Saturday, 16 April 2016


Part two of this Shakespeare mini-series devotes itself to history. Here's a brief history of the man himself, still something of an enigma 400 years later.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is generally acknowledged to be the finest playwright of them all, certainly as far as the English language is concerned. He was in the right place at the right time - the quarter of a century from 1589 to 1614 - when the European renaissance really took hold in late Elizabethan and early Stuart England.

Although he was grammar school educated in  his home town of Stratford-on-Avon, and evidently capable of going to university if he wished, William was not attracted by academia. Instead he was married at 18 to Anne Hathaway, a woman seven years his senior, and was a father soon afterwards, providing for his young family by working as a lawyers' clerk.

He had always been attracted to the theatre, which in early Elizabethan England existed mainly as acting companies at the courts of the Queen and her nobles. These companies toured the provinces when not performing for their patrons and Stratford (being close to both Kenilworth Castle and Oxford) played host to such touring companies. Thus it was that in 1587, Shakespeare at age 23 set out to make his way in London in the emerging theatrical world. He was intent on making a living and a name for himself  in the capital, spent much of the next thirty years there, visiting his wife and family in Stratford as the occasion offered (once or twice a year).

Initially he served as an actor for the Lord Chamberlain's men but before long, as well as acting, he was busy editing other people's plays to make them more stageworthy. It was then only a matter of time before he was producing original work for his company to perform. They soon recognised where his true worth lay and his reputation as a dramatist and a poet grew quickly. He went on to write 39 plays (academics still argue over a further 4) plus 4 long poems and 148 sonnets. He became a shareholder in the theatre company, a mainstay of the Globe when it opened and he continued to act minor roles in the string of major plays that he wrote either side of the change of century. Dividing his time between London and Stratford, he became a man of considerable means by the time of his death, aged exactly 52 to the day.

It is claimed that Shakespeare "created" over 1,700 new words among his prolific output, something of an exaggeration as this count also includes pre-existing words that were given a new twist (i.e. an adjective derived from a noun, a noun transformed into a verb etc) and words for which no earlier written example has been found. Regardless of count, the achievement is impressive, as is the list of hundreds of well-known phrases in common usage today that have their origin in the works of William Shakespeare.

The illustration (above) is claimed by historian Mark Griffiths, in a treatise worthy of Dan Brown, to be the earliest - and hitherto unknown - depiction of Shakespeare and the only extant likeness that was fashioned during his lifetime. It is taken from the title-page of 'The Herball or Generall Histoire of Plantes' published in 1598 by the horticulturalist John Gerard. The engraving showed four figures and Griffiths had to make sense of an elaborate Tudor code of rebuses, ciphers, heraldic devices and symbolic flowers to determine the men's identities. One turned out, not surprisingly, to be the author John Gerard himself; another was famed Flemish botanist Rembert Dodoens; the third was Gerard's patron Lord Burghley (also Queen Elizabeth's chief minister). All the clues about the fourth individual, Griffiths contends, point to him being our man Shakespeare. The further conjecture is that Burghley supported the careers of both the horticulturist and the playwright and that Shakespeare earned his place in the book alongside the author, the author's inspiration and the author's patron as the author's literary advisor, possibly helping him with the Latin and Greek translations in the text. Griffiths enlisted no lesser authority than Edmund Wilson, emeritus fellow of Worcester College, Oxford, to disprove his analysis. Wilson admits to having failed in that mission. "This is the most important contribution to be made to our knowledge of Shakespeare in generations."

Finally, to today's poem, just completed in time for the blog. It is an attempt to address a near-contemporary historical issue (the Tottenham Riots of a few years ago) within the structure of a Shakespearean sonnet (three quatrains and a rhyming couplet all in iambic pentameter). See what you think...

Tottenham Riot Sonnet
I saw insanity the other night
writ cross the faces of a seething mob.
Untrammeled by concerns of wrong or right
they surged with fixed intent to loot and rob.
Hot air swirled thick with smoke, with sirens' wail,
anger unmasked laid waste to city streets.
Attempts to stem the tide looked doomed to fail,
the force of law uncertain in retreat.
We watched these scenes unfold on tv screens
in sunset bars beside a tranquil bay,
safe haven this, for those who have the means,
north London's meltdown half a world away.
  I let my mind untravel to revise
  that day we chose another path more wise.

Thanks for reading. Have a great week, S ;-)


Lady Curt said...

I am glad that you finished the verse ...well done.

Annie Walton said...

You are soooooo clever young Steve ! Just wish time had allowed me more space to have got involved with all this wonderful literary palarvery ! Xxxxx