30 Great Myths About Shakespeare
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More About This Title 30 Great Myths About Shakespeare


Think you know Shakespeare? Think again . . .

Was a real skull used in the first performance of Hamlet? Were Shakespeare's plays Elizabethan blockbusters? How much do we really know about the playwright's life? And what of his notorious relationship with his wife? Exploring and exploding 30 popular myths about the great playwright, this illuminating new book evaluates all the evidence to show how historical material—or its absence—can be interpreted and misinterpreted, and what this reveals about our own personal investment in the stories we tell.


Laurie Maguire is Professor of English at the University of Oxford, tutorial fellow at Magdalen College, and the author or editor of seven books. She is a regular theater reviewer for the TLS and has lectured widely across the UK and the USA.

Emma Smith is tutorial fellow at Hertford College, Oxford. She is the author or editor of six books, a regular reviewer for the TLS, and has lectured widely across the UK and the USA.

The authors have previously collaborated together on articles on Middleton and Shakespeare and on graduate courses at the University of Oxford.


Introduction 1

Myth 1 Shakespeare was the most popular writer of his time 6

Myth 2 Shakespeare was not well educated 11

Myth 3 Shakespeare’s plays should be performed in Elizabethan dress 18

Myth 4 Shakespeare was not interested in having his plays printed 26

Myth 5 Shakespeare never traveled 34

Myth 6 Shakespeare’s plays are politically incorrect 40

Myth 7 Shakespeare was a Catholic 47

Myth 8 Shakespeare’s plays had no scenery 54

Myth 9 Shakespeare’s tragedies are more serious than his comedies 60

Myth 10 Shakespeare hated his wife 66

Myth 11 Shakespeare wrote in the rhythms of everyday speech 72

Myth 12 Hamlet was named after Shakespeare’s son 80

Myth 13 The coarse bits of Shakespeare are for the groundlings; the philosophy is for the upper classes 86

Myth 14 Shakespeare was a Stratford playwright 94

Myth 15 Shakespeare was a plagiarist 99

Myth 16 We don’t know much about Shakespeare’s life 106

Myth 17 Shakespeare wrote alone 113

Myth 18 Shakespeare’s sonnets are autobiographical 119

Myth 19 If Shakespeare were writing now, he’d be writing forHollywood 125

Myth 20 The Tempest was Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage 130

Myth 21 Shakespeare had a huge vocabulary 137

Myth 22 Shakespeare’s plays are timeless 143

Myth 23 Macbeth is jinxed in the theater 150

Myth 24 Shakespeare did not revise his plays 156

Myth 25 Boy actors played women’s roles 163

Myth 26 Shakespeare’s plays don’t work as movies 169

Myth 27 Yorick’s skull was real 175

Myth 28 Queen Elizabeth loved Shakespeare’s plays 183

Myth 29 Shakespeare’s characters are like real people 190

Myth 30 Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare 196

Coda 202

Further Reading 207

Index 211


"Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith's 30 Great Myths About Shakespeare is a thought-provoking myth-buster ... It entertains the reader with new material and detective-like connections ... A huge amount of research, work and selection lies behind this book, and it pays off. Not just students, but every academic should take note." (Times Literary Supplement, 29 November 2013)

"Lively, enjoyable and sensible throughout." (London Review of Books, 5 December 2013)

"The myth that Macbeth is jinxed in the theatre, is, says Maguire, a 'self-fulfilling prophecy based on a hoax.' And so it is, and delightfully so, but you’ll have to read the book to find out why."  (Irish Examiner, 5 June 2013). 

"This is a good book by trustworthy Shakespeareans ... The individual myths, structured into moderate-length essays (thus you do not have to read them in order), can be excellent for discussions in the classroom or lecture-room. Though the book obviously targets readership already into Shakespeare, every novice will enjoy finding satisfactory answers to the myths they are bothered with." (Huffington Post, 24  April 2013)

"The value of this little book lies in its ceaseless exploration." (Times Higher Education, 7 March 2013)

"Even if you know Shakespeare well, this delightful book will offer thought-provoking new angles." (The Scotsman, 2 March 2013)

"A book that manages the rare feat of exercising scholarly caution...while still providing a highly entertaining portrait of the man himself." (Sunday Times, 24 February 2013)

“Learned and enjoyable (that rarest of combinations), 30 Great Myths is a brilliant exploration of the truth behind popular assumptions about Shakespeare. Some of these myths turn out to be true, some false and some impossible to be decisive about. But these mini-essays are always at once fascinating, provoking and fun.”—Peter Holland, University of Notre Dame

“This is a fresh, learned, thoughtful and generous-spirited review of the more-or-less received ideas we so often invoke when we talk about Shakespeare. Written with wit and verve by two outstanding experts in the field, it will entertain and inform experienced readers and playgoers  as well as those approaching the plays and poems for the first time.”—Russell Jackson, University of Birmingham

30 Great Myths About Shakespeare is superb.  Laurie Maguire and Emma Smith have written an incisive, witty, and open-minded book, one that uses popular myths as a point of entry into the profound and vexing questions raised by Shakespeare’s art. Scholars, actors, and general readers will find themselves in their debt.”—James Shapiro, Columbia University