear,” very nearly getting the whole thing right, but there is no recorded instance of him ever spelling his name correctly—or even the same way twice.
7He Was Considered Low-Brow
Today, Shakespeare is considered high literature. He’s popularly considered one of the greatest writers of all time, and professors write about him extensively—scholars have even consistently published a magazine called Hamlet Studies since 1979 that does nothing but analyze his plays.
The first ever reference to Shakespeare as a writer comes from a man named Robert Greene, who called Shakespeare “an upstart crow beautified with our feather” who “supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you.”
Greene was apparently furious that Shakespeare, who didn’t come from a noble family, dared to think he could write as well as nobles could. He ripped Shakespeare up, calling him an “ape” who imitated other poets “past excellence” and warning other writers to stay away from him.
Although Shakespeare became very popular, the suggestion that he was a hack seem to have bothered him throughout his career. One of his sonnets, published 17 years after Greene’s attack, has him asking, “Why is my verse so barren of new pride? So far from variation or quick change?”
6Much Ado About Nothing Is Obscene
Much Ado About Nothing sounds like a cute title, but it’s actually quite crude. In Elizabethan time, “nothing” was a euphemism. Men were considered to have “something” between their legs, while women had “nothing.” And so, Shakespeare’s tale of love and romance between men and women had a slightly cruder title for an Elizabethan audience. That’s right. Putting it a bit bluntly, the title really means, “Much Ado About Vaginas.” It’s a pun you’ll see in his other works, too.
Shakespeare sold tickets to a lot of different crowds. He had rich, educated people in the back, but there was a throng of people who’d paid a penny to get in at the front, and he needed to keep them happy by giving them what they came for: sex jokes.
So when Hamlet sits down with Ophelia for a touching moment with his lady love, we get this exchange:
HAMLET: Lady, shall I lie in your lap?
OPHELIA: No, my lord.
HAMLET: I mean, my head upon your lap.
OPHELIA: Ay, my lord.
HAMLET: Do you think I meant country matters?
OPHELIA: I think nothing, my lord.
HAMLET: That’s a fair thought to lie between maid’s legs.
OPHELIA: What is, my lord?
When you learned this in school, your teacher probably glossed over it a bit, but this is definitely a scene meant to get the drunk men in the audience laughing. You’ll understand what he means by “country matters” if you say the first syllable out loud.
5He Was Chased Out Of Town
According to one popular story, Shakespeare left his original home of Stratford to escape legal trouble. Oxford clergyman Richard Davies wrote in 1688 that Shakespeare was a habitual thief before becoming a successful playwright. The story also appears in Nicholas Rowe’s 1704 biography, which was based on oral traditions from actors who had known Shakespeare’s friends.
“Shakespeare was much given to all unluckiness in stealing venison and rabbits,” wrote Davies, and Shakespeare picked on one man in particular named Thomas Lucy. Often, Shakespeare didn’t get away with it and got himself whipped or thrown in jail. Eventually, Lucy left Shakespeare with no choice but to flee town to London.
In a way, Shakespeare owes his success to being run out of town, but that doesn’t mean he got over it. Shakespeare seems to have held on to an animosity against Lucy and took his revenge the only way a poet knows how—by writing a scathing poem that makes fun of his name. A short poem, allegedly written by Shakespeare, has him writing, “If Lucy is lousy, as some folk miscall it/Sing lousy Lucy, whatever befall it.”
4He Had A Shotgun Wedding
Shakespeare got married when he was 18 years old to a woman named Anne Hathaway, and he was in a hurry to do it.
Nobody knows for sure what the mood was like in that church, but the evidence we have paints a pretty vivid picture. Hathaway was three months pregnant when she walked down the aisle—not a huge scandal today, but in Shakespeare’s time, definitely a circumstance that would get you pushed into a marriage.
We also know that the reciting of vows was rushed. Traditionally, a priest was supposed to announce the wedding three times, giving people three chances to object to their character. The Shakespeares, however, only announced it once. They got married as quickly and quietly as they could.
Sure, it’s possible that they loved each other regardless, but there’s some evidence that they didn’t. The two lived in different towns. Shakespeare only left her his “second-best bed.” And . . .
3He Might Have Had An Illegitimate Child
Shakespeare liked to stay at a tavern in Oxford while he traveled and seems to have left something of himself there: a son.
William Davenant, Shakespeare’s godson who was raised by a tavern owner, claimed to have had Shakespeare as his father. Apparently, when Davenant got drunk enough, he would pass around a story his mother had told him—that his real father was an actor. Strangely, Davenant doesn’t seem to have been upset about his biological father abandoning him and instead boasted that, when he did drop by, he was really nice to him.
As the story went, Shakespeare wandered into the tavern nine months before his birth and knocked up, in Davenant’s own words, some “whore”—“whore” referring to the woman who loved, fed, and cared for Davenant his entire life.
Davenant seems to have inherited some of his father’s gift as well. Shakespeare’s secret love child went on to be a poet in his own right, and while we don’t have a definite enough picture of Shakespeare to find a visual resemblance, a lot of people have pointed to a stylistic resemblance between Shakespeare and his alleged son.
2Shakespeare Had Groupies
Shakespeare was a celebrity in his time, and, just like celebrities today, he and his troupe had groupies. And according to a rumor that spread during his lifetime, Shakespeare wasn’t afraid to indulge.
A lawyer wrote this in his diary in 1602:
Upon a time when Burbage played Richard III, there was a citizen grew so far in liking with him, that before she went from the play, she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard III. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained, and at his game ere Burbage came. The message being brought that Richard III was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard III.
We don’t know for sure what he meant when he wrote that Shakespeare “was entertained and at his game,” but the popular interpretation is exactly what you’re thinking—Shakespeare impersonated his friend so that he could sleep with one of his fans.
Rumors like this one can’t be proven true, but with Shakespeare, rumors are most of what we had. One thing this story tells us for sure, though, is that Shakespeare was the type of person you’d spread a rumor like that about. Whether the story’s true or not, in his own time, no one had any trouble believing it.
1He Wrote 126 Sonnets To A Boy
If you’ve ever tried to woo a girl by comparing her to a summer’s day, you’re in for a surprise.
Shakespeare’s sonnets are famous for being his most romantic and beautiful poems, and so it might come as a surprise that 126 of them are dedicated to a young man. That’s almost all of them, since there are only 154 in total.
Most of these are about the speaker’s love for the boy. In one, Shakespeare specifically complains that, being a boy, he was “prick’d . . . out for women’s pleasure” instead of his own. Some have taken this as proof that Shakespeare was gay. That’s not necessarily true, but it still changes the meaning of a lot of poems.
So, next time you read a sonnet, be aware—when Shakespeare wrote “thou are more lovely” than a summer’s day, he wasn’t talking to his wife.
Mark Oliver is a writer and an English Teacher. He can be visited online here.