Shakespeare Solved ®


Shakespeare Solved ® is a forthcoming series of novels that covers the Bard's entire life and work.


These novels solve the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare by transporting us back in time, to walk in his shoes, and to see his world through his eyes.


Only when we see Shakespeare in his original historical context can we understand what his plays and poems really mean.


This blog explains some of my ideas and discoveries, to prepare for this series of novels.



NEW! -- listen to my interview with Cassidy Cash on her That Shakespeare Life podcast, where we discuss Mary, Queen of Scots, and my first Shakespeare Solved novel.



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Articles Written For:

The University of Oxford's Bodleian Library & The Royal Shakespeare Company


Most Popular Posts:

1. Shakespeare's Shylock Solved 2. Shakespeare's Othello Finally Identified 3. Shakespeare In Love Sequel Solved 4. The Real Romeo and Juliet 5. Shakespeare's Malvolio Solved 6. Shakespeare's Real Petruchio



Friday, October 16, 2020

Is Hamlet Shakespeare's greatest villain?

 


I came across one of the most unusual articles about Shakespeare that I have ever read — “Hamlet is Shakespeare’s greatest villain.”


I am not surprised that such an article was written. Shakespeare is often intentionally misrepresented. But this article is a good example of the kind of poison that is created, to kill your love of Shakespeare.


Alan Rickman as Hamlet

This article states that Hamlet is actually a murderous villain, even worse that Richard III and Iago. 


According to this article, Hamlet engages in “self-absorbed soliloquies” and that Polonius is a better man than Hamlet. 


I have written a lot about Polonius over the years, and he is arguably the greatest villain in the whole play.


In this skewed reading of the play, Hamlet is even to blame for Ophelia’s death.


This kind of interpretation is so offensive. This defamation of Shakespeare’s greatest hero is so horrible. It is truly disgusting. It is hard for me to find the words to express how incredibly awful such an interpretation is—especially in regards to so great a hero as Hamlet.


I don’t criticize most people for errors they make, when they interpret Shakespeare. It is not surprising to me that people have gotten Shakespeare so wrong for so long. 


Such people deserve sympathy—just like we should have sympathy for people who fall sick, through no fault of their own.


But when someone creates such sick and poisonous ideas like this, the idea, the interpretation must be totally condemned. 


There are some people who invent ideas like this, that are not written in any good faith. Writing like this is designed solely to poison and kill good things—like Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Hamlet.


I urge you to ignore this article. It is poison.


This article is not entitled “Was Hamlet Shakespeare’s greatest villain?”


It did not explore whether Hamlet is a villain or not. It draws a conclusion with absolute certainty that Hamlet is a villain.


There are some people who misinterpret Shakespeare rather regularly—and they do it maliciously.


For example, I saw a production of Henry IV part 1 a few months ago that was truly horrible. 


It turned Falstaff—one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations—into a sleazy pimp-like grifter.


This was no accident. This was intentional. The director of the play said she was proud to have made his character so horrible.


I did not write a review of that production. I had nothing good to say about it, so I wrote nothing about it. The production was poison.


Last year, I wrote a review of Netflix’s film, The King.


The film’s director said: “Our version of ‘Henry V’ becomes like a kind of making-of-a-tyrant story. There was something really exciting to me about […] turning him into a tyrant.”


That movie is poison.


A few years ago, I saw Sam Mendes production of King Lear, in which he was portrayed as a tyrant from the very beginning of the play. 


The play is a tragedy. If Lear is such a bad king from the very beginning, then there is simply no tragedy.


The play therefore does not work, and it misrepresents most everything that Shakespeare was trying to express with the play.


I do not know if it was intentional on Mr. Mendes’ part—but he so completely misunderstands the play, his production of the play becomes poisonous.


So, I urge you to be careful when you watch a production of Shakespeare, or read a theory by some critic of Shakespeare.


The good news is that there is an antidote to Netflix, Mendes and the others who make such bad Shakespeare.


It is Shakespeare himself. His plays and poems are a cure for much of what we suffer as human beings.


He knew the human condition. He knew fear, death, love, affection. He loved women and men, and he wanted to show how great women and men can be. 


He loved life. His works are brimming with life.


I urge you to read his words—which are so good, and so life-affirming.


Please believe me when I tell you that Hamlet is not a villain. 


Why has the Hamlet play endured for so long? Why do we love Prince Hamlet so much?


I think that it is because we are meant to see ourselves in Hamlet. He is us, he speaks for us, he embarks on a journey that helps us understand the struggle, the adventure, the incredible test of endurance that we call life.


We go through periods in our lives when we can’t make sense of who we are, and what we are supposed to do in our lives.


We often dwell on the past and think that if only we could fix the past, we will have a better future. 


We think that if only we could get back at someone for doing something bad to us, then we would be happy.


We often think that we deserve more than we have, and that we are entitled to more in life. 


Hamlet was supposed to be king, but his uncle usurped his throne. His ambition was thwarted. He did not get what he wanted.


Hamlet does not know what he is supposed to do—about his father’s death, his mother’s marriage to his uncle, the ghost of his father who demands to be avenged.


Hamlet spends so much of the play trying to fix the past—until he figures out that avenging his father’s death is only going to lead to even more death.


That moment he figures it out is when Ophelia dies. That is Hamlet’s wake up call.


Hamlet helps us to see that we must bury the dead, put the past behind us, and be grateful that we are alive at all.


In the beginning of the play, Hamlet is lost. Then he finds himself.


I don’t know many other stories that are so positive, so good, and offer such a healthy and positive message.


Hamlet is not a villain.


He is confused and frustrated, and he was going to do something bad—until he became good.


Shakespeare’s Hamlet character offers us all a lesson in how to redeem ourselves.


I hope you read the play for yourself, and find such healing and see it for the medicine that it is.


Cheers, 


David B. Schajer 


Friday, October 9, 2020

Love Falstaff & Love the World

 

Why should we love Falstaff?


Eduard Von Grutzner
Falstaff with sword, 1905


The answer is really rather simple.

He loves life.

In fact, Falstaff has the greatest love of life of any character in all of Shakespeare’s plays.

In his own way, and as best as he can, Falstaff is living life to the fullest.


Eduard Grutzner
Falstaff with big wine jar and cup, 1896

Could he do better? Should he do better? Of course. All of us need improvement.

But Falstaff has done rather well for himself. After all, he is hanging out with Prince Hal—the future King of England.

If he is failing, he is failing upwards.

And as we can see in the plays, Hal needs help. He is not a fully grown man yet. He gets little to nothing from his father, King Henry IV.

Hal has Falstaff as a sort of foster father.

And what kind of fostering does Falstaff offer him? 

Falstaff offers Hal a worldview that starts and ends with loving life—no matter who you are or where you come from, whether you are rich or poor, tall or short, skinny or overweight—or, in Falstaff’s case, impossibly and absurdly fat.

At one point, Falstaff warns Hal, “…banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.”

What Falstaff is really saying is that if you reject me, then you are rejecting life itself. You are rejecting joy, love, happiness, and all the pleasures of life.

The most important reason why Shakespeare made Falstaff so incredibly huge is because Falstaff is meant to represent the entire planet Earth.

He is a personification of the world itself, and this world here and now in which we live.

Naturally, this world of ours would have a worldview that would be to embrace and love the world, and not reject it.

The character of Falstaff is Shakespeare’s way of imploring us to love the world.

Falstaff is crude. He lies. He is deceitful. He is cowardly. He drinks too much. He is loud. He even tries to be a highway robber.

The world is a tough place, and often unkind. It is not always what it seems. It will let you down. It can make you sick. You can get drunk on it. It never lets up, and there is no safe space from it. It will rob you if you lower your guard.

But that is why Falstaff is such a great teacher. He also offers us the answer to the world. 

Falstaff is famous for his lying. But if we know that he is a liar, and lies all the time, then we can trust in him to lie.

He is therefore a reliable liar.

Since he lies with such complete predictability, he serves to teach us to find what is true for ourselves.

If we can not depend on him, then we should learn to depend on ourselves.

Without him to rely on, we must find the truth for ourselves.

The world is the same way. It is reliably unreliable. It is predictably unpredictable. It is never the same for long.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus expressed this:

“Everything changes and nothing stands still.”

“Change is the only constant.”

Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Should we fear such unchanging change? Should we hate such constant inconstancy?

No. Such change is an incredibly good thing. It is a gift that keeps on giving. 

If change is so constant, then that means that we can constantly improve ourselves.

And not only that, it means that we also have endless opportunities to improve ourselves.

Many people will frighten you by saying that change is bad, that you should be afraid of it.

They will tell you that you only have one chance at something, or that you will miss the opportunity to do something, and the chance will never come again.

Falstaff proves that this is rubbish. You always have a new chance to reinvent yourself. Always.

He also serves to inspire us to make our own chances, and to make our own opportunities.


Roger Allam as Falstaff
Shakespeare's Globe

Falstaff is telling us that instead of fearing change, and hiding from the world, we should live our lives to the fullest. We should eat, drink, and be merry.

Should we eat as much as he does, or drink as much as he does? Of course not.

And Shakespeare gave Falstaff an appetite for food and drink that is likely impossible for any human being to match.

We should no sooner eat and drink as much as Falstaff does, as we should lie, cheat, and steal as often as he does. 

But should we live merry lives, and find ways to make merry as often as he does? 

Yes!

Also, Shakespeare created the character of Falstaff to teach us whom we should not trust.

We should not trust people who are unreliably unreliable. They are unpredictably unpredictable. They manipulate the truth and delight in deceiving you.

These people mix the truth with lies, and they try to turn the truth into a lie.

These people are bad, and even evil.

Shakespeare created characters like Polonius, Iago, and Richard III to teach us that there are some people in the world who are hypocrites, and who want to deceive you for their own agenda.

They often tell you what you think you want to hear, and they make you afraid precisely because you never know if what they say is honest or deceitful.

Instead of allowing the world to be constantly changing, they try to force it to be orderly and stable--with strict new laws and rules.

To try and stop the world from changing and evolving is not to love the world. It is impossible to stop the world from turning. 

Also, making such strict laws is a slippery slope towards tyranny.

Falstaff encourages you to love the world. These anti-Falstaffian people make you fear the world.


Roger Allam
Shakespeare's Globe


Would you prefer to have a parent who inspires you to figure things out for yourself, and how to fend for yourself?

That is Falstaff. 

Or would you prefer to have a parent who tells you what to think, and who controls what you can or can not have?

That is Polonius—who is full of advice for Laertes, who by the end of the play is so confused, he kills Hamlet.

Ophelia has spent a lifetime obeying her father until she ends up self-destructing.

Falstaff likes nothing more than a big party—where everybody is eating and drinking and merrily singing.

Polonius famously says that he will give the actors who visit Elsinore all that he thinks that they deserve.

Hamlet replies that the actors deserve far more than what Polonius would give them.

Hamlet knows, as Falstaff knows, that we all deserve as much as we can have and get and want. No one should limit what we can say or do or have.

Hamlet knows that life should be lived to the fullest.

We should take his advice.

We should love Hamlet and Falstaff, and never banish the plump world that is always and forever changing and growing and turning.


Roger Allam
Shakespeare's Globe

By the way, I have seen many actors perform the role of Falstaff. Most of them get it wrong.

I think that I have seen 12 stage and screen depictions of Falstaff.

I have only ever seen one truly accurate depiction of Falstaff.

There is only one actor who captures how much Falstaff recklessly and fully and hilariously loves life—Roger Allam.

He played Falstaff in the Shakespeare’s Globe production of Henry IV parts 1 and 2 with Jamie Parker as Prince Hal.

Most other actors play Falstaff much too somberly and melodramatically, when he is supposed to be played with a life-affirming and gleeful jubilance.

Do yourself a favor and watch Mr. Allam bring Falstaff to life.

You can stream the play here -- Shakespeare's Globe Player.


Cheers,

David B. Schajer

 

Friday, October 2, 2020

Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words Review

 


I just saw Romeo and Juliet: Beyond Words—the Royal Ballet film production of Shakespeare’s play.


I truly can not recommend it highly enough. It is wonderful.





I love opera, and classical music, but I had never seen the ballet before, and was not sure what to expect.


It far exceeded my expectations. The music is great, the edited version of the story is great, and the filmmaking is masterful and superb.


I have long considered Franco Zeffirelli’s film adaptation of the play to be the very best screen version of the play. 


This is better. 





Of course, there is none of the incredible dialogue of Shakespeare—but what it lacks as far as words, it more than makes up for as far as the performances of the great dancers.


These splendid dancers are in almost constant movement, which brings the story to life, and it pulls you into that world. You really want to be there, with them.


And the film is shot on location in an actual old town, that looks like it could be Verona, so it is not just a film version of a stage production of the ballet.


The camera is moving almost always, drawing you into the action, and making you feel like you are participating in the story.


I love the widescreen camerawork, and I love how the camera was often in the distance, to show you so much of the other dancers who are coming and going.


But what makes this film so spectacular are the performances of the principal actor/dancers who play Romeo, Juliet, Tybalt, Mercutio and others.


They are not just incredibly athletic and graceful dancers, but they are such endearing actors.


Each of these actors are so expressive, and are perfectly cast.





William Bracewell plays Romeo and Francesca Hayward plays Juliet—and they are a perfect match on screen. 


Individually they are wonderful, but the chemistry between them together on screen is incredibly romantic.


There is much that you would not be able to see, in a theatre, watching this ballet.


But with a film, the camera reveals their faces, and their expressions, very closely.


My personal favorite moments are when they first see each other.


I heard a quote once, that while big explosive special effects are great in films, the best special effect of all is the expressiveness of the human face.


The moment when Romeo first sees Juliet, and the moment when Juliet first sees Romeo—those moments truly make film history.


Mr. Bracewell is swooningly handsome, and when we first meet him, he is cocky and boyish, running wild and frenetically around Verona.


When he first sees Juliet, he looks almost comically smitten by the sight of her. Like the whole world has vanished around him. He also stands up taller and upright, and stops moving around so much, as if she has instantly tamed this wild colt of a boy.


Ms. Hayward has an enchanting beauty,  and when we first meet her, she is immature, and does not seem sure of anything. Juliet is only 14 years old, after all.


When she first sees Romeo, she looks stupefied with love at the sight of him, and she seems to float when she is in his presence, or in a free fall. She is now sure of one thing, that she loves him.


Her love for him has transformed her.


There are so many great moments, like the duel between Mercutio and Tybalt. It is really gripping, and quite emotional.


The final tomb scene is heartbreaking. I think that it makes it even more moving because of the fact that there are no words. How they express themselves through their dancing speaks volumes.


I hope you make an effort to see this. If you like Shakespeare even just a little bit, you should see this. If you love Shakespeare, you can not miss this.


It appears as if it is still streaming on the BBC iPlayer, and that it is on DVD for sale.


Hopefully, they will make this more widely available soon.


Cheers,


David B. Schajer 



Thursday, April 23, 2020

Happy 2020 Shakespeare Birthday!


Happy Birthday William Shakespeare!





I have something very special for this blog today.

Recently I was interviewed by Cassidy Cash for her fantastic podcast—That Shakespeare Life.

It was a pleasure and a real honor to be invited on her podcast. It was also a lot of fun!

We discussed the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in early 1587, since that is probably when Shakespeare began his career in theatre.

I start the first novel in my Shakespeare Solved series right there, in 1587—to show how Mary’s end was Shakespeare’s beginning.





You can hear the podcast HERE.

Cassidy wrote a great article about Shakespeare’s sonnets. She has a fascinating theory that when Shakespeare was writing about the Dark Lady, he was writing about the theatre.

You can read Cassidy’s article HERE.

I had not thought of that. It is a very intriguing deduction. I think she is far more right than wrong.

I love theories like this. They add to the conversation regarding Shakespeare and his works, and bring us closer to understanding who he was, and what his writing really means.

I think that the world needs more people studying and writing about Shakespeare, and the Elizabethan period in general, to solve questions like this.

With that in mind, I would like to share something really special with you today.

I have long debated whether or not to share this here on the blog. I planned to include it in the course of the series of novels I am writing, but it was not going to be until the third or fourth novel.

But I decided to reveal it here today.

It is the single most important touchstone I have found for Shakespeare. It is the tool I use to unlock his plays and poetry.

I want to share it with you—to inspire you to do the kind of Shakespeare sleuthing that Cassidy does, and that I do.

I also think this was perhaps as vital a touchstone to Shakespeare himself during his career.

I don’t own this touchstone. It is not mine.

It has been hiding in plain sight for centuries. But it has been all but ignored.



Prince Arthur and the Fairy Queen. circa 1788
Henry Fuseli
Wikimedia Commons

Edmund Spenser printed the first three books of his epic poem, The Fairie Queene, in 1590

Spenser did something very unusual, and probably unprecedented. 

He included a letter he wrote to Sir Walter Raleigh.

Raleigh probably commissioned Spenser to write the poem.

In this letter, Spenser makes it clear that his entire poem is an “Allegory, or dark conceit.” 

He is advertising the fact that the whole poem, its characters, places and events are “cloudily enwrapped in Allegoricall devises.”

Writing an allegorical story was not unusual. 

The hidden messages, layers of meaning and veiled language of allegorical literature had been around for centuries. It had been the dominant style going back to the 15th century.

However, in his letter, Spenser wrote that most allegorical works are misunderstood, or “doubtfully…construed.”

What was unusual was the fact that Spenser included this letter at all. 

He wanted to make sure that his readers were aware that his poem was filled with mysteries, waiting to be solved—by them.



Edmund Spenser
Wikimedia Commons

He wrote The Fairie Queene “to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline.”

Translation: he wanted more people to know how to decipher allegorical writing.

Therefore, The Fairie Queene is not just an epic poem—it is a guide for people who are perplexed by allegory.

Spenser did not give away all of his secrets in this letter. He did not reveal the true identity of each and every character.

But he does unmask Gloriana, the Fairie Queene herself.

She is Queen Elizabeth I.

England was the “Faery land.”

He also created at least one other character, Belphoebe, to represent Queen Elizabeth.



The Red Cross Knight, 1793
John Singleton Copley
Wikimedia Commons

Spenser knew that some people disliked allegory. They preferred stories and characters with no hidden meaning, or deeper layers. They wanted plain language.

Spenser defended himself by writing that he was not an historian, writing a chronicle of history. He explained that he was writing historical poetry.

He did not explain why he represented the Queen like this, in at least two characters. 

He does not explain too much in his letter. 

He invited his readers to draw their own conclusions.

Was The Fairie Queene a political, religious, or moral allegory—or a combination of all three? 

It was up to the reader to decide.

Did Queen Elizabeth punish Spenser for this poem—written for her entertainment, and which included more than one character based on her?

No. She rewarded him. She made Spenser the Poet Laureate of England.



The Birth of Belphoebe and Amoret, 1850s
William Leighton Leitch
Wikimedia Commons

For any poet and playwright at the time, this would have sent an unmistakable message—the Queen enjoyed allegory, and she would reward those who wrote such works.

Even if the Queen objected to some of The Fairie Queene, apparently she admired the effort that Spenser made, and they way he presented his argument.

Why would Shakespeare write A Midsummer Night’s Dream a few years later, with a queen of the fairies, named Titania?

He obviously sought to be rewarded in some way, by the same queen who rewarded Spenser.

Does Titania represent Queen Elizabeth?

Yes, of course.



The Meeting of Oberon and Titania, 1908
Arthur Rackham
Wikimedia Commons

Does this mean that Shakespeare has hidden Queen Elizabeth in his other plays?

Yes, of course.

Why didn’t Shakespeare say so? 

Why didn’t he leave some written document, some letter of his own, explaining his method of concealing Queen Elizabeth, and other people, in his plays and poems?

Why didn’t he tell us what his writing meant?

Why would he?

Spenser had already written all that needed to be said on that matter of allegory, with his letter—in perhaps the most important book written in the reign of Queen Elizabeth.

Spenser established the precedent. He set the bar, for every other writer to follow.

That was the touchstone that Shakespeare would refer to over and over again in his career.

He had much to say to the Queen. He found ways of saying it that preserved her majesty, and that also kept her entertained.



Allegorical Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I
unknown artist

Shakespeare probably thought that any letter he himself could write, explaining his own method, was unnecessary after Spenser’s letter.

It is possible that Shakespeare did not believe that he himself would ever be remembered. 

But it would have been hard for him to believe that the Poet Laureate would be forgotten, and brushed aside by history.

Shakespeare probably thought to himself that future historians and poets would know how to unlock the meaning of all of his own plays and poems—using Spenser’s letter as a key.

Little did Shakespeare know that Spenser would not be remembered very well.

Shakespeare probably did not anticipate that he would be remembered more than Spenser.

If he had known, he probably would have written something about the dominant allegorical style by which he wrote.

Apparently, it was C.S. Lewis who revived interest in Spenser, in 1936.

Lewis wrote a masterful book on the history of allegorical literature, The Allegory of Love


Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale's Golden book of famous women (1919) -
Una and The Red Cross Knight
Wikimedia Commons

Lewis wrote that people in his lifetime did not understand allegorical writings. He wrote that people at the time thought that art should mean what it represented. Or they thought that art was meaningless.

Lewis clearly wanted to revive an interest in Spenser’s “vertuous and gentle discipline” of deciphering allegory.

It should not be surprising, considering the allegorically veiled religious meaning in Lewis’ fiction, especially the Narnia books.

I think that we are just as bad today at reading allegory as Lewis found in 1936, and Spenser found in 1590.

We are also reading and studying Shakespeare without knowing how Shakespeare used allegory in his works.

Lewis admitted that he did not know the history of the Tudor times and the Elizabethan period enough to decipher the political allegorical meaning of The Fairie Queene.

That is where I am stepping in to this conversation about Shakespeare. I have spent fifteen years studying the politics, the people, and the history of the time.

That is why I am writing a series of novels, to explain it all, and to make it entertaining.

When I say that I am “solving” Shakespeare, what I really mean is that I am deciphering the allegorical meaning of his works—especially the people.

Spenser’s letter was, and still is, my touchstone.

It still has the power to open my eyes to what Shakespeare’s words really mean.






In the course of my series of Shakespeare Solved novels, I will show what hidden ideas and veiled messages Shakespeare sent in his plays and poems.

It is going to take me more than one novel to explain the path that Shakespeare took to arrive at creating such incredible characters, and timeless stories.

I hope you will join me on this exciting journey.

I invite you to read Spenser’s letter, in order to read between the lines that Shakespeare wrote.

And I invite you to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday today, and raise a toast to him!

Cheers, 

David B. Schajer




Monday, April 13, 2020

That Shakespeare Life with Cassidy Cash Podcast Interview


I had the honor of being interviewed by Cassidy Cash for her fantastic podcast—That Shakespeare Life.





Cassidy and I discussed Mary, Queen of Scots.

In the interview, we discuss the threat that Mary posed to England and to Queen Elizabeth, her treason trial, and the execution, in early 1587.

It is my contention that Mary’s execution played a crucial part in launching Shakespeare’s career.

We also discuss how Shakespeare responded to Mary’s death, and how it influenced many of his plays—from Titus Andronicus, Merchant of Venice, and others.

I hope you enjoy the podcast--and I hope you check out Cassidy's blog, and listen to her other great interviews with such luminaries as Jonathan Bate, David and Ben Crystal, and Dr. Lois Potter.

Please listen to the interview here -- just click on the image:






Cheers,

David B. Schajer.






Thursday, March 19, 2020

Shakespeare, Plague & Fear


In the last few days, with the threat and fear of the Coronavirus, I have seen articles about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear during a plague.

But the story of Shakespeare and plagues is much bigger than that.

The story is much more miraculous than that.






Shakespeare knew about plagues.

He was no stranger to them.

They were sadly a common experience in his life.

Did you know that he was not the firstborn child?

His parents, Mary and John, had two daughters before William.

Their first child was named Joan. She sadly died in infancy.

We don’t know why she died. It is doubtful that it was the plague. But it might have been tuberculosis, smallpox, or any number of other diseases that were common at the time.

It would seem that Mary and John needed some time to grieve the loss of their daughter. They waited for a few years before they tried again.

In December of 1562, they had a daughter, Margaret.

They only had a few weeks with her. Margaret was dead by April, 1563.

It is very possible that she may have died from a plague that spread across England starting in 1562. 

Incredibly, after Margaret’s death, Mary and John did not wait very long to have another child.

Shakespeare was conceived somewhere around the summer of 1563, while the plague and fear of plague was only growing.

As far as Mary and John knew, the plague could have spread even more and become as bad as the Black Death of the 14th century.

During the week ending October 1st, 1563, there was a peak number of deaths in London—1828 people died in a single week.

It was the worst plague in the entire 16th century. It would go on to kill 20,000 people in London—which was about 30% of the city’s population.

80,000 people across England died in total.

Can you imagine what it was like for Mary to carry a child while plague brought sickness, sorrow and death to her friends and neighbors?

No matter how joyous an occasion it was, to bring young William Shakespeare into the world, Mary and John must have been terrified that he would not survive for long.

They were christening William while other families were burying their dead.

Now try imagining what it was like when the plague struck again, in July 1564—when the baby William was only about 10 weeks old.

The plague lasted six months in Stratford. More than 200 people died, which was about a sixth of the town’s population. 

Almost two out of every three babies born that year were dead before the end of the year.

There must have been a constant and incessant sadness over the whole of Stratford.

That was the world that William Shakespeare entered into.

If we want to understand why Shakespeare was such an unusually successful playwright and extraordinary man, we need to give a great deal of credit to his parents.

He could not have accomplished anything without their love of life, and their physical, moral and spiritual strength.

Sadly, their sorrows did not end in 1564.

Mary and John had another child, Gilbert, in 1566.

Then they had a daughter, Anne, in 1572.

Then they had Richard in 1574.

When Anne was only 6 years old, she died of plague.

Her sickness and death must have been a horror for the entire family—who were most likely stuck together in their small house, under quarantine.






It must have scarred Shakespeare, who was only about 15 years old.

That pain was probably like an open wound for him, for the rest of his life.

Death was not a distant or abstract idea for Shakespeare.

He saw death very close, face to face.

Years later, Shakespeare went to London. He quickly established himself as a very successful playwright.






Then plague struck London, in August 1592. It claimed around 2,000 lives, in a city of about 150,000 people.

The plague lasted until the end of 1593, and by then it had claimed about 20,000 lives in total.

It is during this time that Shakespeare wrote Venus and Adonis. It is likely that he worked on other projects—including Richard III, and Rape of Lucrece.

Shakespeare did not let the plague stop him from working, and from challenging himself to write at the highest level he could.

His Richard III play might even be considered his first true “masterpiece”—since his depiction of King Richard III is such a remarkable feat of characterization.

It is a miracle that Shakespeare survived that 1592-3 plague at all. 

But 1593 was not without its share of tragedy for him.

Christopher Marlowe died that year.

If there was one man who could fully appreciate Shakespeare as as man and as an artist, it was Marlowe.

His death must have been a very difficult loss for Shakespeare.

It must have been very hard for Shakespeare to work and live in London, so far away from his beloved wife, Anne, and their three children—Susanna, Judith and Hamlet.



Shakespeare reading Hamlet to his family
with his son Hamlet standing, Susanna and Judith on either side
and his wife Anne seated opposite
engraving by unknown artist, 1890



It must have been an especially painful blow for him, when Hamlet died three years later, in 1596. He was only 11 years old.

We don’t know if it was plague, but it is very possible.

It is remarkable that the death of his only son did not force Shakespeare to stop writing.

We could have forgiven him if his grief broke him, and made him put down his pen forever.

He did not stop writing. He also did not allow his grief to overwhelm his art. He did not solely write tragedies after his tragic personal loss.

After Hamlet’s death, he wrote some of his most joyful plays, like Much Ado About Nothing, and As You Like It.

When he turned to writing Hamlet in 1601, it would become the greatest play in the history of the world precisely because he wrote it in honor of his deceased son.

How did he turn such terrible pain into such transcendent art?

He tells us in the play: “To be or not to be.”

He is telling us that we can choose fear and death, or we can choose love and life. 

Time and again, in the crucible of his pain, he chose to go on living, and to love his friends and family. 

But the plague threat did not end there.

Queen Elizabeth died, in 1603. King James was proclaimed her successor to the English throne.

Almost immediately, plague struck London again.

It would last, off and on, for about seven years.

Over the years, the plague came and went. The theatres were closed and then opened and closed and opened.

It was one of Shakespeare’s most productive periods.

He wrote several plays, many of which are his most enduring masterpieces.

All while he was surrounded by death and disease and unending grief, he wrote Othello, Measure For Measure, King Lear, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Cymbeline, Timon of Athens, Pericles, Winter’s Tale, and likely The Tempest.

He had some sort of incredible and bottomless power to turn the worst kinds fear and doubt into some of the greatest works of art the world has ever seen.

Shakespeare died in 1616. 

He probably did not die of plague, but it might have been typhus. There was a serious outbreak of it in Stratford at the time.

For his entire life, and career, every day he knew that he might not see the next day. 

Each and every time he sat down to write a play, he knew that it could be his last.

Every time he went to the theatre, to perform a play, or to watch a play, he knew that he might get infected with plague, or some other fatal disease.

Every day he lived in London, he must have been concerned about it.

With every word he wrote, he had to fight back fear.

Fear that it would be the last day he was alive.

Fear that he might never know another hour of his life.

Fear that the word he scribbled on paper might be the very last word he would ever write.

Also, as if the fear from disease was not bad enough, there was the threat of war.

When he arrived in London, around 1587, Spain and England were at wars.

Spain was the only superpower in the world at the time. England was a rather poor and weak country by comparison.

Spain would send the Armada to conquer England in 1588. It failed, but that did not stop them from sending even more armadas.

Over the next decade, Spain continued to threaten England.

Everyone, including Shakespeare would have been quite aware of the fact that England could be invaded, and that London could fall.

With the benefit of hindsight, we might look back and think that Spain was never going to conquer England, and that any attempt was bound to fail.

It is doubtful that anyone living at that time dismissed such fears of mighty Spain.

So, for most of Shakespeare’s life, and for his entire career, he had to fear Spain every bit as much as the plague. 

Everywhere Shakespeare turned, in Stratford and in London, with plague and with the threat of invasion, he had to confront his fears.

There were many people who lived and died in that period.

Shakespeare was not the only man who lost loved ones from plague and diseases.

He was not the only one who was afraid.

But William Shakespeare was the only one who looked that fear in the face, picked up a weapon to fight it, and engaged in mortal combat with fear.

He was the tip of the spear, in that fight.

He wrote his powerful words to show us that we don’t have anything to fear—and that the greatest antidote to fear is love.

Even in his darkest and most gruesomely violent plays there is a heart that is beating, to remind us to love life and to consider every day precious. 

In his darkest moments, his love of his family, his friends, and his faith gave him the strength to carry on.

In this day and age, as the Coronavirus causes so much fear and death, we would do well to look to the past for guidance, for inspiration.

I can’t think of many greater sources of inspiration than the life and work of William Shakespeare.

He is a well that never seems to run dry, and he never fails to satisfy our thirst for life and hope and love.

We all have fears. We all dwell too much on what might happen to us, and what terrible thing might harm us, or even kill us.

We are human. It is our nature.

We are all afraid of being together with our loved ones, and touching our beloved friends and relatives.

But that does not mean that we need to let fear rule our hearts.

We can still see each other, with Facetime, Skype, etc.

We can still touch each other’s hearts—with text messages, with emails, but best of all, with spoken words.

To anyone who is sick right now, for any reason, please accept my warmest wishes for a full and speedy recovery.

To anyone who recently lost a loved one, please accept my sincerest condolences.

To face these current fears, I offer this story of Shakespeare’s life.

I hope that you might find some solace in his story. I hope that his strength inspires you to be strong.

I encourage you to read one or more of his plays or poems. You should also read some of it aloud, and hear the words spoken. They have a soothing and palliative power when you speak them.

I encourage you to watch one or more of his plays. Many of his plays are online, at the Globe Player, for example.

The Globe productions of Henry IV, parts 1 and 2 and Henry V—with Roger Allam as Falstaff and Jamie Parker as Hal—might be the best ever filmed. These productions are brimming with life-affirming energy. 

Here are some pictures:









I encourage you to share your thoughts and opinions of Shakespeare’s work with your friends and relatives. 

All of us right now want to talk about something, anything, other than disease and fear.

Shakespeare makes for an excellent topic of conversation.

With much love,

David B. Schajer