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Shakespeare the Actor and Playwright

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 labor 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 willfully 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 demeanor no less civil than he excellent in the quality he professes. Besides, the diver of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing that approves his art.

Earl of SouthamptonSuch 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 impassioned and telling, "phrased with courtly deference" (Rowse 74):

I KNOW not how I shall offend in dedicating my
unpolished lines to your lordship, nor how the world will
censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a
burden only, if your honour seem but pleased, I account
myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle
hours, till I have honoured you with some graver labour. But if
the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be
sorry it had so noble a god-father, and never after ear so
barren a land, for fear it yield me still so bad a harvest.
I leave it to your honourable survey, and your honour to your
heart's content; which I wish may always answer your own wish
and the world's hopeful expectation.

Your honour's in all duty,

Although there is no concrete proof that Shakespeare had a long and close friendship with Southampton, most scholars agree that this was the case, based on Shakespeare's writings, particularly the early sonnets.

Shakespeare returned to the theatre in 1594, and became a leading member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, formally known as Lord Strange's Men. The manuscript accounts of the treasurer of the royal chamber in the public records office tells us the following:
To William Kempe, William Shakespeare, and Richard Burbage, servants to the Lord Chamberlain, upon the council's warrent dated at Whitehall xv die Marcij 1594 for two several comedies or interludes showed by them before her Majesty in Christmas time last past, viz; upon St. Stephan's day and Innocent's day, xiiij li. vj s. viij d. and by way of her Majesty's reward...
This is proof that Shakespeare had performed with the Chamberlain's Men before Elizabeth I on several occasions. As payment for their performance the actors each received 10 pounds. During his time with the Chamberlain's Men Shakespeare wrote many plays, including Romeo and Juliet, Richard II, King John, and Love's Labour's Lost. As G.E. Bentley points out in Shakespeare and the Theatre, Shakespeare had by this time become immersed in his roles as actor and writer. He was "more completely and more continuously involved in theatres and acting companies than any other Elizabethan dramatist. [Shakespeare is] the only one known who not only wrote plays for his company, acted in the plays, and shared the profits, but who was also one of the housekeepers who owned the building. For seventeen years he was one of the owners of the Globe theatre and for eight years he was one of the housekeepers of the company's second theatre, the Blackfriars, as well" (Rowse 128). During the years Shakespeare performed with the Chamberlain's Men, before their purchase of the Globe in 1599, they played primarily at the well-established theatres like the Swan, the Curtain, and the Theatre. The troupe would also give regular performances before Elizabeth I and her court, and tour the surrounding areas of London. Some important events in Shakespeare's personal life also take place during this time period.

A facsimile of an engraving of New Place published by Malone, from a drawing from Carew's Ancient Survey, found in Clopton (near Stratford) in 1786.The Shakespeares finally received a coat of arms 1596 (see "Shakespeare's Parents" for more information on the coat-of-arms), and on August 11 of the same year, Shakespeare's son, Hamnet, died at the age of eleven. Shakespeare no doubt returned to Stratford for the burial, although we have no documented proof. In 1597, Shakespeare purchased the second largest house in Stratford: New Place. The house stood at the corner of Chapel Lane and Chapel Street, north of the Guild Chapel and right across from the very school he attended in his youth. He bought it from William Underhill for the low price of 60 pounds, and below is the actual deed (translated from the original Latin) transferring New Place from Underhill to Shakespeare on May 4, 1597:
Between William Shakespeare, complainant, and William Underhill, deforciant [wrongful occupier, supposed by the legal fiction on which the fine method of transfer was based to be keeping the complainant out of his rightful property], concerning one dwelling house, two barns, and two gardens with their appurtenances in Stratford-on-Avon, in regard to which a plea of agreement was broached in the same court: Namely, that the said William Underhill acknowledged the said tenements with their appurtenances to be the right of W. Shakespeare as being those which the same William Shakespeare has by gift of the said W. U., and remitted and waived claim to them from himself and his heirs to the said W.S. and his heirs forever....and agreement the same W.S. has given the foresaid W./U. sixty pounds sterling (Brooke 21).
Many theorize that Shakespeare renewed his interest in Stratford only after the death of Hamnet and that, for the many years he was away in London, he neglected his family back home. However, it is just as likely that he made frequent yet unrecorded trips to Stratford while he was trying to find success in London.

How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Shakespeare as Actor and Playwright. Shakespeare Online. 12 Nov. 2000. < >.

Brooke, Tucker. Shakespeare of Stratford. New Haven: Yale UP, 1926.
Neilson, Francis. Shakespeare and the Tempest. New Hampshire: Richard C. Smith Inc., 1956.
Rowse, A.L. Shakespeare the Man. London: Macmillan, 1973.


More Resources

 Queen Elizabeth: Shakespeare's Patron
 King James I of England: Shakespeare's Patron
 The Earl of Southampton: Shakespeare's Patron
 Going to a Play in Elizabethan London

 The Shakespeare Sisterhood - A Gallery
 Worst Diseases in Shakespeare's London
 Preface to The First Folio

 Shakespeare's Pathos - General Introduction
 Shakespeare's Portrayal of Childhood
 Shakespeare's Portrayal of Old Age
 Shakespeare's Attention to Details
 Shakespeare's Portrayals of Sleep

 Publishing in Elizabethan England
 What did Shakespeare drink?
 Ben Jonson and the Decline of the Drama
 Publishing in Elizabethan England

 Alchemy and Astrology in Shakespeare's Day
 Entertainment in Elizabethan England
 London's First Public Playhouse
 Shakespeare Hits the Big Time

The Ghost in his Own Hamlet

Scholars believe Shakespeare might have played the title role in Edward I (a play by Edward Peele) in 1593. It is also assumed that Shakespeare played many roles in a variety of his own plays, including Macbeth (King Duncan), As You Like It (Adam), Henry IV (King Henry), and Hamlet (the Ghost of Hamlet's father). Nicholas Rowe, Shakespeare's first biographer, mentioned that Shakespeare's role as "the Ghost in his own Hamlet" was "the top of his performance." Read on...

More to Explore

 Shakespeare's Ancestry
 Shakespeare's Parents
 Shakespeare's Birth
 Shakespeare's Sibings

 Shakespeare's Education
 Shakespeare's Lost Years
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A Striking Allusion... Shakespeare's sonnets, a collection of his personal thoughts not intended for publication, help us understand Shakespeare the man. Sonnet 111 reveals Shakespeare's feelings about his role in the public eye:
O, for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than public means which public manners breeds.
"The allusions in this Sonnet to Shakespeare's profession as an actor are not to be doubted. To this cause the poet attributes his errors. Poverty, compelling him to gain a livelihood by catering for public entertainment, was the source of his faults and of the scandal which they had occasioned. He would fain, at almost any cost, purify himself from the stain. He deserves to be pitied by his friend, rather than to be blamed." Thomas Tyler. Read on...


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Hamlet and the Players... In Act 2, Scene 2 of Hamlet (lines 312-349), Shakespeare takes his audience out of Denmark briefly, to allude to some pressing matters in Elizabethan London. Many believe that these are Shakespeare's personal feelings about the state of the Elizabethan theatre at the time. Do you think Shakespeare is using Hamlet to voice his own disdain? Read on...


 Shakespeare's Religion
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 Shakespeare's Audience: The Groundlings
 Four Periods of Shakespeare's Life

 Shakespeare's Language
 Words Shakespeare Invented
 Shakespeare's Reputation in Elizabethan England

 Shakespeare at the Globe
 Shakespeare's Impact on Other Writers
 Quotations About William Shakespeare
 Shakespeare's Boss: The Master of Revels

 Daily Life in Shakespeare's London
 Life in Stratford (structures and guilds)
 Life in Stratford (trades, laws, furniture, hygiene)
 Stratford School Days: What Did Shakespeare Read?

 Games in Shakespeare's England [A-L]
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