The A-Z

William Shakespeare

Cast off that inky cloak, brush up on your Shakespeare knowledge and impress your friends with our A–Z of Shakespeare, kindly contributed by Elizabeth Foley and Beth Coates, authors of Shakespeare for Grown-Ups


A is for Acting

Not everyone knows that on top of writing masterpieces of drama, Shakespeare also found time to hone his skills as an actor too. He's named as a principal in a 1598 performance of Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour, around the time he was probably writing Henry IV, Part 2 and Much Ado About Nothing.

B is for Bastards

Illegitimacy and birthright were deeply emotive issues in Shakespeare's time, but, as always, the Bard's portrayal of them in his plays is complex and fluid. Is King Lear's Edmund inherently evil because he is a bastard, or is he a bastard (in the modern sense of the word) because everyone treats him as one?

C is for Censorship

The state soon got wise to the huge popularity of secular plays in Shakespeare's day, and from 1599 right up until 1968 a licence had to be obtained before a play was performed. Shakespeare, often working under royal patronage, was savvy about what would and wouldn't wash, and in fact seems to have been censored more since his death than he was whilst alive. In the 19th century he was famously bowdlerised by the eponymous Thomas Bowdler and had all his saucy bits removed.

D is for Dark Lady

The identity of the Dark Lady who stalks the second section of Shakespeare's sonnets has long been the subject of intense speculation. Could those poems, characterised by tortured self-loathing and longing, really be addressed to his wife? Or was the Dark Lady a famous prostitute or even one of Queen Elizabeth's maids?

E is for Earl of Essex

The rebellious Earl of Essex apparently commissioned a performance of Richard II in 1601 in the hope that its subject matter (a failing monarch), would rouse Londoners to support his coup against Queen Elizabeth's advisors. Not long afterwards, Essex gained the dubious honour of being the last person to be beheaded at the Tower of London.

F is for First Folio

None of Shakespeare's original manuscripts survive today, but seven years after his death, two of his friends and fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, published 36 of his plays together 'without ambition either of self-profit, or fame: only to keep the memory of so worthy a Friend & Fellow alive, as was our Shakespeare.' This 1623 publication is known as the First Folio.

G is for Globe Theatre

The theatre that made Shakespeare's name and could hold audiences of around 3000 people. Theatre-goers would quaff beer and scoff hazelnuts; it was a rowdy atmosphere, compared to the civilities of today. It burnt to the ground in 1613, when, during a performance of Henry VIII, a cannon used for special effects accidentally set light to the thatched roof. Amazingly no-one was injured aside from one man whose breeches caught fire, but who managed to extinguish the flames with a handy bottle of ale.

H is for Hendiadys

We like this literary term, and Hamlet contains more than 60 of the blighters. Hendiadys is the expression of a single idea by two words joined with 'and' when, instead, one could be used to modify the other. i.e. 'grace and favour' instead of 'gracious favour'.

I is for Insults

Ever called anyone a deboshed fish, an unnecessary letter, a base football player, a cockscomb or a canker-blossom? Next time you're lost for words, turn to the Bard to spice up your recriminations. Our favourite? Falstaff to Mistress Quickly in Henry IV, Part 1: 'You scullion! You rampallian! You fustilarian! I'll tickle your catastrophe!'

J is for James I

Although countless silver-screen fantasies connect Shakespeare most vividly with Elizabeth I, in fact Shakespeare spent more of his working life under patronage to James I & VI. James was a committed patron of the arts, and himself published books on witchcraft, the divine right of kings, and Scottish poetry.

K is for Kemp

Will Kemp was one of the shareholders of the Lord Chamberlain's Men along with Shakespeare, and a great jigger. In Shakespeare's day, it was usual for plays to be finished off with a jig, a ribald song-and-dance, but they gradually fell out of fashion after about 1600, as theatre became more intellectual. Kemp was replaced by a more sophisticated comic talent, but he did not hang up his dancing shoes in the aftermath of his departure, undertaking the 'Nine Days Wonder', rather brilliantly Morris dancing from London to Norwich. What a man!

L is for London

Its streets may have run with stinking rivers of effluvia and excrement, its pubs the location for murderous brawls, but if you were an aspiring playwright in the late 16th century, then London was the best place on Earth to be. Shakespeare was surrounded by an extraordinary array of contemporary literary lions, perfecting and honing their ferocious skills just as he was starting out. Christopher Marlowe, in particular, Shakespeare's exact contemporary, is known to have been a huge influence, with his tormented protagonists and audacious use of blank verse. Who knows, if he hadn't been killed in a drink-soaked fight in Deptford, maybe Shakespeare would have spent his life in Marlowe's literary shadow.

M is for Marriage

Shakespeare's marriage has been the subject of endless debate: did his wife Anne Hathaway accompany her famous husband to London? Was their's a union of mutual adoration, or one dogged by ill-temper and drudgery? Here's what we do know: they wed when Shakespeare was 18 and Anne 26. They had three children, and in his last will and testament Shakespeare left Anne his 'second best bed'. 

N is for Neologisms

By some calculations Shakespeare came up with around 2000 new words for us to enjoy (although many of these may simply have not been recorded in print before). Some of the most impressive are 'addiction', 'gloomy', 'radiance', 'eyeball', 'barefaced', 'flowery' and 'swagger'.

O is for the Earl of Oxford

Oxford is just one of the several contenders that Shakespeare conspiracy theorists (also known as Anti-Stratfordians) have put forward over the years as the real author of the works we ascribe to William Shakespeare. Sadly for them, there's never been any real evidence to support an alternative author, as is illustrated by the fact that Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon and even Elizabeth I have all been suggested by different people as the true geniuses behind the poems and plays.

P is for Plutarch

Along with Raphael Holinshed, Plutarch is Shakespeare's favourite source author. Plutarch (c.50–c.120 CE) was a Greek philosopher who wrote biographical portraits of great Greeks and Romans, including Julius Caesar, Brutus, Antony (which includes a reference to Timon of Athens), and Coriolanus. The famous 'barge she sat in…' speech from Antony and Cleopatra is pretty much a direct rip-off of Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch.

Q is for Queen Elizabeth I

There is no evidence that Shakespeare and Elizabeth met personally but it is not beyond the realms of possibility, as Shakespeare's plays were performed at her court many times. Understandably, in fictionalised accounts of Shakespeare's life, particularly on film or television, the temptation to eavesdrop on what these two magnificent figures from English history might have said to one another is irresistible, so it has a become a common misconception that they were acquaintances or more.

R is for Rhythm

Shakespeare's greatest talent was for blank verse: the official term for unrhymed iambic pentameter. Blank verse sounds natural as it closely resembles the rhythms of ordinary speech, but it is also easy to memorise because of its repeated patterns of stress. It is often referred to as replicating the rhythm of a heartbeat. Repeat 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day' over and over to yourself and you'll get the idea.

S is for Stage Directions

Shakespeare's most famous stage direction, 'Exit, pursued by a bear', comes from A Winter's Tale where Antigonus is about to meet a grisly end at the claws of said bear. It's possible a trained bear played the role of the ursine assassin but nobody knows for sure how this direction was carried out. Our personal favourite is 'Enter a Messenger, with two heads and a hand' from Titus Andronicus.

T is for Titles

The titles we use for the plays are often quite different from those on the original publications. Richard III was first published as The tragedy of King Richard the Third. Containing, his treacherous plots against his brother Clarence: the pittiefull murther of his innocent nephewes: his tyrannicall usurpation: with the whole course of his detested life, and most deserved death, which doesn't leave much room for suspense.

U is for Ulysses

The Greek general Ulysses gives the most famous speech in Troilus and Cressida, 'The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre/ Observe degree, priority, and place…' which is seen by some as Shakespeare's endorsement of the strict hierarchy that ruled Elizabethan society. However, Ulysses is a famously wily Machiavellian character so it's possible we're not supposed to take his word as gospel. This is a good example of the openness to interpretation that has made Shakespeare speak to so many people across generations.

V is for Violence

There's plenty of creative violence in Shakespeare's plays; Titus Andronicus and Hamlet in particular have Red-Wedding-rivalling scenes of horror and mass slaughter: 'So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak,/ Who 'twas that cut thy tongue and ravish'd thee'.

W is for Wriotheseley

The Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriotheseley, was Shakespeare's patron and the dedicatee of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece as well as being a candidate for the true identity of the 'fair youth' of the Sonnets. N.B. Wriothesley was pronounced 'Rizeley'. Hilary Mantel refers to this in her nicknaming of the Earl's grandfather as 'Call-me-Risley' in her Booker-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies.

X is for Xenophobia

Despite the cosmopolitan nature of London at the time, Elizabethan society was generally suspicious of foreigners, and plays like The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest investigate this kind of prejudice.

Y is for Yellow Stockings

A famous fashion faux pas made by Malvolio in Twelfth Night in the hope his colour-popping sartorial boldness will attract Olivia's affection. It doesn't.

Z is for Zounds

This is an Elizabethan swearword, meaning 'God's wounds', found particularly frequently in Henry IV, Part 1, as in this comment from Poins to the portly Falstaff: 'Zounds, ye fat paunch, an ye call me coward by the Lord I'll stab thee'.

Shakespeare for Grown-ups

Elizabeth Foley (and others)

Need to swot up on your Shakespeare? If you’ve always felt a bit embarrassed at your precarious grasp on the plot of Othello, or you haven’t a clue what a petard - as in ‘hoist with his own petard’ - actually is, then fear not, because this, at last, is the perfect guide to bring you up to speed.

From the authors of the number-one bestselling Homework for Grown-ups, Shakespeare for Grown-ups is the essential book for anyone keen to deepen their knowledge of the Bard’s key plays and sonnets. For parents keen to help with their children’s homework, casual theatre-goers who want to enhance their enjoyment and understanding of the most-performed plays and the general reader who feels they should probably know more about Britain’s most splendid scribe, Shakespeare for Grown-ups covers the historical context of his writing; his personal life, contemporaries and influences; his language and poetic skill; the key themes of his oeuvre; his less familiar works and characters; modern-day adaptations and productions; theories about the authorship of his plays; his most famous speeches and quotations; phrases and words that have entered general usage, and much more.

With lively in-depth chapters on all the key works including Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, Antony and Cleopatra, Richard II, Henry V, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth, Shakespeare for Grown-ups is the only guide to the Scribe you’ll ever need.

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