the Sad Truth About Shakespeare

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.

Sources

Shakespeare, a Very Peculiar History

Shakespeare: the Legacy

Shakespeare, Britannica

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Macbeth: the Man and the Myth 

Macbeth is one of my favourite plays. That’s saying something, because I’ve only ever seen half the play. But I’ve read the script hundreds of times, and each time is as thrilling as the time before.

Finding out the play was was based on actual history was amazing. Who was the real Macbeth? Was he as ruthlessly ambitious as his fictional counterpart?

Macbeth was born in the eleventh century. His grandfather was Malcolm II, King of Scotland. Pretty much nothing is known about his childhood. In the eleventh century, a person’s childhood was rarely considered interesting enough to be recorded.

In 1020, Macbeth’s father was killed by a man named Gille Coemgáin. How did Macbeth feel about this? Was he angry, or was he forgiving?

All that is known is that Gille Coemgáin died before 1032, burned to death along with fifty of his men. No one knows who started the fire that Gille Coemgáin died in, but Macbeth is high on the list of suspects.

Afterwards, Macbeth married Gruoch, Gille’s wife. No one knows how this marriage came about, or what Gruoch thought of marrying a man suspected of murdering her husband.

Gruoch and Gille had at least one son, Lulach. Macbeth raised him as his own.

Malcolm II died in 1034, and was succeeded by Macbeth’s cousin Duncan. You might remember him from Shakespeare’s play. In the play, Macbeth murdered him to gain the throne. But was Duncan murdered in real life?

Duncan was probably not a popular king. His nickname was ‘An t-Ilgarach’, meaning ‘the diseased’. Duncan ruled for less than a decade. For some reason, Duncan decided it would be a good idea to lead an army against Moray—Macbeth’s territory.

Unsurprisingly, Macbeth defended himself against this attack, and Duncan was killed in the process. Death in battle is a different thing from being stabbed in your sleep. In this, at least, Macbeth was justified.

Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donald were children at the time. Malcolm, it is believed, was taken to England for safety, and Donald to Ireland.

Guess who seized the throne in the meantime? Yes, none other than Macbeth himself. In the play, Macbeth’s rein is portrayed as short, a few years at most. In reality, Macbeth ruled Scotland for seventeen years.

Then Malcolm, now an adult made his comeback. With the help of the English, he set out to regain his throne. Macduff, however, did not join Malcolm’s army. Why? Simple, really. As far as the evidence goes, Macduff never actually existed.

Records from the time claim Malcolm was the one who killed Macbeth. Although it could be that Malcolm stole another man’s glory, to make himself look better. Hard to tell, now that the battle’s lost and won.

Shakespeare’s play was based on real events—but very loosely. The facts are
fascinating, and I hope to learn more about the real Macbeth in the future.

If you have any thoughts on Macbeth you would like to share, feel free to leave a comment.

Gruoch, Wikipedia

Duncun I, Wikipedia