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Speaker Gary Booth: ‘Who was Will Shakespeare?’

Gary was born in Saltburn and has lived most of his life in Redcar. He was a librarian before becoming a teacher at Yarm School where he was Head of English. What he gave on Shakespeare was as much a Performance as a Wonderful Talk.

He explained that in a teaching career of 36 years, he had got to know Shakespeare well through directing his plays. What was he really like? Perhaps the first thing to note is his legacy of phrases coined by him, such as ‘at one fell swoop’, ‘bloody minded’, ‘I’ll not budge an inch’, ‘a foregone conclusion’, ‘more in sorrow than anger’ and many, many more. ‘As You Like It’ features one of his most famous speeches covering the seven ages of man:infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon and old man.

Shakespeare was apparently born on 23rd April 1564 to John and Mary. There is documentary evidence that he was baptised on 26th  April. His birthplace is well preserved and usually mobbed with tourists. He was 18 when he married a slightly older Anne Hathaway, who was already pregnant. His early career was in acting and directing.

Most of the London theatres were on the north side of the Thames and this is where the Globe was built originally. After a dispute with the landlord, the theatre was dismantled and constructed on the south side. The original had a capacity of 2000, but no artificial light.

Plays were performed every afternoon except Sundays. The standing area was open to the elements, but the galleries were covered. The theatre was very successful until it burned down when the thatched roof caught fire during a performance of Henry VIII. The modern Globe resembles the original, but has mod cons such as toilets and sprinklers!

Shakespeare wrote approximately 37 plays. There may have been more but he did not take care of his manuscripts once a play had been performed. After he died, his friends produced a Catalogue of his plays grouped into Comedies, Histories and Tragedies. Only about 250 of 50 Catalogues produced are still in existence.  

Gary then posed the question ‘Who wasn’t Will Shakespeare?’ He said that there was no real evidence that any of his plays were written by anybody else. He was the victim of snobbery because he had not been to university. Theories that Francis Bacon, Edward de Beer and Christopher Marlowe may have been the playwrights are all discredited. No-one can answer the question ‘Why did the other writer not claim the credit?’ Was Shakespeare a good husband? Anne stayed in Stratford while he worked in London. He probably spent less time there than is generally thought and may have been the first long distance commuter. He pent time writing in Stratford where he was not interrupted. It is clear that he divided his time between the two. It has been suggested that he became involved with other women, but he looked after Anne very well financially.

Shakespeare retired in 1610 and died on April 23rd 1616 in Stratford where he was buried. As with his birth, the exact date is not certain. The cause of his death is not known, but the wording of his Will is confused and his handwriting was shaky. His plays show a very intelligent man fascinated with a wide range of subjects and a lover of the English language.

He was genuinely modest and lived a quiet life. Prospero’s speech about abandoning magic in his last play, ‘The Tempest’, can be read as Shakespeare’s farewell.

In reply to questions, Gary said that once his career took off, he almost certainly did not travel. There was an earlier period of 7-8 years when little is known about him. He may have travelled then as well as doing tutoring work in the north of England. Although many of his plays were set in Italy, the geography was often completely wrong. The shipwreck in ‘A Winter’s Tale’ is off Bohemia, a landlocked country. Costumes in his time were contemporary. Cassius performed in a doublet rather than a toga. Gary suggested that the intelligent use of modern props could work well, but altering the words was a bad idea.