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In an age hungry for every scrap of information about our heroes, it’s an irony that Shakespeare, for all the fame of his works, is an elusive celebrity: not so much a well-trodden path as an undiscovered country. He “shuffled off this mortal coil”, as Hamlet put it, in Stratford-upon-Avon exactly four centuries ago, and he may well also have been born there on April 23, 52 years earlier — but the exact dates of his birth and death are among the many things about him that we don’t know for sure. To locate them on April 23 seems fitting though, since it is the feast of St George (an unusually busy patron saint, whom the happy breed of Englishmen and women share with at least 10 other countries, from Albania to Lebanon).
The everyday facts we don’t know about Shakespeare are legion — we don’t even have a specimen of his handwriting, apart from a few scrawled signatures — and there are even question marks over his religion, all-important at that time since if he was a Catholic, as some scholars think, it would have been literally on pain of death.
It seems odd, too, that we don’t really know what he looked like, as no description of his appearance was published and no portrait commissioned during his lifetime: the most reliable posthumous likenesses are probably the engraving on the cover of the 1623 First Folio and the image on his memorial in Stratford-upon-Avon, both showing a dark, smooth-faced, balding, prosperous-looking burgher — hardly the lean and hungry look we associate with genius. Dignified and watchful, slightly closed, he does, however, look every inch a king of his particular patch of the world, wearing the sort of understated but expensive clothes that remind us Shakespeare was a successful impresario and businessman as well as playwright, poet and actor. He led, it seems, a charmed life.
His business interests are slightly easier to track, especially those in partnership with Richard Burbage, co-owner of the Globe Theatre, leading actor in the Kings Men company and tower of strength in the cut-throat world of London theatre. He was the man for whom some of the greatest dramatic parts in the English language were probably written — he was the first Hamlet, the first Lear, and more — and when, as Prospero in The Tempest, he declared “our revels now are ended” he was probably announcing the retirement of the play’s creator.
For more than 250 years the authorship of that play, and the rest of the magnificent opus, remained serenely unquestioned, but in the brave new world of modern literary criticism the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare’s identity led to a mushrooming of alternative theories. Shakespeare’s name was firmly on all the plays and poems, it’s true — but what’s in a name, especially when it is spelt in almost 80 different ways in various accounts?
Yet despite the dozens of candidates put forward as the works’ “real” author, from Ben Jonson to the Earl of Oxford and (even though he was a bit dead by the time many of the plays were created) Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s reputation was made of sterner stuff. In fact, the wheel has come full circle — I’d argue that all the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare, rather than diminishing him, are a powerful part of his enduring fascination. This is one celeb who doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve, and we read the works even more closely because of it — as Ben Jonson wrote in his Preface to the First Folio: “looke/not on his picture but his Booke”.
Well, dear readers, since brevity is the soul of wit, I should end this little game now: have you got it yet? As my own small and awkward tribute to the great man, a tiny good deed in a naughty world, I have embedded a quote from Shakespeare into every sentence here — to show, if it needed showing, just how deeply he still resounds in our language, how every anglophone is half-unconsciously steeped in him. He is under our skin.
If anyone would like to write to me and tell me which quotations you find, and their sources, I’ll look forward to it — though perhaps not exactly with bated breath, since there is absolutely no hurry: as Jonson (again) put it, Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all time”.
Jan Dalley is the FT’s arts editor.
We asked readers to play the game and contact us with a list of all the quotations and their sources. Here are the 17 correct ones in Jan Dalley’s column above, all from the plays:
“Undiscovered country” – Hamlet, Act III, Sc 1
“Shuffled off this mortal coil” – Hamlet, Act III, Sc 1
“Happy breed” – Richard II, Act II, Sc 1
“On pain of death” – Romeo and Juliet, Act I, Sc 1
“Lean and hungry look” – Julius Caesar, Act I, Sc 2
“Every inch a King” – King Lear, Act IV, Sc 6
“A charmed life” – Macbeth, Act V, Sc 8
“Tower of strength” – Richard III, Act V, Sc 3
“Our revels now are ended” – The Tempest, Act IV, Sc 1
“Brave new world” – The Tempest, Act V, Sc 1
“What’s in a name” - Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Sc 2
“Made of sterner stuff” – Julius Caesar, Act III, Sc 2
“Wheel has come full circle” – King Lear, Act 5, Sc 3
“Wear his heart on his sleeve” – Othello, Act I, Sc 1
“Brevity is the soul of wit” – Hamlet, Act II, Sc 2
“A good deed in a naughty world” – The Merchant of Venice, Act V, Sc 1
“With bated breath” – The Merchant of Venice, Act I, Sc 3
I laid one or two deliberate traps, writes Jan. “Cut-throat world” is not a Shakespearean phrase, nor is “under our skin”. And because the latter was a red herring, I’m afraid that my claim to have planted a quote in every sentence was also deliberately misleading.
Many thanks to the readers who took part. Those who were closest to complete correct answers were: