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  • Straight Talking English

Who was William Shakespeare?

Updated: Mar 13, 2019

Will was born in 1564 in Stratford Upon Avon, near Birmingham. His dad was from the local area and was a wool and corn seller, glove maker, and later on a moneylender. Conveniently, his mum’s family were shepherds so it was a very convenient marriage! It also must have been quite happy since they had eight children: four daughters, Will, and three other sons.


Will almost definitely went to school until he was about thirteen at a local school to learn reading and writing, as well as some Latin. Despite not learning it in school, Will must have been incredibly intelligent as he wrote about ancient roman poetry and science in his plays. He got married when he was eighteen to Anne Hathaway, who was 26.


Then, Will drops off the grid. We don’t hear from him until a bad newspaper review in 1592. Will was down in London by this time, and we know this because he wrote sexy poems dedicated to a (male) favourite of the Queen. Yep, some of Shakespeare’s love poetry was written about dudes.

Wait, hold up. Does that mean Shakespeare was gay?


Nope.


You’re smart. You know words mean different things to different people: for example, if I said ‘Mum’, you probably wouldn’t think of the same woman I would. It’s the same with terms like ‘gay’. I’d think of Ian McKellan, Harvey Milk, Pride, the fantastic novels of NK Jemison…and someone twenty, thirty, one hundred, five hundred years ago would have totally different images when it came to dudes who like dudes. Same for ‘bisexual’. All we know is that in Shakespeare’s love poetry one of the characters is not named as female, and has blonde hair. We also know when he wrote some poems, he put a ‘thank you’ at the start to a man. That could be because they sponsored him, or encouraged him.


He was also a bestselling poet, taking advantage of this crazy new invention called books to get people reading his sonnets. He was incredibly popular with all sections of society, from the toffs to the average man in the street. In the 1590s he wrote 154 sonnets, mostly dealing with lost love. However in 1592 he got some major bad reviews for his writing, with critics saying he was a ‘Jack of All Trades’; trying to be good at too many things and failing at all of them! But, this might be because he hadn’t had a higher education like other writers.


That said, there are 200 references to dogs and 600 references to birds, his vocabulary was estimated at 17000-29000 words, he wrote 38 plays on top of his sonnets. He also created and added roughly 1,700 – 3,000 words to the English language. Just to top it off, he’s the writer that inspired Samuel Johnson to create the first dictionary, and basically forced the English language to have one single set of rules for how things needed to be spelled.


Will started his own business in 1594 with a bunch of other actors called ‘The King Chamberlain’s Men’. That was a nod to the Lord who sponsored them, like calling yourselves ‘Theresa May’s Mates’ today. They did really well and eventually he got the King to sponsor him (but more on him later). While Shakespeare’s dad ran up huge debts, he did incredibly well for himself. The real money wasn’t in writing or acting: it was in selling tickets so he became part owner of the Globe Theatre and got enough money for him to buy property back in Stratford and live in comparative luxury.


He had the rubbish luck of dying on his birthday in 1616. Considering that Shakespeare lived through an outbreak of the bubonic plague in London (1524-94) and 1609, as well as coming to Stratford, when Shakespeare was just 3 months old, it wasn’t surprising that eventually death caught up with him after he’d cheated it three times already.


After his death, the national obsession with Will got intense. The Victorian era was full of ‘bardolatry’ or Shakespeare-worship, mostly because people looking back were calling him ‘Soul of the age, the applause, delight, the wonder of our stage’ and saying that ‘(Shakespeare) is not of an age, but for all time.’.


So, why study some bloke with an epic forehead who died so long ago?


First up, he’s British. We live in the UK and he is a writer to be proud of. That, plus the government changed the syllabus a few years ago so only British writers could be studied.


Second, his plays are quite fun when you get over the language. Murder? Check. Madness? Check. Supernatural? Check. 

Imagine a movie where a mid-level teacher, maybe a head of department, hears voices. They tell him he’ll be head within a year. His wife encourages him to make it happen, whatever it takes. So he poisons the head’s coffee, and his best mate’s. Then he starts seeing their ghosts wherever he goes. His wife has visions of blood covering their house and kills herself. He’s alone, going steadily more crackers, seeing students as trees coming to get him, believing he’s invincible, until he gets arrested in front of the school. I’d watch that, and that’s Macbeth.


Thirdly, his stories have touched people from all over the world. Wherever you go, people will know Romeo and Juliet, and his stories have been translated into pretty much every language.


That’s a real badass move to leave that much of a dent on the world.

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