With a production of “Hamlet” by ABA Productions and Shakespeare’s Globe coming to town from 8th to 12th September, the master playwright is bound to come up in conversation sometime. So, whether you’d like to impress your friends with some trivia or make an important point in your essay assignments, here are some little known facts about the famous Renaissance playwright. (Although, I do recommend having other more authoritative sources for your essays.)
1. He was not completely original
*GASP* What?! The Bard, an idea thief? It can’t be! But borrowing plots were a common practice for playwrights in the 16th and 17th centuries, and Shakespeare was no different. Many of his plays are based off of older sources.
For instance, Hamlet is borrowed from several possible sources, including a work by François de Belleforest. But he changed the presentation, emphasised different aspects, and transformed the dialogue to the beautiful phrases we know now, such that he blew Belleforest out of the water and incidentally out of mainstream attention.
He did, however, make up some storylines. The farcical adventures of Bottom and the Mechanicals (From “A Midsummer Night’s Dream“) are original – much like his very good sense of humour.
2. He wrote Hamlet after his son Hamnet died
Coincidence? I think not. It is oddly comforting that even great literary geniuses use their life experiences in their work and it isn’t just a Taylor Swift or Bruno Mars thing. Shakespeare must have been devastated after his only son died at the age of 11, which could explain the spectacularly gruesome ending of “Hamlet” (SPOILER ALERT: everyone dies except Hamlet’s BFF Horatio). The play also questions the entire notion of revenge, life, and death.
3. He was not very sure of timelines
When the play first begins, Hamlet has just graduated university. He seems about 20. But by the end of the play, he is seen to be almost 30. The whole play occurs in the duration of 4 months. How did Shakespeare make that happen? No one knows. Maybe he made a mistake. Maybe, with all the script re-writing, there are other parts to “Hamlet”. Or maybe he was drawing out a metaphor of how with all the problems Hamlet has to face (Uncle who killed his dad, Uncle who married his mum, the love of his life rejecting him etc.), he aged quicker than most 20 year olds.
4. Shakespeare didn’t go to university
While many of his main characters are either aristocrats or among the educated elite, Shakespeare himself only went to school till the age of thirteen. There isn’t much evidence to suggest if he had more schooling between then and when he appeared as a professional actor, but some of his fellow playwrights did look down on him because of his lack of education. (HA, but who are we talking about today, you stuck up pretentious rags)
5. Shakespeare spent a lot of his free time in pubs
Theatre players, playwrights, and even audiences were all viewed by the government to be a nuisance. Most people outside the theatre business viewed them as lazy people without jobs (kind of like how most Singaporeans view arts students eh? Glad to see this is a centuries-old stereotype). Shakespeare was recorded in many instances to have spent evenings drinking with friends or having friendly verbal battles with his rival playwrights.
6. Shakespeare’s wife’s name was Anne Hathaway
I’m not even kidding.
7. Hamlet is one of the few plays of Shakespeare with weak wimpy women
Queen Gertrude and Ophelia, virtuous at best, are helpless pawns in the game of who gets the throne. Meanwhile in his other plays there are murder planning, cross-dressing, generally get-the-job-done women. This is, unfortunately, not one of those plays.
8. Shakespeare’s plots are convoluted
So convoluted that when Hamlet is kidnapped by pirates, it isn’t even a major plot point. Hamlet isn’t the only play that gets confusing: Shakespeare uses twins and disguises to mess with people’s minds (“Twelfth Night“, anyone?) and when that’s not enough, two pairs of twins (a la “The Comedy of Errors“).
9. “To be or not to be” is about suicide
To be as in to exist. Yes, the (arguably) most famous line in literature is about suicide. Let that sink in. Although, in a play that features skulls, regicide, and poison, it isn’t that surprising.
Though Shakespeare may be considered stuffy and high class, the truth is that he was – and still is – the playwright of the masses. He wrote about experiences, he wrote about people and he turned convention on its head. That’s something that keeps people coming back 400 years later. Also dick jokes.
Catch “HAMLET” at the Capitol Theatre from 8 – 12 September 2015. Ticketing details here.