History will remember William Shakespeare as one of humankind’s most beloved and influential writers. But there is a side to the author that is usually left out of the history books. Yes, while he scratched out plays and poems from his desk in London all those years ago, the law enforcers were onto him. It seems, you see, that he was hiding a dark secret – and it very nearly tarnished his pristine reputation for good.
In his 52 years of life, Shakespeare made an indelible mark on society. In fact, many consider him to be the most prolific poet and playwright in the English language. And this is hardly surprising given that he has a whopping 38 plays, 150 sonnets, two narrative poems and other verses to his name. People all around the world can now enjoy his works, too, as most of his theatrical pieces are performed in the native tongues of many countries.
Experts assume that most of Shakespeare’s literature was penned between 1590 and 1613. And his plays tend to fit into four categories: tragedy, comedy, history and romance. Many of the playwright’s classics, such as Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet, are tragedies, and scholars now view the time in which the dramatist wrote these as his prime.
Indeed, it was Hamlet that featured one of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies, with the protagonist wondering, “To be or not to be; that is the question.” While it’s not known whether the world-renowned playwright contemplated the same fate as his character, it seems that he, too, once found himself in a rather difficult predicament. And what he chose to do very nearly had an impact on his sterling legacy.
Despite the fact that Shakespeare’s works are still enjoyed by people all across the globe, much of the writer’s life remains an enigma. And this is particularly true when it comes to his youth. What is known, however, is that he was baptized on April 26, 1954, in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England. And as a result of this, his birthday is recorded as being on April 23 – three days before his Christening.
Shakespeare was born into a well-to-do family headed by patriarch John, a Stratford property owner, glover, wool seller and tanner. What’s more, thanks to his high social standing, the playwright’s father was involved in the town’s governance. He served as a bailiff, you see, which is the equivalent of a modern-day mayor. But the head of the household wouldn’t stay on that pedestal for long.
In approximately 1576, it seems that John fell from financial grace. Fortunately, though, his wife and Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden, had been written into her father’s will and had received some acreage in a village near Stratford. Beyond that, then, the family appears to have lived fruitfully, welcoming the prolific playwright and seven other children – four of whom made it to adulthood.
For Shakespeare, growing up in Stratford-Upon-Avon laid the groundwork for his vocation as a playwright – and this isn’t merely down to the fact that his family experienced highs and lows like any other. Indeed, as a young boy, it’s highly probable that the bailiff’s son would have attended the town’s grammar school. Here, he would have had the chance to study both Latin and the work of classical poets.
Interestingly, the bard did not continue his studies after grammar school, which likely concluded when he was 14 years old. In fact, the records show that at just 18 years old, Shakespeare wed Anne Hathaway – a fellow Stratford resident who was eight years his senior.
But the near-decade that followed Shakespeare’s nuptials are hazy. There have been elaborate tales of his thievery, for instance, where he supposedly got on the wrong side of the wealthy businessman Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote for claiming deer as his own. And others have said that the future playwright worked in a school or as a lawyer – or even that he joined the army.
Yet many of these hypotheses derive from Shakespeare’s own words. You see, the fact that plays like The Merchant of Venice are littered with legal jargon has led to suggestions that the man behind the scripts may have studied texts relating to the law. However, according to the website Encyclopedia Britannica, “Extrapolations about Shakespeare’s life have often been made from the internal ‘evidence’ of his writings. But this method is unsatisfactory.”
Thankfully, then, it wasn’t too long before some more concrete evidence as to Shakespeare’s whereabouts emerged. That’s right: in 1594 the playwright’s presence is noted in the theatre record books in London – arguably just where it belongs. So, it seems that at some point, the bard had traveled more than 100 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon to the capital city.
Shakespeare, you see, had somehow risen the ranks to become the city’s greatest playwright. He was a member of London’s most popular acting group: the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. And his plays would soon be performed at The Globe, which was the city’s finest venue when it opened in 1599.
Just before the turn of the century, historical dramas were very on-trend. So it makes sense that the earliest of Shakespeare’s plays to be documented were Richard III and Henry VI. It seems that the bard used works such as these to highlight the consequences of inadequate and venal leadership. Scholars have since understood these themes to be messages of support for England’s Tudor house, whose reign ended with the ascension of James I in 1603.
Indeed, Shakespeare often used his plays to call into question the major issues that were facing society at the time – like the nature of the class system, for example. And he seemed to slip in his own opinions from time to time, too. In the playwright’s heyday, people were stratified by their places in society. Nobles were at the top of the pyramid, ruling everyone from land-owning gentries to peasants.
Shakespeare’s plays usually dramatize what life was like for those in the top tier of society and, in particular, the royals. This isn’t to say that he ignored the lower classes entirely, though. In fact, the playwright often wanted to show how a ruler’s decision could trickle down and impact those at the bottom for the pyramid, too. While the majority of Romeo and Juliet focuses on the clash between wealthy families, for example, Shakespeare makes sure to include a fight between the servants.
A handful of Shakespeare’s works do contain characters from many different layers of the class spectrum, however. Take A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance, in which the audience is introduced to the Duke and his betrothed at the top, the nobles in the woods and the craftsmen who create the play within a play. Interestingly, though, those who belong to the lower classes in Shakespeare’s dramas often end up being made a fool of – or they simply turn out to be evil.
This may seem bizarre, but the way Shakespeare explores class in his plays reflects the general Elizabethan way of thinking. During this time, you see, most people believed in the Great Chain of Being. This stated that God not only delineated the world’s social classes, but he placed people into their categories himself.
When Shakespeare handed power to kings and queens in his plays, he, too, was drawing upon the Great Chain of Being. Yes, Elizabethans also believed that God selected the monarch. So rulers, therefore, had a Divine Right of Kings, which meant that the only person above them in the pecking order was none other than the man upstairs.
The plot of Shakespeare’s Macbeth follows the Great Chain of Being to a T. That’s right: when the protagonist slays the king to ascend to the throne, he interferes with God’s plan. And this is why strange, inexplicable incidences happen throughout the play. In one part, for example, an old man describes how Duncan’s horses started feasting on one another.
And with the topic of class comes a discourse about money – something that Shakespeare also seemed to slip into his plays. In The Merchant of Venice, for example, The Prince of Morocco warns a noble named Portia, “All that glitters is not gold, often have you heard that told.” He means to tell her, of course, that love is worth so much more than money.
This is a common theme across Shakespeare’s works, too – the idea that joy and love are much more important than wealth. Indeed, one poignant scene in Hamlet explores the dangers that may come from mixing money and relationships. A Lord named Polonius tells his son, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend.”
Another powerful discussion about money occurs in Othello. Iago, who is a soldier ranking below the titular character, tells Othello, “Who steals my purse steals trash, ’tis something, nothing, ’twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands. But he that filches from me my good name, robs me of that which not enriches him, and makes me poor indeed.”
In other words, then, to destroy a person’s esteemed position in society would be more destructive than taking away their material possessions. As such, it seems Shakespeare wanted audiences to realize that their good name was more beneficial to them than the cash that they had in the bank.
Such optimism would likely have been comforting in the period in which Shakespeare was writing. Yes, the Little Ice Age that lasted from 1300 to 1870 would have meant that for both the Elizabethans and the Jacobeans, temperatures in the winters would have been uncharacteristically chilly.
Indeed, as the name implies, the Little Ice Age brought a slew of freezing winters to Europe. In England, rivers began to freeze over, and their icy layers were so thick that people could even ice skate safely on top of them. In London, more specifically, a dike had to be built at the edge of the River Thames. It was thought that making the waterway deeper would help prevent it from becoming an ice rink, you see.
As we know, the Little Ice Age didn’t stop Shakespeare writing his plays. But it’s likely that he would’ve felt the effects in different areas of life. Naturally, farmers struggled with the frigid temperatures and the frequent onslaughts of rain. Their crops were wrecked and this, in turn, reduced the nation’s food supply.
And yes, as Aberystwyth University lecturer Jayne Archer confirmed, it’s likely that these shifts would have had an impact on even those as seemingly untouchable as Shakespeare. In a 2013 interview with U.K newspaper The Independent, she explained, ‘I think now we have a rather rarefied idea of writers and artists as people who are disconnected from the everyday concerns of their contemporaries.”
She continued, “for most writers for most of history, hunger has been a major concern – and it has been as creatively energizing as any other force.” So for Shakespeare, the threat of the Little Ice Age would have been very real – perhaps more so because his family had been through financial difficulties during his childhood.
But there’s more evidence to suggest that Shakespeare was worried about putting food on the table. Yes, it seems that the bard’s instinct to avoid hunger ultimately got him into trouble with the law. As Archer explained to BBC Radio Wales, the famed playwright had managed to build up an impressive store of grain in the years either side of the turn of the century. There was one problem, though; the rest of the country was struggling to find food for themselves.
Shakespeare had a very simple modus operandi, too. The celebrated author would purchase staples, such as barley, malt and grain. Then he’d sell his stores to neighbors and area tradesmen. They didn’t get their goods at wholesale value, though, as the playwright always increased the cost.
Eventually, the police caught on. They first suspected that Shakespeare hadn’t paid his taxes. But in 1598 his excess supplies got him tangled up in yet another a brush with the law. Yes, law enforcers wanted the dramaturg to suffer the consequences of accumulating so much food while the rest of the nation went hungry.
Despite his actions, then, some of Shakespeare’s plays do in fact address the theme of hunger. In 2013 Archer told the BBC that her collaborators, Professor Richard Marggraf Turley and Professor Howard Thomas, uncovered an interesting link between food scarcity and the plot of King Lear. She said, “hunger [and] the role of crops and food supplies are very important to the politics of the play.”
Archer then went on to explain, “Shakespeare’s representation of the way that crops grow, the way that they sometimes fail to grow and when there are problems with food supply is actually very realistically demonstrated.” And when you consider the unforgiving landscape in which he wrote all of his life’s work, this arguably makes sense.
But society’s hardships didn’t just influence Shakespeare’s writing. The uncertainty that he faced in everyday life is likely what governed his decision to hoard staple foodstuffs. Archer described the situation to the BBC, “As well as writing for people who were experiencing hunger, he was exploiting that need himself.”
And the professor then shed light on how the playwright may have gone about doing this. She said, “He was using his role as a playwright and the public playhouses, gathering coin, in order to take advantage of the market when it’s at its most profitable and selling food at inflated prices to secure the long-term future for his family.”
And it was this last point that made Archer keen not to let her assertions tarnish Shakespeare’s legendary reputation. She pointed out that by accumulating these essentials, the playwright would have been merely trying to keep his loved ones in good health. In 2013 she told The Independent, “Remembering Shakespeare as a man of hunger makes him much more human, much more understandable, much more complex.”
By taking a deeper look at both Shakespeare’s works and his behavior, then, we can get a better understanding of how he viewed his place in society. As Archer explained, “He would not have thought of himself first and foremost as a writer. Possibly as an actor – but first and foremost as a good father, a good husband and a good citizen to the people of Stratford.”
So, it’s entirely possible that Shakespeare saw the good in his actions. They allowed him to protect his family and help the local community to buy the barley and grains that they needed to survive. Perhaps, then, that’s why the writer’s run-ins with the law have yet to become a major talking point when his name comes up in conversation.
At one time, though, Shakespeare’s penchant for storing wheat was common knowledge. While the playwright’s memorial statue at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Church now depicts him holding a quill pen and cushion, this wasn’t always the case. Up until the 18th century, you see, the esteemed writer was pictured clutching a grain sack instead.