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Shakespeare's Professional Career

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We do not know when Shakespeare joined the theatre after his marriage, or how he was employed in the mean time. In 1587 an actor of the Queen's Men - the most successful company of the 1580s - died as a result of manslaughter shortly before the company visited Stratford. That Shakespeare may have taken his place is an intriguing speculation. Nor do we know when he began to write. It seems likely (though not certain) that he became an actor before starting to write plays; at any rate, none of his extant writings certainly dates from his youth or early manhood. One of his less impressive sonnets - No. 145 - apparently plays on the name Ð''Hathaway' (Ð''"I hate" from hate away she threw'), and may be an early love poem; but this is his only surviving non-dramatic work that seems at all likely to have been written before he became a playwright. Possibly his earliest efforts in verse or drama are lost; just possibly some of them survive anonymously. It would have been very much in keeping with contemporary practice if he had worked in collaboration with other writers at this stage in his career. 1 Henry VI is the only early play that we feel confident enough to identify as collaborative, but other writers' hands have also been plausibly suspected in The First Part of the Contention (2 Henry VI), Richard, Duke of York (3 Henry VI), and the opening scenes, in particular, of Titus Andronicus.

The first printed allusion to Shakespeare dates from 1592, in the pamphlet Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, published as the work of Robert Greene, writer of plays and prose romances, shortly after he died. Mention of an Ð''upstart crow' who Ð''supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you' and who Ð''is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country' suggests rivalry; though parody of a line from Richard, Duke of York (3 Henry VI) shows that Shakespeare was already known on the London literary scene, the word Ð''upstart' does not suggest a long-established author.

It seems likely that Shakespeare's earliest surviving plays date from the late 1580s and the early 1590s: they include comedies (The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew), history plays based on English chronicles (The First Part of the Contention, Richard, Duke of York), and a pseudo-classical tragedy (Titus Andronicus). We cannot say with any confidence which company (or companies) of players these were written for; Titus Andronicus , at least, seems to have gone from one company to another, since according to the title-page of the 1594 edition it had been acted by the Earl of Derby's, the Earl of Pembroke's, and the Earl of Sussex's Men. Early in his career, Shakespeare may have worked for more than one company. A watershed in his career was the devastating outbreak of plague which closed London's theatres almost entirely from June 1592 to May 1594. This seems to have turned Shakespeare's thoughts to the possibility of a literary career away from the theatre: in spring 1593 appeared his witty narrative poem Venus and Adonis, to be followed in 1594 by its tragic counterpart, The Rape of Lucrece. Both carry dedications over Shakespeare's name to Henry Wriothesley, third Earl of Southampton, who, though aged only twenty in 1593, was already making a name for himself as a patron of poets. Patrons could be important to Elizabethan writers; how Southampton rewarded Shakespeare for his dedications we do not know, but the affection with which Shakespeare speaks of him in the dedication to Lucrece suggests a strong personal connection and has encouraged the belief that Southampton may be the young man addressed so lovingly in Shakespeare's Sonnets.

Whether Shakespeare began to write the Sonnets at this time is a vexed question. Certainly it is the period at which his plays make most use of the formal characteristics of the sonnet: Love's Labour's Lost and Romeo and Juliet, for example, both incorporate sonnets into their structure; but Henry V, probably dating from 1599, has a sonnet as an Epilogue, and in All's Well That Ends Well (c.1604) a letter is cast in this form. Allusions within the Sonnets suggest that they were written over a period of at least three years. At some later point they seem to have been rearranged into the order in which they were printed. Behind them - if indeed they are autobiographical at all - lies a tantalizingly elusive story of Shakespeare's personal life. Many attempts have been made to identify the poet's friend, the rival poet, and the dark woman who is both the poet's mistress and the seducer of his friend; none has achieved any degree of certainty.

After the epidemic of plague dwindled, a number of actors who had previously belonged to different companies amalgamated to form the Lord Chamberlain's Men. In the first official account that survives, Shakespeare is named, along with the famous comic actor Will Kemp and the tragedian Richard Burbage, as payee for performances at court during the previous Christmas season. The Chamberlain's Men rapidly became the leading dramatic company, though rivalled at first by the Admiral's Men, who had Edward Alleyn as their leading tragedian. Shakespeare stayed with the Chamberlain's (later King's) Men for the rest of his career as actor, playwright, and administrator. He is the only prominent playwright of his time to have had so stable a relationship with a single company.

With the founding of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, Shakespeare's career was placed upon a firm footing. It is not the purpose of this Introduction to describe his development as a dramatist, or to attempt a thorough discussion of the chronology of his writings. The Introductions to individual works state briefly what is known about when they were composed, and also name the principal literary sources on which Shakespeare drew in composing them. The works themselves are arranged in a conjectured order of composition. There are many uncertainties about this, especially in relation to the early plays. The most important single piece of evidence is a passage in a book called Palladis Tamia: Wit's Treasury, by a minor writer, Francis Meres, published in 1598. Meres wrote:

As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for comedy and tragedy among the Latins, so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for comedy, witness his Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Love Labour's Lost, his Love Labour's Won, his Midsummer's Night Dream, and his Merchant of Venice; for tragedy, his Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV, King John, Titus Andronicus, and his Romeo and Juliet.




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