Five Fascinating Facts about Shakespeare
Quick, fun William Shakespeare facts
As William Shakespeare is the most famous poet and playwright in the English language, we thought we’d share five curious facts about him. We’ve tried to steer clear of the very obvious, partly because we’ve already written about Shakespeare several times before (see, for one example, this post), but all of these facts have a Shakespeare link and are … well, facts rather than misconceptions, myths, or hearsay. We hope you enjoy them.
1. He appears to have invented the girls’ names Jessica, Olivia, Imogen, and Miranda. Jessica is Shylock’s daughter in The Merchant of Venice, and the name was quite probably Shakespeare’s coinage (the idea being to create a Jewish-sounding name). Olivia appears in Twelfth Night, and Miranda is Prospero’s daughter in The Tempest. (The name Amanda was probably formed off the back of Miranda, so Shakespeare indirectly gave us that name, too.) Imogen, in fact, was probably 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, and less famously, there is 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 never 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.
2. His plays were influenced by essays. Although Shakespeare’s work may have inspired more essays by schoolchildren, undergraduates, and academics than any other writer, what’s less well known is that the essay form appears to have influenced Shakespeare. As we’ve discussed in a previous post, the essay was a new genre in the late sixteenth century, and it appears to have had a hand in the development of the soliloquy in Shakespeare’s plays. Indeed, James Shapiro and others have suggested that without Montaigne’s essays we may not have had ‘To be, or not to be’.
3. 24 of the 27 moons of the planet Uranus are named after characters in Shakespeare’s plays. Among these are Puck, Bianca, Juliet, Mab, Cupid, Stephano, Oberon, Titania, Cressida, Ophelia, and – er, Margaret. Many of these names are famous Shakespeare characters (Ophelia is from Hamlet, of course), but it’s worth drawing attention to Cupid (from Timon of Athens) and Margaret (the gentlewoman from Much Ado about Nothing). Two of the other three moons are named after characters from Alexander Pope’s 1712 poem The Rape of the Lock (Belinda and Umbriel), while the remaining moon, Ariel, occupies a mysterious dual position: it is unclear as to whether this moon is named after Shakespeare’s Ariel or Pope’s, since the name appears in the work of both poets.
4. In a study of the lines of poetry with the most hits on Google, Shakespeare didn’t even make the top ten. According to Mark Forsyth at his excellent blog The Inky Fool, a statistical analysis of Google hits revealed that the most cited lines of poetry are from numerous poets, but none of them is from the Bard. The top ten features Tennyson’s ”Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all’ (at number 10), Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ (number 4), and – at number 1 – our old friend Alexander Pope, whose ‘To err is human; to forgive, divine’ came out as the most-cited line of poetry, with nearly 15 million results. However, Shakespeare does feature eleven times in the top 50, which is pretty impressive – just nowhere in the top ten.
5. We owe the phrase ‘steal my thunder’ to Macbeth, in a weird way. In 1704, a minor playwright named John Dennis came up with a pioneering new sound-effect for his play, Liberty Asserted, performed at the Drury Lane Theatre that year. His groundbreaking theatrical special effects involved a backstage helper rattling sheets of metal to generate the sound of thunder. Dennis’s special effects were a big success, but unfortunately his play wasn’t. Indeed, 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. They adopted Dennis’s sheet-metal effects for the stormy scenes in the play. Needless to say, 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!’ This got changed over time to ‘steal my thunder’, and a phrase – referring to the act of stealing someone else’s glory – was born.
If you’re after more interesting Shakespeare stuff, then check out our previous post on ten underrated Shakespeare plays. And you might also like our pick of the best books about Shakespeare, from biographies and general introductions to works of literary criticism. More facts about Renaissance writers can be had in our pick of the best John Donne facts and our curious biography of Sir Philip Sidney.