William Shakespeare, the son of John Shakespeare, a glover and alderman, and Mary Arden, the daughter of successful farmer, was born in Stratford-upon-Avon (locals call it “Stratford”; the hyphenated name is descriptive — Stratford lies on the River Avon), England. William was the third of eight children in the Shakespeare home located on Henley Street. The Shakespeare siblings included, in order of birth: Joan (died at 2 months), Margaret (died at one year), William (died at 52), Gilbert (died at 46), Joan (died at 77), Anne (died at 7), Richard (died at 39), and Edmund (died at 27). As you can imagine, Shakespeare’s five living siblings probably had lots of nicknames for the future playwright. Most likely his siblings used common nicknames for William like “Willy,” “Will,” “Bill,” or “Billie.” Maybe his mother called him “Wiley” when he got into trouble (like writing on the walls). Perhaps there were nicknames based on his habits or appearance. The truth is, no one really knows for sure.
But what we do know are the nicknames for Shakespeare once he was established as a successful poet and playwright. Below are the common nicknames for William Shakespeare — the laudatory and the derogatory.
The Bard: Bard is derived from the Scottish Gaelic word “bard,” meaning poet. In medieval England and Ireland, bards were traveling poets (also know as wandering minstrels) who wrote and recited heroic or poems, while playing a lyre or harp, often in exchange for money. Regarded by English scholars as the greatest and most influential poet in the English language, it is fitting that William Shakespeare is simply known as the Bard (or “The Bard”).
The Bard of Avon: A variation of the first name using Avon to designate the river that flows through Stratford, his birthplace and hometown.
The Sweet Swan of Avon (or “Swan of Avon”): A complimentary nickname bestowed upon Shakespeare by Ben Jonson, a famous contemporary playwright, in his dedicatory poem that appears in the preface to the First Folio. (The First Folio was compiled by Shakespeare’s fellow actors Henry Condell and John Heminges and printed by Edward Bount and William and Isaac Jaggard in 1623.) The poem, entitled “To the Memory of My Beloved, the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare,” includes these lines:
Sweet Swan of Avon! What a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appeare,
And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames,
That so did take Eliza and our Iames!
So why did Jonson use the metaphor of the swan to describe Shakespeare? The most likely explanation is that Jonson was simply referring to the metaphorical phrase “swan song,” meaning a final performance right before death. The ancient Greeks believed that a swan was mute throughout its life, but right before it died it sang a beautiful, melodious song, happy that it would be joining its master, the god Apollo. Although swans are not mute, the legend of the swan singing its final song was perpetuated by classic literature luminaries like Aesop, Aeschylus, Plato, Aristotle, and Ovid (talk about a literary dream team!). William Geoffrey Arnott, an expert on Greek comic poetry and birds in the ancient world, writes about the legend’s impact: “The legend of the dying swan’s melancholy song is given its first expression in extant Greek literature by Aeschylus in 458 BC and it has obsessed poets, commentators, and natural historians ever since.”
Lexicographer Robert Hendrickson takes this discussion further: “Shakespeare was called the Swan of Avon, Homer was called the Swan of Meander, and Virgil [was called] the Mantuan Swan because Apollo, the god of poetry and song, was fabled to have been changed into a swan and the souls of all poets were at one time thought to pass into the bodies of swans after death.” Hendrickson may have slipped on some of the details regarding Greek mythology. According to the ancient Greek legend, Apollo turned Cygnus into a swan and placed him in the heavens because Cygnus was so sad over the loss of his close friend Pheaton who was killed by Zeus. To Apollo, the swan was sacred; it represented chastity; also, Apollo traveled in a chariot of swans.
Perhaps Jonson was familiar with Shakespeare’s use of the metaphor in his plays. For example, in the Merchant of Venice, Portia says “Let music sound while he doth make his choice; Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end, Fading in music.” Or perhaps close to the time that Jonson was composing his dedication, he may have read the work of another contemporary playwright, an autobiographical tale entitled “Groats-Worth of Wit, bought with a million of Repentance” (published in 1596) by Robert Greene. The book’s introduction includes this passage: “Gentlemen. The Swan sings melodiously before death, that in all his life vseth but a iarring sound. Greene though able inough to write, yet deeplyer searched with sickenes than euer heeretofore, sendes you his Swanne like songe, for that he feares he shal ne[u]er againe carroll to you woonted loue layes, neuer againe discouer to you youths pleasures.”
Biographer Bertram Theobald suggests that Jonson was not alluding to the song of the swan, nor the proverbial swan song, but rather the flight of the swan. Theobald elaborates: “The verses of a poet are melodious, or should be. A poem may often be termed a song, and the poet himself the singer of it. Hence are poets described as sweet singers and compared to singing birds, as when Edmund Waller spoke of Sir Philip Sidney and Sir Francis Bacon as ‘nightingales.’ But what of the swan? Is it a bird of song? Hardly! And Jonson is not even alluding to the mythical ‘swan song;’ in fact a few lines lower he speaks of “those flights.” He is thinking of the movements of the bird, not of its song — and quite naturally too.” Theobald believes that Jonson was alluding to a fable contained in De Augmentis, Book II that mentions swans that capture a medal and fly them to a temple consecrated to immortality.
The Immortal Bard (or “The Bard of All Time”: This is another nickname inspired by Ben Jonson’s tribute poem, mentioned above. In this case, Shakespeare’s immortality is suggested by this specific line: “He was not of an age, but for all time!” Jonson was absolutely right — Shakespeare’s work and influence on literature and the English language will endure forever — so long as men can breathe…
The National Poet of England: A name developed in the twentieth century to honor the world’s greatest poet and playwright. Two days after he died, Shakespeare was buried beneath the chancel (the space around the altar) at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon. On the north wall of the chancel is a limestone funerary monument carved by Gerard Johnson, representing Shakespeare holding a pen in one hand and resting his other hand on a piece of paper. Beneath the sculpture is a Latin epitaph. Translated into English it means: “A Pylian in judgement, a Socrates in genius, a Maro in art. The earth buries him, the people mourn him, Olympus possesses him.” Beneath that epitaph is a poem, which has been translated into modern English by Shakespeare scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones:
Stay Passenger, why goest thou by so fast?
Read if thou canst, whom envious Death hath plast
Within this monument Shakspeare: with whom
Quick nature died: whose name doth deck this tomb
Far more than cost: since all that he hath writ
Leaves living art, but page to serve his wit.
An Upstart Crow: Robert Greene’s pamphlet mentioned earlier (“Groats-Worth of Wit” ) was very controversial because the extremely candid author disparaged four different playwrights: William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Nashe, and George Peeler. Greene refers to Shakespeare in very unflattering, snobbish terms — an “upstart crow beautified with our feathers.” In other words, Greene — firmly seated in his high horse — is saying that Shakespeare is a lowly, uneducated actor who thinks he can write as well as well-educated playwrights. The nerve of that plucky playwright! So what provoked Green to unleash such a disparaging metaphor? Some Elizabethan scholars believe that Shakespeare may have rewritten parts of Greene’s play, A Knack to Know a Knave — and that did not sit well with Greene. Perhaps it was a case of Greene being, um, green with envy.
For further reading: Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt, Jonathan Cape (2004)
Enter Francis Bacon: A Sequel to Exit Shakespeare by Theobald Bertram, Cecil Palmer (1932)
Shakespeare A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Plays, Poems, His Life and Times by Charles Boyce, Delta (1991)
The First Folio of Shakespeare: The Norton Facsimile Norton (1968 and 1996)
The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins by Robert Hendrickson, Facts on File (2008)
Man and Wildfowl by Janet Kear, Poyser Monographs (2010)
Birds in the Ancient World From A to Z by W. Geoffrey Arnott, Routledge (2012)