Why Shakespeare Matters To People Who Don’t Think Shakespeare Matters

The following is courtesy of the venerable Bill Bryson in his book Shakespeare: The World as Stage. I share it in the beginning of the school year with my students in my Shakespeare 101 elective class. Some think it rather trivial, but as the class progresses, many begin to see that the scope of Shakespeare’s work is rather incredible.


  • Left 1 million words of text
  • Never signed his name the same way twice
  • 38 (some say 39) plays Shakespeare
  • 154 sonnets
  • 138,198 commas
  • 26794 colons
  • 15,785 question marks
  • 884, 647 words
  • 31,959 speeches
  • 118, 406 lines
  • 7000 works on Shakespeare alone in Library of Congress – it would take 20 continuous years of reading to finish
  • 1100 films
  • His average play was 2,700 lines – 2.5 hours
  • Comedy of Errors is shortest at 1800 lines
  • Hamlet is longest at 4000 plus lines
  • 70% of his plays are blank verse
  • 5% of plays arerhymed meter
  • 25% are prose
  • There are anatopisms (look it up) and anachronisms and horrible geography
  • 29,066 different words used in his works – 20,000 if you remove different forms (average person knows 50k words with all of the new nouns)
  • Coined 2,035 words (suffixes, prefixes) – over 1700 exclusive words

And then I share with them the theories that the man known as William Shakespeare may not have actually been the person who wrote the plays. Considering that only 14 words exist in his own hand and a will (no pun intended) that bequeaths to his wife the second best bed of the household, there is not much concrete evidence to ensure that the Bard is who we think is a man from Stratford-Upon-the river Avon is the writer of the world’s most well-known plays.

People like Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, and modern “Oxfordians” have offered theories that Shakespeare’s work is actually the product of one Edward deVere, the Earl of Oxford. It is a story shown in the rather recent movie Anonymous, which is entertaining and does provide some insight into Elizabethan culture. I show that movie to the Shakespeare class for perspective.

Others theorize that maybe Christopher Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays after his “murder” or that Francis Bacon wrote them in between his philosophical excursions.

But a fairly recent article from The Guardian may just have set this whole thing to rest and let The Bard be The Bard.

It is entitled “How ‘Sherlock of the library’ cracked the case of Shakespeare’s identity.”  Here is the link – https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/jan/08/sherlock-holmes-of-the-library-cracks-shakespeare-identity.

For those of you who are Shakespeare enthusiasts, it is worth the read because it is worth the read. If you’ve read some James Shapiro or Stephen Greenblatt or Harold Bloom or even some Bill Bryson in addition to actual Shakespeare, then you can understand that there is a fascination with knowing a connection with the man and the creations for the stage.

But for those of you who do not like Shakespeare, then this article is just as important if not more. Because it shows us something that we all need to know.

Everyone has possibilities.

How can a country boy with an eight-grade education literally come to London and become the greatest writer the English speaking world would come to know? There are those who refused to believe that someone who could have not been of high breeding or have attended the best university (or even graduated high school) could go on and do great things in spite of those challenges.

Apparently Shakespeare did.

We need to know that there can be leaders, pioneers, inventors, voices, revolutionaries, and artists whose backgrounds defy the very logic of society and help us define how we see ourselves.

Literature is filled with them.

And the lists of people who write literature is filled with them as well.

Plus, I like country kids who revere books and words and dream fairly big.