William Shakespeare

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William Shakespeare

We know very little about Shakespeare’s life during two major spans of
time, commonly referred to as the “lost years”. The lost years fall into
two periods: 1578-82 and 1585-92. The first period covers the time after
Shakespeare left grammar school until his marriage to Anne Hathaway in
November of 1582. The second period covers the seven years of Shakespeare’s
life in which he must have been perfecting his dramatic skills and
collecting sources for the plots of his plays. “What could such a genius
accomplish in this direction during six or eight years? The histories alone
must have required unending hours of labour to gather facts for the plots
and counter-plots of these stories. When we think of the time he must have
spent in reading about the pre-Tudor dynasties, we are at a loss to
estimate what a day’s work meant to him. Perhaps he was one of those
singular geniuses who absorbs books. George Douglas Brown, when discussing
Shakespeare, often used to say he knew how to ‘pluck the guts’ out of a
tome” (Neilson 45). No one knows for certain how Shakespeare first started
his career in the theatre, although several London players would visit
Stratford regularly, and so, sometime between 1585 and 1592, it is probable
that young Shakespeare could have been recruited by the Leicester’s or
Queen’s men. Whether an acting troupe recruited Shakespeare in his hometown
or he was forced on his own to travel to London to begin his career, he was
nevertheless an established actor in the great city by the end of 1592. In
this year came the first reference to Shakespeare in the world of the
theatre. The dramatist Robert Greene declared in his death-bed
autobiography that “There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers,
that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players 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.” After Green’s death, his editor, Henry Chettle, publicly
apologized to Shakespeare in the Preface to his Kind-Heart’s Dream:
About three months since died M. Robert Greene, leaving many papers in
sundry booksellers’ hands, among other his Groatsworth of Wit, in which a
letter written to divers play-makers is offensively by one or two of them
taken, and because on the dead they cannot be avenged, they wilfully forge
in their conceits a living author….With neither of them that take offence
was I acquainted, and with one of them I care not if I never be. The other,
whom at that time I did not so much spare as since I wish I had, for that,
as I have moderated the heat of living writers and might have used my own
discretion (especially in such a case, the author being dead), that I did
not I am as sorry as if the original fault had been my fault, because
myself have seen his demeanour no less civil than he excellent in the
quality he professes. Besides, the diver of worship has reported his
uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty and his facetious grace in
writing that approves his art.

Such an apology indicates that Shakespeare was already a respected player
in London with influential friends and connections. Records also tell us
that several of Shakespeare’s plays were popular by this time, including
Henry VI, The Comedy of Errors, and Titus Andronicus. The company that
staged most of the early productions of these plays was Pembroke’s Men,
sponsored by the Earl of Pembroke, Henry Herbert. The troupe was very
popular and performed regularly at the court of Queen Elizabeth. Most
critics conclude that Shakespeare spent time as both a writer and an actor
for Pembroke’s Men before 1592. The turning point in Shakespeare’s career
came in 1593.

The theatres had been closed since 1592 due to an outbreak of the plague
and, although it is possible that Shakespeare toured the outlying areas of
London with acting companies like Pembroke’s Men or Lord Strange’s Men, it
seems more likely that he left the theatre entirely during this time to
work on his non-dramatic poetry. The hard work paid off, for by the end of
1593, Shakespeare had caught the attention of the Earl of Southampton.

Southampton became Shakespeare’s patron, and on April 18, 1593, Venus and
Adonis was entered for publication. Shakespeare had made his formal debut
as a poet. The dedication Shakespeare wrote to Southampton at the beginning
of the poem is