Some time between 1585 and 1592, it is believed that Shakespeare left Stratford for London and joined a company of actors as a performer and a playwright. Legend long held that Shakespeare left Stratford because he was being pursued by the law for poaching deer on private property. By 1592 Shakespeare had received some recognition, though not entirely positive, as an actor and playwright. He was mentioned in a pamphlet (A Groats-worth of Wit) written by Robert Greene. Greene refers to Shakespeare as an "upstart crow" in the London theater and charges that Shakespeare was an unschooled player and a writer who used material written by his better educated contemporaries. Also during this year, the theaters in London closed due to the plague. By 1594 Shakespeare had joined a theater troupe known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men. Scholars attribute several of Shakespeare's plays to this time period. Although no one can be certain of the dates of composition for any of the plays, a considerable amount of scholarship has gone into the endeavor of accurately determining an approximate time period during which Shakespeare wrote each play. Some believe that The Comedy of Errors, a farcical play centering on the mistaken identities of two sets of twins, may have been Shakespeare's first play. A few counter that The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which focuses on the conflict between romantic love and friendship, may have been Shakespeare's first play. Some scholars suggest that these plays may have been written as early as 1588 or 1589, while many others date both plays several years later, suggesting that they were written between 1592 and 1594. Other plays written during this early period include one of the history tetralogies: Henry VI, Part One (1589-90); Henry VI, Part Two (1590-91); Henry VI, Part Three (1590-91); and Richard III (1592-93). Many people believe that Henry VI, Part One was Shakespeare's first play. This tetralogy treats the Wars of the Roses, the conflict between two factions of nobles. The last play of the sequence, Richard III, ends with the establishment of the Tudor dynasty, to which belonged Queen Elizabeth, who ruled during much of Shakespeare's life. It is also believed that Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus (1592-94), The Taming of the Shrew (1593-94), and Love's Labor's Lost (1593-95) during this period of his life. Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's earliest tragedy, deals with the cycle of revenge which destroys the families involved in the play's action. The Taming of the Shrew is a lively comedy featuring the willful Kate and her "tamer," Petruchio. Kate's "taming" (her apparent and uncharacteristic submission to her husband) often troubles modern audiences. Love's Labor's Lost has been described as a satirization of the courtly and somewhat artificial love of male nobles, and of the academic pursuits, which were often more fashionable than serious in Shakespeare's time, of the nobility. In addition to these dramatic works, it is believed that Shakespeare wrote the poem Venus and Adonis and began composing his sonnets in 1592 or 1593. He eventually wrote 154 sonnets. Between 1593 and 1594, he probably wrote the poem The Rape of Lucrece.
In 1596 the patron of the Lord Chamberlain's Men (Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, the Queen's Chamberlain) died, leaving Shakespeare's company under the patronage of his son, George Carey, second Lord Hunsdon. The next year, Shakespeare bought a spacious Stratford home, known as New Place. Shakespeare continued to be noted as an actor; in 1598 he appeared in a performance of Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humor, and was listed as a principal actor in the London performance of the drama. Soon after, in 1599, Shakespeare and other members of the Lord Chamberlain's Men leased land for the Globe Theater, which opened later that year. Also in 1599, the poet John Weever published a poem ("Ad Guglielmum Shakespeare") in which he praised Shakespeare as a poet and playwright. During this period of his life, from about 1595 through 1600, Shakespeare wrote a number of plays, including the second historical tetralogy (Richard II ; Henry IV, Part One [1596-97]; Henry IV, Part Two ; and Henry V ) . This tetralogy deals with the events leading up to the Wars of the Roses: Richard II is usurped by Henry Bolingbrook and later assassinated. The new king, Henry IV, worries over his role in Richard's death and about the ability of his "madcap" son, Hal, to rule. A subplot focuses on Hal's wild adventures with the comical knight, Sir John Falstaff. Hal becomes King Henry V after his father's death; he conquers France and restores peace. King John, a historical drama dealing with the reign of King John and the tragedy of the young Arthur, is estimated to have been written between 1594 and 1596. A Midsummer Night's Dream and the famous tragedy Romeo and Juliet were probably written in 1595 or 1596. A Midsummer Night's Dream, a fantastical comedy complete with fairies and magic, deals with such topics as love, imagination, and art. One of Shakespeare's most popular and well-known plays, Romeo and Juliet is the story of ill-fated lovers who attempt to escape the disapproval of their feuding families. The comedies The Merchant of Venice and The Merry Wives of Windsor are believed to have been written between 1596 and 1597. Identified by critics as a problem play (one that raises moral dilemmas which it does not resolve), The Merchant of Venice is like The Two Gentlemen of Verona in that it deals with the relationship between romantic love and masculine friendship; the play also focuses on the theme of mercy. The Merry Wives of Windsor is a farce dealing with middle class life and values; it features the knight Falstaff, who was introduced in Henry IV, Part One as Hal's drunken and wayward companion.
Other plays written during this period of Shakespeare's life include Much Ado about Nothing (1598- 99); Julius Caesar (1599); and As You Like It (1599- 1600). Much Ado about Nothing is the witty comedy featuring Beatrice and Benedick. The play is sometimes considered flawed by critics due to what they and many audiences see as the insensitive treatment of the female characters, particularly the falsely accused Hero. The Roman tragedy Julius Caesar dramatizes the downfall of the title character and examines the nature of political rivalry, ambition, and power. As You Like It depicts the beautiful Forest of Arden as a haven from the trappings of courtly life.
In 1603 Queen Elizabeth died. The new king, James I, granted a license (or patent) to Shakespeare's acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men. The group needed the patent to be allowed to perform, and in honor of the new king, they renamed themselves the King's Men. It is also reported during this year that Shakespeare appeared in another Ben Jonson play (Sejanus). The plague also struck again, killing at least 33,000 people in London; in 1608 the plague again forced the closure of London theaters. Also in 1608, the King's Men leased the Blackfriars Theater. This was the first permanent enclosed theater in London. From notes in the stage directions, it seems that The Tempest was written with the specific features of the new theater in mind. During this period, Shakespeare wrote a number of plays, including what are considered his best tragedies: Hamlet (1600-01); Othello (1603-04); King Lear (1605); and Macbeth (1605-06). Probably Shakespeare's best known play, Hamlet is like many of Shakespeare's other tragedies in that the theme of revenge takes center stage. But the title character in this drama is paralyzed by indecision and for most of the play he is unable to act on his thoughts of revenge. The play and the issues it raises have been hotly debated by critics for centuries. Othello is a tragedy dealing with jealousy and murder. The title character is a Moor in the Venetian army who is driven into a jealous rage against his wife Desdemona by the scheming Iago. King Lear dramatizes the tragic effects of the king's and the earl of Gloucester's misjudgement of their children. Like other Shakespearean tragedies, Macbeth deals with the theme of ambition. The play also delivers a heavy dose of the supernatural in the form of the witches, or weird sisters, who feed the flame of Macbeth's desire for power. During this period, perhaps between 1600 and 1601, Shakespeare also wrote the narrative poem The Phoenix and the Turtle.
Shakespeare also wrote several comedies during these years, including All's Well That Ends Well (1601-03); Twelfth Night (1601-02); and Measure for Measure (1604). All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure have both been tagged as problem plays. The first comedy ends abruptly with Bertram's sudden acceptance of his wife Helena, whom he had essentially abandoned earlier in the play. In Measure for Measure, deception plays a central role in the play's action; this includes the deception perpetuated by a character depicted as a paragon of virtue, Isabella. Twelfth Night is typically seen as one of Shakespeare's more mature comedies. Like other comedies, it features some disguise and role-playing, such as that of one the central figures, Viola, who disguises herself as the page Cesario. The play also concerns gender roles and class differences.
In this period Shakespeare also produced Greek and Roman dramas, including Troilus and Cressida (1601-02); Antony and Cleopatra (1605-07); Coriolanus (1607-08); and Timon of Athens (1607- 08). Troilus and Cressida, a Greek drama, emphasizes the differences between the ideal and the real by portraying legendary Greek figures as people with less-than-admirable qualities. Antony and Cleopatra is the story of the love and passion between the famous Roman general and the sensuous, legendary Egyptian queen. Coriolanus is a Roman political tragedy dealing with issues of character and pride. Feelings of bitterness and disillusionment permeate the Greek drama, Timon of Athens. Shakespeare also wrote Pericles, Prince of Tyre probably between 1607 and 1608. Pericles is an adventurous tale of a prince who suffers the loss of his wife and daughter, but is, in the end, reunited with his family. Pericles is thought by some scholars to have been a collaborative effort.
After 1608 Shakespeare's dramatic production lessened somewhat. The Globe Theater burned down, but was rebuilt a year later on the opposite bank of the Thames River. During these years, Shakespeare wrote romantic tragicomedies (that is, romances featuring elements of both tragedy and comedy). The romantic tragicomedies include Cymbeline (1609-10); The Winter's Tale (1610-11); and The Tempest (1610-11)., Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale are both stories of loss and pain, but, like Pericles, they end with a happy reunion. The Tempest features the same elements of loss and reunion, but it also emphasizes the balance of wisdom and power that Prospero achieves at the play's end. It has been noted that The Tempest was probably the last play Shakespeare wrote on his own, and that the character of Prospero, as one who manipulates events, stages masques, and directs the actions of other characters, represents Shakespeare the playwright and his farewell to the theater. During this later period, Shakespeare also wrote two plays that most scholars believe were composed in collaboration with the dramatist John Fletcher: Henry VIII (1612-13), a historical drama, and The Two Noble Kinsmen (1613), the story of the love two men have for the same woman. It is also believed that Shakespeare wrote another play around 1612 or 1613, Cardenio, but it has been completely lost.
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