Chances are you could name most -- if not all -- of his plays. You'll doubtless be able to name a fair few of his most famous characters. And perhaps you're even able to recite some of his most famous lines. In fact, Shakespeare's life and work is so well-known these days that even the names of his three children (Susanna, Hamnet, Judith), the seemingly bizarre item he left his wife in his will (the family's second-best bed), and the fact that his wife shares her name with an Oscar-winning actress (Anne Hathaway), are all so widely know they might well pop up as questions on games show or at your local pub quiz.
But how much do we really know about Shakespeare? Well, here are 10 much less familiar facts about arguably the world's most famous writer...
1. His father was a professional beer taster
John Shakespeare was born in Snitterfield in Warwickshire, England, in the early 1530s and moved to William's eventual birthplace, Stratford-on-Avon, in 1551. Despite being fairly poorly educated and illiterate (he used a drawing of a pair of compasses as his signature), John worked his way up from running a shop selling his family's farm produce to opening his own glove-making business, and eventually being appointed to one of the town's most important roles -- the official ale-taster of Stratford. In Elizabethan England, ale-tasting (or "conning," as it was known) was a fairly serious business, and "conners" like John Shakespeare not only put themselves at risk to ensure that all the local ale supplies were safe and unpolluted, but were required to swear an oath promising that they would ensure all locally-produced ale was sold at a fair enough price to raise enough taxable revenue.
2. He inadvertently changed America's wildlife
In 1877, the American Acclimatization Society -- an ecological society that sought to introduce European flora and fauna in the United States -- decided to release every single species of bird mentioned in the works of Shakespeare into America. And thanks to a line in the opening act of Henry IV: Part 1, one the species on the Society's list was the European starling; there are now 200,000,000 of them all across North America.
3. We don't always know what he's talking about
Shakespeare's writing can often seem impenetrable to audiences and readers, but cutting through the enigmatic wordplay and the jumbled syntax is only half the battle: the fact is that there are numerous examples in Shakespeare's plays wherein, even now after years of academic study, no one is entirely sure exactly what he's on about. In Twelfth Night, for instance, the clown Feste states that he "did impeticos" some money that was given to him. Does he mean he's "impocketed" the money? Or has he "im-petticoated" it, and spent it on new clothes? Or on a woman? Or on a prostitute? No one knows precisely what this particularly Shakespearism was meant to mean -- and it's likely we never will.
4. He invented a lot of words. A LOT.
Everyone knows Shakespeare played around with language to suit his needs, but are you aware of just how many words his words provide the earliest attestations of? Of the roughly 31,500 different words in his Complete Works, as many as 1 in every 30 is thought to be of his own invention -- or, to put that into context, imagine that two of the words in this 60-word paragraph are completely new to you.
5. ...but your vocabulary is still probably better than his.
Let's be fair -- for an Elizabethan gentleman, Shakespeare's vocabulary wasn't too bad, but the chances are that yours is more than twice as large as his. Shakespeare's 31,500 words pales in light of the fact that today an average adult's vocabulary (depending on their level of education, their job, their interests, and so on) is probably in the region of 50,000-75,000 words.
6. He never spelled his name the same way twice
Or at least, he never did in his surviving signatures. There are six known records of Shakespeare's handwritten signature (including three from the same document), all of which are spelled differently. In chronological order, they read (1) Willm Shakp, signed on a legal deposition in 1612; (2) William Shakspēr, in 1613; (3) Wm Shakspē, on a mortgage document in 1613; (4) William Shakspere, on the first page of his will; (5) Willm Shakspere, on the second page of his will; and (6) William Shakspeare, on the last page of his will, signed in 1616. Notice also that not one of them says "William Shakespeare"...
7. He apparently wore an earring
The Chandos portrait -- one of only a few portraits of Shakespeare in existence -- seems to show that Shakespeare wore a small gold hoop earring in his left ear.
8. One of his relatives was beheaded for plotting against Elizabeth I
In 1583, Shakespeare's third cousin Edward Arden (the son of William Arden, his mother Mary Arden's second cousin) was caught up in a plot hatched by his son-in-law, John Somerville, to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. The plot, however, was discovered long before Somerville had the opportunity to carry it out, and unfortunately Arden found himself embroiled in the subsequent investigation and was eventually executed.
9. He once gave evidence in court
In 1612, Shakespeare was called to London to give evidence in a bitter court case between his former landlord, Christopher Mountjoy, and his son-in-law, Stephen Bellott, who had been employed as Mountjoy's apprentice during Shakespeare's tenancy. Speaking in court, he confirmed that Bellott was a "very good and industrious servant" and "a very honest fellow," and that he had been approached by Mountjoy's wife to act as matchmaker, helping to set Bellott up with the Mountjoys' daughter, Mary. Although the case ended somewhat inconclusively, the transcription of Shakespeare's testimony provides us with a remarkable record of how he actually spoke.
10. He completely disappeared in 1585
In fact, Shakespeare disappeared for seven years: there is no historical record of him at all between the baptism of his twins' in 1585 and a mention to him in a derogatory article written by the playwright Robert Greene in 1592 (that denounced him as "an upstart cow beautified with our feathers.") What did he do for those seven years? Well, different theories claim he studied law, toured Britain or travelled Europe, worked as a schoolteacher -- or perhaps went into hiding after being caught poaching deer on a Warwickshire estate. Unfortunately, we'll probably never know for sure.