What's in a Name? Marking Shakespeare's Quadricentenary
by Sharon Harrison
The literary works of William Shakespeare have played a role in the lives of many for centuries, often shaping or forming the people his words touched. Whether Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and King Lear, or The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night, many have experienced at least one of Shakespeare’s plays, or are familiar with a line or two from a sonnet. Often, an introduction to The Bard of Avon, as he was known, may not have been a conscious choice. Whether forced upon them as part of an English literature class, or dragged along by a friend to a play, Shakespeare has a way of entering and affecting our lives through many different avenues.
Some cannot get enough of The Bard; for others an indelible mark was made on their formative years, where a play or a poem exists for every literary taste and every generation, from comedy and tragedy to conflict and love to religion and politics. Whether a fan or not, there is no question Shakespeare was an extraordinarily talented fellow who achieved much in his relatively short lifetime: a poet, playwright, actor, dramatist, and shareholder in the Globe Theatre, he is undeniably the greatest writer and poet of all time.
This year holds particular significance in the literary world as 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. Shakespeare died on his 52nd birthday on April 23rd, 1616. While details of births at the time were often not recorded, the dates of baptisms were. Typically, folks were baptized three days after their birth, and it is believed and widely accepted, William Shakespeare was born on April 23rd, 1564.
While an age of 52 doesn’t seem a great achievement in the 21st century, it was a decent lifespan for the 17th century, where folks could expect to live to just 35 years of age. Shakespeare’s precise cause of death is unknown: 400 years ago such details were often not deemed important to accurately record. However, in Shakespeare’s case, there are at least 20 documented causes, including alcohol poisoning, Bright’s disease, typhus and writer’s cramp. In a time where disease was rampant, if the plague didn’t get you first, tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery, smallpox, or even tooth decay, almost certainly would.
While The Bard’s works are extensive, there is not much known about his private life. While he brought the world to the London stage, there is no evidence he ever left his home country of England. He clearly appreciated horticulture as many of his plays and poems reference flowers and plants. Shakespeare-themed gardens, often formal Elizabethan in design, became popular about a century ago, and many public gardens exist across Europe and the United States in his honour, including one in Stratford, Ontario.
As this important milestone is celebrated, William Shakespeare seems more alive, more present and more relevant than ever. Incredibly, four hundred years after his death, Shakespeare’s works have stood the test of time. Many of his plays are still current and significant to today’s world, the message still engaging, thoughtful and provocative. From The Winter’s Tale and The Gentlemen of Verona to Measure for Measure and Timon of Athens, films and adaptations of Shakespeare’s works have reached many corners of the world, and it has often been said, Shakespeare teaches us what it is to be human.
We attend recitals, plays and poetry readings, and make reference to his many sayings and quotations, and it is believed he contributed more phrases to the English language than any other individual. Many are still in use today, either in whole or in part, some altered with the passage of time, but most remaining timeless throughout history, such as, “All that glitters is not gold”, “Forever and a day”, “Wear your heart on your sleeve”, “The be all and end all” and “Milk of human kindness”. Shakespeare is also credited with introducing about 3,000 words to the English language.
Curiously, the correct spelling, as well as the pronunciation, of Shakespeare’s name has never been determined. Historical documentation shows he didn’t spell his name the same way twice, with the version in use today not being one used by Shakespeare at all. Four thousand recorded versions of Shakespeare’s signature exist, from Wm Shakspe, Willm Shakspere and Willm Shaksp to Shaxpere, Shackerpere and Shagsbe. There are some strange examples too, including Shaixpyr, Schayquesspeirre and Scheickesspaerr.
Earlier this year, archaeologists and scientists used ground-penetrating radar to probe Shakespeare’s tomb. What they found was a headless body. The missing skull was likely removed by grave robbers several hundred years ago, or simply moved to another family tombstone as was often the practice at the time. Interestingly, the words on Shakespeare’s gravestone read: “GOOD FREND FOR JESUS SAKE FORBEARE, / TO DIGG THE DUST ENCLOASED HEARE./ BLESTE BE Ye MAN Yt SPARES THES STONES,/ AND CURST BE HE Yt MOVES MY BONES.”