7 Things You Should Know About Shakespeare

He gave us immortal characters like Hamlet, Macbeth and King Lear, but here are seven things you might not have known about the brilliant Bard…

William Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon

William Shakespeare's birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon

1. HE WAS LUCKY TO SURVIVE THE PLAGUE

We might not usually associate Shakespeare with the horrors of the Black Death, but Stratford-upon-Avon was actually hit by the plague at the very time of his birth, killing 200 people including children who literally lived next door. William was very lucky to make it out of infancy, but the plague would haunt his life for years to come - it's thought his own son Hamnet died from the disease. As a playwright in London he would also have faced it, especially when a public order decreed that theatres had to close if deaths due to the plague rose above 30 a week.

Shakespeare: The Legacy With John Nettles

2. HIS FATHER WAS A VIP

It's often popularly assumed Shakespeare came from an obscure provincial family. Actually his father John Shakespeare was quite the big cheese in his part of England. He was a glovemaker, but no ordinary one - he created fashionable pieces prized by the high society consumers of the day. He also rose to become mayor of Stratford, enjoying all the pomp and ceremony of the title. The young William Shakespeare would have seen grand processions outside his front door. He would also have seen big piles of poo, because - as John Nettles tells us - John Shakespeare didn't care about leaving the family's waste stacked up right by the house.

3. HE WENT AWOL FOR MANY YEARS

He may be our most celebrated writer ever, but historians have absolutely no idea where Shakespeare was for a significant chunk of his life. The period between 1585 and 1592 are known as the "lost years", and it's particularly frustrating because knowing what happened during this time would reveal how Shakespeare went from an unknown man in Stratford to a major figure in London's artistic scene. To this day, multiple competing theories are offered up about just what Will might have been up to, but there's no concrete evidence for any of them.

4. HE WAS SEEN AS AN UPSTART

London was a bohemian place with many rival poets and playwrights who relished attacking each other's works and reputations. Shakespeare was a misfit among them, being an outsider from Stratford who didn't even go to university. One eminent writer and snob, a flamboyant man called Robert Greene, even wrote what's thought to be a satirical take-down of Shakespeare, calling him an "upstart crow, beautified with our feathers" - the "our" meaning more established writers. He was basically accusing Shakespeare, a provincial peasant, of swanning in and stealing their glory, and it would have been a sentiment shared by others.

John Nettles on 'ordinary' Shakespeare

5. HE WAS ACTUALLY HIGHLY EDUCATED

Those who think Shakespeare didn't really write his plays point to the fact that there's no way an ordinary lad would know about the subjects he wrote about, like courtly romance, military campaigns, royal etiquette and ancient myths and legends. In actual fact, Shakespeare had a very rigorous education as a boy - school hours would start at 6am and require him to memorise vast swathes of Latin and Greek, including masterpieces by authors like Virgil and Ovid. John Nettles tells us more...

6. HIS GRAVE IS CURSED

Shakespeare is buried in a church in his native Stratford, and there's a very good reason his body has remained undisturbed. A rather eerie epitaph promises to bring bad luck to anyone who dares to open it up, saying "Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones." The words are thought to have been written by Shakespeare himself, and intended to ward off the graverobbers who plundered corpses during his era.

7. HE INVENTED WHOLE CHUNKS OF LANGUAGE

Shakespeare came up with many of the words and phrases we use today without a second thought. Believe it or not he came up with "assassination" (Macbeth), "cold-blooded" (King John), "eyeball" (A Midsummer Night's Dream), "fashionable" (Troilus and Cressida), and "puking" (As You Like It). Fans of Sherlock Holmes may be miffed to learn that "The game is afoot" was originally Shakespeare's, not Conan Doyle's, being uttered in Henry IV Part 1. But then, that's the kind of ingenuity you can expect from a genius like William Shakespeare.