The Stories behind Shakespeare’s Plays

Since Twelfth Night is just round the corner (and remember, while we’re at it, that Twelfth Night is arguably the night before Epiphany, not the same day – i.e., Twelfth Night is January 5th), we thought we’d bring you some of the lesser-known facts about some of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. As we go, we’ll address and challenge some misconceptions, too.

shakespeare

Hamlet hasn’t got anything to do with the playwright’s son, Hamnet. Some people have drawn a link between Shakespeare’s son, who died in 1596 aged 11, and the great tragedy he wrote a few years later. However, nothing quite adds up: although it’s true that Shakespeare’s son was called Hamnet – which is remarkably close to name of his great tragic character, Hamlet – there is no reason to suppose a link. For starters, Hamlet is about the death of fathers, not sons; for another, Hamnet was a reasonably common name for men during the Elizabethan era; and, most clinchingly, the play Hamlet already existed before Shakespeare’s son died. The so-called ‘Ur-Hamlet‘ was probably written some time in the late 1580s, and was possibly by Thomas Kyd, who also wrote The Spanish Tragedy, one of the first great Elizabethan revenge tragedies. Shakespeare merely rewrote this for a more sophisticated audience, ten or so years later, in 1600-1. Indeed, the literary critic William Empson even suggested that Shakespeare’s rewriting of Hamlet was designed to be a sort of parody of the earlier play: Hamlet is deliberately so self-absorbed and pathetic because Shakespeare’s more sophisticated audience wanted to laugh at the seriousness of the earlier heroes of revenge tragedy.

King Lear originally had a happy ending. It is often said that Shakespeare wrote the tragedy of King Lear and then Nahum Tate, a hundred years later, rewrote the ending as a happy one. This much is true, but what is little known is that the story of King Lear was originally a happy one, when it first appeared in the chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth in the twelfth century. Whether Lear ever existed is strongly disputed, but what is odd is how old Shakespeare makes Lear: over ‘four score’, or eighty years, presenting a challenge to many actors (most of whom are, of course, considerably younger than this when they play him!).

Macbeth gave us the phrase ‘steal my thunder’ … but the phrase doesn’t appear in Shakespeare’s play. This story has its roots in early eighteenth-century theatre. A minor playwright named John Dennis invented a new sound-effect for his play, Liberty Asserted, performed at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1704 – the new effect involved a backstage helper rattling sheets of metal to generate the sound of thunder. Dennis’s special effects were a big success, but his play wasn’t: it was cancelled after only a few performances. The theatre did what many have done in this situation, and turned to Macbeth as a play they could stage at short notice (because it’s such a short play, and perennially popular). They utilised Dennis’s sheet-metal effects for the stormy scenes in the play. Dennis wasn’t impressed. Seated in the audience, he exclaimed, ‘That is my thunder, by God; the villains will play my thunder, but not my play!’ A phrase was born.

Innogen appears in Much Ado about Nothing … and then doesn’t appear. It’s well known that the girls’ name Imogen was possibly the result of a misprint: Shakespeare’s late play Cymbeline features a female character of that name, but this is believed to have been the result of printers mistaking the double ‘n’ for an ‘m’, so Innogen (an existing name which means ‘girl’ or ‘maiden’) became ‘Imogen’. Interestingly, there is also a character named Innogen in another Shakespeare play, Much Ado about Nothing. She isn’t much known about because she only appears in an early version of the play … and then as a ghost. Innogen is the wife of Leonato, and she appears to him as a ghost in two early scenes, but not again. However, she doesn’t appear in most editions that you’ll encounter, as she tends to get excised from the action. More about Innogen’s ghost can be found here at this blog.

22 thoughts on “The Stories behind Shakespeare’s Plays

  1. Fascinating stuff. With regard to your first point about Hamlet, I have a suspicion (but no scholarly research to back this up) that there is probably a lot more parody in Shakespeare generally than most people realise…

    • Thanks for the comment, much appreciated. And I think you’re right: fashions and tastes were changing so quickly in Shakespeare’s time that what was high and serious in one year might be seen as laughable ten years later! Empson’s particularly good on this, though I’ll be searching for other critical sources now, in light of your comment. IL

  2. This is great! I’d never heard of the ‘steal my thunder’ fact before, will definitely be whipping that out from now on. Really cool idea for the blog too – I’m almost annoyed I haven’t come across your stuff before! I’ve been trying to write a Shakespeare post for roughly TOO LONG and this is perfect motivation!
    Alice x

  3. Ooh, I feel shortchanged here, after all your recent “Ten/Twelve Facts…” posts! Seriously though, enlightening stuff, as usual. I often wonder how Shakespeare received his Geoffrey of Monmouth stories, such as the Lear and Cymbeline tales; presumably via Holinshed or some such rather than from a current translation of the original. There is so much potential in the Galfridian material that could do with borrowing from and sprucing up, and I even wonder if Conan the Barbarian’s literary lineage comes from this same source: after all, this form of the name (Cynan in Modern Welsh) first appeared there.

    • Haha, don’t worry, there’s another ‘Ten Facts…’ one in the offing, and it should appear in the next few weeks! In the meantime, we have a few ‘bitesize’ posts coming up…

      Interesting point about Shakespeare’s sources – I think Holinshed is most probable for Lear and Cymbeline as ancient Roman Britain tales, though I suppose there’s no telling what he might have browsed on the market bookstalls of London. I’m intrigued by what you say about Conan, too – certainly the name goes way back (it’s found as ‘Conan’ in a Thomas Gray poem from the eighteenth century, for instance), and being a bit of a fan of Robert E. Howard, I might have to look into that a little more. (Now Howard – there was a man who had seemingly read everything…)

  4. Pingback: Shakespeare As It Happened « From Bad to Verse

  5. Pingback: Ten Underrated Shakespeare Plays | Interesting Literature

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