UCL News


Was Shakespeare lame?

22 March 2007

Convincing evidence that Shakespeare had a congenital disability that caused him to limp has been put forward by a UCL (University College London) academic.

A radical biographical rereading of Shakespeare's texts combined with extensive study of the Stratford archives has thrown fresh light on the much debated question of Shakespeare's disability and found that he was indeed likely to have been lame.

In 'Shakespeare Revealed - a Biography', published today by John Murray, Professor René Weis of the UCL Department of English Literature & Language, argues that references that are usually read figuratively should be read literally.

The 'Sonnets' provide the first clues to his disability when they say that the poet was 'made lame by Fortune's dearest spite'. Shakespeare despairs of having his 'strength by limping sway disabled' and instructs his friend to speak 'of my lameness'. The line 'made lame by Fortune's dearest spite' is closely echoed in King Lear when Edgar, who later takes King Lear's place as the ruler of the kingdom, calls himself 'A most poor man made lame by fortune's blows'.

Professor Weis said: "I argue here that Shakespeare's works reflect his life much more closely than anyone has assumed to date. The rich biographical information contained in the 'Sonnets' and plays has been overlooked, I think, partly because he is so iconic, almost a mythical figure, who we don't dare think of as human.

"And yet, the 'Sonnets' and plays are profoundly subjective and tell a real life story which can't be ignored if we are to fully understand the work and the man. This is quite a radical way of looking at Shakespeare but the vast number of convincing overlaps between his life and his literary works can't all be discounted as coincidence!"

The researcher has pieced together evidence from archives that have remained unopened for almost half a century. The archives, held by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust on Henley Street, sit next door to Shakespeare's birthplace and main residence. Professor Weis said: "I've reconstructed Stratford-upon-Avon and Henley Street in great detail for the first time to show who lived where, how big their properties were, what Shakespeare's neighbours did, how they interacted and the rents and rates they paid.

"Surprisingly, this has never been done before and yet the picture of Shakespeare, his family and neighbours in their own backyard gives a genuine, solid background to the Shakespeare story"

Among the research findings is fresh evidence that Shakespeare was part of a love triangle with Henry Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southampton, and the 'Dark Lady', who Professor Weis argues is Emilia Bassano, a Venetian Jewish musician.

His relationship with Emilia Bassano is played out in the 'Sonnets' and the 'Merchant of Venice', which figures the most famous Jew in English literature and a character called Bassanio. The academic argues that these clues to the relationship combined with the setting in Bassano's birthplace of Venice, and the fact that Shakespeare is known to use and subvert real names in his works, provide circumstantial evidence, which, along with local records, builds up a convincing picture of their relationship.

In Sonnet 152 the poet accuses the 'Dark Lady' of breaking her marriage vows with both himself and the fair youth, who Professor Weis argues is Third Earl of Southampton. The poem says: "In loving thee thou know'st I am forsworn,/But thou art twice forsworn to me love swearing,/In act thy bed-vow broke and new faith torn…"

Another new finding is that the dramatist William Davenant may well have been Jane Davenant and Shakespeare's illegitimate son.

According to the academic, the same year that William Davenant was born Shakespeare wrote 'King Lear', a play that is obsessed with bastardy, female sexuality, and godsons. The fact that the only person in the seventeenth century to call himself Shakespeare's godson was William Davenant and that, according to local hearsay, when drunk, he named Shakespeare to be his father, adds further grounds for believing that the textual indications do in fact reveal an important aspect of Shakespeare's life and preoccupations.

Professor Weis said: "The cornerstone of my book is not Shakespeare's lameness, his bisexuality or the identity of either the 'Dark Lady' or the 'Rival Poet' - although these are all uncovered - it's simply that Shakespeare's work is profoundly subjective and that his real life is reflected in the plays and poems throughout his life."

Notes for Editors

1. For more information, please contact Professor Rene Weis on +44 (0) 20 7679 3147 or e-mail r.weis@ucl.ac.uk

2. Alternatively, please contact Alex Brew in the UCL Media Relations Office on tel: +44 (0)20 7679 9726, mobile: +44 (0) 7747 565 056, out of hours +44 (0)7917 271 364, e-mail: a.brew@ucl.ac.uk

3. "Shakespeare Revealed - a biography" is published on 22nd March 2007.