Ten common misconceptions about Shakespeare
As this Saturday sees the 400-year anniversary of William Shakespeare‘s death, we thought we’d turn our attention to the Bard and the numerous myths that have grown up around his life and work. Here are ten of our favourites. As with many of the details of Shakespeare’s life we cannot be sure these are all complete nonsense, but nor can we confidently say the opposite; but we should be wary of making too many assumptions about Shakespeare’s life.
He coined hundreds of new words. Shakespeare was clearly a linguistic innovator, a poet who could use words in ways hitherto unseen. ‘Light thickens’ (Macbeth), for instance. But did he really coin all of the words usually attributed to him? He may well have invented some of them, but the actual number is undoubtedly somewhat exaggerated. The more we learn about word history, the more we realise that words once attributed to Shakespeare actually predate him. He used to get the credit for ‘alligator’ for instance; scholars have since traced that word back to the mid-sixteenth century, before the Bard was born.
He was poorly educated. Shakespeare attended a grammar school where he would have studied a range of classical writers, including Ovid, whose work would have a profound influence on his plays and narrative poems. He didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge, but then neither did his contemporaries Ben Jonson, Thomas Kyd, or John Webster, and their plays are shot through with classical allusions and learned literary and historical references. The fact that he ‘only’ went to school would not have barred him from a career on the London stage, though it’s true that he did probably face some class snobbery from the ‘Cambridge wits’ when he first arrived in London – most notably Robert Greene, who branded him an ‘upstart crow’.
The stories and plots of his plays are original. In fact, of the 37 plays usually included in Shakespeare’s Complete Works (38 including The Two Noble Kinsmen), there are only four that we cannot find a source or precedent for: The Tempest, The Merry Wives of Windsor, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Love’s Labour’s Lost. The history plays all draw on historical chronicles written by people like Raphael Holinshed, his ‘Roman’ plays (such as Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra) draw on works like North’s translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, and his comedies and tragedies often borrow from prose works and narrative poems of the Elizabethan period. Sometimes, he even took existing plays and then rewrote them – Hamlet, arguably his most celebrated and acclaimed play, was almost certainly a rewrite of an earlier (sadly lost) play based on the same story. Shakespeare’s skill was taking this source-material and creating something dramatic and psychologically complex out of it – finding the human essence of the story, if you like. Indeed, this is arguably what made him the great playwright he was – as a number of the best books written about Shakespeare, which we include in our top 10 list, have shown.
He wrote his plays on his own. The early nineteenth-century Romantic idea of the solitary genius did much to bolster and confirm the Bard’s reputation, but it also skewed our perception of him no end. Shakespeare, like many playwrights of his time, collaborated on a number of his plays, including Macbeth (which has songs and lines of dialogue thought to be the work of Thomas Middleton), Pericles, Henry VIII, and several others. And, as we’ve seen, often he reworked existing stories and, indeed, plays, such as Hamlet or King Leir (sic).
We don’t have any more of his writing than half a dozen signatures. Although it is not completely conclusive, it is widely believed that a page of manuscript from the collaborative play Sir Thomas More is written in Shakespeare’s hand.
He didn’t care whether his plays were published or even whether they survived. Jonathan Bate examines this idea in his excellent biography of Shakespeare, Soul of the Age. In fact, many of Shakespeare’s plays were published in quarto form during his lifetime, though it’s true that if it hadn’t been for the 1623 First Folio we would have lost a considerable number of his plays forever. But to argue that Shakespeare himself didn’t care for posterity simply because many plays such as Macbeth weren’t published while he was alive misses the point: first, his plays didn’t really belong to him but to his theatre company, and second, with the exception of Ben Jonson, few playwrights did make an effort to publish ‘their’ work at the time.
Shakespeare invented the Shakespearean sonnet. The type of sonnet that bears Shakespeare’s name, which is also known as the English sonnet, was certainly popularised by him in the 154 sonnets he wrote about the ‘Fair Youth’ and ‘Dark Lady’. But he didn’t invent it himself: it had been used earlier in the sixteenth century by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who was probably the originator of it. (We have more about the history of the sonnet here.)
He retired to Stratford after The Tempest. This is not so much an out-and-out myth or misconception – we cannot be sure precisely what Shakespeare did – but we cannot take it for granted that he definitely did pack up his bags from his London digs and head home to live out his final years with his family in Stratford-upon-Avon. For one thing, he continued to collaborate on plays after he wrote The Tempest, most notably with John Fletcher. Indeed, in the years following his ‘farewell to the stage’, the plays Cardenio, Henry VIII, and The Two Noble Kinsmen were all staged, and Shakespeare had a hand in all of them. For another, documents written after 1611 – when The Tempest was staged – suggest that Shakespeare was still spending some of his time in London.
He died following a particularly heavy drinking binge with his fellow playwrights. The story goes that Shakespeare developed a fever shortly after a heavy boozing session with Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton in Stratford-upon-Avon, and that he dropped down and died as a result. This story appears doubtful.
Shakespeare obviously hated his wife because the only thing he left her in his will was his ‘second-best bed’. Much ink has been spilt over this issue, and the truth is that we don’t know exactly why Shakespeare left his wife their ‘second-best bed’. Why no mention of his other possessions going to her? It may have been a snub, but the truth is that this, too, is an assumption. Much of the evidence points towards the second-best bed being the marital bed – the idea being that the ‘best bed’ would be reserved for guests, which would remain with the house. If he hated her so much, why the insulting reference to the bed at all? Why not cut her out of the will altogether?
Are there any popular Shakespeare myths we’ve missed off? Or have you spotted something we, in our rush to correct errors, have got wrong? Let us know in the comments below…