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Are there any stories and legends about Shakespeare and his theater?

Yes, there are several stories. They range from the true to the very unlikely, and come from a variety of sources.

            What are some true stories?

The performance that almost landed Shakespeare in prison.

On February 7, 1601, followers of Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, prevailed upon the members of Shakespeare’s company to perform Shakespeare’s Richard II. Elizabethans saw parallels between Elizabeth and Richard II and between Bolingbroke and Essex. It was an old play and the players didn’t want to perform it, but Essex’s men gave them money and the play was performed to an enthusiastic audience of Essex supporters. The next morning, Essex staged his abortive coup. As a result, he was beheaded. Another to be condemned, but pardoned, was the Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron and a follower of Essex. Shakespeare’s company spent several days under suspicion before the authorities decided that they weren’t really involved in the plot.

The performance that brought down the house.

The premier performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII was on June 16, 1613, in the Globe theater. During the performance, cannon were used for realism. Smoldering wadding from the cannon set the thatched roof of the Globe on fire and the theater burned to the ground. No lives were lost and the Globe was quickly rebuilt.

            What are some stories that are less likely?

A titillating tale.

On March 13, 1602, John Manningham wrote a story about Shakespeare and Burbage in his diary: Burbage was playing Richard III which was his first big successful role. A woman made an assignation with Burbage and told him to say he was Richard III. However, Shakespeare overheard them and, arriving before Burbage, was "at his game" when Burbage arrived. Burbage sent in word that Richard III was at the door, but Shakespeare sent back word that William the Conqueror came before Richard III.


Is it true? Your guess is as good as mine.

            What about really doubtful stories?

A lot of stories about Shakespeare are first recorded within a century of his death, but can’t be shown to date from his lifetime. Some of these stories are from fairly unreliable sources. Among the stories are:

Shakespeare left Stratford-On-Avon because he had been caught poaching deer from nearby Charlecote Park, owned by the noble Lucy family.

Shakespeare taught school for a while.

Shakespeare got his start in the theater by holding horses for gentlemen patrons. He organized a group of boys, Shakespeare’s Boys, in this activity.

Shakespeare performed as the Ghost in Hamlet.

Shakespeare was the natural father of William D’Avenant, a Poet Laureate who was born William Davenant and was the son of an Oxford inn-keeper. D’Avenant, himself, is the source of this story. Shakespeare may have been a frequent patron of the inn.

Shakespeare and Ben Jonson got drunk together after Shakespeare had retired to Stratford. After one such bout, Shakespeare caught cold and died.

Are there any stories about performing Shakespeare’s plays during the past 400 years?

The curse of the Scottish Play.

Many theater professionals will not pronounce the name "Macbeth." It is believed that the play is cursed. If the play must be referred to, it is called The Scottish Play. If  "Macbeth" is said aloud, then there are elaborate rituals that must be performed to avert the curse. The rituals differ between actors. There is no clear consensus as to how the curse got started, but its reality is rarely doubted in theaters.

The Ghost walks.

Supposedly there was once a company of actors performing Hamlet. The company was struggling and the actors hadn’t been paid in a while. One night the actor playing the Ghost decided to take matters into his own hands. He waited until the play had started and then refused to go on stage until the actors were paid. The frantic manager paid the actors, and the Ghost walked. Payday in the theater can still be referred to as "the Ghost walks."

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Copyright © 2002 Dana Spradley, Publisher, for shakespeare.com