Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Bard Bits: Rumor Has It


Let’s face it, there are aspects about Shakespeare that make some people uncomfortable. The Victorians were great fans of his plays, yet remain a bit perturbed about certain details about him. Maybe people have reservations about Shakespeare, because people, well, people like to gossip. For instance:

Oh, Susanna
William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway were married and six months later their first born daughter Susanna arrived. That puts the honeymoon before cutting the wedding cake.

However–
In Elizabethan times there was a “troth-plight” contract which meant that once a couple became engaged they were considered practically married, which meant Susanna’s birth date isn’t necessarily as shocking as supposed.

About Those Sonnets…
Sonnet 18. Sigh. Comparing a dear love to a summer’s day–so romantic, so lovely, so not addressed to a woman.

In fact, Sonnets 1 through 18 are addressed to a young nobleman blessed with good looks, good name, and unfortunately had an avoidance of marriage. The speaker, penned by Shakespeare, encourages this young man to marry so he can procreate (to carry on the family name was a big deal in those times). All this word frippery about loveliness is not being applied to a woman’s beauty but to the vanity of this young man. It comes down to Shakespeare trying to convince this young nobleman that his children will be beautiful because he is so amazingly handsome, so he should get married and get busy and create some heirs. Maybe the young man’s mother wanted to become a grandmother sooner than later.

I know, Hallmark didn’t get the memo about the intent of the poem.

An additional footnote is that male friendship was quite different than today’s comfort zone. Men hung out with men because women mostly stayed at home (unless the woman was the ruling monarch). Each gender had their own circle of influence. Men openly showed their appreciation and affection and admiration for one another through linking arms and walking together, and they would even kiss one another (on the lips–get over it, please). This open non-sexual relationship standard of expression superseded our current culture bromance. So those poems extolling the virtues of the young man? No problem. No stigma–at least during Elizabethan times. We simply need to remove our 21st century hats and understand that different times meant different perspectives.

And What About That Dark Lady?
The latter half of Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed to a woman known as the Dark Lady. Was she his mistress? Someone he admired? A random topic he fancied to dwell upon?

We don’t know.

Yet, people, yes, those Victorians, and probably still today, tend to titter and speculate. We don’t know, so stop the rumors already.

Ghost Writer
I am not even going to address the whole “Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays” conspiracy theory. As David Tennant said: “I don’t care.”

Long Distant Dad/Husband
Some Bard distractors have snippedly mentioned how absent Shakespeare was from his family, that he wasn’t even there when his only son died. Well, commuting back and forth from London, a good two-three day journey each way, didn’t make it possible to be home every weekend. While we don’t have records of Shakespeare at home while he was a playwright in London, there are records that he was investing in property and buying homes, and this shows how he was providing for his family. When he did retire, he did so comfortably, and he remained in Stratford until his death.

Second Best Wife Bed
In Elizabethan times a wife was entitled to one third of her husband’s estate–Anne would get the goods, basically. The fact that Shakespeare states he “gives my wife my second best bed with the furniture” seems unnecessary then, right? There is the belief that the second-best bed was the marriage bed, the one he shared with Anne (when he was home) and the best bed would be the one set aside for guests. Bequeathing the second-best to Anne would be seen as a sentimental gesture, showing that Shakespeare didn’t have to provide a poem to share his feelings about his wife.

There is a fair amount of speculation about what Shakespeare might have been, not have been, yet the important part about Shakespeare is that he knew about people and that his plays (most of them) still speak to the human condition 400 years later.

In all probability Shakespeare was conservative (didn’t go in for boisterous pub frolics like the other players and writers), and was no doubt a bit ordinary (he wasn’t a spy like Marlowe), and he was somewhat of a quiet pundit (preferring to express his opinions through his wit and words in his writings).

What rumors have you heard about Shakespeare?

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14 thoughts on “Bard Bits: Rumor Has It

  1. I heard he was a scientologist.

  2. Sarah Thomas on said:

    If only we could stick to gossiping about people who are long gone and don’t much care one way or the other!

    • Besmirching the past is still unattractive. I’m into unbesmirching, like what PBS does in their history programs. Have you seen Lucy Worsely’s programs? Especially on Marie Antoinette…

  3. This was so interesting to read, I actually learned a lot of things I didn’t know before. The only ‘rumor’ I can think of is that Shakespeare was born and died on the same day, though I’m not sure if that counts 😀

  4. The Bard is so little understood and so speculated on. Glad to see these clarifications, Pam!

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