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Monday 19 October 2020


Today it's my turn on the Historical Writers' Forum blog hop, in which we talk about our favourite historical characters and the reason for our choice.  For those of you who know me at all well, it will come as no surprise that my chosen subject is William Shakespeare - the Bard of Avon.

William Shakespeare, the eldest surviving son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden, was born in Henley Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, in April 1564.  Information about his early life is sketchy at best (even the exact date of his birth is not known for certain), but he probably attended the local grammar school, and in November 1582 he married Anne Hathaway, who was eight years his senior and three months pregnant.  Their daughter Susanna was born in May 1583, followed in 1595 by twins Hamnet and Judith.  Hamnet died of plague just eleven years later.

From this point onwards, nothing is known about Shakespeare until 1592, when he appeared in London and joined a company of actors called The Lord Chamberlain's Men.  He became the company's principal playwright, producing on average two plays per year for nearly twenty years.  His total works include 38 plays, 154 sonnets and and 2 lengthy narrative poems.  He died aged 52 on 23 April 1616, and is buried in Holy Trinity Church in his native Stratford-upon-Avon.

My first encounter with Shakespeare was at secondary school.  Then, as now, studying his works was a non-negotiable part of the English Literature curriculum.  Like most stroppy teenagers I found it very hard to understand the plays, and even harder to understand why anyone in their right mind would ever want to read them.  Faced with a few hundred pages of solid text written more than three centuries earlier, and in a near-incomprehensible style into the bargain, the class's collective response was “What on earth is the point of all this?”  (That, at any rate, was the gist of our collective response…)

What we stroppy teenagers had totally failed to appreciate, at least at first, is that the plays were never meant to be read in the same way that one would read novels.  They were written for performance.  It’s only when the text is translated into speech and action (on stage, screen or radio) that it really comes alive – and nowhere is this more apparent than in works which consist entirely of dialogue.

In an attempt to keep us interested, our wonderful English teacher allocated the main parts in the play to members of the class, and the key scenes were acted out at the front of the classroom.   Our efforts were hardly RSC standard, but they did serve as an early lesson in the basic principle of “show-don’t-tell”. And after this, Shakespeare did begin to make some kind of sense.

Whatever their original contexts or settings might be, the themes of many of his plays (love, power, war, rivalry, jealousy and betrayal) are still relevant today, and some of his works have formed the basis for modern theatre, musical and film productions.  West Side Story is an updated version of Romeo & Juliet, Kiss Me Kate and Ten Things I Hate About You are both based on The Taming of the Shrew, and The Lion King owes much of its basic plot to Hamlet.

Shakespeare has also contributed a huge amount to the everyday English language. A surprisingly large number of words and phrases in common use today were first penned by the Bard himself.  If you're on a wild goose chase and find yourself neither here nor there, feeling faint-hearted (having not slept one wink), waiting with bated breath for the naked truth, and all of a sudden find yourself saying "Good riddance" as those who have eaten you out of house and home whilst playing "Knock, knock, who's there?" vanish into thin air - you are quoting Shakespeare. The world is [your] oyster, but for goodness sake, don't wear your heart on your sleeve and end up looking a sorry sight in a fool's paradise.  Truth will out, and it's a foregone conclusion that you can still have too much of a good thing.  Click here to see the lovely Rob Brydon telling us more about this.

The Bard of Avon has certainly inspired much of my own writing.  One of my first successes as a poet was winning a limerick competition, in which I summed up the plot of Macbeth in five lines:

On the strength of a witches' conjection 
a regicide's planned to perfection, 
but revenge is prepared 
by a tree-moving laird 
who'd been born by Caesarean section.

One of my long-term projects is to produce a limerick for each of the plays.  That's still very much a work in progress, but in the meantime, two of Shakespeare's other plays - Romeo & Juliet and Julius Caesar - have formed the basis of two of my novels.

The Ghostly Father takes a new look at Romeo & Juliet, and asks the question "What might have happened if the events of the story had taken a different turn?"  If, like me, you love the original story but wish it didn't end so tragically, here is your chance to read an alternative version - one with a few new twists and a whole new outcome.

The Unkindest Cut of All is a murder mystery set in a theatre, during an amateur dramatic society's performance of Julius Caesar, the play I studied for O-Level (the equivalent of modern-day GCSE). What really happened to the actor playing the title role, during the final performance on the infamous Ides of March?

So if you were put off Shakespeare by less-than-perfect experiences during your formative years, do consider giving him another try.  You might be pleasantly surprised!

To find out more about the other fascinating historical characters featured in this amazing blog tour, check out the sites listed below:


  1. In secondary school our English curriculum included at least one Shakespeare play each year. I think it went like this...1st Year: Julius Caesar & A Midsummer Night's Dream 2nd: Merchant of Venice & Romeo & Juliet 3rd: Macbeth & Anthony & Cleo 4th: Hamlet 5th: Othello
    Then I covered a lot more of the lesser known ones during my 1st year Univ course.
    However, I didn't do Twelfth Night till I did my OU degree Shakespeare course in 1990 and it's now my favourite Shakespeare play.

  2. Great post, Sue - thoroughly enjoyed - especially all the everyday phrases that come from Shakespeare. Shared with pleasure.