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From Bard to verse... 15 fascinating facts about Shakespeare

By Mary Kenny

Published 25/01/2016

Mystery man: much remains unknown about William Shakespeare
Mystery man: much remains unknown about William Shakespeare

1. Was William Shakespeare - born at Stratford-upon-Avon 1564, died in 1616 - the greatest writer who ever lived? He certainly coined more words than any other wordsmith, bringing 2,035 new words into English, including addiction, dishearten, dwindle, lonely, well-read, multitudinous and hot-blooded.

2. The book, The Harvard Concordance to Shakespeare, reckons that Will used 29,066 different words in his 37 plays and 154 sonnets, and his own vocabulary was 17,000 words. Half the everyday cliches we use come from Shakespeare: "a sorry sight", "didn't sleep a wink", "break the ice", and "knock, knock, who's there?"

3. He is translated into most living languages, including Gujarati, Marathi, Mandarin, Afrikaans, Xhosa and Setswana, but the Germans especially claim him - there are more annual productions of Shakespeare's plays in Germany than anywhere else. It's said that you haven't heard Hamlet until you've heard him in German. ("Sein oder Nichtsein - das is hier die Frage!")

4. Yet William's favourite country seems to have been France, which he mentions 369 times, even if he locates more plays in Italy.

5. Hamlet has also been rendered into text-speak: "2B r nt 2B?"

6. The world's greatest Shakespeare archive is the Folger Shakespeare Library, with 256,000 books, 250,000 playbills, countless manuscripts, paintings and other Shakespeariana. The collection was started by Henry Clay Folger in 1897, whose fortune came from rapacious business deals in Esso petroleum.

7. Was Shakespeare a Catholic? Biographer Lady Clare Asquith affirms that he was (another biographer, Nicholas Fogg says it is likely that he died one) but, in the Elizabethan age, to be a Papist was not exactly politically correct: by the 1560s, Mass was an illegal form of worship and by the 1580s Elizabeth's spies were horribly executing any Jesuits caught. The strongest hint of Catholicism is in the ghost of Hamlet's father, who indicates he's on parole from Purgatory, having died without Extreme Unction. But there's implied atheism in Prospero's speech: "We are such stuff as dreams are made on/And our little life/Is rounded with a sleep."

8. Was Shakespeare gay? Sonnets 1-126 address "beauteous young men" and he wrote ardent dedications to "Mr W.H." This may have been Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton who was described as effeminate and a fop (and served under Essex's command in Ireland). Being gay wasn't quite politically correct either; the Act Against Sodomy, passed in 1562, carried the death penalty. Bill Bryson, in his enjoyably accessible biography, Shakespeare: The World as Stage, writes that Shakespeare's "sexuality is an irreconcilable mystery". Everyone knows he was married to local girl Anne Hathaway, to whom he left only his "second-best bed".

9. There's a conspiracy theory that the mere son of a Warwickshire glove-maker couldn't have been clever enough to produce such works of genius: the true author of the plays was the Earl of Oxford. Among surprising "Oxfordians" are Mark Rylance and Vanessa Redgrave. A new book, The Shakespeare Circle by Edmundson and Wells, establishes that other writers collaborated with him on some of the plays, notably Pericles, Measure for Measure and Macbeth. But the consensus is that Will was the main man (though he plundered the plots and texts of earlier writers, such as Plutarch, shamelessly).

10. Is The Merchant of Venice anti-semitic in its portrayal of Shylock, the Jewish money-lender? Anthony Sher, an outstanding Shylock, says that it is "without question" anti-Jewish. Others say that it pleads for the humanity of Shylock with the speech "Hath not a Jew eyes?... If you prick us, do we not bleed?"

11. The Taming of the Shrew, meanwhile, is now seen as misogynistic: the wild Kate has to be "tamed" to be fit for marriage, and made into a good wife.

12. Yet he wrote many great parts for women, who had to be played by boy actors in Shakespeare's England. In France, Italy and Spain, women were permitted on stage to play female parts.

13. The Puritans closed the London theatres in 1631, and much of Elizabethan theatre was lost forever. Were it not for two actor friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, who collected Will's works together and published them, Shakespeare too might have been lost and forgotten.

14. There are seven "missing" years in Will's life, from 1585 to 1592, and nobody has ever been able to track him down during that time. Theories abound: he went to Italy; he went to sea (there are many maritime references in his plays); he was a tutor to a Catholic recusant family in the North of England. All conjecture.

15. The most beguiling record of Shakespeare and Ireland is contained in Harold Pinter's short memoir, Mac, first published in the early 1950s, recounting Pinter's own magical days as a strolling player in Irish repertory theatre, with the renowned Anew McMaster company. Pinter describes how enraptured Irish audiences - particularly in the West of Ireland, which he found to be, at the time, unspoiled by modernity - were with Shakespeare's plays, and how fervently they entered into the spirit of the drama, passionately with Othello, weeping over King Lear. Absolutely priceless.

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