illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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Life’s Work

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The London theater, in Shakespeare’s day, was made up of companies of men and boys (women were not allowed on the Renaissance English stage but were played by young men or boys). These actors performed in public playhouses roughly modeled on old innyards. The theaters were open to the air, had balconies surrounding the pit and stage, and held from two to three thousand people. A group known as the University Wits — John Lyly, George Peele, Thomas Lodge, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, and Christopher Marlowe—dominated the drama. Shakespeare learned his art by imitating these Oxford and Cambridge men, but for him they were a difficult group to join. They looked down on most actors and on those playwrights, such as Thomas Kyd, who had not attended a university. Shakespeare offended on both counts, and Robert Greene expressed his resentment in the posthumously published book Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance (1592), which included a famous warning to three fellow “gentlemen” playwrights:Yes, trust them [the players] not: for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapt in a player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.

Greene’s literary executor, Henry Chettle, later published an apology for this slur on Shakespeare, with its pun on his name and its parody of a line from Henry VI, Part III. On meeting him, Chettle found Shakespeare’s “demeanor no less civil than he, excellent in the quality he professes. Besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing, that approves his art.”

Actually, Greene’s judgment of Shakespeare’s early work is more accurate. The early plays are far from excellent; they include some of the most slavish imitations in Renaissance English drama, as Shakespeare tried his hand at the various popular modes. The interminable three-part history play Henry VI (Part I, wr. 1589-1590, pr. 1592, pb. 1623; Part II, pr. c. 1590-1591, pb. 1594; Part III, pr. c. 1590-1591, pb. 1595), as Greene notes, makes bombastic attempts at Marlowe’s powerful blank verse. In The Comedy of Errors (pr. c. 1592-1594), based on Plautus’s Menaechmi (The Twin Menaechmi, 1595), and in the Senecan tragedy Titus Andronicus (pr., pb. 1594), Shakespeare showed his ability to copy Roman models down to the smallest detail, even if he did lack a university degree. Apparently, he also lacked confidence in his own imagination and learned slowly. Richard III (pr. c. 1592-1593, pb. 1597, revised 1623), however, showed promise in the malignant character of Richard, while The Taming of the Shrew (pr. c. 1593-1594, pb. 1623) offered its rambunctious love-fight.

Despite their imitative nature and many other faults, Shakespeare’s early plays—notably the Henry VI plays—were popular onstage, but his greatest early popularity came from two long narrative poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). Shakespeare wrote these two poems during the two years that the plague closed down the London theaters. He dedicated the poems to a patron, the young Henry Wriothesley, third earl of Southampton, who may have granted him a substantial monetary reward in return. In any event, when the theaters reopened in 1594, the acting companies were almost decimated financially, but Shakespeare was in a position to buy or otherwise acquire a partnership in one of the newly reorganized companies, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Henceforth, Shakespeare earned money not...

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only from the plays he had written or in which he acted but also from a share of the profits of every company performance. The financial arrangement seemed to inspire his creative efforts, for he set about writing the plays that made him famous, beginning withRomeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1597) and going on to the great history plays and comedies, including Richard II (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1600), Henry IV (Part I, pr. c. 1597-1598, pb. 1598; Part II, pr. 1598, pb. 1600), Henry V (pr. c. 1598-1599, pb. 1600), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1600), The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597, pb. 1600), Much Ado About Nothing (pr. c. 1598-1599, pb. 1600), As You Like It (pr. c. 1599-1600, pb. 1623), and Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will (pr. c. 1600-1602, pb. 1623).

At about the time Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet and Richard II, he probably also began his great sonnet sequence, not published until 1609. The 154 sonnets, tracing a friendship with a young man, sometimes called the “Fair Youth,” and a romance with a “Dark Lady,” raise the question of how Shakespeare lived when he was away from Stratford, where his wife and children presumably remained. The young man might be a patron—perhaps Southampton, though other names have also been proposed—and the Dark Lady strictly imaginary, created to overturn the sonnets’ trite Petrarchan conventions. Other speculations favor a more personal interpretation, seeing an actual ménage à trois of the poet, the Fair Youth, and the Dark Lady. All the questions raised by the sonnets remain open, and the only evidence about how Shakespeare spent his spare time in London indicates that he sometimes frequented taverns (notably the Mermaid) with his fellow playwrights and players.

Evidence also indicates that he remained in close contact with Stratford-upon-Avon, to which he probably returned as frequently as possible. He used his earnings from the theater to install himself as the town’s leading citizen, buying New Place as a family residence in 1597 and thereafter steadily amassing other land and property. In 1596, his father John was granted a hereditary coat of arms (or his son may have purchased it for him) and thus became a gentleman, a status he had never achieved on his own. Unfortunately, also in 1596, Shakespeare suffered a setback when his son, Hamnet, died at the age of eleven. Shakespeare’s affection for his two remaining children, Susanna and Judith, may be reflected in the witty, saucy, but lovable heroines of his great comedies.

Shakespeare’s company in London prospered. In 1599, it stopped renting theaters and built its own, the Globe , which increased company profits. The company was a favorite of the reigning monarchs, who paid well for special performances at court—first Elizabeth I and then, after 1603, James I, who loved the theater even more and renamed Shakespeare’s company the King’s Men. The company also began performing most of the plays of Ben Jonson , who ranked second only to Shakespeare and who excelled at satiric comedy. Shakespeare turned to tragedy, first writing Julius Caesar (pr. c. 1599-1600, pb. 1623) and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603) and then—one after another—Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604, pb. 1622, revised 1623), King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608), Macbeth (pr. 1606, pb. 1623), and Antony and Cleopatra (pr. c. 1606-1607, pb. 1623).

Yet even during this period—perhaps the high point in the history of Western drama—Shakespeare’s company had its problems. One was the competition of the boys’ companies, which performed in the private theaters—small indoor theaters that charged higher admission and appealed to a more exclusive audience than the public theaters. In 1608, the King’s Men acquired one of the private theaters, the Blackfriars , plus the services of two playwrights who wrote for it, the collaborators Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher . With their light, witty comedy and melodramatic tragicomedy, represented by such plays as The Knight of the Burning Pestle (pr. 1607), Philaster: Or, Love Lies A-Bleeding (pr. c. 1609), and A King and No King (pr. 1611), Beaumont and Fletcher introduced a new “cavalier” style into Renaissance English drama that ultimately eclipsed even Shakespeare’s popularity and perhaps hurried his retirement. It is uncertain whether they or Shakespeare introduced tragicomedy, but Shakespeare’s final complete plays are in this fashionable new mode: Pericles, Prince of Tyre (pr. c. 1607-1608, pb. 1609), Cymbeline (pr. c. 1609-1610, pb. 1623), The Winter’s Tale (pr. c. 1610-1611, pb. 1623), and The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623). After Beaumont married an heiress and stopped writing plays in 1612 or 1613, Shakespeare collaborated with Fletcher, and possibly others, on Henry VIII (pr. 1613, pb. 1623), The Two Noble Kinsmen (pr. c. 1612-1613, pb. 1634), and Cardenio (now lost).

By 1608, when his productivity dropped to one or two plays per year, Shakespeare may have spent part of each year in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 1607, his elder daughter had married Dr. John Hall, the local physician, and in 1608, with the birth of their daughter, Elizabeth, Shakespeare became a grandfather. Around 1613, he retired completely to Stratford-upon-Avon, though he also joined John Heminge, a partner in the King’s Men, and William Johnson, the host of the Mermaid Tavern, in purchasing the gatehouse of the Blackfriars priory, probably for London visits. On February 10, 1616, his younger daughter, Judith, at the age of thirty-one, married Thomas Quiney, a member of another prominent Stratford family. On March 25, 1616, Shakespeare made out his last will and testament, leaving most of his estate to Susanna, a substantial amount of money to Judith, and his “second best bed” to Anne. He died on April 23, 1616, and was buried in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon.

In 1623, Shakespeare’s surviving partners in the King’s Men, John Heminge and Henry Condell, published a collection of his plays now known as the First Folio. The portrait included in the First Folio depicts Shakespeare with a short mustache, large, staring eyes, and an oval face accentuated by his high, balding forehead and the remaining hair that almost covers his ears. The bust erected above his grave is similar, except that he has a goatee and the balding has progressed further. The First Folio portrait resembles a soulful intellectual, while the Stratford bust suggests a prominent burgher.


William Shakespeare and Censorship