400 years after death of William Shakespeare: 7 things to know about the bard

The 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare will be marked in 2016. FILE PHOTO
The 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare will be marked in 2016. FILE PHOTO
The Globe Theatre in London is a reconstruction of William Shakespeare's original theatre on the south bank of the Thames.
The Globe Theatre in London is a reconstruction of William Shakespeare's original theatre on the south bank of the Thames.PHOTO: AFP

The year 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare.

The playwright is credited with creating the greatest literary canon of Western history and the anniversary is being marked with programmes and events around the world. 

Here are seven things to know about the Bard. 

1. No one actually knows his birthday or the day he died

He was baptised on April 26, 1564, according to church records, at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. But there is actually no record of when the third child of leather merchant John Shakespeare and Mary Arden was born.

 

William was their oldest surviving child - two girls did not survive infancy but more children came after William. Three boys - Gilbert (born in 1566), Richard and Edmund - and two girls - Joan (born in 1569 and who lived to the then grand old age of 77) and Anne (born in 1571, who died aged seven). 

The commonly accepted (that is, educated guess) date of birth for William is April 23, 1564. 

There is also a romantic notion that Shakespeare died on his birthday, April 23, 1616. 

That is rubbish of course. But there is no record of when exactly is the date of his death. All that is known is that he was interred in Trinity church on April 25, 1616. 

He supposedly wrote the epitaph on his tombstone: 
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.

2. He married an older woman and had three children

At age 18, Shakespeare registered his marriage to a pregnant Anne Hathaway on Nov 28, 1582. She was 26. 

Their daughter Susanna was born on May26, 1583. They also had twins Hamnet and Judith, born on Feb 2, 1585.

Their children, like Shakespeare, were christened at Trinity church.

Hamnet died at the age of 11 from unknown causes. 

3.  He lived off the (paper) grid

There are huge gaps in our knowledge about Shakespeare. After his recorded baptism, he reappeared only when marriage and parenthood occured. 

Scholars refer to the lost years: 1578 to 1582, and 1585 to 1592. The first period covers Shakespeare's formative years after he left grammar school till he got married, and the second period is when he first entered the theatre world and developed his skills in acting and writing. 

4. He was no starving artist in a garret

OK maybe he was in the lost years of 1585 to 1592.

But by the time he reappeared in the records in 1592, Shakespeare seemed to have been doing well enough to cause professional jealousy.

London playwright Robert Greene railed in his autobiography against Shakespeare, calling him "an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country".

 

By 1593, Shakespeare had found a patron in the youthful, and wealthy, Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesly, to whom he dedicated two published poems, Venus And Adonis (1593) and The Rape Of Lucrece (1594). 

Shakespeare was, by then, a managing partner in an acting company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, which later changed its name to the King's Men. 

He was rich enough to buy the second largest house in Stratford for his family in 1597. 

By 1599, he and his business partners built The Globe on the south bank of the Thames river and by 1605, he had become a landowner in Stratford, buying enough land to earn him £60 a year. 

5. The six signatures

Shakespeare signed his name six times in four documents. And these six signatures have inspired heated debate as well as conspiracy theories. Because in each signature (he had terrible handwriting by the way), Shakespeare spelled his name differently. 

There was Willm Shakp, William Shaksper, Wm Shakspe, William Shakspere, Willm Shakspere and William Shakspeare. 

These wildly variant spellings have inspired speculation that the man history has commonly identified as Shakespeare the writer was not really the author of the classic canon of plays, and that he was illiterate. 

But the simplest explanation could be that during the Elizabethan era, spelling was more an approximation than a strict regimen. In fact, variants of the name in legal documents of the time included Shaxkspere and Shakysper. It was also common to have different variants of a name in the same legal document. 

6. Shakespeare was not Shakespeare

Notwithstanding director Roland Emmerich's bombastically bad 2011 movie Anonymous about the famous authorship issue, there is quite a lot of support for the theory the movie advocates - that Shakespeare was really Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. 

The advocates of this theory, called the Oxfordians, have a petition to get De Vere recognised formally as the author of arguably the greatest canon of Western literature. And the signatories are no lunatic fringe elements but a who's who of literary and drama circles, including such luminaries as actors Sir John Gielgud and Armand Assante, and even the first artistic director of the Globe Theatre, Mark Rylance.

7. Shakespeare was a true wordsmith 

The playwright has the largest vocabulary of any writer, clocking in at more than 24,000 words. In comparison, poet John Milton's vocabulary adds up to 17,377 words. 
Shakespeare is also credited with inventing more than 1,700 words which have now become part of the common English language. 

Sources: Biography.com, www.folger.edu, www.shakespeare-online.com,  Shakespeare Resource Center