William Shakespeare is arguably the greatest writer in the history of the English language. Nearly 400 years after the bard’s death we still stage his works in our theaters and study them in our classrooms. If he’d only written Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet or King Lear, we’d probably still consider him one of the greatest writers in the English canon — but he wrote them all, along with numerous other classics.
We continually return to Shakespeare because of his ability to tell us something about ourselves. He was a perceptive student of human nature with an unrivaled capacity for drama and description. Shakespeare had a way with words, unmatched by anyone before or since. He’s the writer we study perhaps more than any other.
You may be an admirer of the bard, but we’re betting there are at least five things you didn’t know about Shakespeare.
1- Shakespeare’s sonnets were written for men
Published in 1609, Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence is 154 poems long. The sequence contains some of the most beautiful and enduring love poetry in the English language: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate: / Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, / And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” Pretty smooth, right? Well, one of the five things you didn’t know about Shakespeare is that that poem is about two dudes. In fact, 126 of Shakespeare’s sonnets are about a deep love between two male friends.
Now, it was impossible to imagine someone as a “homosexual” in the Renaissance, which is not to say that men didn’t have sex with each other. It just means that people weren’t considered “gay” or “straight” in early modern England. Instead, homoeroticism was understood to be a normal extension of male friendship, and that desire is on full display in Shakespeare’s sonnets.
2- Danielle Steel has been translated more than Shakespeare
It’s true. American author Danielle Steel has written nearly 80 novels and she’s sold more than 550 million copies of her works worldwide. Her novels have been translated in 47 countries, and into 28 different languages. While Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into some 80 languages over the past four centuries, he wrote only 37 plays (along with his poetry). The point is: There are more Danielle Steel novels circulating around the world today than there are Shakespearean plays.
3- Shakespeare invented “torture“
Shakespeare didn’t just invent “torture,” but also “excitement,” “addiction” and “savagery.” Another of the five things you might not have known about Shakespeare is just how much he’s influenced the English language. Our man Will invented about 1,700 words in the English language. A remarkable number of the phrases and words we use every day first appeared in Shakespeare’s work. Shakespeare converted verbs into adjectives or nouns into verbs whenever it suited him. Amazingly, his linguistic inventions stuck, and we still use them today.
There was more to William Shakespeare than sonnets and new words…
His words caught on because Shakespeare had such a knack for describing the indescribable. The list of words created by Shakespeare includes “arouse,” “accused,” “amazement,” “bedroom,” “champion,” “compromise,” “fashionable,” “flawed,” “gossip,” “hurried,” “lonely,” “majestic,” “negotiate,” “swagger,” and, yeah, “torture.”
4- Shakespeare’s grave is cursed
It may be Shakespeare’s final poem, an ominous couple of lines etched on his tomb in Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon; “Blessed be the man that spares these stones / And cursed be he who moves my bones,” that alludes to this grave’s curse. It’s an invocation to future generations to leave the bard in peace.
Shakespeare’s curse has been taken seriously enough that his bones have remained in place for four centuries. Even recently, as the church undergoes some much needed renovations, nervous historians and clergymen are organizing their efforts around the bard’s bones, to ensure they don’t disturb the dead playwright.
5- Shakespeare was rich
Sure, you knew Shakespeare was a great writer, but betting that Shakespeare’s business acumen is one of the five things you didn’t know about Shakespeare. In Renaissance England, playwrights often worked with a set theater and a set group of actors called “companies.” This arrangement allowed dramatists to write plays with parts tailored to the particular skills and talents of specific actors in the company.
Shakespeare was the primary dramatist for a company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later renamed the King’s Men). However, unlike his fellow playwrights, Shakespeare was actually a shareholder in the company; so he wasn’t just paid a fee for each play he wrote, but he also took in a share of the company’s overall profits. Consequently, Shakespeare was wealthier than many of his fellow playwrights. He was rich enough, while living in London, to purchase a second home in Stratford-upon-Avon. He may have warned us that “that glitters is not gold,” but William was no fool. He took care of business.