To most people, ‘Shakespeare’ is the same as ‘algebra’ — a pointless chore forced upon you by your teacher. The very word ‘Shakespeare’ conjures up images of stuffy old professors with doctorates in snobbiness.
But William Shakespeare did not write for stuffy old professors. He did not write to bore people. He wrote for the average person, the sort of person you see on the streets everyday.
Shakespeare was a businessman. He may have been an poet, but he wasn’t a starving one. The real Shakespeare was very different from the one we’ve been taught to imagine. My hope is to convince you of that.
Shakespeare was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon, a town of two thousand people. It’s likely Shakespeare started out as an actor, and later advanced to editing the higher up’s plays. No one knows why Shakespeare started writing his own plays. But, in my opinion, his first plays stink. If the name ‘Shakespeare’ wasn’t attached to them they wouldn’t have survived at all.
Most of Shakespeare’s greatest plays — Hamlet, Macbeth — where written later in his career. See, Shakespeare wasn’t an instant genius. Like everyone else, he had to practice, to get good at what he did.
Writing, and performing, plays back then was very different from now. For instance, nowadays plays are a rare treat. A person can go through life only having seen three or five plays. It’s the movie industry that’s really booming. Well, back in Shakespeare’s time, plays were the movies of the day.
Everyone went to see plays, from cobblers to nobles, to Queen Elizabeth herself. Which meant that, for any of Shakespeare’s plays to be successful, they had to appeal to the masses.
There weren’t many snobby professors in the crowds that came. To entertain these people, Shakespeare couldn’t just write tragedies — he had to write comedies as well, things people could laugh at. Heck, even his tragedies have some pretty funny jokes.
Nowadays, Shakespeare is rarely, if ever, associated with laughter. But that is what his job consisted of — making people laugh, and making people cry. He gave people the best time of their life — the exact opposite of what his plays do now.
Early on, Shakespeare wrote a series of plays — Henry IV, part 1; Henry IV, part 2 and Henry V. Most of the characters were historical — even then, people liked the drama of royal lives. But one character, Falstaff — appearing in two of the plays, mentioned in the third — wasn’t based on a real character. Yet Falstaff became unexpectedly popular.
So, as we often do now when side characters become popular, Shakespeare wrote a spin-off play, called the Merry Wives of Windsor. And, like spin-offs today, the play stank. Critics claim it completely ruined Falstaff’s character. But, Shakespeare did make money, which he could then spend while writing better plays.
In 1593, when Shakespeare had only a handful of plays to his name, the plague came to London. Believing the plague spread best in crowds, authorities closed every theatre in the city. Shakespeare and his company, the Earl of Pembroke’s Men, were forced to leave London. Play’s performed in the country earned much less money — a problem, if that was all one had to support oneself.
So what did Shakespeare do? Did he lock himself in a dark room and bemoan the fate that was suppressing his genius? Did he stay up late, writing plays that barely gave him enough to live on? No — Shakespeare used one of the oldest business tricks in the book — he switched products. Instead of making his living off writing plays, Shakespeare decided to write poetry.
The poems Shakespeare wrote — Venus and Adonis, for example — did more to cement his reputation as a skilled writer than any of his plays so far had. Poetry was a big thing in Elizabethan England, especially for nobles, the people with the most money.
Shakespeare kept writing poetry, even after the plague ended, and Pembroke’s men were able to return to London. He’d probably come to enjoy writing poetry by then, but I think the main reason he continued was because he’d learned a valuable lesson — it was always best to have two sources of income. That way, if one dried up, he could simply switch to the other.
So Shakespeare continued to write poetry and plays, advancing higher and higher, until he worked for King James himself. The play Macbeth was specifically tailored to please King James — the character Banquo was believed to be one of King James’s ancestors.
Shakespeare had tamed his muse, and turned it into a money making business, a.k.a., entertainment.
So how did these plays, written to be enjoyed, became objects of boredom? How did Shakespeare become another word for dull?
A large part may be the language. Shakespeare did not speak, or write, the same language we do today. When most people try and read his plays they wind up with a headache, unable to understand a single word on the page. I have the rare gift of being able to read Shakespearean language, but even I get headaches.
There are two solutions to the problem: 1) translate Shakespeare’s plays into language that modern folk can understand, and 2) actually watch one of the plays. We may no longer be able to read Shakespearean English, but we can easily understand it when spoken. Shakespeare didn’t write his plays to be read like books in the first place. He wrote them to be acted.
Take the famous ‘to be or not to be’ speech. Until I heard Benedict Cumberbatch say those lines while tying a noose around his neck, I had only the faintest idea about what it meant. But afterwards … ‘to be or not to be’ has become one of my favourite lines.
Shakespeare was an entertainer — it’s what earned him his bread and butter. His plays were meant to be enjoyed, and still can be. And as for those stuffy old professors, well, as Shakespeare famously wrote — “Titania wak’d, and straightway lov’d an ass’. Ponder on that statement for a while.