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The lost years 1586-1592

There is no documentary record of Shakespeare’s activities from the birth of the twins, in 1585 until Robert Greene’s complaint about him as an “upstart crow” in 1592. Biographers have therefore called these the lost years. In fact, there is nothing certain known about him from his birth in 1564 until 1592 except that he was married in 1582, fathered Susanna in 1583 and the twins Judith and Hamnet in 1585, and probably attended Stratford Grammar School. The lack of details has not stopped authors from inventing tales as to how Shakespeare got from Stratford, a young husband needing a way to support his growing family, to London as the man to be reckoned with in the entertainment business. A couple of these notions have some slight circumstantial evidence, but it must be said that no one really knows how it happened and that what follows is largely speculation.
The most commonly told story about Shakespeare leaving Stratford has it that he had to leave to escape prosecution for poaching deer on the lands of Sir Thomas Lucy, and that later he revenged himself on Lucy in The Merry Wives of Windsor who he portrayed as Justice Shallow. The story was started by a Gloucestershire clergyman name Richard Davies who, around 1616, wrote that “Shakespeare was much given to all unluckiness in stealing venison and rabbits, particularly from Sir —– Lucy [Davies left out Sir Thomas’ first name] who oft had him whipped and sometimes imprisoned and at last mad him fly his native country to his great advancement.” In 1709 Rowe picked up the story in his
He had, by a Misfortune common enough to young Fellows, fallen into ill Company; and amongst them, some that made a frequent practice of Deer-stealing, engag’d him with them more than once in robbing a Park that belong’d to Sir Thomas Lucy of Cherlecot, near Stratford. For this he was prosecuted by that Gentleman, as he thought, somewhat too severely; and in order to revenge that ill Usage, he made a Ballad upon him. And tho’ this, probably the first Essay of his Poetry, be lost, yet it is said to have been so very bitter, that it redoubled the Prosecution against him to that degree, that he was oblig’d to leave his Business and Family in Warwickshire, for some time, and shelter himself in London.
The Essay to which Rowe refers is not The Merry Wives, but rather various Stratford ballads sung at the unpopular Sir Thomas’ expense. An example reported by the eighteenth century Shakespeare scholar George Steevens (yet nonetheless unlikely to be by Shakespeare) goes:
A parliament member, a justice of peace,
At home a poor scarecrow, at London an ass,
Is lousy is Lucy as some folks miscall it
Then Lucy is lousy whatever befall it…
and so it goes in the same vein. The local Stratford sentiment is sufficient to explain any anti-Lucy puns in The Merry Wives and this episode really has no other supporting evidence.
Supported by less evidence even than the Lucy episode, others have made various speculations about Shakespeare’s activities during his last years in Stratford. Edmond Malone, greatest of eighteenth century Shakespeare scholars, impressed with Shakespeare’s detailed knowledge of the law, speculated that he “was employed while he yet remained at Stratford, in the office of some country attorney…” (Poems and Plays, 1790). A nineteenth century antiquary (W. J. Thoms, 1859) found a William Shakespeare as a conscript in the low countries in 1605 and, once again, being impressed with the dramatists grasp of military minutia thought this must be the man.
More likely, Aubrey in his Brief Lives (1681) states that “…he had been in his younger yeares a Schoolmaster in the Countrey.” and cites as his source William Beeston, son of Christopher Beeston who had certainly been one of the most important people in the London theater in his later life, and in his earlier life had belonged to the Lord Chamberlain’s men and had acted with Shakespeare in Every Man in His Humour (1598). This is the closest we get to authoritative intelligence about Shakespeare during these years.
LuteThere is a theory, argued by E. A. J. Honigmann (Shakespeare: “The Lost Years” – 1985), that has Shakespeare located in Lancashire in the household of the powerful, Catholic Hoghton family. The link between faraway Lancashire and Stratford, as this theory has it, would have been Shakespeare’s last schoolmaster John Cottom. The theory is based on rather circumstantial evidence found in a Hoghton will, asking his kinsman to take care of “…William Shakeshaft, now dwelling with me…” along with references to plays, play-clothes and musical instruments. The theory has it that Shakespeare was engaged by the Hoghtons as a schoolmaster on Cottom’s recommendation (Cottom being a Lancashire native living near the Hoghtons) and then began, naturally, participating in their private theatricals, and then passed through the Stanleys (who had many holdings in Lancashire to Lord Strange’s men, a theater company with which Shakespeare was definitely associated. The theory is presented convincingly in Honigmann’s book, but cannt be demonstrated with certainty.
Other less believable spculations have Shakespeare holding horses outside theaters in London, or visiting Italy, based on his knowledge of things Italian, or being a runaway butcher, or a scrivener. Perhaps the most natural course of events was that–based on Aubrey–Shakespeare actually was employed in some sense at least as an usher or schoolmaster and being what he was, performed with his class and even constructed plays for them based on Plautus (The Menaechmi is the source for The Comedy of Errors, perhaps Shakespeare’s first play). When a traveling theater company visited Stratford (as did the Queen’s men in the summer of 1587, among them Will Kemp (often spelled Kempe), later one of Shakespeare’s fellow householders in the Globe), perhaps they were short on personnel and pressed the eager local into service. He then may have shown them his budding dramatic work, told them he could work as a scrivener, impressed them with his quick wit and natural talent, and so he would have passed into the world of the Theater. We don’t really know, but this seems a natural scenario.
Perhaps the most famous literary snarl ever was penned in 1592 by Robert Greene in his Groats-worth of Witte:
for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.
The passage is famous because it clearly refers to William Shakespeare (“Shake-scene”) and is the first documentary evidence we have of his rise to prominence in the London theater world, indeed the first direct documentary evidence regarding him at all since the baptism of the twins in 1585.
Greene was a minor Elizabethan playwright (Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay) and pamphleteer, six years Shakespeare’s senior, a university educated man (MA from both Oxford and Cambridge) and proud of it, yet known to be a wastrel. He wrote the Groats-worth of Witte as a bitter, dying man, and in it attacked his younger rivals Marlowe, Nashe, and Peele as well as Shakespeare. Much has been written about this passage. Its importance is that it verifies several facts about Shakespeare’s career as it had developed by 1592:
 He had become successful enough to rankle Greene’s jealousy.
 He had become well known among in the London professional theater world.
 He was known as a man of various abilities (“Johannes fac totem” or Jack-of-all-trades, as we would say), actor, playwright, play mender (“beautified with our feathers”).
 He was well known as a poet (“bombast out a blanke verse”).
 His Henry VI Part 3 had become famous enough to be recognize by one of its famous lines (“O, tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide”).
Also in 1592 Thomas Nashe (1567-1601), another playwright and pamphleteer, made reference to Talbot, the hero of Shakespeare’s very popular Henry VI Part 1 in his book Pierce Pennilesse, his Supplication to the Devil:
How it would have joy’d brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to thinke that after he had lyne two hundred yeare in his tombe, hee should triumphe againe on the Stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the teares on ten thousand spectators at least (at severall times) who, in the tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.
The “at severall times” in this passage is significant.

Elizabethan theatrical companies produced plays in repertory, several being played simultaneously, new ones being added and tried out while old, less profitable ones were dropped from the rotation. Philip Henslowe, a theatrical impresario kept a Diary in which he kept many records, such as theater receipts, payments to playwrights, the cost of costumes, etc. A typical month (March 1592) shows one of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays being performed 5 times in rotation with 13 other plays. Shakespeare’s play was apparently the most popular at the time (it was new to Henslowe on March 3), since the next most performed play during the month was Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (3 times–called Joronymo, after its main character) and Marlowe’s Jew of Malta (twice). (One marvels at the feats of memory required of Elizabethan actors).
In any event, we see that Shakespeare was well established in the London theater world by the end of 1592. By this time he had probably already written The Comedy of Errors, Taming of the Shrew, perhaps Two Gentlemen of Verona, the three parts of Henry VI, Titus Andronicus and perhaps even Richard III. Assigning dates to the plays is, on the whole, a very difficult and finally unresolveable business. When dates are assigned in this essay, they are simply best guesses based on the painstaking work of monumental scholars such as E. K Chambers and John Dover Wilson. For a more complete treatment see a canon of Shakespeare’s works. Use the BACK button on your browser to return to this page when finished. For detailed discussion of dating issues of the plays, one cannot do better than consult the introductions to the various Arden Editions of the plays.

Shakespeare’s chief rival among early Elizabethan playwrights (then as now) was Christopher Marlowe, who had by this time (he was murdered in 1593) written his Tamburlain plays, Dr. Faustus and The Jew of Malta. Had Shakespeare died in the same year as Marlowe, his accomplishment would have been thought remarkable, but Marlowe would undoubtedly have been given the precedence as the better of the playwrights by subsequent critics. Fortunately for us, there was much more to come.
From the beginning of his theatrical career, Shakespeare seems to have been associated with several acting companies: The Queen’s Men, Pembroke’s Men and Lord Strange’s Men. He must have in some sense been a freelance dramatist and acted with several companies in a fluid (to say the least) work environment. However his work in the theater had proceeded through 1592, it all changed when in January 1593 the theaters in London were closed on account of the plague. From December 1592 until December 1593 Stow (the Elizabethan archivist) reports 10,675 plague deaths–in a city of approximately 200,000. The theaters were allowed to open again briefly during the winter of 1594, but were closed again in February and remained closed until spring 1594.
This period of theater closures played havoc with the professional acting companies, which were forced into the hand to mouth existence of touring with much reduced companies. Shakespeare seems to have sought preferment in the mean time with the social connections he had made. In 1593 he dedicated the long narrative poem Venus and Adonis to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton and Baron of Titchfield (1573-1624), who was 19 years old at the time.
The dedication is courteous, self-deprecatory, but rather formal:

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 Honor seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I have honored you with some graver labor. But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather…
The “first heir” of his invention refers to Shakespeare’s first serious poetry–writing plays was not considered a serious literary endeavor and probably also to the first appearance of his work in print. Venus and Adonis was wildly popular (it was reprinted more than any other of Shakespeare’s works up to 1640–indeed, in Shakespeare’s life time he was probably best known for this poem and his play Titus Andronicus–another runaway hit–more than for any other works).
The “graver labor” followed the next year with the publication of The Rape of Lucrece, whose dedication, to Wriothesley again, is much warmer:
The love I dedicate to your Lordship is without end… 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.
Obviously, Shakespeare had found himself in his Lord’s favor and vice versa. Many scholars identify Southampton as the young man of the sonnets, which were also probably largely composed during this period, perhaps initially at the instigation of Southampton’s mother in an effort to get her son to marry. (This is but one of many widely differing theories).

Whatever their origin, Shakespeare obviously developed a deep relationship with the young man which is, perhaps, mirrored in the warmer dedication of Lucrece.
If Shakespeare was spending his efforts writing lyric poetry and sonnets, he probably was not writing for the stage during 1593-early 1594, but this does not mean he did not write plays with a view to the theaters reopening or for the private entertainment of his aristocratic friends. In fact, it is often speculated that Love’s Labour’s Lost belongs to this period and the puzzling allusions to the “school of the night” and notable Elizabethans are inside jokes shared among the Southampton circle. I think perhaps Two Gentlemen of Verona may also belong to an earlier phase of this same period and may have been written as a private entertainment with an eye to eventual modification for the stage.
Shakespeare’s sonnets were part of a fashion for sonneteering which peeked in the mid-90s, provoked by the 1591 publication of Sir Phillip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella.
Francis Meres’s in his commonplace book Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury, first published in 1598 says:
“As the soule of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoras : so the sweet wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honytongued Shakespeare, witnes his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred Sonnets among his private frinds, &c.”
The sonnets were not published until 1609, and probably then not by Shakespeare, but nonetheless, they were likely composed during the Southampton years 1592-95. Once again, this is not a certainty and there are many theories concerning the dating and circumstances of the Sonnets. Regardless of the time of the time and circumstance of their composition, several of the sonnets are without doubt among the most perfect poems ever written.

There is a story, first reported in Rowe (1709) and based on a story told by Sir William D’Avenant (a poet known for his exaggerations, one of which was that he, D’Avenant, was the bastard son of Shakespeare) that Southampton rewarded Shakespeare for his poetic labors with 1,000 pounds:
There is one Instance so singular in the Magnificence of this Patron of Shakespear’s, that if I had not been assur’d that the Story was handed down by Sir William D’Avenant, who was probably very well acquainted with his Affairs, I should not have ventur’d to have inserted, that my Lord Southampton, at one time, gave him a thousand Pounds, to enable him to go through with a Purchase which he heard he had a mind to. A Bounty very great, and very rare at any time, and almost equal to that profuse Generosity the present Age has shewn to French Dancers and italian Eunuchs. [Rowe sec. 3]
A. L. Rowse, an important modern biographer (Shakespeare the Man, 1973), believes the story, but few other scholars do. It is often pointed out that we seem to have a rather full knowledge of Shakespeare’s investments throughout his life, and they do not total over 1,000, and furthermore that Southampton was having financial difficulties during these years. Nevertheless, if anything near so munificent a gift was given we need look no further for the source of the capital Shakespeare used to establish himself.
And establish himself he did, once for all, with the reassembling of the playing companies after the reopening of the theaters in 1594. We find Shakespeare, in December 1594, listed by the Treasurer of the Queen’s Chamber along with Will Kemp and Richard Burbage, the great clown and tragedian of the company, as receiving payment for two performances at Greenwich. These three, and four others–John Hemming, eventual co-editor of the First Folio among them–were the charter members of the a new theater company organized under the patronage of Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, Chamberlain to Queen Elizabeth. They were known as the Lord Chamberlain’s men. When they preformed publicly, it was at the Theatre, built by James Burbage (rather of Richard) in 1576 north of the city. Shakespeare became a sharer, or householder, in the company–meaning that he was part owner/manager and as such shared in the profits. This provided him the stability necessary for his most fruitful years, when he, as the company’s principal playwright, produced an average of 2 plays per year until about 1611-1612, when he seems to have retired to Stratford. If Southampton rewarded Shakespeare financially, it would explain how Shakespeare could have afforded to become a sharer in the Chamberlain’s men–an investment which formed the foundation of his lifelong financial success
The years 1594-1599 were momentous for Shakespeare. He produced a steady stream of plays of the highest quality and verbal invention. He continued as a principal actor and manager in the Chamberlain’s men, blessed with a stable work environment in the all too unstable world of the theater. Consequently, he prospered financially and made investments in his native Stratford, assembling a comfortable life and a solid estate. Finally in 1599, he became part owner in the most prestigious public playhouse in London, the Globe.
The Works. Shakespeare’s early works, to mid-1594, can be divided into four groups:
1. The Classical plays: his first works which were heavily influenced by the classical examples he had learned as a student. Plautus served as the model for The Comedy of Errors, Seneca for Titus Andronicus. Both crude works when compared with Shakespeare’s later work, but better than most plays being performed on the English stage at the time.
2. The History plays: where Shakespeare took the rough materials he found in certain early chronicle plays, and virtually invented a new genre called the history play. His early works in this genre, of course, were the three Henry VI plays (the first part probably composed after parts 2 and 3) and Richard III.
3. The Narrative Poems and Sonnets: his favorite author Ovid served as the model for Venus and Adonis and the Rape of Lucrece, both dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. It is also extremely probable that Southampton is the young man of the sonnets, and that the sonnet sequence (spurred by Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella in 1591) was begun (perhaps on commission) to encourage Southampton to marry. The sonnets were probably composed over a number of years, but were probably completed by 1597.
4. Experiments in comedy: The Taming of the Shrew, based on Italian comedy, Two Gentlemen of Verona, an experiment with plot and character, and the more mature Love’s Labour’s Lost, probably all belong to this period.
With the reopening of the playhouses in the summer of 1594 and the firm foundation of being a Chamberlain’s man, Shakespeare began an unprecedented output of works. Francis Meres, in his Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury, published in 1598, mentions twelve plays of which he knew:
As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latines : so Shakespeare among y’ English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for Comedy, witnes his Ge’tleme’ of Verona, his Errors, his Love labors lost, his Love labours wonne, his Midsummer night dreame, & his Merchant of Venice : for Tragedy his Richard the 2. Richard the 3. Henry the 4. King John, Titus Andronicus and his Romeo and Juliet.
This list is the single most important tool in externally dating the plays. We can see from it that A Midsummer Night’s Dream (probably written in late 1594 or 1595), Romeo and Juliet (probably 1595) Richard II (probably 1595), King John (probably 1596) The Merchant of Venice (1596-97) and the Henry IV plays (probably 1597-98). This period is often called Shakespeare’s lyric period based on the poetry in plays such as Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet and Richard II.

The identity of Meres’ Loves Labour’s Won is not known, and much effort has been spent attempting to identify it. Taming of the Shrew (which Meres does not mention but certainly was in existence by this time) and Much Ado About Nothing are the leading contenders, though it is possible that there was a lost play by this name.
By 1599 Shakespeare must have composed Much Ado About Nothing (a character assignment in the quarto names Will Kemp in the part of Dogberry–Kemp left the Chamberlain’s men in 1599). He may well have also composed As You Like It in 1599. He certainly composed Henry V that year and began his string of great tragedies with Julius Caesar. There is a record of a performance of Julius Caesar at the Globe on September 21, 1599. The Merry Wives of Windsor probably also belongs to this period, following upon the popularity of the Henry IV plays, though it may be slightly later. Had Shakespeare died in 1599, he would still be thought the greatest playwright the world had ever known, even before his most mature work had been accomplished.
The Chamberlain’s Men. Over the years 1594-1599 the Chamberlain’s Men had become the most popular acting company in London, being invited to perform at court far more often than any other group. Shakespeare must have done a great deal of acting. He is listed by Ben Jonson in Jonson’s magnificent 1616 Folio of his Workes as having acted as the chief comedian in Every Man In His Humour in 1598:
He is also listed by Jonson as one of the principal tragedians in the 1603 Sejanus:
The Construction of the Globe. During the years before 1599 the Chamberlain’s Men performed publicly primarily at The Theatre, which had been leased by James Burbage, father of Richard. The ground landlord was one Giles Allen, a puritan, and by no means in favor of theatrical activities. In 1597 the lease expired, and the Chamberlain’s men were forced to move to The Curtain, another public playing house near The Theatre. In the mean time the Theatre stood empty. (At this time, while considering alternative playing houses, Burbage purchased the Blackfriars for 600, within the city but under the control of the crown and not city officials, who were most assuredly anti-players. The local residents protested, however, so that it would be years before the players were allowed to use the Blackfriars as a playhouse.)

Negotiations to move back in to The Theatre were at an impasse, the landlord being exceedingly avaricious. In the mean time James Burbage died, leaving the struggle to his two sons, Richard and Cuthbert. Allen formed plans to pull down The Theatre and “…convert the wood and timber thereof to some better use…” (quoted from S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare A Documentary Life, Oxford, 1975). Since the players could not come to terms with Allen, and since a clause in their former lease allowed them to dismantle the building, the Burbages and their associates and workmen gathered by night and took The Theatre apart, transporting its timbers across the Thames to the Bankside where they were used to build the Globe. Allen was powerless to do anything other than vent his spleen, describing the dismantling work party as: ryotous…armed…with divers and manye unlawfull and offensive weapons…in verye ryotous outragious and forcyble manner and contrarye to the lawes of your highnes Realme…and there pulling breaking and throwing downe the sayd Theater in verye outragious violent and riotous sort to the great disturbance and terrefyeing not onlye of your subjectes [that Allen claimed were attempting to stop them]…but of divers others of your majesties loving subjectes there neere inhabitinge. (Schoenbaum, p.153)
The Globe, built by carpenter Peter Smith, was certainly the most magnificent Theater London had ever seen. It was situated just a few hundred yards from the Rose Theatre, run by Philip Henslowe and his son in law, the famous actor Edward Alleyn (famous for his portrayal of Marlowe’s great characters). Feeling the pressure of competition, a year later Henslowe and Alleyn moved to new quarters, building the Fortune Theater in St. Giles without Cripplegate.

The Globe was owned by a syndicate, a fact that gave it unique power and flexibility among the London playhouses. The syndicate was made up of Sir Nicholas Brend, the land owner, Richard and Cuthbert Burbage, and five members of the Chamberlain’s men: Shakespeare, John Heminges, Augustine Phillips, Thomas Pope, and William Kemp. It worked so that the Burbage brothers were responsible for half the lease on the land, and shared in half the profits, and the five players were responsible for the other half of the lease and shared among themselves in the other half of the profits. Therefore, Shakespeare’s share, as a “householder” was one-fifth of fifty percent of the profits, or 10% of the total profits. Kemp soon departed the Chamberlain’s men, so Shakespeare’s share increased in value, but soon two new partners entered in, Will Slye and Henry Condell, so his share decreased again. In any event, these were the ownership provisions of the Globe and the foundation of Shakespeare’s prosperity. It is not possible to determine exactly how much Shakespeare earned, but the common consensus among scholars is that it was somewhere near 200 – 250 per year, a very substantial sum by Elizabethan standards.
Chantal Miller-Schtz maintains the best web site devoted to the Globe (both historical and new): Shakespeare’s Globe. Use your browser’s BACK button to return to this page after viewing it.
Shakespeare’s Life in Stratford. Apparently Shakespeare’s wife and children remained home in Stratford while he worked in London. Presumably he made the trip back and forth, a trip that would have taken about 4 days on foot or 2 days on horseback. In August, 1596 Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet died. It is often thought that the poignant lines from King John refer to this event:
Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form.
Then have I reason to be fond of grief.

In the same year the College of Heralds granted the John Shakespeare a coat of arms. The application must have been paid for by the playwright for his own as well as his father’s benefit. The motto was NON SANZ DROICT–not without right–but seems never to have been used. It does not appear with the crest on the Shakespeare monument in Stratford church nor anywhere else. In May 1597 Shakespeare purchased New Place, the second largest house in Stratford, along with barns, orchards and gardens. By his artistic efforts and business acumen, and by pure good fortune, Shakespeare had grown prosperous. From this foundation of financial security, his next few years are unprecedented for creativity in the life of any artist.
In 1603 Queen Elizabeth died and James VI of Scotland became James I of England. The Jacobean age was initiated. Its practical impact was that the Chamberlain’s Men, the most popular acting company under the old queen, became the King’s Men, receiving royal patronage. And no company performed more at court over these years. From November 1, 1604 to October 31, 1605, the King’s Men performed 11 performances before the King. (Seven of the performances were plays by Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Othello, Measure for Measure, and The Merchant of Venice–twice). In spite of the emphasis on comedy, the new reign was known for its cynicism. We also see a shift to darkness in Shakespeare’s works of this period.
Works. Will Kemp, the renowned clown, left the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, being replaced as chief comedian by Robert Armin, for whom Shakespeare wrote more thoughtful, philosophical parts, like that of Feste in Twelfth Night and the fool in King Lear. Twelfth Night, or What You Will (probably written in 1600) was also Shakespeare’s last “happy” comedy, and even Twelfth Night leaves a lingering shadow of unhappiness with the disgruntled and much put upon Malvolio uttering curses against all the characters and refusing to be reconciled to them in the end.
Sometime between 1599 and 1601 Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, and from Hamlet on, until about 1608 when he began writing the great Romances Cymbeline, Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, Shakespeare’s vision turned to tragedy. The comedies he produced over the next couple of years are distinctly un-funny, and have been called “problem plays”: All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure (both probably written in the period 1603-1604). Troilus and Cressida (probably written in 1602) is such a problem play that it has perennially confused audiences and critics, and may well never have been performed in Shakespeare’s life time. After Measure for Measure Shakespeare’s vision seems to turn unrelentingly to the tragic, with his great string of tragedies Othello (probably 1604), King Lear (probably 1605) Macbeth (probably 1605), Antony and Cleopatra (probably 1607), Coriolanus and Timon of Athens (probably 1606-8). (These last two plays, along with Troilus and Cressida, surely Shakespeare’s least liked and performed plays).
What caused the shift in vision, from the sparkling comedies of the 90’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado, As You Like It, The Merry Wives, and the overheated wit of the Henry IV plays, to the somber period that followed? Comedy (and this could be extended to most of Shakespeare’s history plays as well) is social–leading to a happy resolution (usually a marriage or marriages) and social unification. Tragedy is individual, concentrating on the suffering of a single, remarkable hero–leading to individual torment, waste and death. What were the shifts in his life or in society that caused Shakespeare to abandon the social for the individual–unity for disaster?
Many have been suggested, perhaps all are true:
5. In 1601 (probably the year Hamlet was composed) Shakespeare’s father died.
6. In 1601 the Essex rebellion flared and failed, leaving Essex and Shakespeare’s patron Southampton condemned to death in the tower. Essex–a larger than life, charismatic spirit of the late Elizabethan age–was executed, Southampton reprieved. In any event, it may have marked an end to Shakespeare’s involvement with the Southampton circle.
7. An end of an age malaise afflicted London during the opening of the seventeenth century, accentuated by the death of the Queen in 1603.
8. Shakespeare’s comedies of the late 90’s depended very much on a strong woman’s part and engage the battle of the sexes–Beatrice in Much Ado, Rosalind in As You Like It, Viola in Twelfth Night. After Twelfth Night, there are no more great women’s roles until Cleopatra, seven or eight years later. Since boys played the women’s parts on the Elizabethan stage, perhaps Shakespeare’s very talented boy had grown up, or left, or died, and out of necessity he had to change genres to suit the makeup of his company.
9. Tragedies became more popular, along with the growing pessimism of the age, and drew large audiences.
10. A personal psychological crisis, perhaps associated with the stress of writing Hamlet, led to a period of depression and brooding which could not but be reflected in his works.
11. Having the security of being the principal dramatist for the most prestigious acting company in London, Shakespeare could afford to turn to deeper psychological themes that interested him and did not need to write entertainments that catered as much to popular tastes as in his early years. Since tragedy was considered the “higher” art form, Shakespeare was following his life long proclivities and interests in writing the great tragedies.
Life. Shakespeare continued in these years investing in Stratford real estate. In May 1602 he paid 320 for 127 acres in Old Stratford–as suburb of Stratford proper. Later that year he bought a cottage opposite his great house New Place. In 1605 he invested 440 in a lease of tithes–an agricultural commodities investment–around Stratford. Those who see Shakespeare as the lofty artist separated from the hustle-bustle of the world would do well to track his growing portfolio of investments. After all, a literary genius can also be an astute business man.

Beginning in 1608, the King’s Men were allowed to take possession and put on performances at their indoor theater the Blackfriars, the lease to which had been obtained in 1599 by Richard Burbage in his efforts to find a place to continue playing when their original lease on the Theatre had expired. 1608 also marks a change in tone in Shakespeare’s work from the dark mood of the tragedies to one of light, magic, music, reconciliation and romance. Beginning with Pericles, Prince of Tyre (probably written 1607-08–the text of which is certainly mangled, accounting for its not being played frequently), and moving through Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and finally in The Tempest Shakespeare conducted a grand experiment in form and poetry that took advantage of these elements, shaping them into an enduring art that has at its heart acceptance and the beneficence of providence.

Many feel that the view expressed in the romances is the mature Shakespeare’s view, having lived long enough to see his way through tragedy to resurrection. Others say he, as a master showman, was just following the fashion and presenting the most popular sort of play for the years 1608-1611. At court, the masque–extravaganzas of song and spectacle featuring courtiers in the performance–were popular. Ben Jonson as playwright and Inigo Jones as masque designer were the artists of the moment. Elements of the masque were therefore brought into the public stage. The fact that the players were now playing at two venues–performances at the Globe continued regularly until 1613 when it was burned down during a performance of Shakespeare’s (and Fletcher’s) Henry VIII–itself a play large on spectacle–made it possible to take advantage of elements of the drama, such as artificial lighting, music and stage effects, that had been impossible on the outdoor stage. The indoor theater also allowed higher admissions and plays aimed at a more sophisticated audience. More was charged for admission to the Blackfriars than to the Globe, and plays at the Globe were less frequent from 1603-1610 due to the once again ravages of the plague. All of these factors may have gone in to turning Shakespeare to the romance plots of his final plays, had he not by temperament been so inclined.
Shakespeare, returning to the world of Midsummer Night’s Dream, chose enchantment and magic as the world he wished to dramatize in The Tempest (probably written in 1611). Many feel that this play is Shakespeare’s valedictory, and that Prospero’s speech revealing all encompasses Shakespeare’s own attitudes:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors
As I foretold you were all spirits and
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
and that Prospero’s great speech, where he abjures his magic, expressed Shakespeare’s own farewell to the stage:
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
Whether this was Shakespeare’s intention in writing the play is an open question. The Tempest was not the last play on which he worked, but the nature of his work had clearly changed, and The Tempest is certainly his last great play.

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