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People Think They Know About Shakespeare: 5 Absolutely Wrong Assumptions

Thank you, Bill Bryson!

Chandros supposed portrait of Shakespeare

Most English-speaking people in the modern world have heard of William Shakespeare. They might know the sad story of Romeo and Juliet, star-crossed lovers whose families are feuding. Maybe they've heard of Hamlet, the tortured prince who hears the ghost of his dead father telling him to kill his uncle. Chances are the average person could tell you that Shakespeare wrote plays long, long ago.

William Shakespeare is such a recognized name that we assume we know a lot about him.

Heck, I've had a couple of Shakespeare classes in college, but I was blown away because what I had assumed I knew about Shakespeare was absolutely wrong! Thank you, Bill Bryson, for enlightening me with your zippy, fun-to-read, Shakespeare: The World as Stage!

ONE: We don't really know what Shakespeare looked like

You might think that Shakespeare had dark hair, a goatee, and a rakish earring.

Most of the world believes that Shakespeare looks like this because of one painting known as the Chandos portrait.

Funny thing.

No one knows for sure who the man in "The Chandos picture" was. The portrait came into the Chandos family in 1747, almost 150 years after Shakespeare's death in 1616. Family legend claimed the picture depicted Shakespeare, but absolutely no documentation exists.

Two hundred years after the life of Shakespeare, in 1839, Richard Grenville, the heir to the Chandos family with the title of the Second Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, became a very wealthy man.

Sadly, money doesn't buy happiness or wisdom and within ten years Richard Grenville was absolutely broke.

When Grenville had to sell off everything he owned, the Earl of Ellesmere purchased the Chandos portrait at auction. He gifted the first portrait gifted to the New National Portrait Gallery in London as a "Shakespeare" portrait.

Why we think Shakespeare looked like this...

There's a second piece of art that supposedly depicts William Shakespeare.

A Martin Droeshout engraving appeared in the First Folio of Shakespeare's work in 1623.

Droeshout got the commission to do the work, not because of his artistic skill, but because he owned the right equipment to do a copper engraving.

However, Shakespeare had been dead for seven years before Droeshout did his engraving, so we can be sure the playwright didn't model for it. Possibly, Droeshout modeled his engraving after the unknown man in the Chandos portrait.

This means that the mental picture most of us have of Shakespeare may not be Shakespeare at all!

Droeshout engraving, supposedly of Shakespeare

Martin Droeshout Engraving - 1623. Photo: Wikipedia

The only other possible Shakespeare likeness is the statue at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford on the Avon. Shakespeare grew up in Stratford on the Avon, his family lived there, and he was buried there. The statue looks like this:

Shakespeare bust by Gheerart Janssen
Janssen bust. © John Cheal, Inspired Images, 2012)

The statue was sculpted by a stone mason named Gheerart Janssen. We have no idea whether or not Shakespeare modeled for this statue before he died. It - like the Droeshout engraving - was produced seven years after Shakespeare's death.

Gheerart Janssen lived and worked near the Globe Theatre where Shakespeare hung out, so at least Gheerart would have known what Shakespeare looked like. The statue was also seen by people who knew Shakespeare, and no one ever suggested that the effigy didn't look like him, even though Mark Twain said that the statue had,

"the deep, deep, subtle expression of a bladder."

It's tough to get a true idea of facial expressions from an unmoving marble statue, but it's truly the best chance we have of getting a visual picture of how Shakespeare really looked.

TWO: We don't know how Shakespeare spelled his name

Believe it or not, Shakespeare's writings total more than a MILLION words, but we only have fourteen words written in William Shakespeare's own hand.

Two of the known fourteen words are scrawled on his will in his own handwriting. They read, "by me." The other twelve words consist of six signatures.

Here's the thing.

All six signatures in William Shakespeare's handwriting consist of two names and not a single extant signature is spelled the same way!

While we pronounce the word "Shake - spear" with a long "A" sound, it may have been pronounced "Shack - spear," with a short "a" sound. Five of the six known signatures lack the "e" after the "k."

Not one of the six signatures is spelled the way that we commonly spell it today: William Shakespeare.

Infographic of six spellings of Shakespeare's signatures

THREE: Shakespeare disappeared for eight years

No matter how many hundreds of Shakespeare scholars have combed through records, no one can ascertain where Shakespeare was for eight formative years of his career, from 1585 to 1592.

Basically, Shakespeare disappears.

Some people think he left because he was a Catholic in a country where that wasn't allowed, and he went North.

Others speculate that he went to sea because of all the sea metaphors in his plays.

Another school of thought is that Shakespeare went to Italy because he mentions Italy more than Scotland, France, or England.

The truth is this: Shakespeare may have been one of the greatest playwrights ever to walk the face of the earth, but that doesn't mean we know where he was when he was writing those plays!

At some point he came into the London theater scene and began producing, directing, writing, and acting in his plays, entertaining thousands.

FOUR: We have no idea in what order Shakespeare wrote his works

Shakespeare was prolific. He wrote plays - comedies, tragedies, and histories - along with sonnets and poems to patrons.

We often assume because we know so many of his works, that there is a clear order to when he wrote and produced them.

Wrong assumption.

No one knows which play was first. In fact, scholars debate it with no conclusion, although most of them narrow it down to eight plays that may have been the "first."

While there is no clarity as to when each of his works was written, there IS a compilation of his plays, thanks to Shakespeare's friend and fellow dramatists with Lord Chamberlain's men, Heminges and Condell.

In Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill Bryson refers to Heminges and Condell as literary heroes. Heminges and Condell decided to put together as many of Shakespeare's works as they could into a book after his death, creating The First Folio. They probably had no idea what a gift they were giving to the world.

FIVE: Shakespeare's works are highly original

The common assumption is that Shakespeare's writings are still performed four hundred years after they were written because they were unique and original.

Not really.

Shakespeare often took names, plots, and even dialogue from existing works. (Many writers of the day did the same thing because they needed to constantly produce more works for the masses.) Sometimes he even lifted entire passages from other plays.

But Shakespeare took the "unoriginal" play and morphed it into something different by imbuing it with insight into the human condition and embellishing it with comedic characters. Above all else, he played with the language, manipulating it and using it in ways that no one before him had ever done.

His plots may not have been totally original, but many of his words and phrases were.

Shakespeare coined an unbelievable 2035 words, including these words that had not existed before his plays.

Get this.

Many of the words which are common to us now were "created" by Shakespeare, here are just a few of the many, many new words he gifted to the English language:

critical, dwindle, horrid, hereditary, excellent, leapfrog, zany, and thousands more.

My personal Shakespeare mentor

I am blessed beyond measure to have my own personal Shakespeare mentor named Martha Rose. More than thirty years ago, the English Department Chair at my community college hired me. Since then, she has become my friend, traveling companion, mother, confidante, advisor, and mentor. (There is no word for all the roles she fills in my life.) She is also a Shakespeare scholar who has seen hundreds of plays on stage. She knows every play and can tell you the plots, important ideas, and the names of the characters, bringing enthusiasm for Shakespeare's genius to anyone who hears her.

No wonder my interest in Shakespeare was reignited!

Another friend and I take personal Shakespeare lessons once a month with Martha Rose, learning and laughing over lunch. It was Martha Rose who turned us on to the Bill Bryson book, Shakespeare: The World As Stage, knowing that a quick and easy-to-read book would be a great way to get us turned onto and tuned into the Shakespearian world.

So in honor of my beloved Martha Rose, I'll hope that you, too, will get turned on to Shakespeare and recognize that no matter how much we think we know about him, we are probably wrong.

There is so much more to know!

Martha Rose, beloved friend and Shakespeare scholar
Martha Rose. Photo: Melissa Gouty

Parting Words

"Man is a giddy thing, and this is my conclusion." - Much Ado About Nothing

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