Myths About Shakespeare

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Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 23

Even if you’re not a Shakespeare scholar, there are things you have learned about Shakespeare and his plays throughout your life – that it’s bad luck to say the name of “the Scottish play” or that Shakespeare hated his wife.  Are any of these stories true?  And whether they are or not, what do they tell us about previous eras, and our own?
Rebecca Sheir talks Shakespeare myths with Emma Smith, professor of English at the University of Oxford—and co-author, with Laurie Maguire, of 30 Great Myths About Shakespeare.
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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. Originally published April 22, 2015, updated and rebroadcast October 18, 2017. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. Produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. Edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Nick Moorbath at Evolution Recording Studios in Oxford and Jonathan Charry at public radio station WAMU.

"It is not so. Thou hast misspoke, misheard.
Be well advised; tell o'er thy tale again.
It cannot be; thou dost but say 'tis so."
King John (3.1.5–7)



MICHAEL WITMORE: There is one sure way to start a fight in Shakespeare-land. If you’d like to see two Shakespeareans up in each other’s grills, there’s one thing to do. Just start a sentence by saying: “Okay. This is something that we can absolutely say for sure about Shakespeare.” Let’s get ready to rumble.

From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited.  I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.  Considering how central William Shakespeare has been to the life and literature of the world, and considering that he spent most of his career telling stories, it is really no surprise that there are a vast number of myths about Shakespeare and his work. And four hundred years after his death, those myths just continue to proliferate. And no matter how firm someone’s belief in some “fact” or another about Shakespeare, it seems that every few years a new piece of evidence pops up to prove or disprove it.

In this podcast—as we originally did when it first aired in 2015—we’re going to try and sort through some of these myths and stories, to see which are probably true, which one absolutely are not, and which ones have—as Shakespeare might say—“just a scruple of a scruple” of truth.

Our guide is co-author of a book titled 30 Great Myths About Shakespeare:  Emma Smith, a professor of English at Oxford University. We’re not going to tackle all 30 of those myths here. We’ll just be hitting the highlights. We call this podcast: “Thou Dost But Say 'Tis So.” Emma Smith is interviewed by Rebecca Sheir.

REBECCA SHEIR: My first question for you, why is it that we have so many myths about William Shakespeare?

EMMA SMITH: Well, that is a great question and I think it’s partly to do with the fact that everybody cares about Shakespeare in some way. Even if they think they don’t like the plays or the language is too difficult. They care in some way about Shakespeare the man; that’s why a biography is so contentious. It matters to us. It matters to us in Britain if it turned out that Shakespeare was more aristocratic than we thought, or maybe he was homosexual, or did or didn’t like his wife. These things matter and they still make news for us. There is also the aspect that lots of people have learned or picked up bits and pieces about Shakespeare and about the theatre. They carry them with them from school. They’re often a little bit outdated maybe or they, you know, they’ve got a kind of regress in them. We thought it was time to put some new research into that and dust off these mitts and have a look at them.

SHEIR: And I know you came to this book because you had read another book called 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology. I am curious, what were some of these great myths and what was it about that book that led you to write this one?

SMITH: That’s a great book, 50 Great Myths about Psychology. It’s things like, if you play Mozart to babies, they get more intelligent. It was really interesting for me and for my co-writer, Laurie Maguire. To look at a discipline that we weren’t expert in and think about our own assumptions and the things we thought we knew about that discipline. And to see them subjected to really rigorous research analysis. That popular psychology book is a really great readable book but it’s got a lot of research, a lot of citations, a lot of evidence behind it. So, it’s really subjecting myths to proper academic scrutiny, and that seemed a really winning kind of model to us.

SHEIR: But wait, playing Mozart to babies, does it actually boost their intelligence? Is that what you’re saying?

SMITH: It doesn’t, I think.


SMITH: I know.

SHEIR: I’ve been I’ve been living a lie.

SMITH: You heard it here, I know. [LAUGH]

SHEIR: Now Emma, in your book, you point out that actually a volume like yours—somewhat like yours—already exist. It’s called Is It True What They Say about Shakespeare? It’s by Stanley Wells. How is your book different from that one?

SMITH: Well, Stanley Wells, who is probably the most preeminent British Shakespearean of the 20th century, is the person who could write a definitive book about, facts about Shakespeare, “are these right or wrong?” So, Stanley does a brilliant job going through details about Shakespeare’s life. Whether a sonnet’s dedicated to Wriothesley, or the Earl of Southampton—you know those kinds of questions. He weighs out the evidence in about a page, and then at the bottom of the page he says, “yes, no, maybe.” So, it’s a really fact-driven, let’s cut through all the myth, let’s get to what are the facts about this, and Stanley is perfectly, really perfectly placed to do that. And I guess what’s different about our book is, for Stanley’s book, the mistakes in what we think, there are things to clear away. Let’s get to the truth. We are quite interested in those turnings and the things that are wrong and why we would want to believe them or why they would come to take such a hold or why we would want to believe that playing Mozart to babies or the Shakespearean equivalent makes them more intelligent. So, we’ve got a little bit more time for the wrongheaded things that people think, and we’re a little bit less concerned with the conclusions. A little bit more concerned to think how would you bring together the evidence, which would enable you to think about that myth for yourself.

SHEIR: Well, I want to talk about the myths you cover in your book, but first I just want to cover some of Stanley Wells’ myths. For example: was Shakespeare gay? Was he?

SMITH: So, our book would take that in two ways. We don’t actually answer that question. We would say, what would the evidence be about Shakespeare being gay or not? That would probably be evidence from his plays and poems, since that’s the only kind of evidence we have. We don’t have any private letters; we don’t have any diaries; we don’t have any kiss and tell stories by anybody else, or the other ways that we might understand something about a person’s private life or about their sexuality. So, we would then interrogate how safe is it to deduce from a writer’s work something about themselves. Particularly, perhaps, a playwright’s work because one thing playwrights are really good at is getting under the skin of quite different characters with quite different motivation or ways of living. So, it’s a bit more difficult than from a lyric poem maybe or novel to deduce back what does this person actually themselves believe or like to do. So, I think we would be interested in that kind of question and then broadly, more broadly from that how far is biography useful if Shakespeare were gay. Would that change how we read the plays or the poems, and why would it be that at this point in our development, in our kind of social organization, the idea of Shakespeare being gay would probably be a positive thing about him. Whereas, when George Stevens at the end of the 18th century was worried about the sexuality expressed in the sonnets, he said, “Let’s… these are just disgusting. Let’s not publish them.” So, the suggestion was the same, the suggestion of homosexuality at the end of the 18th century—this was a thing to preserve Shakespeare’s reputation from. At the beginning of the 21st century, it might be a thing which would enhance Shakespeare’s reputation. So, it would tell us something about our own day, as well as something about Shakespeare’s.

SHEIR: Okay, so now let’s take a look at some of the myths in your book.

NARRATOR: Myth #1: Shakespeare was the most popular writer of his time.

SHEIR: Is that really a myth?

SMITH: Well, how we define a myth is something which gets promulgated or repeated and is gone a bit adrift from the kind of evidential basis that might prove it true or false. So, it’s something which exists almost as an independent fact without the back-up. So, it is a myth in those terms, and what we did in that particular chapter, we tried to think, “What would popularity mean?” If you’re a playwright, you’ve got two quite distinct forms that we might be able to trace. One is popularity and performance on the stage, and one is popularity in print. Now, of course, print is easier for us to trace now because printed books largely have survived, and we can look at how Shakespeare exists in the print market. Shakespeare has one real bestseller in print and that is the rather saucy, erotic poem, Venus and Adonis. And then he has a couple of plays, history plays, Henry IV, Part I—well, the play we call Part I, Henry IV—and Richard III, which have about six editions during the early 17th century. So, they look like some very steady sellers or even bestsellers for the publishing trade, so that suggests a kind of popularity. We’re on slightly more difficult ground if we look at the number of performances on stage, partly because the evidence is not very easy to find, and partly because most plays in this period have a surprisingly restricted number of performances. We’re used to great long runs in the theatre. So, if I, in February, say, “Go to this show. It’s fantastic,” you might pick it up in June, and it would be the same show. If I was saying that in Shakespeare’s London, you would probably need to go tomorrow or next Tuesday, or you would have missed it, and that would be the same, whether it were Hamlet or whether it were, you know, some play that we’ve now completely lost sight of. So, the theatre industry wants new plays. It keeps moving forward all the time.

SHEIR: So, Emma, can you compare the runs of some of Shakespeare’s plays to other plays of the time? Do we have information about that?

SMITH: We’ve got some limited information and what that information shows us is that the great blockbuster hits of the theatre were not Shakespeare’s. So, for example we got a very popular, topical, provocative play called A Game at Chess, written by Thomas Middleton, who also collaborated with Shakespeare. It’s about Spanish politics. It’s quite incomprehensible to us now. It’s set on a chess board with chess pieces, but this ran for nine consecutive days, which was just a complete sensation. It had to be closed, in fact, by order of the Privy Council because the Spanish Ambassador complained. So, that was a smash hit, which they keep putting on day after day because people want to come and see it. That’s… Shakespeare doesn’t have anything like that. Or we can think of a play like The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, a revenge play, which has an influence on Hamlet. But, also has a big influence on Shakespeare and on the drama of the time. I think of Spanish Tragedy as being really the sort of Star Wars of the Elizabethan period; even if you haven’t seen it you kind of know what it is, and you can do a couple of lines from it or do an impression from it. And the important thing about that analogy is that it keeps being revived, it keeps coming back, and again I don’t think we do have any experience of the… any of Shakespeare’s plays works quite like that.

We also have examples of plays, which are enormously popular in the theatre. This speaks to the point about popularity on stage versus print. Marlowe’s play The Jew of Malta looks to be a really popular stage play. It isn’t printed 40 years after its performances. So, that seems a case, perhaps where the theatre company don’t want to print the play. They want to keep the rights to it as a performed play. So, popularity on the stage equals non-existence in print. That’s an interesting example for how we think about the way we could weigh up those two spheres of publication, stage and print.

So, that’s one set of evidence. We looked also at how people talk about Shakespeare, whether they identify him as somebody head and shoulders above everybody else who was writing. You know, did people living in the 1590’s, in the first decade of the 17th century, did they know they were living in the age of Shakespeare? I think the answer to that was no, they didn’t. They knew they were living at the time when theatre was an enormously dynamic cultural space, but there were lots of writers who people identified as great and probably thought would, you know, would survive.

So, the whole question of Shakespeare’s popularity, you know, starts to look more interesting, I think, more difficult to answer, but more interesting, and then I guess the final thing is why would we want Shakespeare to be popular? Why would it have been important to say he was popular in his own day? We all know about school teachers who make reluctant kids in classrooms study texts by saying, you know this is what, this was the soap opera of the day or this is what, you know, ordinary people went to. So it has a cultural force in our own sense of how we want to locate Shakespeare now, even though, if we looked at our own bestseller lists, we wouldn’t probably expect the things that are at the top of the bestseller list to be the things that we will still be concerned about in centuries to come. So, I think in our own cultural practice, we can recognize that to be popular and to be of literary value are not necessarily always the same thing.

SHEIR: I think a lot people would be surprised to know—something you point out in your book, speaking of that best seller Venus and Adonis, the poem—Shakespeare was actually better known as a poet in his lifetime than as a playwright.

SMITH: Yeah, I think Shakespeare… Venus and Adonis is the first of Shakespeare’s text to be published with his name attached to it. A long time before that becomes… several years before that becomes the norm for his plays that go into print, and Venus and Adonis keeps being reprinted all through, up until the 1640’s. It really influences all kinds of other, whole genres of other, of poems by other writers. So, I think if you’d ask people something about Shakespeare, if you asked, like Al Pacino does in Looking for Richard, you know, has a great vox pop on the street asking people what they know about Shakespeare, and they say things like “to be or not to be” or whatever, that’s in kind of New York in the beginning of the 21st century. If you had done that in London at the end of the 16th century, people would have probably said, “Oh, the guy who wrote Venus and Adonis?”

SHEIR: And it wasn’t in the First Folio, right, that poem?

SMITH: It’s not in the First Folio; none of the poems are in the First Folio. And we don’t know whether that’s because the people who were important agents in getting the First Folio printed were actors and they weren’t interested in the aspect of their comrade, who wrote lyric poetry, or whether the rights for those poems were too expensive to get because they were still very valuable to the publishers who had them.

SHEIR: Something else you write in your book is that when we’re talking about Shakespeare’s First Folio, it was actually way too expensive to be considered broadly popular. Is that right?

SMITH: Yeah, absolutely, if you think about the etymology, the word we get popular from; it comes from populace, of the people. Really, interesting to think whether any printed book in the late 16th, early17th century could be said to be popular in that sense. Even the prices show us that. Even the individual plays by Shakespeare that are published before the Folio, they’re published in what’s called quarto form, little pamphlets, they’re sixpence each compared with a penny to go to the theatre. And they’re also published in probably pretty small print runs, maybe of up to a thousand, something like that, whereas we know that two or three thousand spectators could get into the outdoor theatres at any one performance. So, this is a time when most people experience plays through the theatre, not through print. But when we get to the Folio, yeah, this is a book which has really gone up-market. It’s something you put in your library and you go to, it’s a real statement of sort of cultural capital and a big statement about what Shakespeare is going to be for the future.

NARRATOR: Myth #10: Shakespeare hated his wife.

SHEIR: You started answering this question by looking at Shakespeare’s will. why do you begin there?

SMITH: Shakespeare’s will is a great document. It’s one of only really a handful of documents, personal documents we’ve got about Shakespeare. We know it’s being produced in the early months of 1616, so in the last weeks really of Shakespeare’s life, and the copy we’ve got in the National Archives at Kew, here in London, is probably a second draft. That’s important because one of the clauses which has been inserted very belatedly, it’s inserted, you know, interlined, is the only mention of his wife, Anne Hathaway. And he leaves to Anne Hathaway “my second-best bed and its furniture.” That’s been, in some ways at the heart of this myth. What kind of man gives his wife the second-best bed? Is there a context, in which, having seemed to forget her entirely and then to have put in this line which just gives her the second-best bed, is there any context, in which that could be a good thing, or is this a sign that Shakespeare despised her or that the marriage was broken down or something like that?

So, we go in the book, we go from that to think how different people have interpreted it. Broadly, if you want to, if you’re a sort of romantic, and you want to think that Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway had a strong marriage, you argue that the second best bed is the marital bed. I must say that people who argue that have difficulty in finding other examples of uxorious husbands who have left the second-best bed because of those associations to their wives. But, that’s one way of seeing it and the other view which is to say, you know, this is what it sounds like. This is a slap in the face kind of a gift, and this is a sign of a broken marriage.

SHEIR: So, if you are one of those romantics, one of those sentimentalists, and you say the second-best bed is the marital bed, then what is the best bed?

SMITH: The best bed is for guests in that analysis, yeah.

SHEIR: Now, you bring up plot points in several of the comedies that suggest Shakespeare thought marriage was a thing that killed male friendships. Can you talk about that?

SMITH: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a really interesting thing about 16th, 17th century culture that I think for educated young men or educated men, male friendships were a really major source of emotional and intellectual sustenance and companionship. So, male friendships were really very, very highly valorized by writers like Montaigne and by aspects of the culture more generally and often men would talk about their relationships with other men, in terms that we would now think of as more appropriate to a romantic relationship. That makes that question that you asked before, was Shakespeare gay, more difficult to get at because some of the protestations of love between men may read differently in a context, in which, it is quite common to say you love your same-sex male friend, which doesn’t necessarily mean what that would probably mean for us now. So, one of the main structural points about Shakespeare’s comedies is that male friendships have to be sacrificed in order for young men to find young women and pair off with them in the comic happy ending, and we see that over and over again. There’s a really great example of it in Much Ado About Nothing. It’s got these wonderful, witty, “can’t live together, can’t live apart” kind of lovers, Beatrice and Benedict, and the whole of the plot, really, is about their friends trying to say to them, “Come on, admit it, you’re really madly in love with each other, and you ought to just get together,” and they’re continuing to pretend that they can’t stand each other. When at the point where Benedict actually admits to Beatrice that he is in love with her, he says all gooily, wonderfully, romantically, “I’ll do anything in the world for you. What would you like me to do?” And she says, it’s absolutely devastating, “Kill Claudio.” Claudio is Benedict’s best friend. The plot has made it clear that he and Beatrice are completely opposed at this point, but it couldn’t be a clearer kind of microcosm that to say that you love me means kill your best friend. So, we see that in the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio in Merchant in Venice and how that is triangulated with Portia. We see it in the two plays, which have two men in the title, The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the beginning of Shakespeare’s career, and then The Two Noble Kinsmen at the end. It’s a really common, really interesting perennial structural point.

NARRATOR: Myth #23: Macbeth is jinxed in the theatre.

SHEIR: You include this wonderful story at the top of that chapter that tells us how this myth began. Can you tell us that story?

SMITH: Well, absolutely this is one of the only myths we found that I think was deliberately started as a piece of misinformation. Max Beerbohm, a great wit, writer, theatre reviewer at the end of the 19th century, gives an account of Macbeth, of a performance of Macbeth, where he goes back to Samuel Pepys’ Diary from the 17th century and Aubrey’s Brief Lives, another Restoration text, and he brings forward this information about the actor who was supposed to have played Lady Macbeth in a Shakespearean-era performance, who fell sick, and Shakespeare himself had to take on the part of Lady Macbeth. Now, this has been, the idea that Macbeth is a play fraught with difficulties about casting and illness and injury, right from the beginning, really comes from this Beerbohm story, and Beerbohm absolutely just made it up. [LAUGH] And he made it up to be sort of perverse and funny, and people took it seriously, and it was only Stanley Wells, who we’ve already talked about, who actually looked back and thought, “I’m just going to look this up in Pepys’ great big voluminous diary,” and of course there’s no such story in Pepys and look it up in John Aubrey and there’s no such story there either. This is Beerbohm having some fun, but somehow this has stuck, this story that if you have a performance of Macbeth, you’re always going to have problems. There’s a great example from the Royal Shakespeare Company where very recently the actor Jonathan Slinger gave a lot of newspaper interviews when he took on the part saying, “Ho, ho, I don’t believe in this myth at all,” and they took great delight about two months later in reporting that he had come off his motor bike and broken his leg. [LAUGH] So in our book we talk about this as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. But, because we are alert to it, you know, we see examples which seem to prove it.

SHEIR: And indeed it’s carried on to this day, in that people won’t even say “Macbeth” in a theater. They have to call it “the Scottish play.”

SMITH: Absolutely, and it’s… this is a myth which theatre people feel very strongly about, and I think it speaks to the mixture of magic and good luck and all those things which make a successful stage play, and you can see why you would feel superstitious around blighting that.

SHEIR: Emma, do we find that myths about Shakespeare change with the times?

SMITH: Well, I think that’s a really good question. I think we are often looking to Shakespeare to be our ideal model of what the writer should be, and one example I think of there is the example of one of our myths, which is, “Was Shakespeare a Catholic?” And that’s an interesting myth because it’s moved across the late 19th and 20th century, and it’s moved really with our understanding of what Catholicism might have meant then and now. So, it’s moved from something that writers would determine to try and protect Shakespeare from, so, to be a Catholic would not be a good thing. To be a Catholic in 19th century England was still, despite Catholic emancipation, not a very comfortable position. It was not quite compatible with the almost deification we had in England of Shakespeare as the national bard. And we’ve moved there through a different kind of sense of what it might mean to be a Catholic, which might be less religious and more political. So, I suppose the interest in whether Shakespeare was a Catholic now is partly an interest in the artist as a person of conscience, a person who might well be at odds with the state or with conventional beliefs, a person who holds their own, to their own true kind of moral compass, and who isn’t a person who sucks up to authority, or tells people what they want to hear. So, I think that’s a myth which has changed along with our sense of what a great artist is. The great artist for the Victorians was, you know, a respectable person, a respectable gentleman, usually. The great artist for us now is a much more radical figure, who we expect to challenge our ideas rather than just simply reinforce them. So, I do think the kinds of myths we tell have changed according to what we want Shakespeare to do for us.

SHEIR: Well, Emma Smith, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today.

SMITH: It’s been a great conversation. Thank you.

WITMORE: Emma Smith is a Professor of English at Oxford University. She is co-author, along with Laurie Maguire, of 30 Great Myths About Shakespeare. She was interviewed by Rebecca Sheir. “Thou Dost But Say 'Tis So” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Nick Moorbath at Evolution Studios at Oxford and Jonathan Charry at public radio station WAMU.

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Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.


Want more? Browse our full list of Shakespeare Unlimited episodes. Listen on SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, and NPR One.