The Special and Noble Tradition of Being a Bard (Part 2)

“All the world’s a stage,

and all the men and women merely players:

they have their exits and their entrances;

and one man in his time plays many parts …”

~ William Shakespeare from As You Like It, Act II, Scene 7, 139–42

I’m going to commence part 2 unapologetic for my continued worship binge of William Shakespeare! Especially after his recent #Shakespeare400 anniversary.

For me, text comes alive when you can see and hear actors performing it. So there’s going to be lots of media in this post.

Here’s a comic Hamlet taster from the celebrations held at the RSC in Stratford in conjunction with the BBC:

The first published mention of Shakespeare’s plays was made  in Palladis Tamia: Wit’s Treasury, by Francis Meres in 1598:


His sonnets weren’t published as a collective work for a further eleven years.

Love’s Labour’s Won

Because so little is known about William Shakespeare the man, the mention of an unknown play, Love’s Labour’s Won adds to the mystery surrounding his life and work. It was originally thought that Love’s Labour Won was the same play as The Taming of the Shrew, it wasn’t uncommon for his plays to be known under different names: Twelfth Night was sometimes called Malvolio and Much Ado About Nothing was sometimes referred to as Benedict and Beatrice, so the possibility of an alternative title was entirely plausible.

But in 1953 the mystery deepened when a book dealer in London came across a fragment of a bookseller’s inventory from 1603, listing both Love Labour’s Won and The Taming of the Shrew together, indicating that they were indeed separate plays. If it ever existed in printed form there is hope that one of the potential 1500 lost copies may surface one day…

It leads on to the question, if Love’s Labour’s Won really is a separate play, why wasn’t it included by Heminges and Condell in the First Folio?

Shakespeare vs Milton – Fascinating debate about the kings of English literature:

Shakespeare in film

Films continue to be made of his plays, and even about Shakespeare himself. For your viewing pleasure!


The Merchant of Venice (2004):

Much Ado About Nothing (1993):


Romeo and Juliet (2013):

Richard III (1955):

Henry V:

Hamlet: (1996):

Othello (1995):

Twelfth Night (1996):

Shakespeare In Love:

I’d like to dedicate the remainder of the post with excerpts from some of the greatest bards the world has ever known.

Christopher Marlowe – Excerpt from Doctor Faustus

You stars that reign’d at my nativity,

Whose influence hath allotted death and hell,

Now draw up Faustus like a foggy mist

Into entrails of yon labouring clouds,

That when they vomit forth into the air,

My limbs may issue from their smoky mouths,

So that my soul may but ascend to Heaven.

Mephisto before Faust by Eugene Delacroix

Mephisto before Faust by Eugene Delacroix

William Blake ~ (Notebook 40)

Abstinence sows sand all over

The ruddy limbs and flaming hair

But Desire Gratified

Plants fruits and beauty there.

Cremation of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier

Cremation of Shelley by Louis Edouard Fournier

Love’s Philosophy by Percy Bysshe Shelley, read beautifully by Tom O’Bedlam:

Ulysses ~ Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

It little profits that an idle king,

By this still hearth, among these barren crags,

Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole

Unequal laws unto a savage race,

That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink

Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy’d

Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those

That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when

Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades

Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;

For always roaming with a hungry heart

Much have I seen and known; cities of men

And manners, climates, councils, governments,

Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;

And drunk delight of battle with my peers,

Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.

I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades

For ever and forever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life

Were all too little, and of one to me

Little remains: but every hour is saved

From that eternal silence, something more,

A bringer of new things; and vile it were

For some three suns to store and hoard myself,

And this gray spirit yearning in desire

To follow knowledge like a sinking star,

Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,

To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—

Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil

This labour, by slow prudence to make mild

A rugged people, and thro’ soft degrees

Subdue them to the useful and the good.

Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere

Of common duties, decent not to fail

In offices of tenderness, and pay

Meet adoration to my household gods,

When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:

There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,

Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—

That ever with a frolic welcome took

The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed

Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;

Death closes all: but something ere the end,

Some work of noble note, may yet be done,

Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:

The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep

Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,

‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.

Push off, and sitting well in order smite

The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Ulysses by JW Waterhouse

Ulysses by JW Waterhouse

BBC Documentary about Byron, Keats, and Shelley – The Romantics – Eternity:

Edgar Allan Poe-The Raven- Read by James Earl Jones:

Audio book playlist by Random House – The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran:

Rabindranath Tagore on boundaries and understanding:

Audiobook of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno (Part 1 of 4):

Great website covering classic literature, explaining here about the epic poem The Iliad by Homer.

Achilles Slays Hector by Peter Paul Rubens

Achilles Slays Hector by Peter Paul Rubens

I’m going to finish with Shakespeare, probably the greatest Bard of all time and the greatest soliloquy of all time: To be, or not to be from Hamlet.

Kenneth Brannagh is electrifying:

Going back through the ages, oral tradition was everything, however, when the written word came into being all the ‘Bards’ that have come since could be immortalised.

True Bardic tradition may be a thing of the past, but modern authors, poets and musicians can leave a legacy of their work. Perhaps not on the scale of the likes of Chaucer, Milton, Shakespeare and Tagore, but we all have an imagination, which Einstein reminded us is more important than intelligence.

Excerpt from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

Excerpt from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

Art and culture as we know it owes everything to the bards of the ages, and in this digital age we can all be a ‘Bard’ or even ‘Bardess’, to a larger or lesser extent…

#Shakespeare400 – William Shakespeare, Exalted Wordsmith Extraordinaire…🎭✒📖

“Shakespeare’s language has a quality difficult to define, of memorability that has caused many phrases to enter the common language.” ~ Stanley Wells

Four hundred years ago today, our greatest playwright, poet and actor passed away at his home in Stratford-upon-Avon at the age of fifty two.

Shakespeare's birthplace in Henley Street

Shakespeare’s birthplace in Henley Street

It’s a miracle Shakespeare made it that far, in a time when the plague wiped out huge numbers of the Tudor population, especially in infancy and youth, and if that didn’t get you there was malnutrition, starvation, murder, or being executed for saying or writing the wrong thing at the wrong time.

He is long gone, but far from being forgotten…

I was surprised to learn that Shakespeare wasn’t as learned as I first assumed, especially not when compared with Ben Johnson, his friend and contemporary; an intellectual poet, playwright and dramatist who had been influenced by Tacitus, Pliny and Suetonius. Although an ardent fan of Shakespeare, author Bill Bryson describes Johnson as a man ‘whose learning hangs like bunting on every word’.

The Tempest by William Hogarth c. 1735

The Tempest by William Hogarth c. 1735

There are errors in Shakespeare’s plays that seem inconsequential in the face of his fame; such as placing a sailmaker in Bergamo (a land locked city it Italy) in The Taming of the Shew, while having Prospero and Valentine set sail respectively from Milan and Verona in The Tempest and The Two Gentlemen of Verona. He indicated no knowledge of Venice consisting of canals, and he introduced the clock to Caesar’s Rome fourteen hundred years before the first mechanical ticking was invented.

He was a master at manipulating the facts to suit his plots. One such example is in Part 1 of Henry VI, where Lord Talbot pre-deceases Joan of Arc instead of facing her in battle at Orleans.

Where Shakespeare did excel, to a large extent, was by taking existing plays, plots and poems and reworking them to be more engaging and memorable; imbuing them with his own brand of greatness.

It appears that he wasn’t scrupulous about what, where and how he sourced his ideas. This ‘borrowing’ of material was common practice to all Elizabethan playwrights, and it’s probably just as well for us that ‘intellectual property’ hadn’t yet been invented, and even the plays of the day often went without attribution.

It’s suspected that the first version of Hamlet that pre-dates Shakespeare was by Thomas Kyd, but it has been lost and no-one knows how similar or different the two versions are.

Romeo and Juliet before Father Lawrence by karl Ludwig Friedrich Becker

Romeo and Juliet before Father Lawrence by karl Ludwig Friedrich Becker

Other plays by Shakespeare that were based on earlier works include: King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, The Winter’s Tale, Othello and Much Ado About Nothing. So, even though he was, and still is, rightly considered England’s undisputed literary genius, he wasn’t without flaws.

There’s hope for the rest of us folks!

Master of language

Shakespeare assimilated the knowledge he needed and integrated it with the human condition, which he did have a vast knowledge of (vast being one of his words incidentally), so even though he didn’t necessarily have all the facts right, nobody could hold a candle to him when it came to emotions; to ambition, intrigue, love and suffering. Those universal conditions he portrayed with deft understanding and imagination.

Play Scene from Hamlet by Daniel Maclise

Play Scene from Hamlet by Daniel Maclise

He was an innovator who used the power of words and language to its maximum advantage. The English language was undergoing somewhat of a renaissance in the 16th century, when around 12,000 new words entered the language between 1500 and 1650, with approximately half of them still in use today. Many of the old words were also employed in a new contextual and linguistic framework.

A breath of fresh literary air…

We think of Shakespeare’s language as being old fashioned, but in his day he mostly opted for the more modern, newer word. He never used seeth, but preferred sees, and used spoke rather than spake, cleft to clave, and goes to goeth. However, he did have his idiosyncracies, and for the most part employed thou in preference to you.

Shakespeare inventively created expressions that had no usage in grammar beforehand, such as ‘breathing one’s last’ and ‘backing a horse’ and over the span of his career is credited with the first recorded use of 2,035 words.

Included in some of these words are: abstemious, antipathy, critical, frugal, dwindle, extract, horrid, vast, hereditary, excellent, eventful, barefaced, assassination, lonely, leapfrog, indistinguishable, well-read, zany and countless others (including countless)!

Shakespeare's bust at the Birthplace House

Shakespeare’s bust at the Birthplace House

Shakespeare also pioneered use of the prefix un- to some 309 existing words to give them new meaning, such as: unmask, unhand, unlock, untie and unveil.

He was a wordsmith of unfaltering exuberance and fecundity, introducing a torrent of new words and phrases into common usage: one fell swoop, vanish into thin air, play fast and loose, go down the primrose path, be in a pickle, budge an inch, the milk of human kindness, more sinned against than sinning, to thine own self be true, flesh and blood, foul play, be cruel to be kind, with bated breath, pomp and circumstance – and many others, which have become so deliciously irresistible and a staple of our language diet.

There are even two in one line from Hamlet:

Though I am native here and to the manner born, it is a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance.

Using the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations as a guide, Shakespeare contributed around one-tenth of all the most quotable phrases ever uttered in the written English language. Quite a feat!

In an age when Latin was the prevailing scholarly and published language , (out of 6,000 books contained in the Bodleian Library in 1605, only 36 of these were in English), Shakespeare and his contemporaries can be credited with increasing the availability of English in its country of origin and eroding the Latin trend.

Valentine Rescues Silvia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona c. 1789

Valentine Rescues Silvia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona c. 1789

Stanley Wells stated, ‘It is telling that William Shakespeare’s birth is recorded in Latin but that he dies in English, as “William Shakespeare, gentleman”.’

Here is an interesting and humorous lecture given by the pre-eminent Shakespeare scholar, Stanley Wells, on Sex and Love in Verona, Venice and Vienna:

The First Folios

The main reason Shakespeare continues to entertain us today is down to the publication of his plays in 1623, seven years after his death. These ‘first folios’ were given the title: Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies and had 630 pages.  It is thought that around 750 editions were originally printed, but only 233 remain in existence today.  However, recently a first folio was discovered on the Isle of Bute. 


From The British Library:

He wrote around 37 plays, 36 of which are contained in the First Folio. Most of these plays were performed in the Globe, an open-air playhouse in London built on the south bank of the Thames in 1599. As none of Shakespeare’s original manuscripts survive (except, possibly, Sir Thomas More, which Shakespeare is believed to have revised a part of) we only know his work from printed editions.

Of the 36 plays in the First Folio, 17 were printed in Shakespeare’s lifetime in various good and bad quarto editions, one was printed after his death and 18 had not yet been printed at all. It is this fact that makes the First Folio so important; without it, 18 of Shakespeare’s plays, including Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, Julius Caesar and The Tempest, might never have survived.

The text was collated by two of Shakespeare’s fellow actors and friends, John Heminge and Henry Condell, who edited it and supervised the printing. They divided the plays into comedies, tragedies and histories, an editorial decision that has come to shape our idea of the Shakespearean canon.

In order to produce as authoritative a text as possible, Heminge and Condell compiled it from the good quartos and from manuscripts (now lost) such as prompt books, authorial fair copy, and foul papers (working drafts). The First Folio offered a corrective to what are now called bad quartos – spurious and corrupt pirate editions, likely based on memorial reconstruction.

The portrait of Shakespeare on the title page was engraved by Martin Droeshout and is one of only two portraits with any claim to authenticity. As Droeshout would have only been 15 when Shakespeare died it is unlikely that they actually met. Instead his picture was probably drawn from the memory of others, or from an earlier portrait. The writer Ben Jonson’s admiring introduction to the First Folio, seen in the title page image, declared in verse that the engraver had achieved a good likeness.

A wonderful talk from Dr. Eric Rasmussen of the University of Nevada, about the project of locating and cataloguing the First Folios, based on the locations discovered by Anthony James West over fifteen years:

When I visited Stratford in 2014 I purchased his revised edition of the RSC ‘s Complete Works that he co-edited with Jonathon Bate, complete with the yellow cover he jokes about!

My treasured copy of the RSC Complete Works of William Shakespeare

My treasured copy of the RSC Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s plays were made up of about seventy percent Blank Verse, five percent rhymed verse and twenty five percent prose. His vocabulary ran to about 20,000 words (more like 30-50K if you include variants of words), and boy did he work magic with those words…

He illuminated the workings of the soul in a way that very few have been able to do before or since.

Duke Orsino:

If music be the food of love, play on,

Give me excess of it; that surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken, and so die.

Twelfth Night Act 1, scene 1, 1–3