To celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, the editor of the Rough Guide to Shakespeare shares his ten most surprising Shakespearean facts
The Rough Guide to Shakespeare
It’s possible to fit everything we know about Shakespeare on to a postcard, right? Wrong. In fact we know more about Shakespeare than almost any of his theatrical contemporaries, from the fact that he was a serial tax-dodger to the fact that he got Anne Hathaway pregnant when he was just 18 (she was 26). Abundant evidence lists the law-cases he got involved in, the properties he bought and the plays he wrote – we even have several samples of his signature, and part of a playtext probably in his handwriting (it’s in the British Library).
But how much do you actually know about the world’s most famous playwright? To celebrate Shakespeare’s 445th birthday on April 23, the editor of the updated Rough Guide to Shakespeare delved into his Shakespearean memory banks and came up with his top ten Bardic brainteasers. So test your wits with this little lot – and turn yourself into a expert Bardophile in the process …
The 10 things you (probably) didn’t know about William Shakespeare
1. Despite the recent fuss over the recently “discovered” Cobbe portrait, no one is too sure what Shakespeare actually looked like: no life portrait survives, and the two most plausible likenesses, his funeral bust in Stratford and the engraving on the title page of the First Folio, were most likely done long after his death.
2. Shakespeare had a shotgun wedding. He was just 18 when he got Anne Hathaway pregnant with their first child, Susannah (she was 26), and the couple had to obtain a special licence from the Bishop of Worcester in order to get married.
3. … but the second-best bed notoriously bequeathed to Anne might, contrary to rumour, have been a touching gift instead of a bad-tempered brush-off – it was possibly the couple’s marriage bed.
4. Although Shakespeare wrote plays set in France, Scotland, Italy, Cyprus and Vienna, among many other locations, it’s entirely possible that he never left England. That may account for the most embarrassing geographical cock-up of his career: grafting a sea-coast on to land-locked Bohemia (part of the present-day Czech Republic) in The Winter’s Tale. He probably spoke French and Italian as well as Latin and Greek, though.
5. Shakespeare coined around 1,700 new English words, his most successful inventions including “addiction”, “lacklustre”, “priceless” and “mountaineer”. But not all of them stuck: among the many Shakespearean words that have passed out of use are “unsisting” (unhelpful), “immoment” (trifling), “cadent” (falling) and the frankly awful “plantage” (vegetation). Lucky escape.
6. The original ending of King Lear wasn’t performed for nearly 150 years because it was thought too upsetting. In its place was a heavy-handed adaptation by 17th-century playwright Nahum Tate, who blue-pencilled the tragic double death of Lear and his favourite daughter Cordelia. In Tate’s version Lear lives out his last years in retirement, while Cordelia gets hitched to Edgar.
7. Shakespeare’s bestselling work in his lifetime was not a play, but the now little-known erotic poem Venus and Adonis, particularly popular with (male) students. It was written when London’s theatres were closed because of plague, a period when Shakespeare’s income looked like it might evaporate.
8. At least two of Shakespeare’s plays, Love’s Labour’s Won and Cardenio, have disappeared entirely without trace. Love’s Labour’s Won is a follow-up to his early romantic comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost, while Cardenio is thought to have been a version of Don Quixote.
9. Given the playwright’s obsession with twins – several of his plays, including The Comedy of Errors and Twelfth Night, feature them – it’s interesting to observe that Shakespeare fathered them in real life. His only son, Hamnet (the name was relatively common), died at the age of 11, but his sister Judith lived to be 77.
10. A scene from King John, starring the leading British actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree, was the earliest Shakespeare movie ever made (1899, no less). The most recent mainstream film adaptation is Kenneth Branagh’s As You Like It(2007), although two new version of King Lear starring Anthony Hopkins and Al Pacino are in the works.