It is embarrassing to read how little we know about the greatest literary genius that ever drew breath – William Shakespeare, or the Swan of Avon (as P.G. Wodehouse put it).
Shakespeare died in the century of Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Blaise Pascal and Isaac Newton; and yet, we do not know when he was born, we know little about his private affairs, his physical appearance or personal convictions – to name a few.
It is therefore worthwhile to consider those precious nuggets of information we do know about Shakespeare’s life and his legacy:
- Quotations: According to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Shakespeare wrote close to a tenth of the most quoted lines ever written or spoken in English.
- Translations: The complete works of Shakespeare have been translated into 80 different languages, the most obscure by far must be the constructed language of Klingon out of Star Trek. In fact, Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing have both been translated by the Klingon Language Institute as part of the Klingon Shakespeare Restoration Project.
- King James Bible: In the King James Bible, the 46th word of Psalm 46 is ‘shake’ and the 46th word from the end of the same Psalm is ‘spear’. It is believed that this was a hidden birthday message to the Bard, as the King James Bible was published in 1611 – the year of Shakespeare’s 46th birthday.
- Satellites of Uranus: The moons of Uranus were originally named in 1852 after magical spirits of English literature. However, the International Astronomy Union subsequently developed the convention to name all further moons of Uranus (of which there are 27) after characters in Shakespeare’s plays or Alexander Pope’s The Rape Of The Lock.
- Birthday: Nobody knows Shakespeare’s actual birthday. It is celebrated on April 23rd – three days before his baptism which was recorded on April 26th, 1564. Tediously, as Shakespeare was born under the old Julian calendar, April 23rd during Shakespeare’s life would actually be May 3rd according to today’s Gregorian calendar.
- Cardenio: We know that at least one play called Cardenio has been completely lost. It was credited to Shakespeare and performed in his lifetime, but – as far as we know – no copy of the text survives today.
- His Name: There are more than 80 recorded variations of the spelling of Shakespeare’s name. In the few original signatures that have survived, Shakespeare spelled his name “Willm Shaksp,” “William Shakespe,” “Wm Shakspe,” “William Shakspere,” ”Willm Shakspere,” and “William Shakspeare”. Funnily enough, there is no record of him ever having spelled his name “William Shakespeare”.
- Lexicon: Shakespeare has been credited by the Oxford English Dictionary with introducing almost 3,000 words to the English language. Estimations of his vocabulary range from 17,000 to 29,000 words – at least double the number of words used by the average contemporary English speaker.
- Starlings: In 1890, Eugene Schiffelin embarked on a project to import each species of bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s works that was not indigenous to the United States. It is therefore safe to say that Schiffelin is responsible for introducing the Starling to the USA.
- Verbosity: According to professor Louis Marder, “Shakespeare was so facile in employing words that he was able to use over 7,000 of them – more than occur in the whole King James Version of the Bible – only once and never again.”