I love Shakespeare. And people who find something for themselves in Shakespeare love his work too. If people’s school experience is as bad as mine was as an introduction to Shakespeare, then there’s a good chance, they bloody hate Shakespeare. Can you imagine the excruciation of passing copies of the play around as one person at a time painstakingly destroyed the soul of Shakespeare’s poetry, reading out one syllable at a time until everything that was beautiful is horrifically robotic.
I was lucky to find Shakespeare later in life. And I have beautiful memories of his work since then. My annual pilgrimages to Stratford may have become less frequent, but I get to work with his work almost every week preparing people for their drama school auditions.
Perhaps you’re interested in Shakespeare. Maybe you’re looking into it for the first time. Or maybe you’re a veteran. I’ve noticed there is lots of bullshit about Shakespeare out there, so I thought I’d do my little bit to set the record straight.
Shakespeare Myth Number 1: Shakespeare is for Intellectuals
The fact that he wrote plays out of poetry to entertain everyone from Queen Elizabeth down to the masses means that he didn’t aim for his plays to be for intellectuals. His work speaks to things that we all know, love, anger, jealousy, passion, war, revenge. Shakespeare was a bi-sexual actor-writer, who made his money from ticket sales at the theatre he co-owned - he couldn’t do that by writing intellectual highbrow tosh. Shakespeare wrote gripping stories. And if sometimes the 400 year old poetry makes things a bit tougher on us today - have a little patience. Let the words wash over you, don’t try to translate and you’ll enjoy them a whole lot more.
Shakespeare Myth Number 2: Shakespeare was a bit of a bastard to his wife
Yes, he went off to London to make his fortune. And he left behind his wife Anne Hathaway to take care of the children. So, he wasn’t the best husband/father, but he did return to Stratford upon Avon to retire. People use the evidence that he left Anne the ‘second best bed’ in his will as proof that he was horrible to her. The first bed was for guests. The second best bed was their marriage bed. See - he did love her after all!
Shakespeare Myth Number 3: Shakespeare wrote in old archaic English
No, he wrote in quite modern English actually. The fact that he wrote poetry with references to things his audience would understand is often what makes us struggle. Language changes, but it hasn’t changed so much since 1600. He coined a lot of phrases and his work is used as the first recorded use of many words. We don’t know if he invented them all, but he’s the first person using them. Phrases like “in my mind’s eye”, “the green eyed monster”, and “wild goose chase” are all attributed to Shakespeare - and many people still use these phrases every day.
Shakespeare Myth Number 4: Shakespeare was primarily a playwright
No, he was primarily an actor who owned shares in a theatre. He was an actor before he was a playwright. Actually, he was a poet before he was a playwright too.
Shakespeare Myth Number 5: Shakespeare wasn’t written by Shakespeare
Since Mark Twain and maybe before, people have been debating this issue. Why it popped into someone’s head that Shakespeare isn’t Shakespeare is beyond me, but the main thing is that there’s plenty of proof that Shakespeare WAS Shakespeare and evidence to the contrary is sketchy at best. Ockam’s razor suggests that all things being equal, the man called Shakespeare wrote the plays by the man called Shakespeare. Whoever it was, there is a very clear voice in Shakespeare’s work, so when he writes with other writers, you can tell right away. Sometimes when I’m working on a drama school audition monologue like the Jailor’s daughter from Two Noble Kinsmen, you can almost immediate feel that this work isn’t directly in Shakespeare’s voice.
I hope you’ve enjoyed exploring these myths. Nick (the studio producer) and I are currently working on a fantastic new online course to help people prepare for the Shakespeare aspect of their Drama School Audition, so Shakespeare is very much on our mind at the moment.
To You, The Best