Shakespeare: The World as Stage

Among skilled craftsmen—a category that included John Shakespeare—some 60 percent could read, a clearly respectable proportion.

Among the words first found in Shakespeare are abstemious, antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary, critical, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, indistinguishable, well-read, zany, and countless others (including countless).

And there was never a better time to delve for pleasure in language than the sixteenth century, when novelty blew through English like a spring breeze. Some twelve thousand words, a phenomenal number, entered the language between 1500 and 1650, about half of them still in use today, and old words were employed in ways not tried before. Nouns became verbs and adverbs; adverbs became adjectives. Expressions that could not have grammatically existed before - such as 'breathing one's last' and 'backing a horse', both coined by Shakespeare - were suddenly popping up everywhere.

A third...candidate for Shakespearean authorship was Christopher Marlowe. He was the right age (just two months older than Shakespeare), had the requisite talent, and would certainly have had ample leisure after 1593, assuming he wasn't too dead to work.

Boys normally attended the school for seven or eight years, beginning at the age of seven. The schoolday was long and characterized by an extreme devotion to tedium. Pupils sat on hard wooden benches from six in the morning to five or six in the evening, with only two short pauses for refreshment, six days a week.

Elizabethans were as free with their handwriting as they were with their spelling. Handbooks of handwriting suggested up to twenty different—often very different—ways of shaping particular letters.

Even Scientific American entered the fray with an article proposing that the person portrayed in the famous Martin Droeshout engraving might actually be--I weep to say it--Elizabeth I.

Food was similarly regulated, with restrictions placed on how many courses one might eat, depending on status.

From a selection of his other works, we might think him variously courtly, cerebral, metaphysical, melancholic, Machiavellian, neurotic, lighthearted, loving, and much more. Shakespeare was of course all these things—as a writer. We hardly know what he was as a person.

In 1586 Elizabeth ordered that Anthony Babington, a wealthy young Catholic who had plotted her assassination, should be made an example of. Babington was hauled down from the scaffold while still conscious and made to watch as his abdomen was sliced open and the contents allowed to spill out. It was by this time an act of such horrifying cruelty that it disgusted even the bloodthirsty crowd.

In breve, e come sempre, in Shakespeare un lettore attento può trovare sostegno per quasi qualsiasi posizione voglia prendere. (O come lo stesso Shakespeare ha scritto in una battuta citata spesso a sproposito: «Il diavolo può citare le Sacre Scritture per i propri fini».)

It is often said that what sets Shakespeare apart is his ability to illuminate the workings of the soul and so on, and he does that superbly, goodness knows, but what really characterizes his work - every bit of it, in poems and plays and even dedications, throughout every portion of his career - is a positive and palpable appreciation of the transfixing power of language. A Midsummer Night's Dream remains an enchanting work after four hundred years, but few could argue that it cuts to the very heart of human behaviour. What it does is take, and give, a positive satisfaction in the joyous possibilities of verbal expression.

Nathaniel Hawthorne, who was at the time American consul in Liverpool, provided a preface, then almost instantly wished he hadn’t, for the book was universally regarded by reviewers as preposterous hokum. Hawthorne under questioning admitted that he hadn’t actually read it. “This shall be the last of my benevolent follies, and I will never be kind to anybody again as long as [I] live,” he vowed in a letter to a friend.

Nearly every aspect of life was subject to some measure of legal restraint. At a local level, you could be fined for letting your ducks wander in the road, for misappropriating town gravel, for having a guest in your house without a permit from the local bailiff.

Only one man had the circumstances and gifts to give us such incomparable works, and William Shakespeare of Stratfrod was unquestionably that man -- whoever he was.

Perhaps nothing speaks more eloquently of the variability of spelling in the age than the fact that a dictionary published in 1604, A Table Alphabeticall of Hard Words, spelled “words” two ways on the title page.

Shakespeare 'never owned a book,' a writer for the New York Times gravely informed readers in one doubting article in 2002. The statement cannot actually be refuted, for we know nothing about his incidental possessions. But the writer might just as well have suggested that Shakespeare never owned a pair of shoes or pants. For all the evidence tells us, he spent his life naked from the waist down, as well as bookless, but it is probably that what is lacking is the evidence, not the apparel or the books.

Sheepskin is a marvelously durable medium, though it has to be treated with some care. Whereas ink soaks into the fibers on paper, on sheepskin it stays on the surface, rather like chalk on a blackboard, and so can be rubbed away comparatively easily. “Sixteenth-century paper was of good quality, too,” he went on. “It was made of rags and was virtually acid free, so it has lasted very well.

Spectators could, for an additional fee, sit on the stage—something not permitted at the Globe. With stage seating, audience members could show off their finery to maximum effect, and the practice was lucrative; but it contained an obvious risk of distraction. Stephen Greenblatt relates an occasion in which a nobleman who had secured a perch on the stage spied a friend entering across the way and strode through the performance to greet him. When rebuked by an actor for his thoughtlessness, the nobleman slapped the impertinent fellow and the audience rioted.

Sumptuary laws, as they were known, laid down precisely, if preposterously, who could wear what.

The marriage license itself is lost, but a separate document, the marriage bond, survives. On it Anne Hathaway is correctly identified. Shakespeare’s name is rendered as “Shagspere”—the first of many arrestingly variable renderings.

They can tell us not only what Shakespeare wrote but what he read. Geoffrey Bullough devoted a lifetime, nearly, to tracking down all possible sources for virtually everything mentioned in Shakespeare, producing eight volumes of devoted exposition revealing not only what Shakespeare knew but precisely how he knew it.

Until 1604 the age of consent was twelve for a girl, fourteen for a boy.

Was Hamlet a Man or a Woman?” and others of similarly inventive cast.

(...)we all recognize a likeness of Shakespeare the instant we see one, and yet we don’t really know what he looked like. It is like this with nearly every aspect of his life and character: He is at once the best known and least known of figures.

We don’t know if he ever left England. We don’t know who his principal companions were or how he amused himself. His sexuality is an irreconcilable mystery. On only a handful of days in his life can we say with absolute certainty where he was.

We know also that she had three children with William Shakespeare—Susanna in May 1583 and the twins, Judith and Hamnet, in early February 1585—but all the rest is darkness. We know nothing about the couple’s relationship—whether they bickered constantly or were eternally doting.

When a prominent Puritan named (all too appropriately, it would seem) John Stubbs criticized the queen’s mooted marriage to a French Catholic, the Duke of Alençon, his right hand was cut off.*

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE WAS BORN into a world that was short of people and struggled to keep those it had. In 1564 England had a population of between three million and five million—much less than three hundred years earlier, when plague began to take a continuous, heavy

You shall be led from hence to the place whence you came…and your body shall be opened, your heart and bowels plucked out, and your privy members cut off and thrown into the fire before your eyes.