Shakespeare: What's in a name

Beyond his name and those of his family members, little is known about the man recently chosen by listeners of the BBC as the Briton of the Millennium.

April 25, 1999|By Joseph Gallagher

ON THIS DAY, April 25 in 1616, an entry was made in the parish records of the Anglican Holy Trinity Church of Stratford-on-Avon, England. It registered the burial of that William Shakespeare whom listeners of the BBC recently voted the Briton of the Millennium.

At the time of Shakespeare's death at 52, several years had passed since he retired from the London scene. He had lain sick for several months and had possessed a signed will for several weeks. His death is believed to have been caused by typhoid.

The film "Shakespeare in Love," a bawdy presentation of the Bard's escapades in Elizabethan London, won an Oscar for Best Picture last month and sparked new interest in his works. But so little we know about the man who is the best-known Briton the world has seen.

From the 1500s to the 1800s, one out of every five English children was named William. It vied for top popularity with John, the name of the poet's father. William the Bastard of Normandy had conquered England a half-millennium before the Bard's birth. England has had three other King Williams, and a likely fifth one is Princess Diana's son William.

William of Stratford was several times described as "gentle" by contemporaries and at considerable expense acquired the right to be called "gentleman." Those facts make both his names ironic in their literal sense. As the German form "Wilhelm" makes clearer, William denotes the will to be a helmet or to be an "eager defender."

Shakespeare, a familiar name in the lovely center of southern England, was coined to honor someone ready to "shake a spear" at any foe. The sole English pope, Hadrian IV (1154-1159), was originally Nicholas Breakspeare, a surname that was apparently a variation of the same idea.

In the Bard's day, spelling was a very fluid affair. One-hundred variant spellings of his family name have been tracked down. It is a droll fact that the six William Shakespeare signatures that are regarded as authentic are spelled differently from one another, and none of them uses "Shakespeare."

William is not a Biblical name, but Shakespeare's father John, his mother Mary (Arden), his wife Anne, and his daughters Susanna and Judith bore scriptural names. Judith had a twin brother, Hamnet, who died at 11. Their godparents were family friends named Judith and Hamnet Sandler.

Both Hamnet and Hamlet were variations on the name Amleth. According to a Scandinavian folk tale, Prince Amleth avenged his kingly father's death. Was the dramatist's masterpiece a tribute to his only son?

Through Susanna, Shakespeare lived to enjoy his one granddaughter, Elizabeth Hall. This granddaughter died childless in 1670, and the direct line died out with her.

His only other child, Judith, bore three boys, one named Shaksper Quiney. Sadly, all died before fathering offspring. His younger sister Joan married a William Hart, and descendants of that family still live, preserving the Shakespeare blood.

William of Stratford had two sisters, Joan and Margaret, that he never knew because they died before he was born.

He also had five siblings born after him: Gilbert, Anne, Richard, Edmund and Joan, who outlived all her brothers and sisters.

Though history forced some of his choices on him, all of these names, including his and those of his parents John and Mary, appear in his plays. Richard III and Edmund are among his most wicked villains; and he speaks humorously about greasy Joan.

The worst plague since the Black Death hit Stratford in the first fragile months of William's life. It bought death to half of Stratford's families but blessedly spared the Shakespeares. While he was in London, repeated outbreaks of the plague closed down the theaters sometimes for more than a year. When Shakespeare wrote, "A plague on both your houses," he spoke of personal experience.

In better times, strolling players passed through Stratford and likely gave the young William his first taste of theatrics. It isn't known when or why he left his parents, wife and three children to travel 90 miles to London and reside alone there for the next quarter-century.

Shakespeare's will, which was lost for 200 years, leaves 10 of his 360 pounds cash to Stratford's poor. A pound might have been worth about $50 in today's money. The will makes no mention of his books, but a list of personal effects that would have been attached to the will has been lost.

His testament also makes no mention of his writings, though the latter would have been the property of his company, the King's Men, or of some publisher. He owned shares in the company and in the Globe and Blackfriars theaters but presumably sold them when he retired.

To fellow actors John Hemminges and Henry Condell, Shakespeare left money for the purchase of memorial rings. History is deeply indebted to these two men, who gave their London friend a supreme memorial: the First Folio (1623). This 907-page volume, whose 1,000 copies sold for one pound each, is among the world's most famous books.

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