Shakespeare's contemporaries are as much a part of his story as any other element of his life. Choosing five of these individuals (playwrights, actors, theatre owners,ect.), detail their stories and explain how they interacted and/or influenced Shakespeare.
Because of Shakespeare's reputation as the leading playwright and poet of his age, we assume that all accounts of him, especially by those who are in a position to understand Shakespeare's talents, praise his virtues and magnificent skills. It may shock some modern readers to realize that Shakespeare was not universally honored by his contemporaries.
When Shakespeare appeared on the London scene in the early 1590s, the failed poet but marginally successful playwright Robert Greene (1560-1592 CE), on his deathbed, wrote a piece called Greene's Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance. In the Groatsworth, we find a warning about
. . . an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his tiger's heart wrapped in a player's hide supposes his is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you . . . is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.
Greene's characterization of Shakespeare as "an upstart crow," of course, has been used every since as a tag for Shakespeare but not with the negative connotations of Greene's characterization. The Groatworth does tell us, however, of the intensely competitive, jealousy-ridden atmosphere of the literary life of Elizabethan London and, more important, places Shakespeare smack in the middle of London's stormy theater world.
An indirect defender of the "upstart crow" is Henry Wriothsley, third Earl of Southampton (1573-1624), who played an important role in Shakespeare's life as both a patron and friend. Because many of Shakespeare's sonnets seem to be addressed to Southampton, using very intimate language, critics for years have argued that the relationship between Shakespeare and Southampton was more than just intellectual, but there is little evidence to suggest anything other than an intellectual and spiritual affinity between the two men.
Among Shakespeare's contemporary playwrights, his only true rival is Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) but, aside from several incredibly good and influential plays, his life in London as Shakespeare's rival is almost unknown. Marlowe's career as a playwright spans the years 1587-1593, during which he wrote Tamburlaine the Great (Part 1 and Part II, 1587-88), considered one of the most important achievements of any beginning playwright; The Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus (ca. 1589); and The Jew of Malta (ca. 1591), a play in the sub-genre of the "Fall of Princes" tragedy. Like Shakespeare, Marlowe known as a skilled lyric poet--Hero and Leander (1596) is considered one of the finest, if not the finest, lyrical poems in English.
The rise of the theater, and the physical theater itself, is an important element in Shakespeare's success, and a key player in theater operation and construction at this time is James Burbage, who, in 1576, received permission to build The Theatre (he was a carpenter by trade), one of the first permanent structures in which plays were produced. From The Theatre evolved the structure known as The Globe, the theater in which several of Shakespeare's plays were produced and the theater most closely identified with Shakespeare.
Another critical element in Shakespeare's success as a playwright is the group of actors who brought several of Shakespeare's plays to life, The Lord Chamberlain's Men, who performed the plays of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, among others, and who were the resident performers at The Globe. Shakespeare was both a part owner of the group, as well as an actor in the group.
Each of these individuals or, in the case of The Chamberlain's Men, a group, coalesced to create a web of influence on and encouragement for Shakespeare either directly, in the case of Southhampton, or indirectly, in the case of Greene, Marlowe, Burbage. The development of the physical theater itself allowed Shakespeare and other playwrights and actors to have a fixed venue to display their talents. Being in the right place at the right time, as Shakespeare was, was an extraordinary event for English literature.
One of William Shakespeare's contemporaries was a playwright named Christopher Marlowe. While Shakespeare is famous for his enduring stories, it was Marlowe who lead the way in poetic and theatrical innovations. Shakespeare's style of writing closely matches that of Marlowe. Shakespeare's stories are also similar to Marlowe's. For example, Marlowe's story, The Jew of Malta, resembles Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. While Shakespeare's popularity outweighs that of Marlowe, Shakespeare took inspiration from Marlowe's writing to develop his own take on these stories.