A curse, a plague, and the second-best bed

Celebrating Shakespeare’s birthday with five interesting facts about the Bard himself

William Shakespeare is widely considered the best English writer of all time, and 400 years after his death, his works are still read and admired by people from all walks of life.

April is Shakespeare’s birthday month, and to celebrate, we thought we’d dig into some interesting facts about the Bard that you may not have learnt at school…

An early betrothal

William Shakespeare was just 18 when he married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior and three months pregnant with their first child.

Many aspects of the union were unorthodox—beyond their age difference, Anne was from a much wealthier family than her husband—and historians suspect the wedding only proceeded due to Anne’s pregnancy.

Although, as Shakespeare left behind so few personal documents, scholars still aren’t certain whether the union was joyous or vexed.

Disappearing act

In his twenties, Shakespeare disappeared from the records for seven years, a period referred to by historians as ‘The Lost Years’.

We’re not sure why the Bard left his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon in 1585, or what he did before resurfacing in London in 1592 as a professional actor and playwright.

Some think he was caught poaching deer from the estate of a local squire, and fled town to escape punishment, whilst others speculate he joined an acting troupe and travelled the country.

Plague poetry

All of us are personally acquainted with the effect of pandemic on the arts, and Shakespeare, too, was no stranger to the impact, living through two plagues in his lifetime.

During the 1603 – 1613 plague, playhouses were shut for 78 long months, and it is thought the Bard used this time to write King Lear, arguably his most famous tragedy.

With theatres closed, Shakespeare also turned to verse, with some of his most celebrated poems, like Venus and Adonis, written in the plague years.

Is romance dead?

Shakespeare accumulated significant wealth in his lifetime—a fact that has left historians surprised by his will, which bequeathed his entire estate to his eldest daughter, bar his ‘second-best bed’ which was left to his wife.

Although nowadays this seems like a slight, we’ll never be certain—and in fact, it’s also worth noting that the second-best bed would have been the Shakespeares’ marital bed, as the first-best bed was always reserved for guests. So maybe, a sentimental gesture instead?

Taking it to the grave

Shakespeare’s grave, located in Stratford-upon-Avon, bears an ominous curse thought to be penned by the famous wordsmith himself. The curse reads:

Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear,
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 graves to be dug up and bones shuffled around to make room for new burials, and the Bard clearly wasn’t keen on such disturbance to his eternal rest.

But was the curse a sufficient deterrent? In 2016, scientists scanned Shakespeare’s grave with a special radar and discovered his skull was missing. Maybe someone, somewhere, is bearing the brunt of the curse after all…

A man immortalised

There’s a reason Shakespeare’s life remains intriguing so many years after his death, and a reason his work is still celebrated and performed so widely.

Damien Ryan, Artistic Director of our resident company, Sport for Jove, is passionate about bringing Shakespeare to new audiences, and says, 'The oft asked and most valid question of them all is, 'Why does this work still matter?' It is from a different time and place to our current experience, it carries us off to strange lost places, but it is actually bringing us home to common experiences in many cases that transcend time and place.'

We couldn’t agree more. Happy birthday to the Bard!

 

Image credit: Seiya Taguchi

31 March 2022

Enjoy symposiums and mainstage productions of some of Shakespeare's most famous works from our award-winning resident company, Sport for Jove, at Seymour Centre in 2022.

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