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 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 with Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1597) and...
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