By George Dobbs

Portrait of Shakespeare from 1610

Shortly before his death in 1616, William Shakespeare stated his profession as a “gentleman, recently of the court of King James.” It seems he'd passed the torch of playwright for the King's Men and left the intrigues and plagues of London behind. He spent the his last days on his modest estate in Stratford as a successful former theatre man, but not one who was widely famous. It was only after the publication of his plays in 1623 that his reputation grew and myths and anecdotes about his life began to spread. These are a few of the early rumors about the bard:

Engraving of Shakespeare from 1623

1. Shakespeare the Poacher

One of the most famous rumors about Shakespeare comes from an old man in 1703 who said he remembered a ballad that the playwright had composed about a local knight. Apparently Shakespeare was prosecuted for poaching deer from the knight's land and wanted to take revenge the only way he knew how. It's not hard to see why lines such as “He thinkes himselfe greate / Yet an asse in his state” didn't achieve quite the same immortality as the bard’s sonnets, but the image of Shakespeare as a rebellious young poacher was still widely accepted into the 20th century.

Portrait of Shakespeare from around 1660

2. Shakespeare the Butcher

Local records show that Shakespeare's father had a lot of jobs — and not all of them were legal. He was prosecuted for selling wood on the black market (not a very exciting black market in those days) and for extorting money. In the 17th century work Brief Lives, author John Aubrey asserts that “[Shakespeare’s] father was a Butcher, and I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours, that when he was a boy he exercised his father's Trade, but when he kill'd a Calfe he would doe it in a high style, and make a Speech.” It might sound more like an anecdote about a psychopath than the most famous figure in English literature, but Aubrey’s story is emblematic of the respect for Shakespeare that was taking hold: His readership could only imagine him doing a day job if it involved high theatre.

Engraving of Shakespeare from around 1790

3. Shakespeare the Unlearned

Shakespeare and fellow playwright Ben Jonson had a long-running friendship and rivalry too. Aubrey writes that Shakespeare “was wont to say he never blotted out a line in his life. Sayd Ben Johnson: I wish he had blotted out a thousand.” Jonson is also responsible for the assertion that Shakespeare knew “little Latin and less Greek,” but a contemporary anecdote from the diary of John Manningham suggests that this was a running joke. Manningham sets the scene by explaining that Shakespeare was made godparent to Jonson's son and was worrying about what to buy for the christening; eventually he says, “Ben, I'll give him a dozen good Lattin spoons” (lattin being a type of metal) “and thou shall translate them.”


Portrait of Shakespeare from 1864

4. Shakespeare the Rake

Another extract written around 1603 shows Shakespeare in a different light. It describes how a young courtesan took a fancy to Richard Burbage, the lead actor in Shakespeare's Richard III. She asked him to come to her lodgings later and announce himself as the king, but apparently Shakespeare caught the lady's eye in the meantime. The playwright went home with her and was “at his game ere Burbage came.” When a servant conveyed the message that Richard III was at the door, Shakespeare told him to reply “William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third.”

Painting of Shakespeare from 1939

5. Shakespeare the Reveller

One popular story of Shakespeare's death is that he passed away on his 52nd birthday from reckless partying. A vicar writing 50 years after the event said that Shakespeare had a “merry meeting” with Jonson and Michael Drayton where he “drank too hard” and died afterwards of a fever. At a time when writer Robert Greene died of a “surfeit of ale and pickled herring” and Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death over a bar tab, it's easy to believe that celebrations could get out of hand. Shakespeare’s actual cause of death remains unknown, but given that there wasn’t time for him to sign a final draft of his will, we can surmise that it was a short illness.

While it's difficult to trust the veracity of these anecdotes, they at least reveal attitudes towards Shakespeare. Some seek to humanise, but even then their humor lies in the tension between the man and the iconic status he achieved. Aubrey states that Shakespeare's fame would remain “as long as the Englishe tongue.” So soon after his death, the myth was already about what Shakespeare had become as much as what he had been.

George Dobbs is an MA graduate in creative writing who lives and works in the grim North of England. When he’s not at work on various writing projects, he enjoys cooking, long-distance running and avoiding the weather with his cat.

(Image credits, from top: Wikimedia Commons; Wikimedia Commons; Wikimedia Commons; Wikimedia Commons; Wikimedia Commons; Wikimedia Commons)

KEEP READING: More on History