Study Guide

William Shakespeare Playwright

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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."blank">The Merry Wives of Windsor all likely penned in that one year.

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