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William Shakespeare: Playwright

In 1592, the ailing playwright Robert Greene published what might be the most significant diss in literary history. Why? Because his mean-spirited pamphlet proves that by 1592, Shakespeare was famous enough in the London theater scene to make someone really, really jealous.

"There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger's heart wrapped in a Player's hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you," wrote Greene in a missive to his fellow playwrights. "Being an absolute Iohannes fac totum [jack of all trades], is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country." Though he never mentioned Shakespeare by name, it was pretty clear who was the target of Greene's bile. Robert Greene was furious that this young nobody, who didn't even have a university degree like Green or his fancy-pants fellow playwrights, would dare to make such a splash in their waters. Greene's personal reputation certainly did not outlast Shakespeare's—he died soon after the tirade was published, and his embarrassed publisher was forced to apologize to Shakespeare. Fortunately for biographers, his attack picks up the cold trail of Shakespeare's life.

Sometime during the Lost Years, Shakespeare moved to London to pursue a career as an actor and playwright (his wife and children stayed behind in Stratford). He was not the only country boy in England heading toward the big city. London was undergoing a Renaissance of its own, growing rapidly from a riverside merchant town into a major metropolitan city. It was also, by modern standards, a nasty, filthy, disgusting dump. Raw sewage ran in the streets. There was no way to get clean water. Public spaces closed down every few years while bubonic plague rolled through—the outbreak that shut down theaters in the late 1590s was considered a minor one, since only 5 percent of the city's population died. It was a coarse, rough place, but for a young Englishman in love with the stage, it was the only place to be.

Shakespeare had been working as an actor and dramatist for a few years already when theaters and other public spaces were ordered closed in January 1593 due to an outbreak of the plague. Shakespeare used the break to compose two long poems, "Venus and Adonis," based on Ovid's Metamorphoses, and "The Rape of Lucrece," based on a Roman myth. The two poems were celebrated for their beauty and lyricism. Both were dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, the Third Earl of Southampton, whom Shakespeare was fortunate enough to have adopted as a patron. "The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end," Shakespeare wrote in the dedication to "The Rape of Lucrece." "The warrant I have of your honorable disposition, not the worth of my untutored lines, makes it assured of acceptance. What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours."4 Scholars also believe that Southampton is the "fair youth" mentioned in Shakespeare's sonnets, an unnamed male character of whom Shakespeare sometimes seems to speak erotically.

For these reasons, some have speculated that Shakespeare and Southampton were more than just friends. Here's the thing: it doesn't really matter whether Shakespeare was gay or not, but we really can't conclude anything about his sexuality based on the evidence we have. We don't know if the sonnets are about a real person, if the speaker actually desires the youth or is just envious of his age and beauty, or if the love expressed for the male youth is erotic or platonic. As for his effusive dedications to the earl, it was common for close male friends to speak of each other in such terms in the Elizabethan era. Fellow playwright Ben Jonson, for example, dedicated a poem in the First Folio "To the memory of my beloved, the author Mr. William Shakespeare."5 That doesn't mean they were making out. Similarly, the sonnets could be read as indicating a romantic link between the playwright and the earl, but they certainly don't provide anything close to definitive proof.

In 1594, the theaters reopened. Shakespeare joined the Lord Chamberlain's Men, a theater troupe sponsored by a baron named Henry Carey, a.k.a. Lord Chamberlain. Shakespeare also purchased shares in the company, making him a manager and co-owner. Over the next few years, with Shakespeare as chief dramatist, the Chamberlain's Men became one of the most popular theater companies in London and a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. We don't have a precise timeline for when Shakespeare wrote each of his plays; in most cases, the best evidence comes from outside references to the productions. In 1598, the critic Francis Meres penned a review in which he wrote that "Mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare" was "the most excellent in both kinds [comedy and tragedy] for the stage." The plays listed in Meres's review—indicating that Shakespeare had already completed them—included Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Merchant of Venice, Love's Labors Lost, Richard II, and Titus Andronicus. "I say that the Muses would speak with Shakespeare's fine filed phrase," Meres concluded, "if they would speak English." In 1599, Shakespeare enjoyed what seems to have been an explosively productive year, with Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, and The Merry Wives of Windsor all likely penned in that one year.

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