Shakespeare Trivia: Fun facts about Shakespeare and his plays
To be or not to be a Shakespeare fan, that is the question — but even if you couldn’t understand his writing in high school, you’ve probably enjoyed his stories in some way or another. If you know all the lyrics to West Side Story by heart, grew up watching The Lion King, or have an over-watched DVD of She’s the Man, you have the Bard to thank.
There’s plenty of Shakespeare theatre to catch this season as well. In London, the Barbican Centre is currently showing the farce The Comedy of Errors, and Measure for Measure, Hamlet, and The Merchant of Venice are at Shakespeare’s Globe.
In New York, a new production of Macbeth on Broadway, starring Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga, this way comes in March 2022. To get you a bit more familiar with Shakespeare before you go, we’ve rounded up some fast facts and fun trivia about his life and work for Shakespeare supporters and Bard beginners alike.
Shakespeare fun facts and trivia
“If circumstances lead me, I will find where truth is hid,” Polonius says in Hamlet. Here are a few things we know to be true about Shakespeare — to the best of our knowledge from 400 years ago, anyway. The course of true fact never did run smooth.
Shakespeare was born on April 23, 1564.
Or so we think. This is the day when the Bard’s birthday is usually celebrated; we only know for sure that he was baptized on April 26, and babies were traditionally baptized after three days back then. Shakespeare was born in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, where a birthday celebration is still held every year. The national flag is flown, people lay flowers on Shakespeare’s grave, and there’s a celebratory lunch in his honor. People dressed as characters from his plays also march in a huge parade, and even spectators join in on the costumed fun.
If Shakespeare’s birthday was indeed the 23rd, then coincidentally, Shakespeare also died on his 52nd birthday in 1616.
Shakespeare wrote 39 plays.
A total of 39 published plays are attributed to Shakespeare, including 16 comedies, 12 tragedies, and 11 histories. Broadly speaking, the tragedies are plays that end in death (often of the main character and multiple others), the comedies end in at least one marriage, and the histories are based on and named after real-life monarchs, such as Henry V and Richard III.
Shakespeare’s final four plays — three comedies and one tragedy — are also called the “late romances.” They resemble the late medieval “romance” genre in that they exhibit tragic and comic elements and take place over long periods of time.
- Pericles, Prince of Tyre
- The Winter’s Tale
- The Tempest
Additionally, six of his works — four comedies and two tragedies — are called problem plays because they do not fall neatly into the comedy or tragedy genre. These plays include moments of both dark drama and straightforward comedy, giving them an overall ambiguous tone. These are also often called tragicomedies, but unlike the romances, the action in problem plays takes place within fairly short timeframes, like most of Shakespeare’s work.
- All’s Well That Ends Well
- Measure for Measure
- Troilus and Cressida
- The Merchant of Venice
- The Winter’s Tale
- Timon of Athens
Aside from Shakespeare’s 39 published plays, there are two plays attributed to him that have been lost: Cardenio and Love’s Labour’s Won. (It’s not known for sure whether Love’s Labour’s Won was an entirely new sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost or simply an alternative title for another of his plays that we now know by a different name.)
Shakespeare’s first play was The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Shakespeare is believed to have written The Two Gentlemen of Verona sometime between 1589 and 1591. Put simply, the play is a comedy about two couples’ journeys to be with each other. Scholars think The Two Gentlemen of Verona came first because it introduces themes found in Shakespeare’s later plays — for example, a heroine dressing like a man. Some scholars also judge Two Gentlemen as less well-written than Shakespeare’s other works, and they suggest it’s first because the writing reflects a lack of experience.
That said, like many aspects of Shakespeare’s life, no one is completely certain about The Two Gentlemen of Verona being first. Actually, Henry VI, Part 2 is called the first just as often, since it’s the earliest play with an agreed-upon year of origin. And no, that’s not a typo — Shakespeare wrote Part 2 of Henry VI in 1591 and followed it up with Part III immediately afterward. Part 1 didn’t come until a year later, in 1592.
Shakespeare’s last play was The Two Noble Kinsmen.
He started with two gentlemen and ended with two kinsmen. Shakespeare scholars are much more certain about this one — most agree that Shakespeare wrote The Two Noble Kinsmen between 1613 and 1614, just before his retirement and death. Based on a story from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the play sees the titular pair of friends fight over who gets to marry the fair Princess Emilia.
Shakespeare’s most-produced play is A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
According to a 2016 report by Priceonomics, the most recent report on the topic, A Midsummer Night’s Dream gets the most professional performances nowadays. The website Shakespearances documented nearly every professional Shakespeare production around the world from 2011 on, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream accounted for more than 7% of all Shakespeare performances. (Together, Parts 1 and 2 of Henry VI were the least performed.)
Shakespeare wrote 160.5 sonnets.
When the plague closed all theatres from 1592-1594 and plays weren’t in demand, Shakespeare picked up poetry as what we might call a quarantine hobby. Even when he was able to continue his extensive playwriting, Shakespeare found the time to write an equally extensive amount of sonnets. His 154 standalone sonnets were published as one book in 1609 and deal with love, lust, misogyny, infidelity, and more.
The narrator — not necessarily Shakespeare himself — addresses most of the poems to an unnamed young boy now called the “Fair Youth.” A few poems are also addressed to the “Dark Lady,” a female love interest, or the “Rival Poet.” The remaining six sonnets in Shakespeare’s canon are part of his plays, such as the prologue in Romeo and Juliet. A partial sonnet in Edward III rounds out the count.
Shakespeare invented 420 words.
His plays also contain the first recorded usage of about 1,700 words, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The extra 1,280 words were likely already colloquialisms in Shakespeare’s day that he didn’t invent, but happened to be the first to write down. We still use many of the 420 he credibly did make up, like “bedroom,” “bump,” “dawn,” “excitement,” “leapfrog,” “priceless,” and “zany.” LitCharts published a full list.
And how did Shakespeare “invent” words? He used nouns as verbs and verbs as adjectives, he combined two words into one, and he added prefixes and suffixes to words that never had them before.
Other Shakespeare trivia
Did you know that Shakespeare spelled his own name multiple ways, has a hand in more than 1,000 shows and movies, and wrote a curse that sounds like something the Three Witches would cast? As Isabella says in Measure for Measure, “This is all as true as it is strange.”
Shakespeare didn’t write all his plays alone.
People have been debating this for ages, but some of Shakespeare’s co-authors were only officially named within the past few years. A digital study compared the words, phrases, and style of Shakespeare’s works with other writers of his day, and there were repeated patterns that suggest other people had a hand in his work as co-writers, editors, or revisionists — no one really knows. Some of those collaborators include fellow writers Thomas Nashe, Thomas Kyd, George Peele, Anthony Munday, and even Shakespeare’s supposed rival, Christopher Marlowe.
Some people have even questioned whether “Shakespeare” is even a single person or just a pseudonym for another author or group of authors, but that’s a fringe theory nowadays. Nonetheless, believers have proposed over 80 people they think could have been Shakespeare, including Marlowe. Imagine creating a pen name to compete with yourself!
It’s considered bad luck to say “Macbeth” in a theatre.
This is one of theatre’s most famous and enduring superstitions. The only exception is during an actual performance of Macbeth — otherwise, people use “The Scottish Play,” “Mackers,” or “MacB.” Some extra-superstitious people won’t even say any lines from the show in a theatre, let alone the title! If you do say “Macbeth,” you’re supposed to step outside the theatre and perform a cleansing ritual: Spin around three times, spit over your shoulder, and say a line from another Shakespeare show. You can only return if someone deems you “clean” and lets you back in — they have to make sure you’ve warded off the evil luck!
There are a few different origin stories for the superstition. Legend goes that an actual coven of witches cursed the play because they were angry that Shakespeare wrote in a real spell. A less mythic possibility is that theatres that produced Macbeth had an unfortunate history of closing soon afterward due to financial problems. Whether it was directly because of Macbeth’s production costs or pure, repeated coincidence, people started to associate the play’s name with toil and trouble.
Shakespeare’s work has been adapted as hundreds of movies and musicals.
We couldn’t even begin to talk about them all here. According to the Guinness Book of Records, Shakespeare has had more film and TV adaptations of his work than any other author in history: A total of 410 films have been made of his plays worldwide. When you include all the films and shows he has a writing credit on, according to IMDb — including all the loose adaptations of his stories and upcoming adaptations — the number jumps to more than 1,600! Hamlet has the most, with more than 50 since 1900.
And did you know that some famous Broadway musicals are based on Shakespeare’s work? West Side Story, for example, is a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet, replacing the rival families with rival street gangs. Kiss Me, Kate is based on The Taming of the Shrew. The Lion King film and musical borrow their story from Hamlet, and All Shook Up mashes up the Twelfth Night plot with the music of Elvis Presley. And The Comedy of Errors alone has six musical adaptations — they include Rodgers & Hart’s 1938 hit The Boys From Syracuse, the Olivier Award-winning The Comedy of Errors, and even a hip-hop musical, The Bomb-itty of Errors.
Within the past decade, there’s been the 2015 Broadway hit Something Rotten!, a fictional account of how Shakespeare came up with Hamlet in which the Bard stars as a pompous rockstar. Most recently, & Juliet has given new life to Shakespeare’s title heroine with contemporary pop music in London’s West End.
His plays have been translated into more than 100 languages.
“taH pagh taHbe’?” Out of all the languages you can read Shakespeare’s work in, perhaps the most unexpected of the bunch is Klingon, the language spoken in the world of Star Trek. Only two Shakespeare plays — Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing — are currently available in Klingon, but the Klingon Language Institute reportedly plans to translate more.
We might all be spelling his name wrong.
A Shakespeare by any other name would sound as sweet. Plenty of papers with Shakespeare’s signature have survived long enough for historians to examine them, and he didn’t spell his name “William Shakespeare” on a single one. Call it messy handwriting or creative license, he seemed to spell it every way but: “Willm Shaksp,” “William Shakspere,” ”Willm Shakspere,” “William Shakespe,” “Wm Shakspe,” “William Shakspeare.” Ironically, his name as we spell it today is an anagram for “I am a weakish speller.”
Shakespeare put a curse on his grave.
In Shakespeare’s time, the remains of long-deceased people would be dug up after a while to make room for new gravesites. Shakespeare, however, didn’t want that. So before he died, he wrote his own epitaph — in verse, no less — to discourage anyone from trying. It reads:
“Good friend for Jesus’ sake forbear,
To dig the dust enclosed here:
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.”
Needless to say, his grave has never been disturbed.
The Globe Theatre in London is a reconstruction of the building where Shakespeare himself hosted his plays.
Shakespeare wrote his plays to be performed at a specific theatre in Southwark, London, called the Globe. The original theatre was built in 1599 but, as was common back then because most theatres were made of wood, burned down in 1613. What was less common is that the Globe burned down mid-show! A prop cannon misfired during a performance of Henry VIII and set the roof on fire. In under an hour, the flames had spread and the whole building was destroyed. The Globe was rebuilt in 1614 and then demolished in 1644.
It wasn’t until 353 years later, in 1997, when the current Globe was built 750 feet away from the original site. Its design replicates that of the original Globe, though the capacity is only 1,400 (as opposed to the original’s 3,000) for safety reasons. The first performance at the new Globe was of Henry V, and every Shakespeare play has now been performed there at least once. This season, you can catch Measure for Measure, Hamlet, and The Merchant of Venice alongside some non-Shakespearean plays.