Shakespeare in doubt !

William Shakespeare at Madam Tussaud’s

Willm Shaksp. William Shakespe. Wm Shakspe. Willm Shakspere. William Shakspeare.

These are the different ways in which the world’s (arguably) best known dramatist’s name has been spelt in documents dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. Funnily, the one spelling that has not been used is the one currently used today — William Shakespeare (1564–1616). One can also not be reasonably sure as to how the name was pronounced either. In fact, one cannot be reasonably sure about many things about William Shakespeare — what he looked like, what was the order in which his plays were written, did he ever travel outside England, his sexuality, his likes or dislikes… or even when he was born. It is quite ironical that while most of Shakespeare’s own works have survived, nothing about Shakespeare himself survives. It is almost as if he did not exist !

Although he left nearly a million words of text, we have just 14 words in his own hand… Not a single note or letter or page of manuscript survives… We can only know what came out of his work, not what went into it… It is because we have so much of Shakespeare’s work that we can appreciate how little we know of him as a person.

All this information and more form the basis of a biography on William Shakespeare by Bill Bryson. Simply titled Shakespeare, this book is based on information gathered from many sources, as well as previously published work and is presented in trademark Bill Bryson style. The book is not just about Shakespeare, his life and works, but is also about Elizabethan England, Protestantism, 16th century London and more.

Bryson’s Shakespeare is also treasure trove of important trivia regarding Shakespeare’s works and his contribution to the English language. Let me list out some of them:

  • Shakespeare’s works contain 138,198 commas, 26,794 colons and 15,785 question marks.
  • Shakespeare’s characters refer to love 2,259 times, but to hate just 183 times
  • Shakespeare contributed many words to the English language, that are in use even today: abstemious, antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, well-read, zany, etc. But there were also many words that did not take root: undeaf, untent, exsufflicate, bepray, insultment, etc.
  • Shakespeare’s real forte was in coining phrases: one fell swoop, vanish into thin air, bag and baggage, the milk of human kindness, flesh and blood, etc.

In fact, it is only on reading this book that I came to know, that we are not even sure what Shakespeare looked like. Indeed, the busts, illustrations or pictures that we think is of Shakespeare are taken from 3 different sources—the Chandos portrait (which is now at the National Portrait Gallery, London); a copperplate engraving, known as the Droeshout picture; and an effigy of Shakespeare in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, which has been painted over so many times, that all details are lost !

William Shakespeare. (L) The Chandos Portrait and (R) The Droeshout Picture

I have had an ambivalent relationship with Shakespeare for most of my life. I like his sonnets, though I can’t say the same for his plays. I find Charles Lamb‘s Tales from Shakespeare more palatable than the original plays themselves. And yet, because I like Tales from Shakespeare, I feel I should like the original plays. My attempts to deconstruct Shakespeare’s plays have been frustrating, largely because of the language used by the dramatist.

Globe Theatre, London
When I arrived in London, for a year-long stay in September 2008, decoding a Shakespeare play in Shakespeare land was high up on my list of things to do there. So when I came across the Globe Theatre in London in my very first month there, I was quite pleased to see that one of my “to do things in London” was so accessible.

It wasn’t very difficult to promise myself that I would be back very soon at the Globe to see a Shakespeare play there.

Decoding Shakespeare !

The second month in London saw me stumble across A Theatregoer’s Guide to Shakespeare by Robert Thomas Fallon. A fantastic book, this guide is meant for teachers and students of Shakespeare, and laypersons like me where the author explains the plot and themes of the  plays scene by scene in simple and plain English.

I was even more pleased. Now, with this fantastic book, I would be able to understand the nuances of each play and hopefully follow the dialogues. I’m almost there, Shakespeare, I told myself.

Then I got busy with studies and assignments and whatever else that student life entails, and it was not till nearly 7 months of my stay was over that I was able to bring Shakespeare in sight once again. This time, it was through a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace.

Stratford is a charming town, full of tourists waiting to get their Shakespeare fix. They are not disappointed as the town is full of allusions to Shakespeare’s plays and characters (see photos below).

Two examples of tourist-ready Stratford

After a walk through the town along the banks of the Avon river, I arrived at what is known as Shakespeare’s birthplace. The place was teeming with tourists, mostly Americans, and after paying the rather steep entrance fees of £12.00, joined the queue of people entering the house.

Entrance to Shakespeare’s Birthplace. This picture was taken in the evening after the place had closed for the day and the tourist hordes had vanished.
The House where Shakespeare may have been born

A visitor to Shakespeare’s birthplace is led through a well-choreographed ritual. He/She is first introduced to Shakespeare through an audio and video presentations of the stagings of his plays, as well as archival material of his work, before entering the house proper. Once inside the timber frame house where Shakespeare was born, guides/volunteers, in period costume, recount the life and times of Shakespeare — “this is the house he may have lived in”, “this is the room where he may have been born”, “this could be the room from where his father may have conducted his business”, “this could have been the main room of the Shakespeare household” …

This is when the visitor awakes from a haze of self-built awe around Shakespeare. “What are all these ‘coulds’ and ‘mays’ that you are using? Is there no proof that this is Shakespeare’s birthplace?” you may ask the guide/volunteer.

“That’s right, Sir/Madam. There is no proof as such and all of this is based on circumstantial evidence,” the guide/volunteer may reply, cheerfully. “In fact, everything that we know about Shakespeare’s life is based on such evidence. There really is no proof.”

On hearing this startling piece of revelation, you may react in one of 3 different ways: nod sagely and continue with your tour; feel crushed and cheated; or lose your temper like the American tourist at the site: “Are you telling me that I have come all the way from the United States of America to hear  b****y ‘coulds’ and ‘mays’ about Shakespeare?”

Personally, I felt crushed with this disclosure, and my excitement over Shakespeare fizzled out almost instantly. I wallowed so much in my disappointment over the “coulds” and “mays” regarding Shakespeare that I never followed it up with the promise of watching a Shakespeare play in Shakespeare land — probably one of the stupidest thing that I have ever done in my life 😦

I discovered Bill Bryson’s Shakespeare only a month or so back and reading this excellent book has only driven home my stupidity at a golden opportunity lost. If I had done a little bit of reading about Shakespeare, instead of only struggling to decode his plays, I would not have been so disappointed or shocked over my visit to Stratford. Nevertheless, these days I await for a good production of a Shakespeare play to be staged in Mumbai.

Today, 23 April is Shakespeare’s death anniversary. By tradition, 23 April is also considered to be Shakespeare’s birthday. But then, this (birth) date is as per the Julian Calendar system, which England followed when Shakespeare was born. Therefore, what was 23 April in Shakespeare’s time would actually be 3 May as per the Gregorian calendar, which we follow. To complicate matters, there is no record of William Shakespeare’s birth on 23 April (or 3 May) for that matter — this date has been calculated based on Shakespeare’s baptism on 26 April. Go figure !

9 thoughts on “Shakespeare in doubt !

  1. Superb. You must absolutely consider writing a book now. This is such a delightful post. A melange of feelings, reality, dreams, legend, concentrated metaphor and a sweet melancholy all in a tossed salad of exquisite words. I am going to read and share this with all those who love Shakespeare and all those who don’t. The former would love him all the more and the latter would now begin..


    1. Thanks Deepa, I’m glad that you liked this post. I was a little worried while writing this post as I have never read Shakespeare and felt that I might end up offending those who revere him !


  2. Truly interesting! As a person who is inclined towards literature and esp Shakespeare this is a pretty interesting read. Shakespeare has always been like a phantom to me. I love his works and have read many of his plays as they were part of our curriculum. There was a paper just on Shakespeare (I was a lit student). I felt, his words though written centuries bac are still apt, the characters one may find around you, the philosophy so fresh and up-to-date. Whenever there was this conjecture on Shakespeare’s life, we used to feel-“God, if only we had known what had happened!”
    Your post has transported me once again to my lit class with all those manifold feelings…
    And wonderful snaps as u were lucky to click ’em in person. Its indeed a shrine for people like me.
    Thanks for sharing!


    1. Welcome to my blog, Deepa.
      I am so jealous that you studied Shakespeare. I had English lit till my 12th standard (I was a science student and I fought to drop Maths and study an additional paper of English lit instead 🙂 ) We had GB Shaw (whom I loved) and Thomas Hardy (err.. no comments), but no Shakespeare. I hope that you too get a chance to experience Shakespeare in Shakespeare land.


  3. Great post. Actually, his works are not difficult to understand. One could start with one of his better known works( which makes it easier to connect with various cinematic adaptations) and then move on to the others. Without getting into a debate, I do not think any writer in any language has has played with the language in the manner that Shakespeare has. For this reason alone ( as well as the topical nature of many of his plays) Shakespeare is a must read for literature lovers.


    1. I like Shakespeare’s works. Let me rephrase that: I like his work based on what I have seen or read through cinematic or literary adaptations. In the original, I find the plays difficult to appreciate. But yes, I will try again 🙂


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