49 Poetic Facts About Shakespeare

The souls most fed with Shakespeare’s flame

Still sat unconquered in a ring,

Remembering him like anything.

G.K. Chesterton, The Shakespeare Memorial

William Shakespeare was a poet, a playwright, and an actor, and is widely viewed as one of the greatest writers in the history of the English language. Born around April 23, 1564 in Stratford Upon Avon, he almost certainly attended school where he would have studied reading and writing. By 1592, Shakespeare had arrived in London, and began one of the most successful literary careers of all time.

49. The Family Crest

After an unsuccessful application to become a gentleman, Shakespeare took his father to the College of Arms to secure their own family coat of arms. The crest was a yellow spear on a yellow shield, and had a Latin inscription that translated to “Not without Right.”

48. Oops!

Shakespeare’s Globe theatre accidentally burnt to the ground after a cannon shot set fire to the thatched roof during a performance of Henry VIII. The theatre was rebuilt the following year.

47. Lincoln Was a Fan

Abraham Lincoln was a fan of Shakespeare and was known to frequently recite lines from his works to his friends. Coincidentally, his assassin John Wilkes Booth was a known Shakespearean actor.

46. Still in Demand

The Royal Shakespeare Company sells more than half a million tickets each year to Shakespeare productions at their theatres in Stratford-on-Avon, London, and Newcastle. The company introduces an estimated 50,000 people to their first live performances of the Bard’s Work annually.

45. What’s in a Name?

The name “Shakespeare” is believed to derive from the Old English words schakken, meaning to brandish, and speer, meaning to spear. The name is of ancient Norman origin, and would have been used in Britain after the conquest of 1066. The name was typically given to someone who was confrontational or argumentative.

44. What’s My Age Again?

The exact date of Shakespeare’s birth is an estimate and not a fact. No birth record for Shakespeare exists, but there is a baptism record for April 26, and according to the tradition of the time, the baptism would have taken place three days after birth. To confuse things further, Shakespeare was born under the old Julian calendar, and April 23 in Shakespeare’s life would actually be May 3 in the current Gregorian calendar.

43. A Special Set of Stamps

In 1964, William Shakespeare became the first non-royal to have his face on a British stamp. The stamp was issued by the Royal Mail to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his birth.

42. The End of the Line

Shakespeare has no living direct descendants. His grandchildren either never married or didn’t have children, and the line ended in with the death of his granddaughter Elizabeth. His sister Joan married and had children, and there could be descendants from her line still alive.

41. Shotgun Wedding

Shakespeare was only 18 when he married the 26-year-old Anne Hathaway (yes, she’s much older than you think. Just kidding, this is another Anne Hathaway). She was already three months pregnant with their daughter Susanna when they got married, and Susanna was born 6 months after the wedding.

40. Multiple Locales

Shakespeare’s plays are set in 12 countries across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Ironically, Shakespeare probably never left England, and his geographic knowledge of these places would have been extremely limited.

39. Shakespeare in Italy

Shakespeare’s favorite backdrop for his plays were cities in what is now Italy. Unlike his other plays set in foreign countries, his descriptions of Italy were accurate, leading some historians to wonder if he’d been there himself. More likely is that in Shakespeare’s time, Italy was the destination of many travelers, and was the subject of many travel writings. Shakespeare may also have known some educated Italians in London, giving him further knowledge of the region.

38. Written in Rhyme

62.2% of the lines in Love’s Labour’s Lost rhyme. That gives it the highest percentage of rhyming lines of any of Shakespeare’s plays. The next highest percentage is 43.4% in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

37. ‘Borrowed’ From Other Languages

Shakespeare’s phrase “fat paunches make lean pates” was originally a Greek and Latin proverb by St. Jerome.

36. “Love” Love!

The word “love” occurs 2,191 times in the 1864 Globe Edition of Shakespeare’s complete works.

35. The Bard and the Queen

Queen Elizabeth I was a tremendous patron of the theatrical arts, and for years people have speculated about whether or not she and Shakespeare had a personal relationship. While no proof of a relationship exists, he does allude to her in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play that was likely produced for a Court performance.

34. Bestselling Playwright

400 years after his death, Shakespeare remains the bestselling playwright in the world. Sales of his plays and poetry are believed to have surpassed four billion copies.

33. Triple Threat

In addition to writing poetry and plays, Shakespeare also acted in many of his plays. There is evidence to suggest that he played the ghost in Hamlet and Adam in As You Like It.

32. First Written Instance of a Word

Shakespeare’s plays feature the first written instances of hundreds of words that are commonly used today. Words such as addiction, assassin, arch-villain, and cold-blooded all appeared first in Shakespeare’s plays.

31. How Do You Spell That?

Sources from Shakespeare’s lifetime spell his surname in 80 different ways. The names range from “Shappere” to “Shaxberd,” and even Shakespeare never wrote out his full name. Surviving signatures show that he used abbreviations such as “William Shakp”” or “Willm Shakspere” instead.

30. Most Accurate Representation

Of the many supposed portraits of Shakespeare, only a few are accepted to be close to his likeness. In 2016, a new portrait was produced that claimed to be the most accurate representation ever made of Shakespeare. The artist Geoffrey Tristram studied all of the existing works, and set out to humanize him and make him real.

29. The Cursed Play

Macbeth is considered to be a cursed play. Belief in the curse is so strong that outside of rehearsal of the play or an actual production, the word “Macbeth” is not to be uttered. Instead, people refer to it as “the Scottish Play.” Supposedly, the play was cursed from the first; legend says the boy playing Macbeth in the first production died just before going on stage.

Edinburgh International Festival

28. Alternative Authorship

Shakespeare skeptics have long questioned whether or not Shakespeare could have legitimately produced the numerous plays and sonnets attributed to him. For one thing, nothing has been found documenting his composition of all those works. For another, critics find it hard to believe that a provincial commoner with no college education could have such in-depth knowledge of international affairs, European capitals, and history.

27. Could have Used a Spellcheck

The name William Shakespeare can be made into the phrase “I am a weakish speller,” which actually rings true when it comes to the bard. Shakespeare was writing in an era before Samuel Johnson’s dictionary started the process of standardising English spelling, and he was fairly loose with his spellings.

26. Popular Entertainment

Shakespeare was not immediately recognized as Britain’s premier dramatist. At the time of the plays’ performances, they were dismissed as popular entertainment. Ironically, Shakespeare wasn’t even the most popular dramatist of the time: Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe were both seen as more popular.

25. Most Filmed

Shakespeare is the most filmed author in the world (sorry, J.K. Rowling). As of 2014, his plays and sonnets have been adapted into 420 feature film and TV versions, with the highest number belonging to Hamlet with 79 versions. Romeo and Juliet takes second place with 52, and Macbeth is third with 36.

24. The Lost Years

After 1585, Shakespeare disappears from record until 1592, when his first works appeared on the London stage. Those seven years are referred to as the “lost years,” and while there are many stories, none of them have been verified.

23. Second Best Bed

Shakespeare willed his “second best bed” to his wife Anne Hathaway upon his death. While some scholars take this to be an insult, others argue that the home’s best bed was reserved for guests, and leaving her the second best bed (the marriage bed), was actually a sentimental gesture.

22. Ameri-What?

In all of Shakespeare’s plays, America is only mentioned once, in Comedy of Errors.

21. Drawn from Other Sources

Even Shakespeare wasn’t a total original: he drew from Arthur Brooke’s translation of a 1562 poem titled The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet and crafted it in a new way in Romeo and Juliet.

20. A Soliloquy in Klingon

Shakespeare’s works have been translated into 80 languages, including Klingon. In 2000, a group of Star Trek fans produced a translation of Hamlet in Klingon, beginning the famous “to be or not to be” speech with “taH pagh taHbe.”

19. En Français

Shakespeare enjoyed languages, and he wrote an entire scene in Henry V in French.

18. Invincible Glorious Honorableness

Shakespeare recognized that his audience was diverse, and toned down the use of Latin in his plays in order to ensure that the masses could understand them. He didn’t avoid Latin altogether, however, and the longest word in any of his plays is a Latin word. Used in Love’s Labour’s Lost, honorificabilitudinitatibus is defined by the Collins dictionary as “invincible glorious honorableness.”

17. Upstart Crow

The first mention of Shakespeare as a playwright is in a pamphlet written by Robert Greene, who called him an “upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers.” Basically, he was saying that Shakespeare was full of himself.

16. Shakespeare Does New York

The first recorded American production of a Shakespeare play was in New York City in 1730; it was a production of Romeo and Juliet. Other American productions followed in Philadelphia and Charleston. In addition to Romeo, Othello and Richard III were popular choices.

15. Most Valuable Work

The 1623 First Folio is considered by some to be the most important book in English Literature. What makes the First Folio valuable? It’s the first collected work of Shakespeare’s plays. Not only did it contain 36 plays, but 18 of them had never been published before. This folio included Macbeth, The Tempest, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night. The book, which was one of only 5 copies, sold for $6,166,000 at a Christie’s auction in 2001.

14. With Ease

Shakespeare was known to write quickly and easily. On Shakespeare, playwright Ben Jonson once said, “in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out line.”

13. Most Quotable

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, about one tenth of the most quotable quotations ever written in English can be attributed to Shakespeare.

12. Breach of Copyright

Twice in his life, Shakespeare was the victim of a copyright breach. In 1599, two of poems were printed without his permission. This happened again in 1609 when his sonnets were also published without his permission.

11. The Lost Plays

While the First Folio was originally thought to be a complete volume of Shakespeare’s plays, researchers have discovered that there were several plays not included in that volume that are referred to as the “lost plays.” One such play is titled The History of Cardenio, and is based on the character Don Quixote from the famous novel by Cervantes. In a Stationers’ Register entry of 1653, the play is attributed to Shakespeare (and John Fletcher), but no manuscript seems to exist, and it was not included in the First Folio.

Don Quixote meets Cardenio in an illustration from Don Quixote of the Mancha

10. A Pause for Poetry

From 1592-1594, all of the London Playhouses were shut down because of the plague. While on his forced break from the theatre, Shakespeare wrote poetry. During this time, he wrote Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

9. Mystery Man

In Shakespeare’s sonnets, a “beautiful Young Man” is referred to as a lover. While the identity of the Young Man isn’t known for sure, Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, is a likely contender; Shakespeare dedicated both Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece to Wriothesley.

8. More Jacobian

Although Shakespeare did write a number of plays during Queen Elizabeth’s reign, many of his greatest plays were written during the reign of King James I, making him more of the Jacobean age than of the Elizabethan.

7. Collaboration

As many of 17 of Shakespeare’s plays are now believed to have been written jointly with other people. Through sophisticated computer analysis, scholars have contended that Christopher Marlowe was the co-writer of the three Henry VI plays, and that Thomas Middleton assisted with All’s Well that Ends Well.

6. Above Average Vocabulary

It is estimated that the average English speaker knows between 10,000-20,000 words, but Shakespeare used 31,534 different words in his works, nearly half of which were only used once. By using statistical techniques, researchers estimate that he likely knew another 35,000 words that he didn’t use.

movie: Shakespeare in Love

5. Different Versions

Hamlet survives in three different versions. The first is a 1603 quarto edition of 2,200 lines. The next is a 1604 quarto edition with 3,800 lines, and the third is a 1623 version with 3,570 lines. Many scholars believe that the 1603 quarto is the version that is closest to the play as it was actually performed.

4. Produced from Memory

Prior to the publication of the First Folio edition, many of Shakespeare’s plays were produced in cheap quarto editions. Of the 21 remaining quartos, nine of them are considered to be “bad editions,” which means that they were probably produced from memory.

3. All the King’s Men

Shakespeare enjoyed a connection with King James I, Elizabeth I’s successor. The King made the actors of Shakespeare’s company “Grooms of Chamber,” and Shakespeare subsequently changed the name of his company to “The King’s Men.”

2. A Curse on His Grave

The epitaph on Shakespeare’s grave is actually a curse. It reads “Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.” In Shakespeare’s day, it was common for bodies to be exhumed for research or to make room for more burials, and it’s thought that Shakespeare wrote the epitaph as a warning to leave his remains alone.

1. The Case of the Stolen Skull

The first archeological investigation of Shakespeare’s grave at Holy Trinity revealed something unexpected that proved an age-old legend true: The archaeologist’s scan showed signs of disturbance at the head end of the grave, giving credence to a story published in 1879 alleging that William Shakespeare had his skull stolen by grave robbers in 1794.

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