Have you ever in your “heart of hearts” wanted to “break the ice” with someone and waited “with bated breath” for the opportunity? Has anyone ever “set your teeth on edge” … maybe even your “own flesh and blood?” Have you ever been on a “wild goose chase,” where something you were looking for seemed to “melt into thin air?” If you answered yes to any of these questions, you were speaking the words of William Shakespeare. He coined all of these phrases, and hundreds more that we still use today.
Today is the birthday of William Shakespeare, who is quoted more than any other writer of the English language. Will, born in 1564, is 449. Despite the passage of time, Shakespeare’s life is still shrouded in mystery and intrigue. His life seems to have been filled with departures from the norm. His identity and authenticity have been questioned. But four and a half centuries later, the loyalty of his readers cannot be denied
“Actually the ‘authorship conspiracy’ is a relatively modern invention, and it thrives because people like conspiracy theories,” said Kristen McDermott, associate professor of English at Central Michigan University. “We sometimes think Shakespeare couldn’t have written such erudite works because he was not especially educated; but what little education he had was comparable to a bachelor’s or possibly a master’s degree today. Shakespeare had as many advantages as most people do nowadays.”
McDermott co-authored (with Ari Berk) William Shakespeare: His Life and Times, and she staunchly defends him. She explained that Shakespeare and the work attributed to him were so well known, if he had been acting as a front for someone else, it’s unlikely that it would have gone unmentioned.
At just 18, he married a woman eight years his senior. Anne Hathaway, it turns out, was already pregnant when she and young William exchanged vows.
“In the aristocracy, virginity was guarded very carefully,” said McDermott. “But amongst the lower classes, it’s been estimated that nearly half the brides were pregnant when they married.” Dr. McDermott added that it was uncommon for the bride to be that much older than the groom, and uncommon for a man to wed so young. He would have normally married in his 20’s or 30’s, after he was a bit established.
Shakespeare’s religion has also been the subject of speculation. “The conflict between Catholics and Protestants was very much alive in Shakespeare’s day,” McDermott said, “and that conflict is reflected in his plays. Some scholars believe he might have been a secret Catholic. Whether or not he was Catholic or Protestant, he seems to have treated religious conflicts sympathetically in his plays.”
Is Shakespeare still relevant today? “Obviously I think so, but I’m biased,” stated McDermott. “He was a major figure in the London Olympics. The hip hop community has embraced him in a big way. Shakespeare gives us a concept of the relationship between language and society. As people, we are ‘made of words,’ and anybody who takes us beyond the literal meaning of words brings communities together.”