Thursday, 17 April 2014

What was Going on in 1564? | The World Shakespeare was Born Into

What was going on in the world in 1564?
So, you probably know that Shakespeare was born in 1564, but what other momentous events took place in that year? What kind of world was Shakespeare being born into?

Often, when we're getting to grips with Shakespeare's plays, it's useful to look at them in the context in which they were written.

For that, it's handy to know what the world was like over four hundred years ago. It can also be helpful to look at what was 'modern' or contemporary in Shakespeare's eyes.

What was happening while he was growing up? What could he have seen, or done, or read about, or heard? All of those things could have shaped his work as a poet and playwright.

The finishing touches are being put on the facade of the San Francesco della Vigna in Venice. The church was designed by Andrea Palladio (who was greatly inspired by Ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, and was responsible for the Villa Capra 'La Rotonda'), and took two years to build. If Shakespeare ever visited Venice, perhaps he took in this impressive site.

The facade of the San Francesco della Vigna in Venice (built 1562-1564)

Michelangelo dies. In February of 1564, at the ripe old age of 88 (he did very well for a man of his era), Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni died in Rome. He left the world with some of the most beautiful pieces of artwork, including David, Pieta and, of course, that graffiti he scrawled all over the Sistine Chapel.

The Creation of The Sun and Moon from the
Sistine Chapel
Although there is no evidence that allows us to state categorically that Shakespeare visited Italy, given that 13 of his plays are set (partially if not wholly), in Italy, there is understandable speculation that he may have travelled there.

If he did, it's reasonable to assume that he may have seen some of Michelangelo's work 'in the flesh'.

Chained library is opened in Zutphen. A chained library is, exactly as it sounds, a library in which books are chained to their case, enabling people to read the tomes, but not make off with them.

In 1564, a chained library was established at the church in St. Walburgis, in Zutphen, Netherlands.

It offered the general public, or at least those who were literate, access to books. And it's one of only five 'chained libraries' still intact today.

Shakespeare probably never went to the Low Countries, but chained libraries would, no doubt, have been familiar to him.

The Catholic book of banned books
was updated in 1564
An updated version of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum was printed. The Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which translates as 'List of Prohibited Books' does exactly what it says on the tin: it's a list of heretical, anti-Roman Catholic or just downright dirty books that are banned by The Catholic Church.

In England, at this time, Catholicism is having a problematic time, to say the least. Henry VIII shook himself free from the Pope between 1533 and 1536. His daughter, Mary, reinforced Catholic rule (brutally), in 1553.

And then, Elizabeth I tossed it out again, with equal brutality, in 1558.

Shakespeare was born into a country where Catholicism was outlawed - although, there are rumblings that he may have been a Catholic.

Monas Hieroglyphica is written. John Dee, was astrologer and magus of Elizabeth I's court. In his book, Monas Hieroglyphica, he explains the meaning of his symbol (of the same name), which unites the moon, the sun, the elements and fire.

John Dee's
Monas Hieroglyphica

Maximilian II takes over as Holy Roman Emperor. Obviously a believer that you can never be too rich, too thin or have too much power, Maximilian was King of Bohemia, as well as the head of state in Germany, Hungary and Croatia. He also took over as Roman Emperor after the death of Ferdinand I, and remained in the gig until his death in 1576.

Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Penrith, Cumbria
Queen Elizabeth Grammar School established in Penrith. Celebrating its 450th year, The Queen Elizabeth Grammar in Penrith, Cumbria, is still going strong, although the premises have moved.

Now a coeducational, it has around 830 students and takes in just 120 new pupils (based on a exam system), each year.

French settlers abandon Charlesfort. French colonists, led by Jean Ribault, landed on what is now Parris Island, South Carolina, in 1562.  Ribault travelled back to France, leaving 28 men to establish and build 'Charlesfort', but things didn't exactly go to plan.

Jean Ribault, French naval officer
and coloniser
While Ribault was being arrested in England, due to the French Wars of Religion, mutiny and fires removed leadership and suppliers from the settlers, and, in 1563/1564 all but one set sail (without maps or compasses), for home.

The New World was a preoccupation for much of Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries.

Voyages of discovery, new lands and new peoples were very much in vogue. It's likely that tales of colonisation, even failed ones, may have inspired Shakespeare in plays like The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and The Tempest.

First report of a 'rat king'. Although the exact date is unknown, its believed that 1564 was the first documented report of a rat king; when a large group of rats (usually black rats) become entangled by their tails. In folklore, the rats grow together while entangled and are, traditionally, a bad omen - this might have a lot to do with the plague.

The first recorded rat king was found in 1564
While Shakespeare may never have seen a rat king, after all they're thought to be fairly rare and are mostly associated with Germany.

But the plague was something that most certainly did affect him; possibly claiming the life of his son Hamnet, and causing a hiatus in his career as a playwright when public venues, including theatres, were closed to quell the spread of the disease in 1593, 1603 and again in 1608.

So, there you have it: just a few of the things that were going on in 1564, the year of Shakespeare's birth.

These things might not tell us a whole lot about the man, or his work, but they do give us a little peek into the world he was brought into.

If you'd like to learn more about Shakespeare, check out What's it All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Shakespeare Birthday Celebrations Around The Globe

This year marks the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, and it's a date that's being celebrated not just up and down the British Isles, but also across the length and breadth of the whole darn world. 

The work of the planet's most famous playwright has had more exposure than he could probably ever have imagined was possible. And, four and a half centuries on, his birth is being celebrated in style!

So, here are just a few of the events where participants will be partying like it's 1564.

Celebrating Shakespeare's Birthday in The U.K.

The RSC - The Royal Shakespeare Company is going all out, as could be expected, with a string of events over the course of the next three years (celebrating both 'jubilee years' 2014 and 2016 - the latter being the 400th anniversary of the Bard's death). 

The birthday bash takes place on Wednesday the 23rd of April (the date Shakespeare's assumed to have been born), with a fireworks display to follow that evening's performance of Henry VI Part I at The Globe.

The following weekend (commencing the 26th of April), as part of the traditional annual celebrations, there will be a host of free activities, including theatre skills workshops (for all the family), music and storytelling. For more information on the various events (and locations), take a look at the RSC's site.

Stratford-Upon-Avon - The other place that can be relied on to pull out all the stops is, of course, Stratford. And Shakespeare's birthplace is not going to disappoint. 

Shakespeare's birthday has been celebrated in the town for almost 200 hundred years, and, this year, between the 26-27th of April, they're bringing music, theatre and pageantry to the streets, where thousands (from all over the world), are expected to turn out.

Shakespeare in Love has been adapted for the stage
as part of the  450th Shakespeare celebrations
Shakespeare In Love - The 1998 film has been adapted for the stage as part of the year-long anniversary celebrations. 

On at the Noel Coward Theatre, the play's due to open on the 2nd of July, 2014 and is set to star Tom Bateman and Lucy Briggs-Owen.

For more information, or to book tickets, visit the official site.

Victoria and Albert Museum - On the 8th of February, the V&A unveiled its 'Shakespeare: Greatest Living Playwright' installation, which will be running until the 21st of September. 

Including objects from the museum's collection and interviews with modern theatre practitioners, the exhibition takes a look at how Shakespeare's universal themes have proved so timeless.

Celebrating Shakespeare's Birthday in The U.S.

The interior of the Folger Library
The Folger - Leading the charge across the pond is The Folger Shakespeare Library, which has had events since January, and will continue to have all manner of excitement through 'til October. 

Some of the highlights still to come include the annual gala, which takes place on the 23rd; Fiasco Theater's run of The Two Gentleman of Verona, which plays until 25th of May and has a selection of special performance nights; and a visit by James Shapiro, on the 12th of May, to discuss his new book, Shakespeare in America.

King Lear - There are at least six 'major' productions of King Lear being produced in 2014 - these are being played in Canada, London, Stratford and New York. 'Theatre for a New Audience' is producing its version, starring Michael Pennington, at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. The play began its run on the 14th of March and goes through 'til the 4th of May.

Heart of America Shakespeare Festival - In Kansas City, on the  26th of April, Shakespeare's 450th birthday is being celebrated with food, drink, music and good old-fashioned revelry. Something tells me the Bard would approve! 

The Newberry 'The Bard is Born' - In collaboration with Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the Shakespeare Project of Chicago, The Newberry Library is hosting an exhibition of over forty items, including a First Folio. The event is free, opens on the 21st of April, and closes on the 26th with a reading of All's Well That End's Well by the Shakespeare Project of Chicago.

Celebrating Shakespeare Birthday in Australia

Bell Shakespeare - A week long celebration is being organised by Bell Shakespeare and Google Australia. 

Marloo Theatre, Perth - In celebration of Shakespeare's 450th birthday, Marloo Theatre is putting on three plays: Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's dream and Othello. The festival has already been running since the 1st of April and will be on until the 26th, with the three plays on a rotation. 

Celebrating Shakespeare's Birthday in Europe


Beautiful Clonakilty is becoming 'Clon-Upon-Avon'
as it celebrates its inaugural Shakespeare festival this year
Ireland 'Clonakilty Shakesepare Festival' - For the very first time (and what better time to choose!), the West Cork town of Clonakilty is hosting a Shakespeare festival

With events spanning five days, it will include 'The Shakebox', a human jukebox who has a playlist of thirty eight Shakespearean excerpts.

Running from the 23rd of April to the 27th, it promises activities for the whole family. 

Romania 'The International Shakespeare Theatre Festival' - This year marks the 9th annual International Shakespeare festival in Romania. Running from the 23rd of April until the 4th of May, theatre companies from numerous countries, as varied as China and South Africa, are performing across twelve locations.

France 'Shakespeare 450' - The French Shakespeare Society is holding a week long conference, from the 21st of April to the 27th, in Paris. With lectures, seminars, workshops and exhibitions, there's a whole host of events spanning a number of venues. 

The Globe Theatre in Neuss, Germany
Germany 'Shakespeare Festival' - At a racecourse in Neuss, on the west bank of the Rhine, there is a reconstructed 500-seat Globe Theatre. 

There, each year, is a Shakespeare festival. This year, to mark Shakespeare's big anniversary, the Bremer Shakespeare company is staging All's Will That Ends Will: a tribute to the Bard.

This is, of course, just a small selection of the many celebrations and festivals that are taking place across the world. I've only just scratched the surface with this list, which goes to show, as Wet, Wet, Wet said, Shakespeare really is all around....oh no, that was love...well, you get the idea!

Monday, 7 April 2014

Who Else is 450 Years Young? | Other Famous Names Born in 1564

Shakespeare isn't the only one with a
big birthday this year
This month (at the time of writing), marks the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth. It's an event that will be celebrated worldwide, with performances, parties and parades. 

But, William Shakespeare, isn't the only one hitting that hefty milestone this year.

There are other famous names who were brought into this world in 1564, and their birthdays aren't being quite so widely talked of.

Christopher Marlowe

In fact, poor Christopher Marlowe's 450th birthday passed without nearly as much hoopla.

Marlowe was born just two months before his more famous Elizabethan playwriting counterpart - the closeness in age, of course, one of the reasons it's been suggested that Christopher Marlowe was Shakespeare.

Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare had many
things in common, they were even born in the same year
Born in Canterbury, to John and Catherine Marlowe, Christopher attended The King's School and, later, Corpus Christi college in Cambridge.

However, there was some hesitancy in awarding him his M.A., because he planned to attend a college in Rheims (the assumption being that he planned to become a Catholic priest).

But, thanks to the intervention of the Privy Council, who wrote a letter lauding his "faithful dealing" and "good service" to the crown, his degree was given after all.

Nobody knows exactly what 'service' Marlowe carried out for Queen Elizabeth, but it was clearly of a closeted nature, and this has sparked theories that he was a secret agent.

In any event, if Marlowe ever did intend to join the priesthood, Catholicism's loss was theatre's and poetry's gain...until 1593, when he was killed (possibly in a bar fight), in Deptford at the age of just twenty-nine.

Catherine Howard

Catherine Howard, Countess of Suffolk
was a favourite of Queen Elizabeth's
No, not the wife of Henry VIII, obviously. Born Catherine Knyvet, she married Thomas Howard in 1580, and became the Countess of Suffolk. 

Catherine has a couple of claims to fame. First, her half-brother, Sir Thomas Knyvet, was one of the men who was largely responsible for foiling Guy Fawkes and his motley crew. Second, Emilia Lanier's poem, 'Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum' is dedicated to her. 

And Catherine was a firm favourite in the Queen's court. She was given a place in Elizabeth's bedchamber and dubbed 'Keeper of The Jewels' in 1599. For the sake of keeping things clean, we'll assume that title was literal rather than figurative.

She was even thought so highly of that she was to be named godmother of Queen Anne's daughter, Sophia. But, sadly, the baby died. 

However, she was not quite as loyal as it was believed. In fact, she was acting as a go-between for Spain and Robert Cecil, and demanding bribes for the task. It's also said that, after a string of affairs during her youth, she spent her later years extorting her ex-lovers. 

In the end, her treachery was discovered and she, along with her husband (the Lord Tresurer at that time), were exiled from court.

Galileo Galilei

While Shakespeare was busy writing plays,
Galileo was changing our understand of the
universe and our place within it

Born in Pisa, in February of 1564, Galileo was the son of a musician and composer. 

He would grow up to be a mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and physicist, who played a hugely significant role in the scientific revolution and pre-Enlightenment. 

Insisting that the universe was not geocentric, he would face the Spanish Inquisition for that little piece of heresy.  

He was told, in no uncertain terms, to stop pursuing the Copernican/heliocentric theory, and for the following ten years, Galileo steered well clear of the subject. However, after the election of a new pope, he began writing on the topping once more.

Giving us the Galilean telescope, observations of the Kepler supernova, the discovery of three of Jupiter's moons, the study of sunspots, the discovery of lunar mountains and craters, and the Milky Way - to name just a few things - Galileo's contribution to the modern world cannot be overstated.

Sir Henry Neville

Did Henry Neville really write Shakespeare?
Another man who was born in the same year as Shakespeare, and has subsequently been put forward as a possible author of Shakespeare's works, Neville was raised in Berkshire and would later attend Merton College at Oxford.

Best known as a courtier and diplomat, he acted as ambassador to France. And made fruitless attempts to act as a negotiator between King James I and his parliament. 

It's only since 2005 that he's been offered up as another 'possible' in the authorship debate.

Curiously, though, he does have a definite link with Shakespeare, albeit a distant one: a relative (by marriage) of Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden. His candidacy for authorship, however, hinges on the fact his life, and travels, parallel the plots and locations of Shakespeare's plays. 

Still seems like a tenuous link to me, but then I'm not an anti-Stratfordian.

Wang Xijie (Empress Xiaoduanxian)

Empress Wang Xijie was born in the same
year as Shakespeare

And on the other side of the world, born to a common family in Yuyoa, Wang Xijie was born in the same year as Shakespeare.

At barely thirteen years of age (which was not as outrageous in the 16th century as it seems to us now), she was married to Emperor Wanli of the Ming Dynasty, and she would remained married to him until her death in April, 1620.

She is the longest serving consort in Chinese history, and she was the only consort of Wanli's to bear the title 'empress'. 

According to the historian Ray Huang, she was little more than an accessory to Wanli - which should come as no real surprise considering the era.

However, she was ruthless as far as her servants were concerned, regularly ordering that they be beaten...sometimes to death.


This, of course, is just a very small selection of the historical figures born in the same year as Shakespeare. But, no matter how many others there are, I'm willing to bet nobody's will be celebrated with quite as much enthusiasm as the Bard's. 

If you'd like to learn more about William Shakespeare, be sure to check out What's It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.  

Monday, 24 March 2014

What Are Shakespeare's Lost Years?

Have you seen this man?
One reason there is debate over whether Shakespeare wrote any of the plays and poems attributed to him is that there are portions of his life that are completely unaccounted for: the so-called 'lost years'. 

But when were Shakespeare's lost years and what could he have been doing during them?

Of course, the fact is, very little is known of Shakespeare's life. We don't know exactly when he was born; we don't know where he went to school; and we don't know when he moved from Stratford-Upon-Avon to London's swinging, sixteenth century theatre scene.

However, there are two significant portions of his life during which he seems to drop entirely off the radar. The first of these is from 1578 to 1582, and the second is from 1585 to 1592.

What Was Shakespeare Doing During His First 'Lost Years'?

What was Shakespeare doing before he
met Anne Hathaway?
This four-year span of time begins when Shakespeare is fourteen, and leaving grammar school. The next time he's name is mentioned in historical record is when, at the age of eighteen, he marries Anne Hathaway. 

Given that Anne was with child as she stepped down the aisle, there is one thing we can be pretty sure Shakespeare was doing during that time!

But what else was he up to?

Well, in order to try to track William Shakespeare's movements during this period, it's useful to look at what was going on within his family, specifically the family's finances. 

Money Makes The World Go Round

William's father, John Shakespeare, was an affluent man; successful in his own business (as a glove maker), and deemed a pillar of Stratford community. It would have been usual, therefore, for William to have gone straight from grammar school to university. This didn't happen. Instead, for some reason, John Shakespeare fell behind with his taxes; William's education came to an abrupt halt, and the estate belonging to William's mother, Mary, was mortgaged. 

Money, for the Shakespeares, really was too tight to mention. 

Why did John Shakespeare's success slide so drastically? Nothing is known for sure, but what is clear is that, as the eldest Shakespeare boy, William may well have been compelled (or simply felt obliged), to alleviate some of the burden. 

Working Nine-to-Five, What a Way to Make a Living

Hello, Sailor!
It is likely, therefore, that during the first lost years, Shakespeare was employed and contributing to the family coffers. What job was he doing? Well, there have been several suggestions and they are incredibly wide-ranging. 

Some scholars, for example, assert that Shakespeare gained a knowledge of the sea and astronomy by serving as a sailor. 

Then again, perhaps he learned about legal matters, which he'd later use in The Merchant of Venice, by working as a law clerk. Or maybe he just worked in the family business.

We'll never know exactly what he was doing, but it's highly likely that he was doing whatever he could to help the family's dire financial situation.

What Was Shakespeare Doing During His Second 'Lost Years'? 

No sooner do we get a fix on Shakespeare than he disappears on us again. 

In 1592, Shakespeare's mentioned in
the pamphlet A Groatsworth of Wit
After marrying Anne Hathaway in 1582, we know the pair welcomed a daughter. Twins then came along two years later. However, after that, there is another glaring blank in Shakespeare's life. 

From 1585, until 1592, when he's mentioned in a London pamphlet, he's conspicuous in his absence. 

And it is this second lost stretch that is the most intriguing, because it's during these seven years that Shakespeare must have begun to write, hone his craft, collect stories he'd ultimate transform into his own, and make his name as both actor and playwright. 

However, apart from records of his childrens' baptism, there is only one other mention of Shakespeare in historical documents during this 'lost' period: a legal action pertaining to dispute over land, in which William and his parents are named. The case was filed in 1589, so its safe to assume Shakespeare was still living in Stratford at that point. 

However, by 1592, he was most certainly in London...and had written Henry VI Part 1. 

What Prompted Shakespeare to Leave Stratford?

Was Shakespeare's a poacher?
The obvious answer would seem to be: he travelled to London to be an actor and playwright. 

And, sure enough, that's what he ultimately did...but it's worth bearing in mind that the life of an actor in Elizabethan England was far from glamorous. Actors at this time were deemed delinquent lowlifes.

Was the tug of the stage really so powerful that he was prepared to leave his wife and young children; potentially condemning them to poverty if he failed to make any money, which was a very real possibility?

Well, some people wonder if Shakespeare had to get out of Dodge. Urban legend would have it that he was caught poaching deer on land owned by Sir Richard Lucy. To avoid prosecution, William fled to London. It's an interesting thought, but no documents support it, so there is unlikely to be a great deal of truth to the story.

Roman Holiday?

Did Shakespeare spend some of his 'lost years' in Rome?
More recently, it has been suggested that Shakespeare spent a portion of these lost years on a pilgrimage to Rome, which may account for the familiarity of Italy in his plays. 

However, this is only a hypothesis - albeit one supported by some evidence to suggest that Shakespeare might have been Catholic (a dangerous religion to practice in Elizabethan England).

It's an attractive possibility. And a 16th century Roman pilgrims' guestbook bears cryptic signatures thought to be that of Shakespeare...but that's a tenuous bit of evidence, let's face it.  

So it's impossible to say with certainty, and perhaps we'll never know exactly what Shakespeare was up to do during his lost years. And to tell the truth, I'm not sure I'd want to know. The mystery is far more fascinating than the facts could ever be.

For more about the bits of Shakespeare's life that are known, take a look at What's All About, Shakespeare: An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

99 Quick Facts About Shakespeare and His Work

99 facts about Shakespeare - none
of which involve ice cream or
Cadbury's Flake.
For the 99th post on this blog (insert drum roll here), I present you with 99 quick, and hopefully interesting, facts about the one and only William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare came into the world in April of 1564. It's not known exactly what day he was born, but he was baptised on the 26th, which was likely just a few days after his birth.

2. His birthday is generally considered, therefore, to be the 23rd of April, which is also the date of his death fifty two years later.

3. William's father, John Shakespeare, was a glove maker.

4. His mother, Mary Shakespeare (nee Arden), was the daughter of a wealthy landowner.

5. Mary Arden is, disappointingly, not even distantly related to Elizabeth Arden.

6. However, Mary Arden was the second cousin of Edward Arden, a nobleman whose son-in-law plotted to murder Elizabeth I. The plot was quashed and Arden, implicated in his son-in-law's plan (although he probably knew nothing about it), was sentenced to death.

Shakespeare was born and raised in the Warwickshire town
of Stratford-Upon-Avon
7. Shakespeare was born and brought up in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

8. Although there is no record of him attending school, given that his parents were well-to-do, it's highly unlikely that he went without an education.

9. It's believed that he attended King Edward VI Grammar School, which was just a stone's throw from the family home.

10. William was the third of eight children born to his parents.

11. Infant mortality being so high, neither of Shakespeare's older sisters, Joan and Margaret, lived to be toddlers.

12. After William came another boy, named Gilbert, who survived into adulthood and became a successful tradesman.

13. Next came another sister, confusingly also named Joan, who made it to the ripe old age of seventy seven. She would be the only Shakespeare to survive her famous brother.

Joan Shakespeare, William's younger sister
14. Joan Shakespeare married a hat maker, William Hart, and had four children. One of them, another William, eventually became an actor. Following his uncle, he joined the King's Men sometime in the mid 1630s.

15. Shakespeare's acting nephew William Hart would become most famous for playing Falstaff.

16. John and Mary Shakespeare's sixth child was another daughter, Anne. Unfortunately, she did not survive the hazardous first years of life, and died at the age of eight.

17. Child number seven was named Richard. Very little is known of him, except that he died at the age of thirty nine, unmarried.

18. The last of the Shakespeare's siblings was Edmund, born sixteen years after his eldest brother. Edmund was keen to follow William into the theatre and moved to London. However, he hadn't had much of a chance to make a name for himself when he died at the age of twenty nine.

19. Almost nothing is known of Shakespeare's childhood, and the next documented event in his life is his marriage.

William Shakespeare married Anne
Hathaway in a shotgun wedding
20. On November 28th, 1582, the eighteen-year-old William Shakespeare wed the twenty-six-year-old Anne Hathaway. Coo coo ca choo Mrs Robinson.

21. Six months later, the hastily put together wedding was explained when Anne gave birth to a baby girl, Susanna.

22. Susanna was followed two years later by twins, Hamnet and Judith.

23. Like three of Shakespeare's siblings, Hamnet didn't make adulthood, dying at eleven years old.

24. Susanna eventually married John Hall, a famed physician. The couple had just one daughter, Elizabeth Hall.

25. Susanna Hall nee Shakespeare may have been the inspiration for several of her father's female characters. Susana Hall is described on her epitaph as "Witty beyond her sex, but that's not all, wise to salvation was good Mistress Hall."

26. Making the fairly good age of sixty six, Susanna survived her husband and left her only daughter well-educated.

27. Shakespeare's granddaughter Elizabeth Hall married twice, and lead what seems to have been a happy, affluent life, but she never had any children.

Shakespeare and his wife had three children: Susanna, Judith
and Hamnet
28. William Shakespeare's second daughter, Judith, did not marry quite as well as her sister. Indeed, her relationship with a vintner named Thomas Quiney led to several scandals.

29. First, Quiney did not obtain the license necessary for them to wed during lent, meaning the couple was excommunicated from the church.

30. Later, Quiney would be charged with, and prosecuted for,  "carnal copulation" with a woman named Magaret Wheeler. Quiney confessed to the crime and was forced to pay a fine and conduct "private penitence".

31. Despite their problems, Judith and Thomas had three sons: Shakespeare, Richard and Thomas.

32. Shakespeare's grandson, Shakespeare, died in infancy. Richard and Thomas died at the ages of twenty one and nineteen, within weeks of each other. Neither married or had children. So, the direct Shakespeare line ended there.

33. After the birth of his children, details on Shakespeare once again become murky. In fact, for around seven years, no records mention him: these are known as the 'lost years'.

Following the 'lost years', Shakespeare is
next mentioned in Robert Greene's
Groatsworth of Wit
34. There are several theories concerning Shakespeare's whereabouts during the 'lost years'. One assertion is that he was on the run after poaching a deer on Sir Richard Lucy's land, but no evidence supports this notion.

35. When he resurfaces again in 1592, he's called an "upstart crow," in a pamphlet called the 'Groatsworth of Wit'.

36. By the time he's being unfavourably reviewed in the Groatsworth of Wit, Shakespeare is living in London, and working as an actor and playwright. Anne Hathaway and the children, meanwhile, are still back in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

37. It's not really known why Shakespeare left the family behind, but given the fact that acting was seen as not only a lowly, but also a delinquent profession, it's perhaps no surprise that he didn't drag his wife and kids along.

38. While making a name for himself as an actor and writer, Shakespeare became a managing partner of the Lord Chamberlain's Men (renamed the King's Men after James I came to the throne) - the most famous acting troupe in the country, whose members included Richard Burbage.

39. In 1593 and 1594, there were virulent outbreaks of the plague which closed the theatres.

40. Out of work as an actor, Shakespeare focused on writing, but it wasn't plays he primarily focused on. With the entertainment venues of London closed, William wrote the poems 'Venus and Adonis' and 'The Rape of Lucrece'.

Henry Wriothesley was Shakespeare's
41. It's also thought that he wrote many of his sonnets at this time.

42. Shakespeare's poems are dedicated to his patron, Henry Wriothesley - the Earl of Southampton, who is believed to be the 'fair youth' that many of the sonnets are written about.

43. So, far from being a poem of romantic love, Sonnet 18 'Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day' was actually written about the good looks of a man. And, you've gotta agree, Wriothesley was a pretty boy.

44. This doesn't necessarily mean Shakespeare was gay, though. Sexuality, and the appreciation of beauty (both male and female), was very different from our modern perception.

45. And, of course, if you're an out of work actor, it's not a bad idea to flatter the man who's putting food on your table.

46. It's thought that Shakespeare began writing plays sometime between 1590 and 1592.

47. His earliest works included Love's Labour's Lost and the Henry VI trilogy.

48. He was prolific, producing around two plays each year from the early 1590s right through until 1611.

The First Folio puts Shakespeare's plays
into three genres: comedies, histories
and tragedies
49. Because many of Shakespeare's plays weren't printed and published until after his death, its difficult to be sure exactly how many he wrote. But there are thirty seven plays that we know of and have access to.

50. There are another two places that are known of, but of which no copies exist. Those 'lost plays' are The History of Cardenio and Love's Labour's Won.

51. There's also at least one play that Shakespeare collaborated on: The Two Noble Kinsmen, which was penned with John Fletcher.

52. Shakespeare's plays are divided into just three genres, although many of them don't fit neatly into one category. Those genres are: history, tragedy and comedy.

53. William Shakespeare's ten history plays follow the chronicles (some of them less accurate than others), of several English kings starting in the 11th century with King John all the way up to Elizabeth I's pa, Henry VIII.

54. Although Shakespeare is perhaps best known for his tragedies, he wrote the same number of tragedies as histories: ten.

55. He was most abundant where comedies were concerned, churning out seventeen of the things.

Today, Measure for Measure is viewed
as a 'problem play' rather than a
straightforward comedy.
56. More recently, six of the plays have been re-branded 'problem plays', because they do not fit neatly into the genre of comedy or tragedy. These plays are, All's Well That Ends Well, A Winter's Tale, Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, Timon of Athens, and Troilus and Cressida.

57. The problem plays are labelled 'problem' because either, like The Merchant of Venice, they do not sit comfortably as comedies, or, like Timon of Athens, they wrestle with problematic themes.

58. It appears that Shakespeare's talent as a writer began to pay divides quickly. In 1596, John's father was granted a coat of arms, and its likely that William's cash commissioned it.

59. In 1597, Shakespeare could afford to buy New Place, a grand home in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

60. Meanwhile, The Chamberlain's Men were packing them in, and setting their sights on building their own theatre: The Globe, which was completed in 1599.

61. By the latter 1590s, Shakespeare had established a name for himself and was performing several of his plays in Queen Elizabeth's court.

62. In 1598, Francis Meres wrote of Shakespeare, "...the Muses would speak with Shakespeare's fine filed phrase if they would speak English."

Extract from Palladis Tamia, by Francis Meres,
praising Shakespeare
63. Meres also considered William Shakespeare to be among the greatest writers of comedy and tragedy for the stage.

64. Although he's most famed as a writer, and with good reason, in records from 1592, 1598 and even up until 1603, Shakespeare's profession is listed as 'actor'.

65. We know that he performed in a play by Ben Jonson, and it's also likely that he played minor roles in his own works.

66. There is some evidence to suggest that he took on the roles of Hamlet's Ghost in Hamlet, and Adam in As You Like It.

67. Almost all of Shakespeare's plays have their roots in either historical fact or another play or story.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is one
of only two plays that are entire creations
of Shakespeare's imagination
68. The two works that are complete works of his imagination are A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest.

69. For reasons not quite explained, in the middle of the 19th century, the question of 'authorship' began to be raised. The theory behind the debate was that Shakespeare didn't actually write anything; he was just a beard for someone who could not publicly acknowledge his/her work.

70. Today, there are some scholars, actors and directors who think its unlikely that William Shakespeare wrote everything that's attributed to him.

71. And, in fairness, there was a tradition of collaborative writing during the Elizabethan era. So there is certainly the possibility that he did not write everything entirely alone.

72. Those who believe someone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's plays are referred to as anti-Stratfordians.

73. One of the things anti-Stratfordians are quick to point out is that Shakespeare's name is spelled differently on documents and manuscripts. It's written as Shakespear, Shakspere, Shakespe and Shakspe. But, it's worth remembering, there were no hard and fast rules were spelling was concerned, not even for names.

Nowhere does Shakespeare spell his name the way we do
74. In none of the copies of Shakespeare's own signature does he spell his name the way we do today.

75. However, there is no firm evidence for one candidate, or (in my opinion), anything other than speculation over Shakespeare's education, or lack thereof, to suggest that he didn't or couldn't have written his plays.

76. We often refer to Shakespeare as an Elizabethan writer, as I just did above, but his most famous plays were written during the reign of James I (the Jacobean era).

77. Shakespeare wasn't afraid of risking his neck (quite literally), with politically charged writing. Richard II was penned late in the reign of the childless Elizabeth I and parallels between the tale of the 14th century king and the contemporary monarch were unmistakable.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, used Shakespeare's
Richard II to get his supports riled up for rebellion
78. In fact, a performance of Richard II was paid for by the rebellious Earl of Essex and played at The Globe on the eve of what was his attempted uprising against the queen.

79. While a successful (and very busy), actor, playwright and theatre owner in London, Shakespeare was also a respected property owner and businessman back home in Stratford.

80.  Although Shakespeare is well known for his verse, only two plays are written entirely in verse: Richard II and King John. The rest are a mixture of prose and verse.

81. It wasn't until the restoration period that woman were allowed to perform on stage. Therefore, in Shakespeare own lifetime, all female parts were played by boys or young men. So Viola, Portia and those other cross-dressing girls are actually boys dressed as girls dressed as boys. Keeping up?

82. Shakespeare's longest play is Hamlet, which has a running time of around four hours when performed in its entirety.

The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare's shortest play
83. The shortest, on the other hand, is The Comedy of Errors.

84. In 1613, during a performance of Henry VIII, The Globe theatre was destroyed after a fire started by a cannon set off as part of the play.

85. Shakespeare's religion is another aspect of his life that is debated. His distant relative Edward Arden (mentioned above), was Catholic despite it being illegal. And, after Shakespeare's death, Richard Davies (an Anglican Archdeacon, who had known the Bard), claimed that William was himself Catholic.

86. Shakespeare died at the age of fifty two. He was an impressively rich man, who left his estate to Susanna and her husband. To Anne Hathaway, who survived him, he famously left the second best bed.

Shakespeare's will, in which he famously left his
wife the second best bed
87. The second best bed was probably the marital bed and, therefore, had sentimental significance. And it's reasonable to assume that there was already an agreement that Susanna and Dr Hall would care for her mother in her old age.

88. Shakespeare was buried at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.

89. On his original headstone, there was an engraved image of him carrying a bag of grain. In 1747, the people of Stratford had the image altered, replacing the grain with a quill.

90. It was common at the time for remains to be dug up and moved in order to make room for new graves, but Shakespeare's epitaph discourages it. "Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear, To dig the dust enclosed here: Blest be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones." Sure enough, Shakespeare hasn't been budged since he was laid to rest there.

91. Shakespeare has become the single most quoted author in English. Only the Bible's multiple authors are quoted more often.

John Keats kept a bust of Shakespeare on his desk
in the hope that he'd be inspired.
92. Shakespeare has had a string of very famous fans, including John Keats, Abraham Lincoln, Mary Shelley and Nelson Mandela.

93. Although, unfortunately, Shakespeare is now seen as entertainment for an affluent and/or well-educated minority, Shakespeare's plays were, and still are, very much for the masses.

94. Violence is rife in Shakespeare's plays with twelve murders, twelve suicides and nine fatal wounds sustained in combat. Not to mention a broad selection of bloody maiming and assassinations. It's enough to rival most Hollywood blockbusters.

95. The first collection of Shakespeare's plays was published in 1623 and is known as the First Folio.

96. Between 1788 and 1820, King Lear was banned from being performed on English stages, for fear that it would mock King George III, who was suffering from mental illness, which is thought now to be a result of porphyria.

97. There have been over 410 screen versions and adaptations of Shakespeare's plays.

98. Shakespeare's work is the most filmed of any author in any language.

99. Today, a Google search for William Shakespeare generates a whopping 38 million hits.

If you'd like to learn more about Shakespeare, check out What's It All About Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

An Overview of The Casket Trial in The Merchant of Venice

What is the purpose of the casket trial in
The Merchant of Venice?
Shakespeare uses two literal trials in The Merchant of Venice: The selection of the caskets in Belmont and the courtroom scene in Venice.

It could be argued that most fiction is about trials of one form or another, because it is often placing characters under pressure, or ‘testing’ them, that allows a writer to create drama.

And Shakespeare regularly puts his characters through trials, whether it’s Hamlet’s quest for revenge or Isabella’s attempts to save her brother’s life in Measure for Measure.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare presents two literal, but vastly different, trials. While the legal trial in Venice is (for the most part) grounded in realism, the trial of the caskets is fanciful and fairytale-like...much like most of the events in Belmont.

What is the Trial of the Three Caskets in The Merchant of Venice?

In Belmont, Portia’s suitors are presented with three caskets: gold, silver and lead. Each man is asked to choose a casket - if he chooses the one with a portrait of Portia inside, he will win her hand in marriage. The game sounds simple enough so far.

Each casket has a riddle, which, if deciphered correctly, tells of the contents. This trial, designed by Portia’s father, allows him to screen his daughter’s suitors in absentia.

We know, from act one, that there have been numerous undesirables who have attempted the casket trial. However, the audience, or reader, is only witness to three attempts.

Morocco learns that 'all that glitters is not gold'

Which Casket Does Morocco Choose?

The first suitor we actually see is the Prince of Morocco - a dashing, confident and eloquent man, who seems to have quite an effect on Portia, “But if my father had not scanted me…Yourself, renowned prince, then stood as fair/As any comer I have look'd on yet/For my affection.”(II.i) 

However, Morocco’s gung-ho attitude and his belief that he is searching for ‘what many men desire’, leads him to choose the gold casket and he learns that, indeed, “All that glitters is not gold.”(II.vii) 

So, poor Morocco leaves Belmont a dejected figure, vastly different from the one we are introduced to just four scenes earlier.

Arragon is something of a fool - we know he's going
to choose wrongly

Which Casket Does Arragon Choose?

The second suitor to take the trial is the Prince of Arragon. Arragon by name, and arrogant by nature, the prince almost immediately disregards the gold casket, because, “I will not choose what many men desire,/Because I will not jump with common spirits…”(II.ix) 

Instead, he selects the silver casket, which promises ‘…as much as he deserves’. Which is, in fact...nothing. Arragon, like Morocco, leaves Belmont a shadow of his former self.

Which Casket Does Bassanio Choose?

Finally, Bassanio enters...And it might as well be on a white charger. In this fairytale, there's no mistaking the hero. 

Does Bassanio's love for Portia outweigh his
love of money?
Portia, who has something of a fancy for Bassanio, tries to dissuade him from choosing, “I pray you, tarry: pause a day or two/Before you hazard; for, in choosing wrong,/I lose your company…”(III.ii) However, Bassanio is determined to make his selection. 

It is worth remembering here that, at the beginning of the play, we learn Bassanio is something of a spendthrift. He has squandered a considerable amount of Antonio’s money and seems drawn to the trappings of wealth. 

Therefore, when it comes to choosing a casket, it seems reasonable to assume he will select one made of a precious metal. 

However, when it is time for Bassano’s ‘test’, he is surprisingly level-headed. It seems as though his love for Portia has brought a maturity that allows him to realise, “Look on beauty,/And you shall see 'tis purchased by the weight…thou meagre lead,/Which rather threatenest than dost promise aught/Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence”(III.ii)

What Do The Casket Scenes Bring to The Merchant of Venice Party?

Interestingly, all three casket trials do more than just ‘test’ these men (although that is clearly the original goal), they also affect change in the suitors - temporary or permanent, we don't know. 

The casket trail is a dramatic tool and a fairytale-style device,
which means we know that it'll be the third suitor, Bassanio,
who chooses correctly
But we do learn something about all of the men. Trials, whether literal or figurative, are great theatrical devices that create drama and allow an audience to empathise with, understand or, in some cases, despise a character. 

And The Merchant of Venice is a great example of the way Shakespeare uses trials to great effect.

A version of this article was first published, by the author, on suite101.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Who Loves Whom in Twelfth Night?

Love and confusion in Twelfth Night
For portions of the play, the characters of Twelfth Night don't know who they're in love with, but one thing is for sure, there is a whole lot of love going around. 

Fortunately, for the purposes of comedy, but, unfortunately, for the characters, it is often unrequited. However, in the interests of a ‘happy ending’, mistaken identities are cleared up and confusion is eventually lifted.

Of course, it's worth keeping in mind that romantic love is by no means the only type of love dealt with in Twelfth Night. Love between siblings and friends is equally prominent and important. 

However, the love connections discussed below are predominantly amorous in nature and, with just two exceptions, are one-sided infatuations.

Orsino Loves Olivia

The first romantic attachment we become privy to is Orsino’s passion for Olivia. In the opening scene, the lovesick duke suggests, rather fancifully, that music may cure his infatuation. “Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,/The appetite may sicken, and so die.”(I.i)
Toby Stephens as the love-sick Orsino

Shortly after which, the aptly named (or perhaps not so aptly named) Valentine enters with a message from Olivia: she refuses to hear from any suitor for seven years. This time she intends to spend mourning her dead brother.

In the first scene, it is clear that Orsino has repeatedly sent messengers to her, in a manner that could perhaps get him arrested for stalking. This pattern continues when young Cesario (Viola in disguise) begins to work for Orsino. Strangely, her principal 'job' quickly becomes wooing Olivia on his behalf. 

Unfortunately, this plan backfires rather spectacularly.

Olivia Loves Cesario/Viola

Despite her vow to refuse all suitors, Olivia experiences an incredibly sudden change of heart when she meets Viola disguised as a man. “How now!/Even so quickly may one catch the plague?”(I.v) The plague, indeed.

Little does Olivia know, she's barking up the wrong tree

In order to ensure Cesario’s return, Olivia sends Malvolio with a ring; claiming that the Duke's messenger gave it to her. 

When Malvolio catches up with Viola and throws the ring at her, she attempts to fathom Olivia’s motives. And can only reach one conclusion: “…what means this lady?/Fortune forbid my outside have not charm'd her!”(II.ii)

Viola is subsequently reluctant to return, but is sent frequently and repeatedly by Orsino. 

She, of course, attempts to discourage Olivia’s infatuation, “I have one heart, one bosom and one truth,/And that no woman has; nor never none/Shall mistress be of it, save I alone.”(III.i) Alas, to no avail. 

Meanwhile, poor Viola’s disguise is causing her another romantic complication.

Viola Loves Orsino

While working for Orsino, Viola has developed something of a crush on him. A crush that she cannot act upon, however, because, as far as he is concerned, she’s a man.
Poor Viola cannot reveal her true feelings
without revealing her true identity

And, of course, she cannot reveal the truth without admitting that she deceived her way into his employ.

Viola, beloved of Olivia and in love with Orsino, finds herself in a bit of a pickle. 

As she so eloquently describes, “As I am man,/My state is desperate for my master's love;/As I am woman, -now alas the day!-/What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!”(II.ii)

Sir Andrew Loves Olivia

In many ways, Sir Andrew’s role is that of buffoonish sidekick to Sir Toby. However, Shakespeare also uses the opportunity to add a further strand to the entangled love plot. 

Of course, because Andrew is a potential suitor, albeit a grotesquely unsuccessful one, it creates wonderful jealousy as he watches Cesario/Viola woo (or so he thinks) Olivia.

This ultimately leads to one of the most humorous and clownish scenes of the play. When Viola and Andrew, neither of whom are proficient in fighting, attempt to duel one another.

Maria Loves Sir Toby

It is unclear when this relationship began to blossom. 

Some productions offer clues in the form of meaningful glances between the pair.
William Evans Burton and
Mrs Burton, as Sir Toby and Maria
However, it is not until Maria concocts the plan to trick Malvolio that any word is spoken to acknowledge affection between the two.

However, Toby’s, “She's a beagle, true-bred, and one that adores me: what o' that?”(II.iii) may suggest that he does not return her feelings of adoration. 

Nevertheless, making a fool of Malvolio seems to endear her to him greatly. And, at the end of the play, we learn that the two have married.

And speaking of Malvolio.

Malvolio Loves…

Olivia? Well, probably not. Although he throws himself at her in a ridiculous manner which verges on the ‘dirty old man’ (see Nigel Hawthorne’s portrayal in Trevor Nunn’s 1996 film version), Malvolio’s one great passion is, in fact, himself.

The unromantic truth is that he probably merely views Olivia as a means to advance his social status.

A version of this post was first published by the author on Suite.101