Wednesday, 29 January 2014

99 Quick Facts About Shakespeare and His Work

99 facts about Shakespeare - none
of which involve ice cream or
Cadbury's Flake.
For the 99th post on this blog (insert drum roll here), I present you with 99 quick, and hopefully interesting, facts about the one and only William Shakespeare.

1.
Shakespeare came into the world in April of 1564. It's not known exactly what day he was born, but he was baptised on the 26th, which was likely just a few days after his birth.

2. His birthday is generally considered, therefore, to be the 23rd of April, which is also the date of his death fifty two years later.

3. William's father, John Shakespeare, was a glove maker.

4. His mother, Mary Shakespeare (nee Arden), was the daughter of a wealthy landowner.

5. Mary Arden is, disappointingly, not even distantly related to Elizabeth Arden.

6. However, Mary Arden was the second cousin of Edward Arden, a nobleman whose son-in-law plotted to murder Elizabeth I. The plot was quashed and Arden, implicated in his son-in-law's plan (although he probably knew nothing about it), was sentenced to death.

Shakespeare was born and raised in the Warwickshire town
of Stratford-Upon-Avon
7. Shakespeare was born and brought up in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

8. Although there is no record of him attending school, given that his parents were well-to-do, it's highly unlikely that he went without an education.

9. It's believed that he attended King Edward VI Grammar School, which was just a stone's throw from the family home.

10. William was the third of eight children born to his parents.

11. Infant mortality being so high, neither of Shakespeare's older sisters, Joan and Margaret, lived to be toddlers.

12. After William came another boy, named Gilbert, who survived into adulthood and became a successful tradesman.

13. Next came another sister, confusingly also named Joan, who made it to the ripe old age of seventy seven. She would be the only Shakespeare to survive her famous brother.

Joan Shakespeare, William's younger sister
14. Joan Shakespeare married a hat maker, William Hart, and had four children. One of them, another William, eventually became an actor. Following his uncle, he joined the King's Men sometime in the mid 1630s.

15. Shakespeare's acting nephew William Hart would become most famous for playing Falstaff.

16. John and Mary Shakespeare's sixth child was another daughter, Anne. Unfortunately, she did not survive the hazardous first years of life, and died at the age of eight.

17. Child number seven was named Richard. Very little is known of him, except that he died at the age of thirty nine, unmarried.

18. The last of the Shakespeare's siblings was Edmund, born sixteen years after his eldest brother. Edmund was keen to follow William into the theatre and moved to London. However, he hadn't had much of a chance to make a name for himself when he died at the age of twenty nine.

19. Almost nothing is known of Shakespeare's childhood, and the next documented event in his life is his marriage.

William Shakespeare married Anne
Hathaway in a shotgun wedding
20. On November 28th, 1582, the eighteen-year-old William Shakespeare wed the twenty-six-year-old Anne Hathaway. Coo coo ca choo Mrs Robinson.

21. Six months later, the hastily put together wedding was explained when Anne gave birth to a baby girl, Susanna.

22. Susanna was followed two years later by twins, Hamnet and Judith.

23. Like three of Shakespeare's siblings, Hamnet didn't make adulthood, dying at eleven years old.

24. Susanna eventually married John Hall, a famed physician. The couple had just one daughter, Elizabeth Hall.

25. Susanna Hall nee Shakespeare may have been the inspiration for several of her father's female characters. Susana Hall is described on her epitaph as "Witty beyond her sex, but that's not all, wise to salvation was good Mistress Hall."

26. Making the fairly good age of sixty six, Susanna survived her husband and left her only daughter well-educated.

27. Shakespeare's granddaughter Elizabeth Hall married twice, and lead what seems to have been a happy, affluent life, but she never had any children.

Shakespeare and his wife had three children: Susanna, Judith
and Hamnet
28. William Shakespeare's second daughter, Judith, did not marry quite as well as her sister. Indeed, her relationship with a vintner named Thomas Quiney led to several scandals.

29. First, Quiney did not obtain the license necessary for them to wed during lent, meaning the couple was excommunicated from the church.

30. Later, Quiney would be charged with, and prosecuted for,  "carnal copulation" with a woman named Magaret Wheeler. Quiney confessed to the crime and was forced to pay a fine and conduct "private penitence".

31. Despite their problems, Judith and Thomas had three sons: Shakespeare, Richard and Thomas.

32. Shakespeare's grandson, Shakespeare, died in infancy. Richard and Thomas died at the ages of twenty one and nineteen, within weeks of each other. Neither married or had children. So, the direct Shakespeare line ended there.

33. After the birth of his children, details on Shakespeare once again become murky. In fact, for around seven years, no records mention him: these are known as the 'lost years'.

Following the 'lost years', Shakespeare is
next mentioned in Robert Greene's
Groatsworth of Wit
34. There are several theories concerning Shakespeare's whereabouts during the 'lost years'. One assertion is that he was on the run after poaching a deer on Sir Richard Lucy's land, but no evidence supports this notion.

35. When he resurfaces again in 1592, he's called an "upstart crow," in a pamphlet called the 'Groatsworth of Wit'.

36. By the time he's being unfavourably reviewed in the Groatsworth of Wit, Shakespeare is living in London, and working as an actor and playwright. Anne Hathaway and the children, meanwhile, are still back in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

37. It's not really known why Shakespeare left the family behind, but given the fact that acting was seen as not only a lowly, but also a delinquent profession, it's perhaps no surprise that he didn't drag his wife and kids along.

38. While making a name for himself as an actor and writer, Shakespeare became a managing partner of the Lord Chamberlain's Men (renamed the King's Men after James I came to the throne) - the most famous acting troupe in the country, whose members included Richard Burbage.

39. In 1593 and 1594, there were virulent outbreaks of the plague which closed the theatres.

40. Out of work as an actor, Shakespeare focused on writing, but it wasn't plays he primarily focused on. With the entertainment venues of London closed, William wrote the poems 'Venus and Adonis' and 'The Rape of Lucrece'.

Henry Wriothesley was Shakespeare's
patron
41. It's also thought that he wrote many of his sonnets at this time.

42. Shakespeare's poems are dedicated to his patron, Henry Wriothesley - the Earl of Southampton, who is believed to be the 'fair youth' that many of the sonnets are written about.

43. So, far from being a poem of romantic love, Sonnet 18 'Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day' was actually written about the good looks of a man. And, you've gotta agree, Wriothesley was a pretty boy.

44. This doesn't necessarily mean Shakespeare was gay, though. Sexuality, and the appreciation of beauty (both male and female), was very different from our modern perception.

45. And, of course, if you're an out of work actor, it's not a bad idea to flatter the man who's putting food on your table.

46. It's thought that Shakespeare began writing plays sometime between 1590 and 1592.

47. His earliest works included Love's Labour's Lost and the Henry VI trilogy.

48. He was prolific, producing around two plays each year from the early 1590s right through until 1611.

The First Folio puts Shakespeare's plays
into three genres: comedies, histories
and tragedies
49. Because many of Shakespeare's plays weren't printed and published until after his death, its difficult to be sure exactly how many he wrote. But there are thirty seven plays that we know of and have access to.

50. There are another two places that are known of, but of which no copies exist. Those 'lost plays' are The History of Cardenio and Love's Labour's Won.

51. There's also at least one play that Shakespeare collaborated on: The Two Noble Kinsmen, which was penned with John Fletcher.

52. Shakespeare's plays are divided into just three genres, although many of them don't fit neatly into one category. Those genres are: history, tragedy and comedy.

53. William Shakespeare's ten history plays follow the chronicles (some of them less accurate than others), of several English kings starting in the 11th century with King John all the way up to Elizabeth I's pa, Henry VIII.

54. Although Shakespeare is perhaps best known for his tragedies, he wrote the same number of tragedies as histories: ten.

55. He was most abundant where comedies were concerned, churning out seventeen of the things.

Today, Measure for Measure is viewed
as a 'problem play' rather than a
straightforward comedy.
56. More recently, six of the plays have been re-branded 'problem plays', because they do not fit neatly into the genre of comedy or tragedy. These plays are, All's Well That Ends Well, A Winter's Tale, Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, Timon of Athens, and Troilus and Cressida.

57. The problem plays are labelled 'problem' because either, like The Merchant of Venice, they do not sit comfortably as comedies, or, like Timon of Athens, they wrestle with problematic themes.

58. It appears that Shakespeare's talent as a writer began to pay divides quickly. In 1596, John's father was granted a coat of arms, and its likely that William's cash commissioned it.

59. In 1597, Shakespeare could afford to buy New Place, a grand home in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

60. Meanwhile, The Chamberlain's Men were packing them in, and setting their sights on building their own theatre: The Globe, which was completed in 1599.

61. By the latter 1590s, Shakespeare had established a name for himself and was performing several of his plays in Queen Elizabeth's court.

62. In 1598, Francis Meres wrote of Shakespeare, "...the Muses would speak with Shakespeare's fine filed phrase if they would speak English."

Extract from Palladis Tamia, by Francis Meres,
praising Shakespeare
63. Meres also considered William Shakespeare to be among the greatest writers of comedy and tragedy for the stage.

64. Although he's most famed as a writer, and with good reason, in records from 1592, 1598 and even up until 1603, Shakespeare's profession is listed as 'actor'.

65. We know that he performed in a play by Ben Jonson, and it's also likely that he played minor roles in his own works.

66. There is some evidence to suggest that he took on the roles of Hamlet's Ghost in Hamlet, and Adam in As You Like It.

67. Almost all of Shakespeare's plays have their roots in either historical fact or another play or story.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is one
of only two plays that are entire creations
of Shakespeare's imagination
68. The two works that are complete works of his imagination are A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Tempest.

69. For reasons not quite explained, in the middle of the 19th century, the question of 'authorship' began to be raised. The theory behind the debate was that Shakespeare didn't actually write anything; he was just a beard for someone who could not publicly acknowledge his/her work.

70. Today, there are some scholars, actors and directors who think its unlikely that William Shakespeare wrote everything that's attributed to him.

71. And, in fairness, there was a tradition of collaborative writing during the Elizabethan era. So there is certainly the possibility that he did not write everything entirely alone.

72. Those who believe someone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's plays are referred to as anti-Stratfordians.

73. One of the things anti-Stratfordians are quick to point out is that Shakespeare's name is spelled differently on documents and manuscripts. It's written as Shakespear, Shakspere, Shakespe and Shakspe. But, it's worth remembering, there were no hard and fast rules were spelling was concerned, not even for names.

Nowhere does Shakespeare spell his name the way we do
74. In none of the copies of Shakespeare's own signature does he spell his name the way we do today.

75. However, there is no firm evidence for one candidate, or (in my opinion), anything other than speculation over Shakespeare's education, or lack thereof, to suggest that he didn't or couldn't have written his plays.

76. We often refer to Shakespeare as an Elizabethan writer, as I just did above, but his most famous plays were written during the reign of James I (the Jacobean era).

77. Shakespeare wasn't afraid of risking his neck (quite literally), with politically charged writing. Richard II was penned late in the reign of the childless Elizabeth I and parallels between the tale of the 14th century king and the contemporary monarch were unmistakable.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, used Shakespeare's
Richard II to get his supports riled up for rebellion
78. In fact, a performance of Richard II was paid for by the rebellious Earl of Essex and played at The Globe on the eve of what was his attempted uprising against the queen.

79. While a successful (and very busy), actor, playwright and theatre owner in London, Shakespeare was also a respected property owner and businessman back home in Stratford.

80.  Although Shakespeare is well known for his verse, only two plays are written entirely in verse: Richard II and King John. The rest are a mixture of prose and verse.

81. It wasn't until the Restoration period that woman were allowed to perform on stage. Therefore, in Shakespeare own lifetime, all female parts were played by boys or young men. So Viola, Portia and those other cross-dressing girls are actually boys dressed as girls dressed as boys. Keeping up?

82. Shakespeare's longest play is Hamlet, which has a running time of around four hours when performed in its entirety.

The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare's shortest play
83. The shortest, on the other hand, is The Comedy of Errors.

84. In 1613, during a performance of Henry VIII, The Globe theatre was destroyed after a fire started by a cannon set off as part of the play.

85. Shakespeare's religion is another aspect of his life that is debated. His distant relative Edward Arden (mentioned above), was Catholic despite it being illegal. And, after Shakespeare's death, Richard Davies (an Anglican Archdeacon, who had known the Bard), claimed that William was himself Catholic.

86. Shakespeare died at the age of fifty two. He was an impressively rich man, who left his estate to Susanna and her husband. To Anne Hathaway, who survived him, he famously left the second best bed.

Shakespeare's will, in which he famously left his
wife the second best bed
87. The second best bed was probably the marital bed and, therefore, had sentimental significance. And it's reasonable to assume that there was already an agreement that Susanna and Dr Hall would care for her mother in her old age.

88. Shakespeare was buried at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford.

89. On his original headstone, there was an engraved image of him carrying a bag of grain. In 1747, the people of Stratford had the image altered, replacing the grain with a quill.

90. It was common at the time for remains to be dug up and moved in order to make room for new graves, but Shakespeare's epitaph discourages it. "Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear, To dig the dust enclosed here: Blest be the man that spares these stones, And curst be he that moves my bones." Sure enough, Shakespeare hasn't been budged since he was laid to rest there.

91. Shakespeare has become the single most quoted author in English. Only the Bible's multiple authors are quoted more often.

John Keats kept a bust of Shakespeare on his desk
in the hope that he'd be inspired.
92. Shakespeare has had a string of very famous fans, including John Keats, Abraham Lincoln, Mary Shelley and Nelson Mandela.

93. Although, unfortunately, Shakespeare is now seen as entertainment for an affluent and/or well-educated minority, Shakespeare's plays were, and still are, very much for the masses.

94. Violence is rife in Shakespeare's plays with twelve murders, twelve suicides and nine fatal wounds sustained in combat. Not to mention a broad selection of bloody maiming and assassinations. It's enough to rival most Hollywood blockbusters.

95. The first collection of Shakespeare's plays was published in 1623 and is known as the First Folio.

96. Between 1788 and 1820, King Lear was banned from being performed on English stages, for fear that it would mock King George III, who was suffering from mental illness, which is thought now to be a result of porphyria.

97. There have been over 410 screen versions and adaptations of Shakespeare's plays.

98. Shakespeare's work is the most filmed of any author in any language.

99. Today, a Google search for William Shakespeare generates a whopping 38 million hits.

If you'd like to learn more about Shakespeare, check out What's It All About Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

An Overview of The Casket Trial in The Merchant of Venice

What is the purpose of the casket trial in
The Merchant of Venice?
Shakespeare uses two literal trials in The Merchant of Venice: The selection of the caskets in Belmont and the courtroom scene in Venice.

It could be argued that most fiction is about trials of one form or another, because it is often placing characters under pressure, or ‘testing’ them, that allows a writer to create drama.

And Shakespeare regularly puts his characters through trials, whether it’s Hamlet’s quest for revenge or Isabella’s attempts to save her brother’s life in Measure for Measure.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare presents two literal, but vastly different, trials. While the legal trial in Venice is (for the most part) grounded in realism, the trial of the caskets is fanciful and fairytale-like...much like most of the events in Belmont.

What is the Trial of the Three Caskets in The Merchant of Venice?


In Belmont, Portia’s suitors are presented with three caskets: gold, silver and lead. Each man is asked to choose a casket - if he chooses the one with a portrait of Portia inside, he will win her hand in marriage. The game sounds simple enough so far.

Each casket has a riddle, which, if deciphered correctly, tells of the contents. This trial, designed by Portia’s father, allows him to screen his daughter’s suitors in absentia.

We know, from act one, that there have been numerous undesirables who have attempted the casket trial. However, the audience, or reader, is only witness to three attempts.

Morocco learns that 'all that glitters is not gold'

Which Casket Does Morocco Choose?


The first suitor we actually see is the Prince of Morocco - a dashing, confident and eloquent man, who seems to have quite an effect on Portia, “But if my father had not scanted me…Yourself, renowned prince, then stood as fair/As any comer I have look'd on yet/For my affection.”(II.i) 

However, Morocco’s gung-ho attitude and his belief that he is searching for ‘what many men desire’, leads him to choose the gold casket and he learns that, indeed, “All that glitters is not gold.”(II.vii) 

So, poor Morocco leaves Belmont a dejected figure, vastly different from the one we are introduced to just four scenes earlier.

Arragon is something of a fool - we know he's going
to choose wrongly

Which Casket Does Arragon Choose?


The second suitor to take the trial is the Prince of Arragon. Arragon by name, and arrogant by nature, the prince almost immediately disregards the gold casket, because, “I will not choose what many men desire,/Because I will not jump with common spirits…”(II.ix) 

Instead, he selects the silver casket, which promises ‘…as much as he deserves’. Which is, in fact...nothing. Arragon, like Morocco, leaves Belmont a shadow of his former self.

Which Casket Does Bassanio Choose?


Finally, Bassanio enters...And it might as well be on a white charger. In this fairytale, there's no mistaking the hero. 

Does Bassanio's love for Portia outweigh his
love of money?
Portia, who has something of a fancy for Bassanio, tries to dissuade him from choosing, “I pray you, tarry: pause a day or two/Before you hazard; for, in choosing wrong,/I lose your company…”(III.ii) However, Bassanio is determined to make his selection. 

It is worth remembering here that, at the beginning of the play, we learn Bassanio is something of a spendthrift. He has squandered a considerable amount of Antonio’s money and seems drawn to the trappings of wealth. 

Therefore, when it comes to choosing a casket, it seems reasonable to assume he will select one made of a precious metal. 

However, when it is time for Bassano’s ‘test’, he is surprisingly level-headed. It seems as though his love for Portia has brought a maturity that allows him to realise, “Look on beauty,/And you shall see 'tis purchased by the weight…thou meagre lead,/Which rather threatenest than dost promise aught/Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence”(III.ii)

What Do The Casket Scenes Bring to The Merchant of Venice Party?


Interestingly, all three casket trials do more than just ‘test’ these men (although that is clearly the original goal), they also affect change in the suitors - temporary or permanent, we don't know. 

The casket trail is a dramatic tool and a fairytale-style device,
which means we know that it'll be the third suitor, Bassanio,
who chooses correctly
But we do learn something about all of the men. Trials, whether literal or figurative, are great theatrical devices that create drama and allow an audience to empathise with, understand or, in some cases, despise a character. 

And The Merchant of Venice is a great example of the way Shakespeare uses trials to great effect.

A version of this article was first published, by the author, on suite101.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Who Loves Whom in Twelfth Night?

Love and confusion in Twelfth Night
For portions of the play, the characters of Twelfth Night don't know who they're in love with, but one thing is for sure, there is a whole lot of love going around. 

Fortunately, for the purposes of comedy, but, unfortunately, for the characters, it is often unrequited. However, in the interests of a ‘happy ending’, mistaken identities are cleared up and confusion is eventually lifted.

Of course, it's worth keeping in mind that romantic love is by no means the only type of love dealt with in Twelfth Night. Love between siblings and friends is equally prominent and important. 

However, the love connections discussed below are predominantly amorous in nature and, with just two exceptions, are one-sided infatuations.

Orsino Loves Olivia


The first romantic attachment we become privy to is Orsino’s passion for Olivia. In the opening scene, the lovesick duke suggests, rather fancifully, that music may cure his infatuation. “Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,/The appetite may sicken, and so die.”(I.i)
Toby Stephens as the love-sick Orsino


Shortly after which, the aptly named (or perhaps not so aptly named) Valentine enters with a message from Olivia: she refuses to hear from any suitor for seven years. This time she intends to spend mourning her dead brother.

In the first scene, it is clear that Orsino has repeatedly sent messengers to her, in a manner that could perhaps get him arrested for stalking. This pattern continues when young Cesario (Viola in disguise) begins to work for Orsino. Strangely, her principal 'job' quickly becomes wooing Olivia on his behalf. 

Unfortunately, this plan backfires rather spectacularly.

Olivia Loves Cesario/Viola


Despite her vow to refuse all suitors, Olivia experiences an incredibly sudden change of heart when she meets Viola disguised as a man. “How now!/Even so quickly may one catch the plague?”(I.v) The plague, indeed.

Little does Olivia know, she's barking up the wrong tree

In order to ensure Cesario’s return, Olivia sends Malvolio with a ring; claiming that the Duke's messenger gave it to her. 

When Malvolio catches up with Viola and throws the ring at her, she attempts to fathom Olivia’s motives. And can only reach one conclusion: “…what means this lady?/Fortune forbid my outside have not charm'd her!”(II.ii)

Viola is subsequently reluctant to return, but is sent frequently and repeatedly by Orsino. 

She, of course, attempts to discourage Olivia’s infatuation, “I have one heart, one bosom and one truth,/And that no woman has; nor never none/Shall mistress be of it, save I alone.”(III.i) Alas, to no avail. 

Meanwhile, poor Viola’s disguise is causing her another romantic complication.

Viola Loves Orsino


While working for Orsino, Viola has developed something of a crush on him. A crush that she cannot act upon, however, because, as far as he is concerned, she’s a man.
Poor Viola cannot reveal her true feelings
without revealing her true identity

And, of course, she cannot reveal the truth without admitting that she deceived her way into his employ.

Viola, beloved of Olivia and in love with Orsino, finds herself in a bit of a pickle. 

As she so eloquently describes, “As I am man,/My state is desperate for my master's love;/As I am woman, -now alas the day!-/What thriftless sighs shall poor Olivia breathe!”(II.ii)

Sir Andrew Loves Olivia


In many ways, Sir Andrew’s role is that of buffoonish sidekick to Sir Toby. However, Shakespeare also uses the opportunity to add a further strand to the entangled love plot. 

Of course, because Andrew is a potential suitor, albeit a grotesquely unsuccessful one, it creates wonderful jealousy as he watches Cesario/Viola woo (or so he thinks) Olivia.

This ultimately leads to one of the most humorous and clownish scenes of the play. When Viola and Andrew, neither of whom are proficient in fighting, attempt to duel one another.

Maria Loves Sir Toby


It is unclear when this relationship began to blossom. 

Some productions offer clues in the form of meaningful glances between the pair.
William Evans Burton and
Mrs Burton, as Sir Toby and Maria
However, it is not until Maria concocts the plan to trick Malvolio that any word is spoken to acknowledge affection between the two.

However, Toby’s, “She's a beagle, true-bred, and one that adores me: what o' that?”(II.iii) may suggest that he does not return her feelings of adoration. 

Nevertheless, making a fool of Malvolio seems to endear her to him greatly. And, at the end of the play, we learn that the two have married.

And speaking of Malvolio.

Malvolio Loves…


Olivia? Well, probably not. Although he throws himself at her in a ridiculous manner which verges on the ‘dirty old man’ (see Nigel Hawthorne’s portrayal in Trevor Nunn’s 1996 film version), Malvolio’s one great passion is, in fact, himself.

The unromantic truth is that he probably merely views Olivia as a means to advance his social status.

A version of this post was first published by the author on Suite.101