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NA340912 - TIMSON, D.: Stories from Shakespeare, Vol. 2 (Unabridged)

William Shakespeare – Who Is He?
by David Timson


William Shakespeare is one of the most famous people who ever lived. Almost the whole world has heard of him. In the year 2000 he was voted ‘the man of the millennium’, which is the same as saying this playwright was the most important man to have lived in the last thousand years! More important than politicians, kings, queens, soldiers, explorers, musicians or anyone else who has achieved fame. Shakespeare’s plays are acted and read all over the world—just about every country has translated them into its own language. Thousands of books about him keep appearing every year. Millions of people travel every year to the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire to see the house where he was born. When the first £20 bank-note was produced by the Bank of England in 1970, who was on the back of it?—why Warwickshire Will of course. And yet, for someone so famous hardly anything at all is known about him. Who was he?

What was he like? Was he happy or moody, good or bad tempered? A good husband? A father who loved his children? A man who liked to be with lots of friends? Or did he prefer being by himself? We just don’t know the answers to any of these questions. There are hardly any books or documents from Elizabethan times that mention him by name. No love-letters he wrote, or letters to his family back at home in Stratford when he was working in London have survived.

The few facts that are definitely known could be written on the back of a postcard! Here are the Top Eleven facts:

1. Shakespeare’s baptism is recorded in the Stratford-upon-Avon Parish register on 26 April 1564, in Latin, as ‘Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakespeare,’ (William son of John Shakespeare.)

2. A marriage licence issued for William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway for 27 November 1582.

3. A record of payment to him as an actor in the Lord Chamberlain’s Company in 1595 4. A contract for the buying of New Place, a large house in Stratford, for £60 on

4 May 1597.

5. Shakespeare’s name heads the list of actors appearing in Ben Jonson’s play ‘Every Man in his Humour’ according to the 1616 edition of the play.

6. A tax record of 1598 shows that Shakespeare didn’t pay his taxes!

7. He is mentioned as a shareholder in the lease for the Globe Theatre in 1599.

8. In 1604, the Master of the Wardrobe records that Shakespeare as a member of the King’s Company of Actors was given scarlet cloth to wear at the coronation of James I.

9. A property document for 1613 shows that he bought the Blackfriars Gatehouse in London for £140, though he didn’t ever live there.

10. His last will and testament is dated 25 March 1616.

11. The Stratford Parish Register records Shakespeare’s burial on 25 April 1616.

And that, with a few brief references to him by other writers, and the records of his children’s births, is all we can be sure of about Mr William Shakespeare. It is a record of a life full of holes.

The facts tell us he was baptised for instance, but not his actual birthday. Traditionally, babies in those days were baptised within three days of being born, which might mean that Shakespeare was born on 23 April—a fitting day for a man who would become such a famous English writer, as it is the patron saint of England, St George’s Day. From the other facts we can work out that he married when he was eighteen; was working in London as an actor at thirty-one; was obviously very successful, as he had enough money to buy property, including the finest house in his home town ‘New Place’; and spent the last year of his life there, dying at the early age of fifty-two. But what did he do between the age of eighteen when he was still in Stratford and thirty-one when he was established in the London theatre-world? Did his wife Anne live with him in London, or did she stay in Stratford with the children looking forward to an occasional visit from her successful husband? What was he like as an actor? How did he die? These and a thousand questions like them have been asked many times by anyone who wants to try and write a biography of Shakespeare—and where the questions couldn’t be answered, some of the earliest biographers either wrote down gossip and stories they had heard about him or simply made up the answers! None of the tales of Shakespeare’s life that are woven around the facts can be proved to be true, but there might be the tiniest grain of truth in some of them, who knows, and besides they are entertaining, and deserve to be remembered.

Here are a few of the legends of Shakespeare:

In the late 17th century, John Aubrey, who liked nothing better than a good gossip, wrote in his book called Brief Lives that Shakespeare’s father ‘was a butcher, and I have been told by some of the neighbours that when he was a boy he exercised his father’s trade, but when he killed a calf he would do it in a high style, and make a speech…he had been in his younger years a Schoolmaster in the country…’

There has been a lot of guess-work when it comes to writers filling in Shakespeare’s ‘lost’ years before he turns up in London as an actor. He might have been a teacher, a soldier, or a lawyer, as he seems to know so much about these jobs in his plays.

The first man to try and write a detailed biography of Shakespeare was Nicholas Rowe in 1709, but he too seems to have been listening to stories from Stratford: ‘Shakespeare had, by a misfortune common enough to young fellows, fallen in to ill company; and amongst them, some that made a frequent practice of deer-stealing, engaged him with them more than once in robbing a park that belonged to Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that gentleman, as he thought, somewhat too severely…that he was obliged to leave his business and family in Warwickshire, for some time, and shelter himself in London.’

One legend has Shakespeare, on his arrival in London, holding the horses outside the Playhouse for the rich lords, whilst they went in to see the play. He talked to the actors and after a while felt bold enough to try acting as a job himself.

Whether any of these stories are true, nobody knows, and because so little is known about him we can make up our own Shakespeare! This is what John Aubrey did when he described the man he had never met: ‘He was a handsome, well-shaped man: very good company, and of a very ready and pleasant smooth wit.’

Maybe he was or maybe he wasn’t. It is in his plays that we find out most about him, and as they have lasted for more than 400 years, Shakespeare must have been quite a man—whoever he was!


A Few Facts About the Plays

As You Like It

Rosalind is one of the longest female parts Shakespeare ever wrote. In his day, young boys played the girls’ parts, as acting wasn’t thought to be a fit thing for women to do. The boy who played Rosalind must have been a very good actor indeed to have been trusted with such an important part. In 1967 the National Theatre did an all-male production with Rosalind played by a grown man, Ronald Pickup. Many famous actresses have been successful in the part including Vanessa Redgrave, Maggie Smith, Juliet Stevenson and in America, Gwyneth Paltrow.

The play is set in the forest of Arden. There is a small forest in Shakespeare’s own county of Warwickshire called Arden, but it also happens to have been his mother’s name, before she married.

There is a tradition that Shakespeare himself played the part of Adam, the old servant who goes with Orlando into the forest.

The part of the sad Jaques has one of the most famous speeches in all Shakespeare, ‘All the World’s a stage…’, which is perhaps only second to ‘To be, or not to be…’ as the speech from Shakespeare most people can quote.

No one really knows what the title refers to, but as it is a very pleasing story that has a happy ending like a fairy tale, Shakespeare was perhaps telling the audience they were in for a good time—as you like it.

Julius Caesar

One of the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays. In 1898, it was produced by Herbert Beerbohm Tree, a famous Victorian actor, as an enormous spectacle with a cast of hundreds on the stage in the scene where Mark Antony talks to the crowd about Caesar.

The great Shakespearian actor of the 20th century, Sir John Gielgud, played Cassius in the 1953 Hollywood film version, while Marlon Brando, who had never acted in Shakespeare was Antony. He apparently took lessons from Gielgud on how to speak his lines.

Shakespeare often did not bother about being historically accurate in his plays, and in Julius Caesar he mentions a clock, when clocks weren’t invented until the 13th century.

The Merchant of Venice

It is very strange for audiences today to believe, but until well into the 18th century, the part of Shylock in this play was played as a comic part, usually with the actor wearing a red wig like a clown. In 1741, the actor Charles Macklin played Shylock with some dignity and continued to play the part successfully for fifty years! But it was the great actor Edmund Kean in the early 19th century who first played Shylock as a serious part, wearing a black wig which shocked the audience. Since then it has been a part that has attracted a lot of the world’s greatest actors to play it. Hollywood stars Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino have played Shylock. Portia is one of Shakespeare’s most romantic characters. The actress Ellen Terry played it in a spectacular production at the Lyceum Theatre in the 1870s, where the scenery was painted to look exactly like Venice. In the early 1900s Ellen Terry recorded the famous ‘Quality of Mercy’ speech making it one of the earliest ever Shakespeare recordings.

The Taming of the Shrew

In many ways this play is a bit like a pantomime. In all Shakespeare’s plays there is not so much knock-about humour. The fights between Kate and Petruchio have often led to real-life husbands and wives playing the parts. There is a silent film version made in 1929, with married partners Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, and a romping film by Franco Zefirelli made in 1966 with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, then the most famous married couple in Hollywood. Kate is presented as a strong woman who knows her own mind, and some critics think that Shakespeare may have been paying tribute to his Queen, Elizabeth I—a powerful woman who ruled England with skill for nearly fifty years.

The Taming of the Shrew was made into a very successful musical by Cole Porter in 1948, which was also turned into a film, called ‘Kiss Me Kate’ - (the title is a line from the play.) On Broadway it ran for 1070 performances, a record at the time.

Richard II

This play contains one of the most famous speeches in Shakespeare—John of Gaunt’s ‘This Royal Throne of Kings’. It describes England, and was regularly broadcast on the radio in World War II to inspire people at a difficult time. This play nearly got Shakespeare and his fellow actors put into prison. In 1602 Shakespeare’s company was asked to perform it by the Earl of Essex, the day before he led a rebellion that planned to get rid of Queen Elizabeth I, in the same way that Bolingbroke, in the play, gets rid of Richard II. The rebellion failed and Elizabeth was safe, but the actors had a lot of hard talking to do to show they were innocent! Richard II was popular in the 19th century as it contains many opportunities for processions and displays of costume. Actor-managers tried hard to copy exactly the clothes and furnishings of Richard II’s time. Sometimes actresses like to play the male parts in Shakespeare’s plays. Some have played Hamlet, some King Lear, and in 1995, Fiona Shaw played Richard II—probably the first actress to do so. Sir John Gielgud was a famous Richard in the 1930s, and in 2005 the Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey starred in a modern dress production at London’s Old Vic theatre.

Henry IV Part 1

This play has been performed regularly since Shakespeare’s day. This is mainly because of the character of Sir John Falstaff, who despite being a rogue who cheats and lies, is great fun to watch on stage. Even when Oliver Cromwell closed the theatres down in 1642, Falstaff managed to keep going in a short version of the play called ‘The Bouncing Knight’ which was only performed at fairgrounds. Falstaff is one of the greatest comic parts ever written and every comic actor has wanted to play it. George Robey, a famous music-hall comedian, and not an actor, played it on stage in the 1930s, and in Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V.

Henry IV Part 2

This play is not performed as often as the first part of Henry IV. Perhaps this is because it does not have much of a plot, though there is a lot of Falstaff. The Coronation of Henry V though at the end of the play has meant that it has often been revived at the time of a coronation. Elaborate productions with lots of costumes and processions were put on for both the coronations of George III in 1761, and his son George IV in 1821.The two parts of Henry IV are often played back to back, sometimes on a single day! This gave the great actor Laurence Olivier at the Old Vic theatre, in the 1940s, an opportunity to play two very different parts: Hotspur in part one, and old Justice Shallow in part two. In 1964, Orson Welles, the Hollywood director and actor made a film out of the two parts of Henry IV, called Chimes at Midnight, concentrating mainly on the character of Falstaff which Welles played.

The Merry Wives of Windsor

There is a tradition that this play was written by Shakespeare at the request of none other than Queen Elizabeth I. She was so pleased with the character of Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV that she commanded Shakespeare to write another play showing Falstaff in love. It is the only one of Shakespeare’s comedies to be set in England. The play bubbles with fun, and has appealed to composers to set it to music, most famously in the 19th century by the Italian Giuseppe Verdi whose opera Falstaff also includes parts of the Henry IV plays. The great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote an opera called Sir John in Love and included the famous Tudor ‘hit’ Greensleeves in it. Ronnie Barker (who would have been a magnificent Falstaff) never appeared in the play, but was in an updated musical version of the story called Good Time Johnny at the Birmingham Rep Theatre in 1971.

Notes by David Timson


The music on this recording is taken from the NAXOS and MARCO POLO catalogues

HOLBORNE Pavans & Galliards for Lutes Galliard No 17

Christopher Wilson

DALZA Early Venetian Lute Music Laudato dio

Christopher Wilson

DALZA Early Venetian Lute Music Tastar de corde, Recercar dietro

Christopher Wilson

HOLBORNE Pavans & Galliards Wanton

Christopher Wilson

SPINACINO Early Venetian Lute Music Recercar

Christopher Wilson

HOLBORNE Pavans & Galliards for Lutes Heres paternus

Christopher Wilson

ROBINSON Pavans & Galliards for Lutes A Toy for Two Lutes

Christopher Wilson

ROBINSON Pavans & Galliards for Lutes A Toy

Christopher Wilson

HOLBORNE Pavans & Galliards for Lutes The Fairy Round

Christopher Wilson

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