April 23 is celebrated as the birthday of the Bard, William Shakespeare, quite likely the greatest writer in the English language. (Well, it’s probably Billy’s birthday — records from 1564 England are spotty, but historians are fairly certain of the date.) As one of the most famous and revered people to ever live, there’s a lot of information out there about Shakespeare…but a lot of it just isn’t true.
Myth: Shakespeare didn’t go to school.
Part of why the power and legend of Shakespeare has persisted is due to the idea that such remarkable works of word craft — Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, etc. — were written by a man with no formal education. While Shakespeare didn’t go to an esteemed English university, such as Oxford or Cambridge, he wasn’t exactly untrained. His hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon had a free school sponsored by the king. Until he was about 13 or so, Shakespeare received a thorough, “classical” education, and learned history, mythology, and even Latin.
Myth: He was mostly a writer.
Between 1592 and 1614, Shakespeare wrote 37 plays. That works out to less than two a year, which means he had to have been something else to satisfy his creative spirit, as well as pay the bills. He did. His professional life was overwhelmingly spent as an actor in other people’s plays. He also owned shares in the Globe Theatre, but he was an actor first, and a playwright second. (And a poet third.)
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Myth: He was the most beloved dramatist of his era.
The idea that Shakespeare is English literature’s finest only developed over the last 200 years. In his own time, Shakespeare wasn’t even regarded as the best writer of his own time. That was an honor reserved for Ben Jonson. Nor was his death a national tragedy, not like when Shakespeare’s friend and fellow actor Richard Burbage died. He was the London stage’s most popular figure…not Shakespeare.
Myth: He slighted his wife.
When Shakespeare died in 1616 (on his birthday), he deeded his wife, Anne Hathaway, via his will his “second best bed.” That’s been widely interpreted to be an insult from the writer to his wife. After all, why wouldn’t he leave her his best bed…or any of his money? Under English law at the time, she automatically inherited a sizable share of his estate, but as for the bed, it was a sentimental phrase and an inside joke. The best bed would be the guest bed and the second best…was the one they shared together.