When did Shakespeare become famous?

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“Famous” is almost a modern term, made viable by today’s technologies – radio, television, Internet, and all the mass-media outlets in daily use today. But in Shakespeare’s day (1564-1616), "famous" was not a common term. “Well-known” might be more moderate.

In London theatre and literary circles of the Elizabethan era,...

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“Famous” is almost a modern term, made viable by today’s technologies – radio, television, Internet, and all the mass-media outlets in daily use today. But in Shakespeare’s day (1564-1616), "famous" was not a common term. “Well-known” might be more moderate.

In London theatre and literary circles of the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare was quite “well-known” when he appeared on the scene with his first plays (including, we know for sure, Henry VI Part 3). One contemporary, in 1592, probably referred to him when he criticized a fellow playwright he said had appeared on the “   …Shake-scene.” As his plays become more and more popular, especially from 1600 to 1615, he was known nationwide; even the Queen herself often commanded performances by The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later named The King’s Men), Shakespeare’s acting company.

Modern scholars also estimate that every printed quarto of a Shakespeare play (starting in 1594) sold in London was read by perhaps 50 people, since the buyers would bring them into the country (outside of London) for their country friends and relatives to read as part of “keeping up” with London society. Shakespeare’s poems as well were quite popular with the reading public during his lifetime.

The phenomenon that made Shakespeare’s plays “famous” after his lifetime was their popularity during the later historical periods – Restoration, Age of Reason, Victorian era, etc. No actor or stage entrepreneur could survive without homage to and acknowledgement of Shakespeare’s works.

Today he is famous, read, and performed for his impressive contribution to the English language hundreds of neologisms, and scores of book titles and “sayings,” and for the universal appeal of his moral, philosophical, and artistic messages.

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