Shakespeare facts are hard to come by. In spite of his reputation as the greatest poet and playwright that ever lived, there is a lot we don’t know about Shakespeare as a person. There is a paucity of extant historical records, the slenderest of biographical attestation, and only a few portraits created of him during his lifetime.
Due to the historical record or lack thereof, historians have traced connections, made assumptions, and sometimes developed sketchy theories about Shakespeare’s life. To assert that such theories are indisputable facts about Shakespeare is, perhaps, too strong a claim.
Shakespeare’s most enduring legacy has come to us mostly intact — the lays and sonnets. But what about the other details of his life — who he was, how he lived, what he did, and why he did it? I’ve collected some of the lesser-known Shakespeare facts for your consideration. Although I’ve used the term “Shakespeare facts,” I’m also transparent as to the dubious nature of some of the claims and have provided links to the best research I could find for each of the William Shakespeare facts you’re about to read.
Shakespeare Fact #1: Shakespeare may have used marijuana.
Some have surmised that the secret of Shakespeare’s genius was because he used stimulants such as marijuana and maybe even cocaine. What’s the proof behind this claim?
Francis Thackeray is a palaeoanthropologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. In 2015, he and other researchers studied Shakespeare’s tobacco pipes, most of them found in Shakespeare’s garden at Stratford-upon-Avon, using advanced gas chromatography. They identified cannabis and Peruvian cocaine residue on some of the pipes. Their report states the following:
Results of this study (including 24 pipe fragments) indicated Cannabis in eight samples, nicotine (from tobacco leaves of the kind associated with Raleigh) in at least one sample, and (in two samples) definite evidence for Peruvian cocaine from coca leaves of the kind which Thackeray et al. 4 associated with Drake who had himself been to Peru before 1597.
If the “evidence” from advanced gas chromatography isn’t enough, some Shakespeare scholars read allusions to the substances in his works. The most famous of such allusions is the “noted weed” passage in Sonnet 76.
Why is my verse so barren of new pride,
So far from variation or quick change?
Why with the time do I not glance aside
To new-found methods and to compounds strange?
Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth and where they did proceed?
There may be other allusions to chemically-induced states of altered consciousness.
- Sonnet 27: Weary with toil I haste me to my bed, / The dear repose for limbs with travel tired; / But then begins a journey in my head, / To work my mind when body’s work’s expired.
- Sonnet 118: With eager compounds we our palate urge
How much more proof do you need? Well, proof is a strong word for possible allusions and non-conclusive Shakespearean ownership or usage of the tobacco pipes in question. There is no concrete evidence that Shakespeare himself used the pipes that contained traces of cannabis. And the “noted weed,” even if it is a reference to cannabis, does not mean that Shakespeare partook of it.
The Atlantic stated the situation well: “Stories like these continue to seize the public’s imagination because there’s still so much we don’t know about one of the most studied figures in history.”
Shakespeare Fact #2: Shakespeare has no direct descendants.
Shakespeare married when he was 18 years old. His wife, Anne Hathaway, was eight years older than him. Together, they had three children, Susanna, Judith, and Hamnet. (Judith and Hamnet were twins.) Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, died at age 11.
Judith, Shakespeare’s daughter, had three children, all of them who died before marrying or having children. Susanna, Shakespeare’s eldest had a daughter, Elizabeth. Elizabeth married twice but did not have any children.
Obviously, there could be a lack of records regarding births or marriages, but this is an argument from silence. The fact about Shakespeare not having direct descendants is hard to argue against. There are, however, many descendants from the family line of Shakespeare’s sister, Joan.
Shakespeare Fact #3: William “Shakespeare,” spelled as such, did not actually exist.
A clearer way to explain it is that there is no record of the spelling of ‘William Shakespeare’ in that specific way before 1623 when the First Folio was published. How was Shakespeare’s name spelled in Shakespeare’s day? Take your pick.
In Shakespeare’s time, standardized spelling as we know it simply did not exist. This was especially true in the case of surnames. Another challenge to spelling was handwritten records. When signing his name, William Shakespeare lopped off a few letters or vowels, perhaps to save time or effort. His signature, thus, was often “Willm Shakp,” “Wm. Shakspe” or other mutations. And his handwriting? That’s another story.
There are six extant signatures signed by the bard himself. Each of these signatures are found on legal documents.
Shakespeare Fact #4: Shakespeare acted in his own plays.
Who better to act in a play than the author of the play himself? There is universal consensus that Shakespeare is a qualified playwright, but what about his abilities as an actor? We’ll never know for sure, but one thing is likely: Shakespeare acted in his own plays.
The reason we can surmise that Shakespeare performed in his own plays is that the First Folio says so. The First Folio is the first official collection of Shakespeare’s plays, published posthumously (1623).
The editors of the folio recorded the names of the original actors for each of the plays. At the top of the “Names of the Principall Actors” is, yes, William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was an actor before he became a playwright. At his acting debut in 1593, the eminent dramatist Robert Greene tore into Shakespeare’s performance. It’s from Greene’s vituperations that the well-known insult “upstart crow” appears:
“Yes, trust them not, for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that, with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you; and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrie.”
Upstart crow or not, Shakespeare was a qualified enough actor to continue performing parts in his own plays. According to urban myth and centuries-old tradition, are some of the parts he may have played:
- Henry IV in Henry IV
- King Duncan in Macbeth
- Ghost of Hamlet’s father in Hamlet
- Old Adam in As You Like It
Shakespeare Fact #5: Shakespeare is indirectly responsible for the introduction of the starling bird species to North America.
The common starling is considered a pest, or to put it more scientifically, an “invasive species.” It’s noisy, unmusical, and not a picky eater when it comes to fruits, seeds, and sprouting crops — i.e., your garden. Millions of European starlings, also known as common starlings, range all over the North American continent, damaging orchards, destroying agriculture, and even spreading infectious diseases.
What does William Shakespeare have to do with the common starling’s debut in North America? Enter Eugene Schieffelin, an American polymath. Schieffelin’s interests included genealogy, acclimatization, biology, biography, business, drug manufacturing, and apparently, Shakespeare.
Schieffelin had the bizarre idea of gathering all of the bird species mentioned in the Shakespeare corpus and introducing them into North America. As it turned out, this was not a good idea.Schieffelin brought his first batch of 60 starlings to Central Park in 1890.
Starling procreation began in earnest. Today, we view more than one hundred years of the deleterious long-term effects. Common starlings, descendants of Schieffelin’s original brood, were responsible for the loss of 72 human lives in 1960 when Eastern Airline Flight 375 crashed into a flock of starlings. What’s more, the economic toll of starlings on the agricultural industry is an estimated $1 billion a year. They are known to negatively impact the dairy industry and to spread diseases to plants, animals, and humans.
Thanks to a bird-brained Shakespeare fanatic and a single mention of starling in Henry IV, Part 1, the starling is here to stay.
I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but “Mortimer,” and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.
More Shakespeare Facts
What other Shakespeare facts or myths do scholars debate and Reddit users argue about? Here are a few:
- Shakespeare may have worn a gold earring, a fashion that was common among sailors and courtiers.
- The King James Bible may have a hidden message for Shakespeare. (Google it.)
- Shakespeare was a highly successful businessperson.
- No one is sure exactly when Shakespeare was born.
- Shakespeare wrote some plays, the “Lost Plays” of which we have no record.
- There is some suggestion and a coterie of conspirators who claim that Shakespeare did not actually write his plays.
More Resources on Shakespeare Facts
I’ve assembled some of my research so you can put these Shakespeare facts to the test.
Research on the fact of Shakespeare’s alleged marijuana use:
- The Independent: “Was William Shakespeare high when he penned his plays?”
- L.A. Times: “Was Shakespeare a stoner? Scientist finds marijuana residue in playwright’s pipes”
- Smithsonian: “Did Shakespeare Smoke Pot?”
- Vanity Fair: “Did Shakespeare Smoke Pot?”
- USA Today: “Shakespeare may have smoked weed, study finds.”
- The Atlantic: “Hide Your Fires: On Shakespeare and the ‘Noted Weed’”
- Time: “Scientists Detect Traces of Cannabis on Pipes Found in William Shakespeare’s Garden
Resources regarding Shakespeare’s lack of direct descendants:
- A Quora discussion, “Does William Shakespeare have any living descendants today?”
- Infoplease, “Does Shakespeare Have Any Living Descendants?”
- Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: “How many children did Shakespeare have?”
Resources on the spelling of Shakespeare’s name:
- Shakespeareauthorship.com, “The Spelling and Pronunciation of Shakespeare’s Name”
- Shakespeare-Online.com, “Playing Fast and Loose with Shakespeare’s Name”
- Wikipedia, “Spelling of Shakespeare’s name”
- Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship, “Was ‘Shakspere’ also a Spelling of ‘Shakespeare’?”
Resources on Shakespeare as a performer in his own plays:
- Shakespeare-online.com, “Most Common Questions About Shakespeare”
- Enotes.com, “Did Shakespeare act in any of his plays and if so, what roles did he perform?”
- Literarygenius.info, “William Shakespeare the Actor” and “William Shakespeare the Upstart Crow”
- Reference.com, “Did Shakespeare act in his own plays?”
- Wikipedia, “First Folio”
- Folger, “Publishing Shakespeare”
- The University of Arizona, “First Folio Facts”
- Friendlyfolio.com, “Shakespeare’s First Folio”
Resources on the introduction of European starlings to the United States by Schieffelin, a Shakespeare fan: